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Oct 12 2010

That being said…

Religious people are still capable of committing acts of great kindness:

Rabbis from Jewish settlements have given a box of Korans to a West Bank mosque as a gesture of solidarity after an arson attack blamed on settlers. Palestinians cheered as the rabbis and other settlers arrived at the village of Beit Fajjar in bulletproof cars accompanied by Israeli soldiers. They were welcomed by the local imam.

It will be my ongoing struggle as I continue to write this blog (hopefully sticking with it for a while – we’re at 8 months now) to ensure that I maintain a sense of perspective and balance. While my rampant liberal bias is evident from even a casual glance, I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that evidence which may not support my argument entirely. This particular story is a case of true religious tolerance and attempts to reconcile.

“This act does nothing for the settlements; it is morally and religiously wrong and is offensive to its core,” he added. “This is not how we educated our children; Islam is not a hostile religion even if we have a dispute with some of its followers.”

The governor of Bethlehem, Abdel Fatah Hamayel, said: “We welcome the Jews to Beit Fajjar so they can see with their own eyes the crime that was committed in this mosque, which was against humanity and against religion.”

When secularists and anti-theists like myself talk about the evils of religion, we are explicitly not talking about people like this. What we are talking about is the kind of hatred and illogic that spawns the attack in the first place. We are talking about the idea that there can be a ‘crime against religion’, as though religion has rights that go beyond the rights of the human beings that make up their congregations. Ideas don’t have rights. Beliefs don’t have rights. Philosophies don’t have rights. People do.

However, it’s often tempting to gloss over the good things that are done in the name of religion in my zeal to tear down the idea of religion as meriting some kind of special treatment or special rights. It’s especially difficult to bring up the positive things done in the name of religion when there are so many unbelievably evil things done with the same justification. Hopefully my willingness to highlight these kinds of things will lend my words a bit more credibility when I jump up and down on the head of the followers of YahwAlladdha – I’m not just saying this stuff because it’s fun; I’m saying it because it’s real.

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7 comments

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  1. 1
    Brian Lynchehaun

    I am never talking about people when I say “religion is completely fucking stupid”.

    I think that religious people are primarily people, and subject to the full gamut of human emotions that are physiologically part and parcel of ‘being human’. They will do good things, and they will do bad things.

    Religion, however, is used as a claim that “I did this good thing because of my religion”, but the converse “I did this bad thing because of my religion” is typically rejected, and social order (or the temperament of the individual) is blamed instead. This is an inconsistent method of attribution and investigation.

    Where I think Hitchens (and others) gets it completely wrong is by listing all the atrocities committed by religious folk and saying that “they did all of this *because* of religion”. I believe they did all of that because they were terrible, terrible people, with completely f’ed up viewpoints about the appropriate way to deal with the world. They then cherry-picked (much like the Rabbis up above) the statements in their religious books that facilitated their view points, and confabulated the claim that they did x because they are religious. It’s an act of separation that allows them to commit evil without ever having to accept responsibility for the evil. Likewise (with the Rabbis), the idea that ‘we are good’ is considered to be an immodest claim thus religion can be pulled in to explain the actions, call the actions ‘good’, and not run the risk of being painted as immodest. “Oh, I’m not good. I’m a flawed and terrible human being. But I can do good things by following the teachings in this book.”

    And yet the idea that one is inclined *in the first place* to follow the ‘good’ teachings in contrast to the ‘bad’ teachings is ignored.

    I want to see religion *gone* as a framework for justification. I want to see responsibility taken for both good and bad actions. I want to acclaim rightfully awarded and disdain rightfully attributed.

    I want sanity.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    I’m with you up until the point that you say that people who commit atrocities are inherently evil people, regardless of the ideas they hold. Some ideas, some systems of thought, some philosophical mindsets are inherently destructive – I would count religious faith among those ideas. When regular people grow up steeped in bad ideas, they’re more likely to do bad things; not everyone will, but many do. This is why I will always attack the ideas someone holds, whilst struggling with all my might not to attack the person.

    As always, I enjoy your contribution.

  3. 3
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Short space = over-simplified laying out of an idea.

    Someone can be a terrible, terrible person without being an ‘inherently’ terrible person. I’m not making any kind of argument for essentialism. I’m making an argument for a collection of dispositions that form over the lifetime of a person, coupled with whatever subtle genetic inclinations we have which lead a particular person to the view that ‘it would be better for the world if x was dead, and I’m going to do it’.

    Dispositions can, of course, be shaped and reformed: a terrible, terrible person isn’t a terrible, terrible person for all time; but at a given point in his life: yes, Charles Manson was (and perhaps still is, I don’t know his current psychological makeup) a terrible, terrible person.

    Furthermore, I’m not claiming that ” … regardless of the ideas they hold”. Absolutely they act according to their beliefs! But reducing their actions to a single source is a gross over-simplification of their thinking. It’s possibly true in some of the hyper-religious that have dedicated their lives to this kind of nonsense (Westboro Baptist Church springs to mind), but that kind of dedication is predicated on higher order beliefs: beliefs about what beliefs are appropriate to hold. And that goes back to the general dispositions that the person holds through the socialisation of the self throughout their life.

    I’m not attacking a person for their *ideas*, but damn straight I’m going to hold a person responsible for their actions.

    The claim that religion is inherently destructive is immediately rebutted by your own Rabbi example. To claim that religion is inherently positive is immediately rebutted by [pick a random atrocity committed by religious folk].

    This is an essentialist argument, and it’s false: that which is “inherently” x cannot but be x, as per the definition of ‘inherent’. Matter is inherently inertial. Time inherently passes. Religion is not inherently destructive. Poorly thought out, easily leads to bad stuff, can be controlled easily by authoritative figures: absolutely.

