Is Religion Inherently Dangerous?


My sincere apologies if this post comes across a bit scatter-brained and rushed. I’ve had a rather weird and scary night. One of my roommates fell off the wagon. Hard. He’d almost undoubtedly been on a bit of a crack binge (I’m not joking) and was pacing around the house slamming cupboards, tossing things around, and snarling “Fucking cunt! Fucking goddamn cunt! Cunts and assholes!”… with a few semi-jubilant cries of “I’m back!” thrown in… which later progressed to “Fucking freak! Fucking goddamn freak cunt!”

I did NOT want to take the chance of sticking around to find out whether I was the freak / cunt he was angry about. I have absolutely no idea why, and it’s almost pointless trying to hazard a guess about the motives of someone in that frame of mind. Maybe because I turned him down for sex seven months ago, when he slipped an extremely creepy note under my door?

Saddest part is that this is not by any means the first time I’ve dealt with something like this. I lead a charmed life, don’t I?

Anyway, like I said, I didn’t want to stick around to find out how the episode would play out. Fortunately, there was a Cafe-Sci happening downtown amongst the Vancouver skeptics, where a climate scientist was giving an awesome lecture on massive coral bleaching events. And The Crommunist ended up offering to put me up for the night. I’m posting this from his apartment!

I have very, very awesome friends.

Now, for the article I had intended to write for the morning:

Accommodationists and religious apologetics alike draw considerable fuel from the fact that not all religious individuals are the bigoted, dangerous figures we point to as emblematic of what is to be feared from religion. And they’re right. It’s true. Many people who hold religious beliefs, even literal religious beliefs, even fundamentalist beliefs, are compassionate, reasonable, ethical people.

We’ve heard it a million times: “The version of religion you criticize is a fringe minority. It’s not representative of the whole. Christianity is not the Westboro Baptist Church, Judaism is not the orthodox hassidim who insist that women sit at the back of their buses in Brooklyn, and Islam is not the terrorists and the men who stone women to death for daring to regard themselves as anything other than a shameful second class citizen/object whose only desire should be to please the man who owns her.”

And sure, not all religious people would be happy to see me dead. Fucking freak cunt that I am.

And like I said, they’re right. That’s true.

But does it really mean that religious belief and thought is any less dangerous? Does this in any way address the substance of the argument?

I know this conversation has gone around and around the atheist community for ages, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t throw my own half-baked, unqualified, frazzle-brained opinions into the blogo-potpourri. So there are many good, kind, compassionate, tolerant, accepting people with religious beliefs. So what?

So say I’ve got myself a machine gun. Don’t laugh. Canadian transsexual women can have imaginary machine guns too. Now let’s say I fire my imaginary machine gun into a small cluster of lizardmen. Let’s say out of the two dozen imaginary bullets I fire, fourteen miss. Were those bullets any less lethal than the ones that hit their mark?

Ridiculous and violent metaphor? You bet! But bear with me. Sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes religious beliefs end up manifesting amongst people who are kind and decent. But the kindness and decency is not necessarily resultant from the religion, and while it mitigates the danger of the religious belief it doesn’t necessarily make that belief any less dangerous in and of itself. The fact that religion often fails to manifest as violence does not in any way detract from the underlying potential it carries for violence.

As Greta Christina once articulated very, very well, the primary danger of religious thought is that it uniquely armors itself against criticism and doubt. It relies on faith which positions itself fundamentally above being questioned or challenged, and beyond hesitation and ethical checks. The intellectual and ethical brake lines have been cut. The ethics of this world and the consequences that occur within it are within religious thought quintessentially secondary to the spiritual principles in which the faith is invested.

That many individuals may exercise the intellectual, ethical brake lines anyway doesn’t mean religious thinking doesn’t carry that essential danger, especially when it occurs in people who aren’t so inclined to check themselves.

Religious belief also does not occur in a vacuum. The presence of ethical considerations against which the religious tenets are weighed does not defintively mean those ethical considerations emerged from the religion itself. They could have emerged from cultural values, from legal principles, from rationality and understanding of real-world consequence, and from basic human compassion and empathy.

