There’s this problem I’ve been running into in atheist writing, an example of bad thinking that crops up again and again even from some very intelligent writers. Richard Dawkins does it; Sam Harris does it a lot; cool atheist bloggers I read sometimes do it.
It’s bugging me, and I want to point it out.
Here’s how the thinking goes. When they’re dealing with the issue of great people doing good things who seem to have been inspired by religious faith — Martin Luther King, Gandhi, yada yada yada — many atheist writers argue that these people would have done those same good things even without religion. Compassion, empathy, a vision of how much better the world could be — that’s what inspired these people, the argument goes. They didn’t need religion to fight the good fight.
But when they’re talking about bad people doing terrible things who seem to be inspired to their evil deeds by religion — Osama Bin Laden, the Crusaders, etc. — these same writers are all over it. “See?” they write. “Look at the terrible things religion inspires people to do! See what a bad influence religion is in the world?”
And I don’t think you get to have it both ways.
Either religion inspires people to act, or it doesn’t. It makes no sense to argue that religious faith inspires people to do evil, but not to do good.
And this is a big but.
Many defenders of religion do the exact same thing — only in reverse. They point to people like King and Gandhi to show what a positive force religion is in the world… but then argue that the Bin Ladens and Torquemadas of the world would have acted exactly the same without religion. Politics, hunger for power, xenophobia, flat-out psychosis — that’s what drove these evil people, they say. Not religious faith.
Which is just as messed up. Defenders of religion don’t get to have it both ways, either. If you want to point at all the wonderful people in the world who are inspired by religion, you need to be willing to look at all the massively fucked-up shit that religion inspires as well.
So which way do I think it is? Do I think people, on the whole, would act differently if there were no such thing as religion?
I think that’s a separate post. I’ll rant about that tomorrow.