    But in and of itself, it’s not destructive. Every ill you can point to that a religious person has done, ostensibly in the name of that religion, has a number of drivers for it’s happening. Typically fear on the part of the adherent (fear of the unknown, fear of change, and so on), a need to preserve that which they know, and a need to lash out. Certain chapters of the dominant religions will facilitate those views, but if the person wasn’t experiencing illness in the family, or bad crops, or strong ingroup/outgroup pressures, then they’d completely (as many religious do day-to-day) ignore those sections.

    And for the exact same reasoning it’s not the polar opposite (constructive).

    It’s crappy nonsense that’s seized upon to justify *after the fact* a decision that has been made, or to tip a person into action given their inclinations that were held in check by social norms.

    But that’s all it is. I have yet to see any evidence/strong arguments backing up the idea that religion, itself, is the main causal factor in terrible individual actions.

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    I guess I’d have to get an idea of what you think the definition of “main causal factor” is. I’d say that assassinating abortion doctors because your religious belief tells you that abortion is murder is ‘mainly caused’ by religious faith. I’d say that abusing and hounding gay kids because homosexuality is an abomination is ‘mainly caused’ by religious faith. I’d say that electing to execute someone with sharp stones because of a stricture against adultery is ‘mainly caused’ by religious faith. The reason I say ‘religious faith’ is to distinguish it as that faith that flies wholly in the face of evidence, and will try to fit the world to its strictures, rather than adapt with new evidence.

    Now one could make the argument that these things are in fact ‘mainly caused’ by biological ignorance, homophobic bigotry and sexism respectively, but the justification for the horrific actions is without a doubt religious. Without the excuse of God-given righteousness, the person who is anti-abortion will simply not abort. The homophobe will simply avoid gay people. The state will simply refuse to condone adultery. It requires religious belief to make those actions happen, at least that is more often than not the case.

    I dispute your claim that my statement about religion is ‘essentialist’. Perhaps I would have been better to describe religious faith as a necessary but not sufficient cause – that is, that while not everyone who believes will commit atrocities, everyone who commits atrocities believes. Hence why I was careful to say “more likely to do bad things” – at a population level religious belief is more likely to cause atrocities than disbelief. And while I cannot think of how to go about separating the ideas someone has been brought up with from their own choices about what to believe (i.e., beliefs about what beliefs are appropriate to hold), I would be happy to hear such thoughts from you.

    Something tells me we’re wandering around a dispute where we actually share the same view, but our rhetoric is different.

  5. 5
    Brian Lynchehaun

    With regards to your first paragraph, I don’t know that I agree with all that. In my (evidence-free) intuition, I’m inclined to see the various pressures to commit harm being held at bay by social pressures to conform and to not-harm. I see the quote-mining of the bible as a way for a person in that situation to remove the social impediment to causing harm: people around them cite the bible as justification for doing x, so they will cite the bible as justification for their act and thus not be regarded as a pariah.

    I’m not sure that a non-religious bigot in that situation would ultimately choose not to kill. It’s possible that the contrast between social norms and their fear would generate significant anxiety such that it needs to be resolved. Whether it resolves in them committing harm, or changing a bigoted stance is, imo, a crapshoot. There’s no way to tell (at least not at our current level of tech, and ethical constraints).

    So in some cases, yes, I can see having religious views letting off the social pressure such that the person feels justified in doing the harm.

    But with a likewise cherry-picking of verses, I can see an individual pushing down on their bigoted views and doing *less* harm than if they were religious.

    I am not a fan of Sam Harris, but he said something absolutely fantastic on the Daily Show: Religion give some people bad reasons to do good things.

    I’d argue that it also gives some people bad reasons to do bad things.

    While I definitely agree that if there were magic that removed all religious belief from the planet tomorrow, the folks that were on the cusp of doing harm (and would have been pushed over by their religious beliefs) would not do harm.

    But if we want to be intellectually honest, we must be aware that there are folk out there who would have been restrained by their religious beliefs, and thus (minus religion) do harm. And this, inconveniently enough, is an unquantifiable group.

    (and there are two more groups who do good, or don’t do good, along similar lines)

    This, for me, is the nub of the problem: we can only quantify those who perpetrate harm, so we can only (wildly) speculate about the harm that would be done without religion.

    But without being able to compare those groups, we can’t honestly say that ‘Religion is destructive’ as opposed to ‘religion is beneficial’. I think that the only thing that can be safely said is that ‘religion provides shitty reasons for doing whatever it is the person is inclined to do’.

    And before I get slapped: I don’t think that the belief mechanisms that we have are this cut and dried, and yes I agree that the formative years that are spent in the presence of religious stuff are going to have major effect on the end-point dispositions that we have most of our lives. But I don’t think that takes away from my argument, it just makes the whole thing *more* complex.

  6. 6
    Crommunist

    Fair enough. My assertion that people would be less likely to commit harm without religion is also entirely evidence-free. I base it on the fact that religious commandments find their way into the cultural zeitgeist, increasing social pressure. Without the ability to do that, I’d say that people would be more restrained – at least more so than are inhibited by their religion from committing evil acts. We have evolutionary studies to suggest that altruism is the default, not moral neutrality.

  7. 7
    Brian Lynchehaun

    I’d like to believe that they’d be more restrained, and once cloning really kicks off I’m all for taking over a small island somewhere and running an experiment with a population of a few hundred people, and then we’ll have some empirical data on the subject.

    Oh. Right. Ethics. Dammit….

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