But when religious principles occur in an individual without those external checks to hold back the darker and more dangerous, more lethal aspects of a religion, it gives them a justification and a reason to indulge every harsh, tribalistic, patronizing, judgmental, hateful, bigoted, self-righteous or murderous impulse they’re carrying around as luggage. And gives them a great reason to not bother worrying about the consequences or the ethics: The Will Of God. The next life is more important. I am their shepherd, freeing them of their sin. This world of dust is mere illusion.

Religion doesn’t necessarily make a good person any more good, but it can make a dangerous person a lot more dangerous.

So let’s say in our desire for allies we happily embrace those with religious beliefs who share our values and causes. We extend our olive branch and work alongside various believers in order to work towards non-violence, towards human rights, LGBTQ acceptance, women’s reproductive choices, the election of a given lesser evil, the abolition of a needlessly harsh law, the care of the homeless and impoverished, etc. This is an entirely reasonable decision to make, and one I would not hold any negative attitudes toward.

But if we go ahead and start saying that the existence of such alliances means religious thinking can be a good thing, well…. There we have a problem. I don’t think it’s the religious thinking that’s doing the good. Clearly our own existence and participation in these causes is indicative of religion not being a necessity for a charitable or compassionate mindset. Religion’s presence in the push in the right direction is incidental, not an element of the right direction. The friend of my friend is not necessarily my friend.

I find that the trap of giving special deference, and limiting the degree to which one is able to question and critique, to those with whom one happens to agree is a worryingly common cognitive distortion. I would like to be able to remain skeptical and critical, even when the people in question are my friends and allies.

If our allies are engaging with our causes only on the basis that that is their interpretation of the religious creed to which they adhere, there’s something rather dangerous lurking in that. It can be summed up pretty easily: what if they change their minds?

The mentality that leads a person to believe The Will of God is to feed the poor and shelter the homeless and treat the sick is functionally identical to the mentality that leads others to believe that The Will Of God is to stone the adulterers and beat the sodomites and mutilate the genitals of infants and sing Christmas carols door-to-door (off key). When we’ve condoned and supported the mentality when it incidentally coincided with our values on what grounds can we oppose the mentality when it does not?

This is not to say that we should go around disagreeing and arguing with every theist or believer at every opportunity, or cast aside mutually beneficial cooperation, but simply that we need to remember that the fact that a religious individual or sect’s values may coincide with our own does not in any way detract from the underlying dangers of religious thought.

It’s also worth considering the degree to which moderate believers, however kind and decent and intelligent they may be, create an insulating normalization for the extremists they enfold. This argument also isn’t new, and I don’t for a moment suppose I’m the first to say it. But this is my first time saying it, and I’d like to see where it leads.

To help illustrate the concept of normalization, I usually like to touch upon the ubiquity of sexist and homophobic jokes in the workplace. While each of these jokes may appear superficially harmless, what they do is contribute to a social climate in which the sexist and homophobic attitudes on which they are based are treated as acceptable, understandable, “normal”. For most people, the lines between humour and reality, between a concept of identity you’re mocking and a human being you’re belittling, are able to be maintained. While that certainly doesn’t make everything a-okay and lovely, it does mean that making a joke about violence against women doesn’t mean the individual making the joke actually ethically condones violence against women. But the tiny nudges in the direction of believing sexism and homophobia to be a non-issue, a simple background condition of life, increasingly makes more extreme and more directly harmful acts of discrimination against women and gays and lesbians seem more permissible. And not everyone can so readily draw those lines.

Out of ten work buddies who are told a joke about fixing a broken dishwasher by slapping her and telling her to get back in the kitchen, all it takes is one of them to walk away from that feeling a little more validated and bolstered in his negative, hostile attitudes towards women for the joke to have become dangerous. Let’s say this same worker hears similar jokes again and again at his job, over and over his misogyny is being bolstered, normalized, subtly encouraged. One day, after a particularly bad day at work, he does indeed beat his wife. Each of those jokes, independently “harmless”, helped create the conditions in which the man was able to allow himself to commit that act.

