In Niger, the local preachers have been turning their parishoners against young children for the crime of witchcraft. From The Observer:
But an exploitative situation has now grown into something much more sinister as preachers are turning their attentions to children - naming them as witches. In a maddened state of terror, parents and whole villages turn on the child. They are burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply beaten and chased off into the bush.
Some parents scrape together sums needed to pay for a deliverance - sometimes as much as three or four months' salary for the average working man - although the pastor will explain that the witch might return and a second deliverance will be needed. Even if the parent wants to keep the child, their neighbours may attack it in the street.
Now, I know the vast majority of Christians would find these events abhorrent, but it points to a fundamental problem of religion. We've always heard the argument that without God, anything is permitted. Now, in the most realistic sense, I suppose that would be true. However, human institutions and the general sense of empathy we all have create very real consequences, whether it comes from the legal system or a crushing feeling of guilt for having harmed another. Without God, we have to answer for our crimes in this life, even if it's only to ourselves.
It seems clear the unbeliever can easily turn that standard charge against atheism back towards the faithful. In its basic doctrine (as far as the monotheistic religions are concerned), religion gives you a get out of jail for free card, so long as your crime has been sanctioned by the faith. Even if it hasn't been explicity sanctioned, as long as a person believes he or she is doing God's will, anything is permissable.
The situation in Niger makes an excellent case and point. It seems quite clear these parents feel they are doing God's work when they torture and murder their children for the laughable crime of being a witch. This is something no self-respecting mother would do without the irrational baggage that comes with faith.
What's worse is the preachers getting rich off the hysteria they themselves have created. Do they have no sense of decency? Do they have no respect at all for their fellow human beings? Clearly, this is the second major problem that religious belief creates. Charlatans in positions of religious power find it all too easy to benefit at terrible cost to their unquestioning followers.
It's certainly arguable whether the preachers' motivations came from their faith or merely their greed. However, I think most of us can agree that if these people had not been such slaves to their religion, none of this would have happened.
So my question is, what exactly did faith prevent these people from doing? Besides keeping them from asking much-needed questions, I find myself without any answers.