It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been here for longer than a month that I’m no great fan of religion. Unlike some of my fellow authors here, I am no great fan of any religion. I see it rather like sickle cell anemia – sure it might prevent some cases of malaria, but if we can find a way to prevent malaria on its own, there’s no value in keeping the anemia gene. Sure, some people get comfort or moral instruction from religion, but it’s not a necessary condition; if we can encourage people to find other ways to be happy and moral, we should absolutely divest ourselves of the baggage of belief without evidence.
However, and I think all the authors would agree with me here, I am 100% opposed to forcing people to abandon their beliefs. Not only is it not effective, but it is a violation of the principle of respect for individual autonomy. A person has a right to the privacy of their own thoughts, and if belief in something supernatural helps you get to sleep at night then that’s your business. I’m not going to feign respect for your beliefs and will question them whenever appropriate, but I will absolutely respect your right to have them free of actual oppression by force.
For the same reason, I am opposed to the destruction of religious artifacts. Aside from the fact that it is tyrannical and unethical (as I have described above), it is essentially the destruction of our history. Just as our bodies showcase the vestiges of our evolutionary history and contain an accounting of the organs and structures that we no longer have use for, so too should our society have an accounting of its history and contain memorials of the ideas and beliefs we no longer have use for. We can know a great deal, for example, about the downfalls of socialism and communism because we have records of what happens when those political theories are implemented wholesale. So too for geocentrism, caloric theory, miasma and the luminiferous ether. Without having records of those thoughts and why they failed, we are more likely to fall under their sway again (“those who fail to learn from history…”).
And it is for all these reasons that this particular news item caught my eye:
Afghan archaeologists say they are racing against time to salvage a major 7th Century religious site unearthed along the famous Silk Road. They have warned that the 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery will be largely destroyed once work at a mine begins.
A Chinese company is eager to develop what they say is the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine which lies beneath the ruins at the site.
The caricature of atheists is perhaps that we would crow triumph and demand that these silly monuments to superstition be destroyed without hesitation. The reality is much to the contrary – while we might not put much stock (hopefully no stock) in the beliefs that spawned such a monastery, we recognize that it is a vital link to our history as a species. Destroying such artifacts would be a loss to us all, not just those who practice Buddhism.
Hanging over the discovery, correspondents say, is the memory of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – Buddhist statues towering up to 180ft (54.86m) high in central Afghanistan that were dynamited in 2001 by the Taliban, who considered them symbols of paganism.
It has been said before by better writers than I, but it is not atheists that religious adherents should really fear. While they may find our criticism of their beliefs distasteful, there is something to be said about the power of words vis a vis sticks and stones (or, for that matter, nitroglycerene). It is a great tragedy to history and humanity that this site will be bulldozed before it can be sufficiently explored, but at least some portion of its contents can be salvaged.
This is the proper way to treat religion – as a societal quirk that connects us to our history, a system of thought that kept us alive when we didn’t know any better, and as a reflection of our fractured humanity.