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Aug 19 2010

Is everything about religion bad?

Someone wrote recently to ask “Is everything about religion bad?” My reply was that religion can be used to channel the good or the bad in some people. But it has the additional downside of channeling some good people toward bad. So, I would rather advocate promoting good using reason than using religion which comes at a heavy cost.

His reply was not an uncommon one, basically that when good comes out of religious work we should credit religion, but when bad comes out of religious work, we should not credit religion. This boils down to “When people do what I would do in the name of religion, they’re interpreting it correctly; when they don’t do what I would do in the name of religion, they are clearly interpreting something wrong.” Bear in mind the people “incorrectly interpreting” it say the person making this accusation is the person incorrectly interpreting it.

In this particular case, the writer noted that religion is subject to interpretation, is produced by flawed ancient men, and that it should both (1) be given to uneducated people to give them hope, but (2) not be expected to be understood accurately by uneducated people who sometimes are inspired by it to do what it actually says (that is kill gays, instruct people not to wear condoms, thwart education, be misogynistic, and so on).

I pointed out that I had no way to determine who, if anyone, was able to correctly “interpret” a Bible. We can’t all be right—but we can all be wrong. He replied: “I don’t care if it’s wrong” (only whether or not it inspires good).

Think of that: I take a religious book that says that it’s good to love others and also that it’s good to kill others. I don’t know if anything in the book is true, and more to the point, I don’t care if it’s true. But I advocate giving that religion to people for the good it does. When some people say they love others because of the religion, I praise the religion, for the love it inspires. But when people say they’re killing others because of the religion, I say it’s not the religion’s fault, because clearly this group doesn’t know how to interpret the holy book that says to both love and kill one another. Further, by filtering reality this way, I can keep handing this religion to everyone, and claiming it only does good.

In other words: I don’t care if we submit a lie to people. I don’t care if that lie goes to many people who I already know will have trouble understanding it’s a lie—and who will most likely believe it—in all its authoritative and brutal entirety. And when these people hear religion’s instructions to hate and kill, and actually do hate and kill, I don’t have to think for a moment it’s due to this lie, or to me advocating and spreading it.

Whatever helps you sleep at night, I suppose?

On the heels of this letter was another from a young atheist who described his religious parents as doing what they think is right, and then interpreting their religion in such a way as to make sure god agrees with what they’re doing. In fact, we have all seen this quite often. And my original correspondent actually is a prime example of this. He indicated that where the Bible says it’s OK to hate and pillage, people ought to understand it was ignorant people producing these texts and not believe these things are “good” ideas. In other words, do what you reason is right—and then make the Bible agree with whatever you’d like it to say.

This is surely one common style of Christian. But I can’t simply ignore that there are others.

Surely we have examples throughout history and even today of people who use religion to justify their hate and aggression. I agree it’s possible these sorts would be horrible people even without religion. They’d certainly have opportunities to find political ideologies or social hate groups to glom onto. No doubt all the bad in the world cannot be attributed to religion, I will agree.

But there is a third category of Christian that this defender is not considering, and won’t consider, in fact. This Christian is the main problem, the collateral damage. This is the sincere person, wanting to do good, who believes these texts in full. This would be the Christian who says that, “I wouldn’t normally call my gay son an abomination, or shun my mother for divorcing my dad, or vote down someone else’s civil rights, but god says to do it, and as a mere mortal the Bible says I cannot question the all-knowing, all-mighty god who is the author of morality and this book (and must have a greater good in mind when he tells me to do these things that are counter to my personal moral sense).”

These are not extremists. In fact, this represents a great many indoctrinated people. People who have been raised to disregard and doubt their own judgment and simply obey—because that is “good.”

On our show, we have demonstrated that there are “good Christians” who will agree to torture their own children without requiring an explanation, if god asks them to do so. They’re not always comfortable admitting this, but they will confess it once you get past the “god would never ask this,” defense. Not surprisingly, the AETV e-list has been able in correspondence to get people, who write to inform us that religion is actually a net good, to say this exact thing as well. Consider what it would take for a parent to willingly torture their own child. And yet, with no explanation, and on god’s word alone, those who would harm their own children for god are writing to explain we’re missing the “good” part of religion’s impact on people. These two ideas exist, somehow at peace, within the same mind.

My point to this writer was that if “good” comes out of religion only when good people filter out the horror it suggests they do, why promote the full lie? Why keep using the Bible if you’re going to only adhere to the parts that suggest what you already were going to do anyway? How is that not simply doing whatever you, personally, think is right? Why not admit you’re using your own human morality, that you, clearly by your actions, demonstrate you deem superior to the morality espoused in this “holy” religion?

And if we agree that a literal reading is a major headache for humanity, and we agree that the many parts that instruct evil are inherently flawed and should be rejected, and if the only parts we’re going to use are the parts we can justify by using our own reasoning capacity—why not just stick to the reasoning capacity we’re relying upon, and stop imposing this textual source of confusion (you demonstrate people don’t need) upon human beings who are all but bound to read it as literal and holy truth in a great many areas of the globe, and who are, in their minds, commanded by god to act upon it in every regard?

