For most of my life I was a devout religious person, but at the same time I was always committed to truth and reason. I felt that if a faith could not withstand exposure to reason, facts, logic and an occasional robust challenge, then it was not worth having in the first place. I was one of those people who felt that Religion and Reason were complementary.
As time has progressed and as I have had the chance to explore certain facts and ideas more thoroughly, I have changed my mind about Religion and now find myself believing that it is incompatible with Reason. But are we really better off without it?
Like most religious people I was taught that Religion was the sole source of human morality, and like most religious people I did not question this assumption. Now however, I see things very differently. I have come to the conclusion that Religion is the antithesis of morality. And no, this is not merely an ad-hoc justification for sleeping in on Sunday, but a conclusion forced upon me by logic and empirical observation. To understand how this can be in any way a logical, reasonable conclusion, consider the following arguments.
Suffering. The nature of suffering is that it is not a vector quantity, but a scalar amplitude. In plain English, this means suffering cannot be offset or reduced by something else: it has no opposite, no negative quantity, no "antisuffering." This means that no amount of joy, for example, experienced today will diminish or offset some suffering you may experience tomorrow. One individual's happiness does not count against another's suffering when the total amount of suffering in a community is being weighed. Suffering in one nation is not nullified by another nation's simultaneous prosperity.
No, the only way for the rate of suffering to be reduced is for it to fail to be created. We fail to create suffering either by our omissions (things we don't do) or by our commissions (things we do). Whose suffering? What suffering? I refer to one's own suffering, that of others around us, or the general degradation of the living environment or quality of life.
Morality. A moral person is one who deliberately fails to create suffering by his omissions. In other words he intentionally refrains from acts that can reasonably be expected to lead to suffering in himself or others, with others given priority. "The needs of the many" etc. A moral person also fails to create suffering through his deliberate acts. He intentionally commits acts that can reasonably be expected to lead to the avoidance or discontinuation of suffering. A moral act is thus objectively defined as one which raises the quality of life, leads to an avoidance or discontinuation of personal suffering, and is reasonably expected (barring accidents or unforeseeable consequences) to not directly result in suffering. And if you need a further definition of suffering in order to understand what it is, then don't worry about it - it won't do you any good.
A moral person is therefore chiefly concerned with the direct consequences of his actions or inactions, both short-term and long term, and he makes choices by evaluating - that is, applying a value system to - the available actions relative to the effects of those actions on himself, on others, and on the quality of life in his environment.
An immoral person, by contrast, is mainly concerned with his short and long-term gain in any choice considered. How it affects others, how it affects the living or social environment, or even how it affects his own well-being is at best a secondary consideration.
Religion. After fifty years of studying and practicing religion I have come to the following conclusion: Religion teaches people to be immoral. It teaches us to consider only our long-term gain (specifically, post-mortality) in any situation, and not to consider either our own well-being, that of others, or that of the environment. It teaches that to be devout, we must have no other consideration in the choices we make other than adhering to a set of arbitrary rules purportedly given by a silent, invisible deity. Through Religion, it is possible to ignore or even cause significant suffering if there is any conflict between religiously prescribed acts and those acts I define as moral, i.e. that might diminish suffering. In any such collision, every religion I have encountered requires you to put absolute devotion to the religion ahead of what a moral person would do having never heard of religion.
Essentially, Religion teaches people to think only about themselves and about their own reward or punishment at a time and place that remains entirely hypothetical. The objection raised here by the keepers of religion and its apologists is that Religion starts with essentially selfish humans and teaches them to be not quite so selfish by appealing to their natural self-interest in a carrot-and-stick system of incentives. Follow our rules, you get the carrot; don't follow them, you get the stick. This argument assumes that in essence every human is a sociopath unless and until they get Religion.
This defense of Religion falls apart by considering that sociopaths usually only pretend to be religious while remaining complete sociopaths. Consider that atheists represent only 0.07% of those incarcerated in the US prison system - the largest prison system in the world. Also consider the following two words that have no business even being together: paedophile priests. And consider the verifiable observation that normal people are naturally empathetic and moral, with sociopathy and psychopathy being relatively rare exceptions in the population, with or without religion.
Another defense of religion that apologists will be thinking right about now is the window-dressing of "feed the poor, heal the sick" that many religions include in their programs. "We tell people that if they don't give money to us for charity then they will certainly go to hell." While I may be guilty of straw-manning religion here, it's only a little bit, and it is needed to point out the essential problem. What is the motivation offered by religion? To do the right thing because it reduces suffering? Or to do whatever you're told in order to advance your own self-interest? When it's something as obviously good and valuable as alleviating the suffering of the poor, it's easy to comply. Then when people get used to doing whatever they're told to do, it's easy enough to replace one thing with something entirely different.
A side-effect of charity-by-extortion is that it provides an incentive to maintain a population of impoverished, disenfranchised people upon whom we can bestow our points-earning charity. There are even various sick, perverse religious theories relating to scapegoats, "victim souls" or "God's Will" to justify the existence of poverty and suffering. If combating poverty were the aim instead of getting to heaven, things might be done differently that rather than perpetuate poverty would meaningfully address the underlying causes.
The other problem with charity as a justification of religion (other than the obvious fact that charity and relief aid can and do exist in the total absence of religion) is that it can be and often is used as an ideological weapon. This happens every time a religious aid organization places conditions on how or where the aid is distributed, or uses it to score political points. One famous church that rhymes with "bath lick" uses its aid money and its global might to aggressively push a no-contraception agenda in countries that desperately need contraception as a means to address wholesale suffering and poverty. A true cynic would suggest that this is their strategy for ensuring they have ongoing membership growth. An even worse cynic would say this completely illogical policy ensures that there will be plenty of children for the priests to rape.
In the last million years as a species, we humans have evolved physically only superficially (for example some of us have turned an abnormal pasty white, a temporary aberration likely to disappear in a few thousand years). By contrast, our software has evolved considerably. Ideas have developed which allow individuals to experience long lives marred by significantly less suffering.
If this species is going to exist for another million years, it will be due to our minds evolving further still. We will consciously choose to condition our behaviour to voluntarily limit our population, to limit violence and destructive emotions, and to place greater social value on reason, science, logic and morality. The immoral self-interest of religion, of doing things strictly on the basis of reward or punishment by an imaginary agent in an imaginary after-life, and the inherent inter-tribal distrust and violence that religion promotes, has no place in a sustainable future for humankind.
And so we face the ultimate question of morality. Do we immorally and selfishly cling to belief systems that feed our egos and desires, or do we take the moral and more difficult high road of throwing off our past superstitious, destructive conditioning to ensure a future for this species?