So to apply this back to religion… let’s say we have 100 believers, and 99 of them are people with enough compassion, empathy, common sense, and understanding of consequences to not take the passages in their spiritual texts about stoning adulterers seriously. One of them has genuinely hostile misogynist attitudes, and extremely violent feelings towards his ex-wife who cheated on him. He himself may not necessarily act on those attitudes, but this holy book of his tells him it’s okay, and his faith in God, armored from criticism, in which the intellectual brake lines have been cut, gives him all the rationalizations he could ever need. Meanwhile, his congregation, the 99 fellow believers who would never dream of capital punishment for adultery, egg him on in his faith and his belief and his adherence to the holy book. They thereby maintain the mentalities that though for them (luckily, incidentally) are not dangerous are for him a ticking time bomb. They not only maintain it, they fuel and celebrate it. Spurned on by his faith, which he uses to excuse his hatred of his ex, he one day murders her, permitting and forgiving himself by believing it had been the will of his God.

The 99 believers say “it wasn’t us! It’s not our fault! We’re not ALL like that!”

But it was them, too. They collectively participated in the conditions that allowed the crime to occur.

There is harm in the absence of critical thought, though it doesn’t always manifest everywhere this absence occurs. There is harm in ideology. There is a dangerous potential for violence in every religion… which is often only a potential, except when it’s not.

Sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes we don’t.

Comments

  1. sia ias says

    That last little bit reminds me of a phrase from Stanislaw Lem: “Each snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty.”

  2. karmakin says

    I think it’s a bit simplistic to say that it’s “religion” per se, but that really depends a great deal on how one defines religion. Some people see it as the organization while other people see it as the supernatural beliefs themselves. I actually believe that the nature of the beliefs themselves matter a great deal.

    Speaking generally in Western religious terms, the problems we see are largely based upon thought patterns that naturally stem from the belief in an interventionist, authoritarian deity of some sorts. That is, a materialistic god that can act directly upon our existence, and does so with certain ideals/goals in mind. To me, this is the most effective definition of Theism. Belief in a non-interventionist deity would probably be best defined as a more Deist style of belief.

    One of my favorite concepts is verisimilitude. Generally when talking about fiction, it’s about how real does the world feel. If a core concept is accepted as true, does everything else fit in with that? The big problem is if you take theism, how I defined it above, everything else simply makes sense. All the hatemongering, all the blame, all the persecution. It’s all far too easy. That’s the problem. The way the Problem of Evil logically goes with strong theistic belief results in a way of looking at the world where said evil is good.

    As one example of how the rubber hits the road on this, it results in a worldview where either poverty is god’s punishment for being an out-group or it’s a sent opportunity to prove and show one’s faith. Neither, I think are positive.

    The reason why you do have liberal/progressive religionists who by and large do NOT follow that thought pattern is quite simple. They have very weak theistic belief, much closer to deist or theist. They do not believe in an interventionist deity, or at least one with very limited interest or powers or whatever. Generally, I find it’s much closer to a pantheistic, or a belief in a vague “higher power” style of thinking, where the concept of god is in the community.

    The biggest problem with these religionists, is that they still put on the trappings of overt theism, basically setting the stage for the average Joe and Jane to go to those beliefs as well. Not everybody is going to get all the winking and nodding, so to speak.

    In short, the main problem is overt theistic thought patters, which naturally result in destructive beliefs and actions.

    • Mina says

      “The biggest problem with these religionists, is that they still put on the trappings of overt theism, basically setting the stage for the average Joe and Jane to go to those beliefs as well. Not everybody is going to get all the winking and nodding, so to speak.”

      This, exactly, is why I will flatly say I don’t like religion. I can like, even love, religious people. I can say that their religion drives THEM to do good things, but I pretty much think they’d do it anyway.

      It’s all the people around them who scare the ever living frak out of me.

  3. anthonyallen says

    I love the machine gun firing into a crowd of lizardmen analogy. (It’s eerily similar to the last DnD game I played.) I think I will try that one out the next time I run across the No True Christian™ argument in conversation.