If we can inspire good without the superstitious and demonstrably dangerous ambiguity, what is the reason for maintaining that mode?

I guess the irony to me is that I was asked if everything about religion was bad. I answered “no,” that it’s good mixed with bad. That clearly wasn’t good enough. The right answer could only be that religion is all good and there is nothing bad about it. And this person accused me of simplifying this issue.

20 comments

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  1. 1
    Zachary Voch

    Ah, Tracy, but you forget the officially recognized standard of what constitutes a "simplistic view of religion", namely, one that admits of negative connotations. Or even worse, one can be even more simplistic, nay, fundamentalist, by claiming that religion makes truth-valued claims which can be evaluated by "Western ways of knowing" like reason and logic.*Cue Karen Armstrong, Peter Enns, etc.*

  2. 2
    Puzzled

    This brings to mind the famous stories of Voltaire. Apparently, he and his friends would have intense discussions about atheism, but if a servant entered the room, they'd immediately change subjects and start talking about the importance of piety and God. Asked why, he replied that for the less intelligent, religion is the only way to keep them good. Interestingly, religion says the same thing about the state – see Pirkei Avos.

  3. 3
    Lurker

    If Tracie "I see your point and have written a detailed 25 page response" H. can be accused of "simplifying" the issue, then no one is safe.

  4. 4
    Jeremiah

    Well here is the thing. It should be pretty obvious that our morality and decisions are determined by numerous factors. From evolutionary predispositions, to learned behaviors, to life experiences, and more. Religion is just another input. It is a human construct used to spread influence and ideas (either good or bad), like a book, or a wall street journal opinion piece. As much as believers would like to pretend otherwise, it doesn't have any special properties all on it's own.The point isn't to try and weigh the good parts against the bad or worry about interpetations. We know it is a mixed bag desipite the one persons refusal to admit it. The question is, "can we get the good parts without the bad?", and certainly most atheists or secular humanists would say that we can. We can teach people to help others, not steal, not kill, etc without religion. Religion is kind of like chemo therapy. It might do some good, but it has a lot of negative side effects as well. If we were to discover some other treatment for cancer tomorrow that could have the same good effects without all the negative we would drop chemo in an instant and switch over to the new treatment. That is basically why I personally wouldn't categorize religion as 'bad' per se, but simply unneccessary. A poor treatment with potential hazardous side effects and unlike chemo it (fortunately) isn't the only option we have at the moment.

  5. 5
    Guillaume

    I think the main problem with believers is that they confuse worship and morality. And they also have at best a vague idea of what their holy book contains about morality and ethic. It is easier to cherry pick when you have preconceived ideas about something you barely read, and/or double think about.

  6. 6
    George From NY

    "Yes."

  7. 7
    articulett

    I've found that when an atheist says anything critical about faith, many theists hear "religion is all bad" and/or "all religion is bad". I've often been accused of saying such though I haven't said it and don't think it.I don't believe there are "divine truths" however– and, as such, I think all religions are untrue in that they all claim to have access to such.I think what is really going on is that religious people can't stand that some people feel the same way about their religion as the religious person feels about other cults and wacky beliefs– and for the same reason! So, instead they imagine the atheist is saying something else so they can feel smug fighting the straw man rather than addressing what is actually said.

  8. 8
    Ing

    I don't know about other religions, but Western ones at least seem to just take credit for the good of people and sweep their horrible acolytes under the rug. For all the claims of Christianity being "love" I sure see a lot of sermons preaching hate.

  9. 9
    Michael Nam

    "Good. Bad. I'm the guy with the gun."In all seriousness, I guess it's fun to pretend to have unassailable ideas. I'm going to have to have to copy this. When I give great advice, I deserve all the credit. When I give miserable advice, and it backfires horribly…totally the advisee's fault.

  10. 10
    Mark B

    When you separate the good parts of religion from the bad and then discard the bad can what you have left really be called religion at all?

  11. 11
    SaintDL

    I think this issue have been best met by the recent AETV episode where Aron sat in.He said whenever it comes to questions like this, it is basically theists trying to portray as religion bringing good to people or bringing good out of people.So do religion attract good people? Apparently if we have been around enough we do meet alot of believers who do good in everyday life that is difficult for us to paint a bad picture of even if we try.So does that means religion makes people good? With that question, he began to bring up all the data showing correlations between religions and crime. Which is the more religious, the more crimes likely to be committed and the more likely they are to be more hideous. Teenage sex and teen pregnancy, number of criminals in prisons that are religious, that only a motivation such as religion will get people to blow themselves up killing anywhere from dozens to thousands as a result… etc etc.So it is obvious that on this side of the equation, religion does not make people good or bring goodness to people. Which is why he phrase it as "Do religion attract good people?"Because if religious does not bring out the better in people, it seems that no matter the belief, it depends on what kind of person he/she is inherently that causes him/her to make they decisisons they make.With that aside, how many things can be certainly attributed to dogma brought by religion? The answer is very clear.Besides, from religions such as buddhism, zen buddhism and taoism, which have its roots in philosophy, it would be as Christopher Hitchens said… where religion fails, philosophy shall rise up.So religion have no place and does not bring good to people. The philosophy aspect of religion brings the good people to it to do its good work. Without religion, this world will be rid of one tool that has for thousands of years divided human beings.My 2 cents, if i were to answer that sender, this is what i will tell him/her.

