Apologists for religion, when confronted with the ugliness that has been justified by adherence to scripture, will often retreat into a stance that goes something like “people will always do harmful things, regardless of their religion.” The argument, I suppose, is that human beings will find ways to commit atrocious acts, and that criticizing religion is therefore a red herring argument. “After all,” they’ll say “the kind of people who would do evil in the name of religion will still do evil even if you atheists do away with faith altogether!”
First of all, anyone who has ever made this statement has just admitted to losing the argument. Religion is chock full of morality claims, and by admitting that people who follow religion are not more moral than those who do not, you’ve admitted that your particular religious philosophy is entirely orthogonal to being a good person. It would be just as valid for me to say “don’t do bad things” and call that a moral system. Considering the number of people who use the argument from morality as what they think is a “slam dunk” proof of a deity, this kind of “well people will be bad regardless of religion” statement should be particularly troubling.
Some atheists are willing, however, to cede this point. In a world without religion, they say, people would probably do bad things at roughly the same rate. Some people are just opportunistic, or unthinking, or cruel, and will find some other way of justifying their actions even in the absence of a god to blame it on. This argument has bothered me for a while, and I have finally figured out why.
Long-time Cromrades (my nickname for regular readers) may remember that I cut my skeptical activist teeth confronting Deepak Chopra when he came to Vancouver last year. We handed out pamphlets outlining a few of Deepak’s more egregious antiscientific claims to passersby (and would-be attendees). I had an odd experience with one Chopra devotee who snidely asked if I believed that I was standing on solid ground (literally, he was pointing to the concrete under my feet).
When I told him that I understood atomic theory, he then pressed me in progressively microscopic details until I was forced to admit that I couldn’t provide an explanation for the existence of energy. He then grinned at me smugly and said “well there you go” as though he had just soundly defeated me, and then struggled with a locked door. I resisted the temptation to tell him that since solid matter was just an illusion, he should be able to walk right through it.
It was when I was recalling this interaction, and after re-reading Greta Christina’s should-be-award-winning article on why faith provides an armour that is impervious to logic (which, if you haven’t read it, you really should. Go now. Finish this article later) that I finally hit upon why this “people will just find another reason” argument bugs me so much.
What my friend the Chopra-ite was demonstrating was the power wielded by anyone capable of linking measurable, understandable things to intangible, eldritch questions. Because I was unable to answer questions at a sub-sub-sub-subatomic level, therefore claims about things that are impossible at the cellular level are somehow magically not wrong. Any one piece of knowledge missing from an understanding of the universe somehow invalidates all observations made about reality, to the point where any old claim is worthy of consideration provided it is couched in enough flim-flammery and invocations of the word “quantum”.
Those who have debated against religious believers have seen this same tactic deployed over the course of the long walk from “what started the Big Bang?” to “eating meat on a Friday lands you in hell.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched an atheist debate a believer and seen this evasive maneuver pulled at the first sign of trouble (I have, incidentally, stopped watching such debates unless I have a particular attachment to the atheist speaker – I usually skip the theist parts). When the atheist delivers a particularly sound argument, the theist retreats into hir (non-gendered possessive pronoun) tiny cubbyhole of “well you can’t explain everything, nanna nanna boo boo!”
Religion provides a smokescreen for bad ideas by linking those ideas to ultimate questions for which there may never be an answer. Given any ceding of uncertainty, the theist’s position leaps joyfully into the smoke and defies any attempt to pin it down to a fixed location. Like the forged connection between cell biology and quantum physics, the justification for outrageously immoral or otherwise harmful ideas are protected not only by having no reality check, but also by pressing unanswered puzzles into their service.
While it is only obscurification, it is highly useful at deflecting criticism. “I don’t think you should do that”, says one person. “Well, do you know how they get the caramel in the Caramilk bar?” replies the other. “Well, no.” “Aha! Well YahwAllahddha did it, and also he says I have to remove your kidneys!” “I guess that makes sense…” I trust that I don’t have to go into detail explaining why this line of ‘reasoning’ has no merit whatsoever.
It is for this reason that I find the invocation against the abolition of religion so tedious and misguided. Religion is the infinite (and infantile) regress from the tangible to the supernatural by way of the unexplained. It finds any fissure in humankind’s grasp of reality and anchors itself there like an octopus trying to escape a predator. And, again like our fleeing cephalopod (Jesus I hope PZ doesn’t catch me comparing religion to octopi), it billows out a huge inky cloud of nonsense to confound and bewilder any rational argument that might come sniffing around.
In a world without religion, in which we are not taught to revere this kind of brainless sophistry as part of the ‘mystery’ of faith, but rather to correctly identify it as the straws clutched at by a desperate madman, the smokescreen is blown away. Without being able to clothe your hatred of homosexuals in the gossamer raiments of the numinous, you are forced to find another way to justify your bigotry. Which isn’t to say that you can’t do it, it’s just much more difficult to do so in a way that convinces not only yourself, but others whose support you would otherwise have.
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