    And if that’s what you call scatter-brained, I can’t even think of a metaphor, because I’m far more scatter-brained than that on my best days.

    Great post, as always.

  4. Praedico says

    Glad you’re okay, your last tweets had me a little worried.

    As for the subject of the post, I think you’ve covered most of my own opinion far better than I ever could.

    I think one of the biggest problems with, in particular, Christianity, is how open to personal interpretation it is. Good, kind people will pick up on the nice bits and ignore the hate; average, neutral people will probably feel sorry for/want to help those condemned by the hateful parts*; and the nasty, evil people will ignore the nice bits and focus on the bad, using it to justify their hatred and mistrust of the ‘sinful’ groups. Morality and religion are largely independent from one another.
    The really part comes, as you noted in the article, when all three groups regard religious fervour as inherently good, and give the nasty believers a pass because of this.

    (*Such condescending ‘compassion’ is a bit of a problem in itself, but at least it shows good intent.)

  5. The Lorax says

    Damn, you write a lot. I wouldn’t have time to compose a comment if I read at my usual pace.

    The nutshell of your argument (and correct me if I’m wrong) seems to be that acting on faith is inherently risky, and evidence can mitigate or eliminate that risk. However, I would argue that this applies to any ideology; political, religious, social. Anything where evidence is not accepted and beliefs are not challenged openly and fairly is, by definition, lacking the mitigating qualities of evidence and rational thought.

    Of course, there is a spectrum; we take leaps of faith with many things we do, like crossing the street, eating food that we didn’t ourselves grow, or walking down the stairs whilst carrying a full laundry basket. This is sort of forced upon us because all the evidence that we would need to fully mitigate the potential disasters in those cases (are there any poor drivers on the road? have the tomatoes been grown properly? are you on the last step or the second to last step?) simply isn’t available. But SOME evidence is available, and it’s enough to reduce the risk considerably. If we could not use statistics to determine that the vast majority of people behind the wheel of their cars are paying attention, or that the stairs are carpeted and the landing is not, then we would be faced with a vast unknown and a dangerous situation, and our options would be to either risk life and limb for every simple, necessary task, or not do these things at all. Clearly, neither of those options are appealing.

    A life without evidence requires faith to fill the gaps. Faith is inherently dangerous. Religion requires faith. Thus, even if you consider a spectrum and place an individual in the safest possible location on it, religion is still inherently more dangerous than evidence (religion + evidence < evidence) because religion requires a certain amount of faith, an amount that cannot be removed without removing religion itself.

  6. says

    Natalie, glad to hear that you’re ok.

    Great analogy with the machine gun and the lizard men… I’d say that this goes larger than religion though; those herd mind mentalities and tribing up are what we [hominids] do really well, and any shade of ideology can suffer from it… not just religious-based ideologies.

  7. thaismcrc says

    First of all, I’m glad you’re ok. I realize moving is probably not really an option, since you decided to stick around after the creepy note, but I hope there’s someone with whom you can stay more permanently, or some way to get away from this guy, who sounds pretty scary. I hope you stay safe, even though I can’t offer you anything other than moral support.

    As for the post, it made me think of rape culture, because your comments on sexist jokes and remarks are a perfect description of how it operates on one level (the other level being the narratives which depict men’s sexuality as uncontrollable, shifting the responsibility for preventing attacks on to women, who should not “put themselves” in the position of being raped). And even though I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about rape culture, I had never stopped to consider how those ideas would apply to religion, beyond a vague understanding that religious belief makes sexism, homophobia and transphobia socially acceptable. So, great post!

  8. Ace of Sevens says

    I’m not sure how broadly this applies. I’d argue that religious people aren’t necessarily engaging in religious reasoning. I know some people who seem to engage in wholly secular reasoning, both about moral and factual issues, then figure that God is good and made a rational universe, so their process has divine approval. You could argue that since it superficially looks like religious reasoning, it encourages other people to rely on bad methodology, but you could also argue that other people would use religious reasoning regardless, and existence of basically rational religious people steers them to good conclusions.