  12. 12
    tracieh

    >"can we get the good parts without the bad?"Exactly. At another site someone replied that religion does the "good" part "better" than any other mechanism. My immeidiate thought was the Catholic church in African nations with high HIV rates.If we gave the resources the Catholic church has access to, to a Humanist group, with the goal of improving things in AIDS ravaged nations, do I think we could achieve a better result?Yes. And I'd be willing to test that out to see if it works.Just because an antiquited mechanism has a strangle hold on resources is no reason to assert it's "better"–its just got the goods other groups don't. And it distributes those goods with a healthy dose of damage to humanity.Everyday in our lives, we see how when our beliefs better align with reality, we are better able to achieve our goals and live better lives. It's better for me in my life to stop at a red light than to ignore it–if my goal is to keep on living happily and safely and not do harm to others.And yet with religion, we seem to think we can't provide aid without instilling beliefs that demonstrably do not align with reality–and then want to deny that disconnect is responsible for any damage, or that the damage it causes–which is significant–is outweighed by the "good"–much of which is simply making people feel good after you've stripped them of their human dignity using that same religion.

  13. 13
    ernobius

    I remember being part of the "collateral damage" thingy… Struggling to swallow all the crap religion offers and trying to melt it with science and truth. Tracie, as you were the one to post this, I couldn't help but remember the awesome "Apologetics Aerobics" from Atheist Eve. That sums up everything.

  14. 14
    tracieh

    Thanks ernobius. I did the art on that, but it was Don Baker's concept and content. :-)

  15. 15
    Jeremy

    I don't know if everything about religion is bad. However, religion does have an unmatched ability to suppress self- examination and criticism of ideas in its adherents. This attribute encourages believers to not only accept ideas like the above mentioned "I don't care if it's true…" with a sincere belief that it is reasonable but that it is worthy of propagation. While that means good ideas will be promoted and enacted it also means that bad ideas will be unthinkingly acted upon, causing untold damage to people and society, in countless ways for lengthy amounts of time before someone, somewhere might get an inkling that something is not quite right. Sadly, when they do decide that a religous belief doesn't gel with reality, what replaces it is far too often just a slightly watered- down version of the original religious belief that started the whole mess in the first place.

  16. 16
    ernobius

    @tracieh: then share my praise with him :)And kudos to all the team!

  17. 17
    Ing

    @JeramyRight, it's a mental sand trap. It locks you into a state of mind and discourages you from doing the work to break out. And worse of all it spills into other categories. How many Conservative Christians are batshit insane and worship the neocons as much as Robertson? How many of the liberal christians are insane? etc etc

  18. 18
    Jeremy

    Ing- Not only does it discourage you from doing the work but if you do and come to a different conclusion, it also fosters the impulse that you are the one that is wrong and loathsome for even entertaining the idea in the first place.

  19. 19
    maddogdelta

    In a web discussion with one such god person, he was trying to claim that because of the phrase "These commandments are the greatest, love god and love others" (paraphrased), then everything was okeedokey.I then asked him about Abraham, and whether it was ok to try to kill your child when you heard god telling you to. He said you have to really make sure that it is really God. So I ask again, but adding the "If you're really sure, then it's ok to kill your kids?""Yup""So, Andrea Yates did the right thing?"He tried to claim that she really wasn't talking to God, when I asked him how she should have known. No answer.Nice, "respectable" guy…thinks that murdering your children is sometimes ok.That's terrifying.

  20. 20
    Wayne

    Is everything about racism bad?Religion is racism.or.Religion constructs identity in such a way that self is good, other is bad; self is right, other is wrong.God gives the individual constructed self authoritative power. For one believer this authority tells the self to hate gays, for another it tells the believer to do unto others as you would have done unto you.But ultimately since there is no god, the authority figure is only the self, the believer, seeking to empower his or her own belief and prejudice. A greater ethics depends upon the ability of the individual to see the other as equal, to respect the other. Religion by constructing an authoritative superior self destroys this ability, and as a result creates a societal structure that is most completely dysfunctional. (See how the most religious support war, but oppose advancements in health care and education). Only when people are able to abandon their desire for this power, this difference, is there any real hope for social progress.The world is full of, dominated by believers, and look at what they have created. War, poverty, hunger. Religion is a mechanism for the construction of power, and people are drawn to it because of this.It is easier to harm/devalue the other when he/she is different than when he/she is similar/equal. Religion does this and little more.Oh, but some of those churches sure are pretty.

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