Religion is a Cigarette
It will be obvious to anyone who knows me that the thing I criticize most in this world are systems of religion, which I do harshly and relentlessly. Some people feel personally offended that I am so critical of something that they hold so close and dear, and that seems to fundamentally benign to them. But those people, I think, don’t understand the difference between criticizing an idea, and criticizing a person; an analogy should make it clear.
In the words of Ali Rizvi, “…critical words aren’t an attack on people. They are a challenge to what we consider bad ideas that drive bad behavior. Saying ‘smoking is bad’ does not translate to ‘all smokers are bad people.’”
So when I criticize the religions that people around me adhere to, the message is the equivalent of informing a smoker that smoking is bad for their health. The analogy breaks down though, because most smokers know that smoking is bad for them, whereas the religious believe their faith is good for them. Rather than receiving solemn nods of agreement, like I might from a guilty smoker, I would receive disapproving skepticism for airing this view.
If any smoker decided to respond to that statement by saying that smoking was not only good for your health, but was actually the best possible thing you could do for your health, you would think that person was mentally ill, had a death wish, or seriously misunderstood the meaning of “health.” Yet this is exactly what is pushed by doctrines of faith. Indeed, this smoker would say that not smoking is actually the worst possible thing you could do for your health, and moreover that anything else you did for your health should be done for the glory of smoking: before eating a meal, you should smoke a cigarette; before going to bed, you should smoke a cigarette; and every Sunday morning, you should chainsmoke for hours with smokers like yourself to develop a deeper relationship with smoking to better understand how it can benefit your health. From this analogy, it should be obvious just how dangerous, masochistic, and patently absurd religion appears to me.
Now, it might be thought, why couldn’t I both accept that these hypothetical smokers are wrong about their health, and let them continue anyway? Why need I interfere at all? Because of secondhand smoke. Believers and health-smokers alike cannot follow their beliefs without pushing it onto others, either intentionally or unintentionally. The smoker might be blowing smoke directly in my face, or sitting across the room quietly enjoying his or her cigarette; in either case, I must breathe the same air. So it is with religion and the culture of our world.
By this very token, a link is drawn between criticizing the ideas and the people. When I have to breathe the secondhand smoke of a health-smoker, near or far, I cannot for my own well-being simply let them smoke when it harms me and others around me. To follow through on the criticism of the idea or the habit is to criticize the person who adheres to it, if only because they adhere to it.
And this is why I am so adamant. But what’s worse is that by believing that smoking is good for health, these health-smokers actually would encourage me to smoke, whether tacitly or explicitly. And so too it is with believers. There are people who may not directly assert to me the spiritual virtue and holy truth of their religion, but they do look at me and think that I lack some kind of authentic happiness or that I am actually the one who is deluded (and oh, as I have been told, how they pray that I would accompany them on their journey with Christ, because I would help do his work so effectively). And this hidden belief about me that is clearly implied by any legitimate reading of the Bible (or any other holy book) is what in turn makes me less trusting and more quickly hostile to theists. To the extent that I do indeed criticize people who are believers, it is because they believe such patently unjustified things about myself and others like me — that in the end we will not join them in the ecstasy of eternity with God because we did not accept the things they did.
People of faith are never bad people in and of themselves. Their acts of kindness come from the heart, their intentions tend to be good, and they want the whole of humanity to be healthy in both this life and the next. But no one will be healthy if you give the world cancer.