  9. Anders says

    Excellent article, although at the moment I’m more concerned with whether your apartment is inherently dangerous.

  10. leftwingfox says

    I’m not entirely sold on the gun metaphor, if just in the implication that the primary purpose of religion is to kill. That’s probably just a quibble. I think Greta’s motor vehicle analogy works a little better: We’re all travelling to the same destination, religion just paints the windows black and gives you a faulty GPS for directions.

  11. says

    Religion doesn’t necessarily make a good person any more good, but it can make a dangerous person a lot more dangerous.

    and possibly worse still, it can make people who are actually good become dangerous, because their moral compass becomes skewed. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the opposite happen, except maybe in the sense that individuals who harm themselves and others for lack of structure become more stable when they glom onto religious structure; some of them glom onto dangerous religious structures though, and become more dangerous than they were before *coughGlennBeckcough*

  12. setar, too lazy to log in on his blackberry says

    My biggest beef with liberal religionists is that they only tend to complain about extremists as a part of berating atheists for calling out the extremists.

    But I am more worried about your living situation. Hopefully you can find a new roommate, or better yet a new place, but knowing the housing situation in Vancouver (all hail the local 1%, who sit on land and whine about how their income and property taxes that have been frozen or cut heavily over the past decade are STILL TOO DAMN HIGH BAWW TRUE LEFTISTS SUCK) that is going to be hard. I would offer aid, but I have little to give other than the pullout couch in my mostly unused second room (way out here in Langley), baked goods sent by intertubes and lots of e-hugs.

    • Ace of Sevens says

      My biggest beef with liberal religionists is that they only tend to complain about extremists as a part of berating atheists for calling out the extremists.

      I’m not sure that’s true. Look at Slackivist and his campaign against Tim LaHaye, for instance.

  13. says

    I feel it may be worth clarifying that I’m actually rather fond of lizardmen. They were my first Warhammer army, and I had an AD&D 2nd ed. character named Sethskar who was a lizardman fighter. He was awesome… not very bright and lacking in social etiquette, but an extremely resourceful tactician.

  14. Beth says

    Are knives inherently dangerous? Of course. Does that mean we should get rid of knives, thereby creating a safer society?

    Religion of tool of our species. It can be used with great effect for both good and evil, but I don’t think evil is inherent in any tool, only those who wield them.

    • says

      In the case of religion, unlike knives, there are many safer, less dangerous, alternative “tools” we can use to fulfill all the same beneficial roles without the same risks.

      • Beth says

        Depends on where the person is located and what benefits they are receiving. In some areas and for some purposes, sure, alternatives exist and are available. In others, no, they don’t.

      • Beth says

        And religion doesn’t come with sharp edges that you can accidently cut yourself with and bleed to death. So?

        Both are human tools and their inherent dangers are related to how we humans choose to use those tools.

        • says

          I don’t think characterising a system of belief that defines prescribed moral imperatives on the basis that they are right with question as a tool, isn’t particularly accurate. A way of thinking isn’t a tool, it rather defines that way in which tool can and should be used and the behaviour of the tool user.

          So religion doesn’t have sharp edges, but if it encourages its adherents to take up knives, in order to punish those who defy their prescriptive faith-based morality, which do, then the belief is still the more dangerous of the two. A knife without intent is just a bit of metal, but intent without a weapon is just looking for an opportunity…

    • says

      A tool?

      Knives have handles, and most anyone can use a knife effectively.

      How are you supposed to use a religion? Where are its controls, and how do you figure the effects? If this question is too simple, then so is the metaphor.

      I’ll give you my best shot at some uses of religion:
      1) organizing people into a community
      2) defining socially enforced morals
      3) gathering wealth into the hands of a few
      4) promoting irrational hatred and Othering.

      I think #1 requires only charisma and the ability to gather, and religious good works come from that just as other useful charitable projects do. And #2 comes better from communication and education at any level, in any place. Myself, I don’t care for #3 and #4.

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