I tried my first cigarette when I was 13, on the back of the school bus. By the time I was 15, I was smoking regularly. I stopped for a year or so when I was 17, but when I started my first full time job at 18, I began to smoke heavily. I continued to smoke around, in fact at least, twenty a day until 16th January 2005 when, after reading Easy Way to Stop Smoking by the late Alan Carr, I stubbed out the last cigarette I will ever smoke.
It was very shortly afterwards, a matter of weeks, that I took my first steps towards scepticism and atheism. Since then, it has often occurred to me that there are many similarities between religion and smoking. I’d like to detail some of them here. Before anyone lynches me, I’d like to point out that I realise the analogy only goes so far (as is the case with all analogies). I’m not saying they are completely the same, I acknowledge that there are also differences. Please consider this carefully before commenting.
For people who are not raised with religion and find it as an adolescent or adult, I think there is something seductive about it that can also be seen with smoking. With smoking, it worked on me. Perhaps it was an image thing, or an element of peer pressure. I think there is a strong element of this with religion too. Potential converts are strongly encouraged to join the religion with promises of fulfilment and eternal life, and when they join there is great celebration. In contrast, leaving the religion is always strongly discouraged and, ironically, when you’re trying to quit smoking, other smokers are often not very supportive, and sometimes even brazen in their attempts to sabotage your efforts. In the absence of critical thinking skills, I can definitely understand someone wanting to ‘fit in’.
And the lack of critical thinking skills is something that both religion and smoking look for in their targets. No rationally thinking person would consider the evidence for and against the pros and cons of smoking, and then make an informed decision to take it up. Equally, a person without any religious upbringing or indoctrination is unlikely to rationally conclude that the claims of a religion are true. Both prey on the weak, particularly the young. I started off just having the odd drag of someone else’s cigarette. Then I’d start having a half at a time. This quickly lead to scrounging whole cigarettes. “You’re always scrounging ciggies”, my friends would say, “but you’ve never got any of your own”. I would tell them that was because I didn’t smoke. “Could have fooled me! Buy your own.” So then I bought a pack, just so that I could pay back the cigarettes I had borrowed from other people. I was hooked before I even knew it. With new converts to religion, I think something similar happens, slowly and gradually being taken in. Alan Carr used an analogy of a fly greedily drinking the sweet sap on the surface of a plant, without realising that it is in fact about to be eaten itself. The harm caused by both smoking and religion can be battled with critical thinking.
And what great harm both have caused, and continue to cause. Both religion and smoking have the blood of millions of innocent people on their hands. Both have caused an unimaginable amount of needless suffering. Also, both are capable of harming others. Just as, for example, acts of religiously motivated terrorism can cause pain, suffering and death to non-believers, so passive smoke can cause death and great harm to non-smokers. They are both a danger to society. Just as religion leads to division and segregation, so the social drawbacks of smoking have similar effects. Smokers take breaks together at work. Non smokers normally end up sitting at different tables in restaurants, or suffering the second hand effects. Meanwhile, the children of Catholic and Protestant parents go to separate schools.
Both religion and smoking demand investment in the form of money, time and emotion. They are both expensive lifestyles to maintain for the victims, and both line the pockets of already wealthy people in the process. Endless hours are spent worshipping and praying in church, and many hours are spent smoking, all of which add up to great quantities of time over the years which could have been better spent. And just as religious believers feel emotionally attached to God and their religion, smokers often feel emotionally vulnerable and lacking confidence without their cigarettes.
In both cases, with religion and smoking, the world would be far better off without them and, in both cases, while there is progress, it is slow and unlikely to lead to any dramatic shifts in the foreseeable future. Mankind has come to realise, just in relatively recent (slightly more so for smoking) history, the great dangers that both can cause. Both have reached a point of enlightenment, where awareness of their threats has increased and continues to do so, after centuries of ignorance and darkness.
One question that is often asked of atheists is, “how are you going to replace religion? People need religion. If you take it away, what are you going to put in its place?” Many atheists answer this question on face value, normally with an outline of secular humanism. This is correct in a sense, but the question is actually heavily loaded. It assumes that people need religion. Do they really?
I used to think I needed cigarettes like I needed food. At times, when I was broke in university, I would scrape pennies from the floor of my car and the backs of couches to buy cigarettes while my cupboards were bare. “I need a cigarette”, I’d tell my bemused housemates, “I need one”. When you smoke, you are imbibing poison into your body. If there is one thing that, by definition, your body never needs, it is poison. I didn’t need a cigarette. I needed food. If you don’t eat, you die. If you don’t smoke, not only do you not die, you live longer! It’s easy for me to say that now, but at the time I was convinced that it was an essential.
Just as we are all born atheists, we are all born non-smokers. Do people really need religion, or do they just not know any better? Obviously, not all people need religion – the existence of happy atheists proves that. So why would some people need it and not others?
The essential idea behind Alan Carr’s book, which helped me quit smoking, is that the need for tobacco is an illusion which is created by… …smoking tobacco! Each cigarette creates the need for the next one, and it is only by breaking that chain that you can free yourself from the illusion. When I quit smoking, not only did I realise that I had never needed cigarettes, I felt truly liberated from the illusion. This is exactly what many people who were convinced that they needed religion feel like when they deconvert.
Isn’t if funny how only smokers crave cigarettes? Non-smokers don’t come out of a stressful meeting with a customer and say “I’m so stressed, I need to unwind. If only I smoked!”. Only smokers think they need to smoke, and only people who are religious think they need religion. In both cases, great harm and suffering is caused, or at least always potentially possible, while the perceived enjoyment and benefit is cheap and shallow. I don’t think people need religion. Personally, I think people are better than that.
Religion, as Evanescent has pointed out, works on a principle of telling you you’ve got a disease and then offering you a cure, when in fact, you’re perfectly healthy. In a perverse way, smoking does the same thing. It creates an addiction that you can only satisfy by taking more of the substance you’re addicted to. Both religion and smoking could be compared to someone kicking you in the leg and then offering you a crutch. Once you’re holding it you think you always need it – you don’t! Alan Carr’s book is strongly opposed to ‘replacement’ techniques for quitting smoking, such as chewing sweets. He argued that smoking doesn’t need replacing, and I think he was right. I think this applies to religion too. I believe that every human being, when made properly aware of the facts, is capable of living a happy, moral, fulfilling life without religion. You don’t need to look for miracles, your very existence is a miracle. Throw away your crutches, and walk.
At a recent conference in 2006, an anthropologist and prize-specimen of ‘I’m-an-atheist-buttery’ quoted Golda Meir when asked whether she believed in God, “I believe in the Jewish people, and the Jewish people believe in God”. Our anthropologist substituted his own version, “I believe in people, and people believe in God”. I prefer to say that I believe in people, and people, when given the right encouragement to think for themselves, about all the information now available, very often turn out not to believe in God, and to lead fulfilled and satisfied, indeed liberated, lives.