The recent appearance of best-selling books by atheists strongly criticizing religion has given rise to this secondary debate (reflected in this blog and the comments) as to what attitude atheists should take towards religion. Some critics of these authors (including fellow atheists) have taken them to task for being too harsh on religion and thus possibly alienating those religious “moderates” who might be potential allies in the cause of countering religious “extremism”. They argue that such an approach is unlikely to win over people to their cause. Why not, such critics ask, distinguish between “good” and “bad” religion, supporting those who advocate good religion (i.e., those parts of religion that encourage good works and peace and justice) and joining with them to marginalize those who advocate “bad” religion (i.e., who use religion divisively, to murderous ends, to fight against social justice, or to create and impose a religion-based political agenda on everyone.)
It is a good question deserving of a thoughtful answer, which you are unlikely to find here. But I’ll give it my best shot anyway.
Should religion be discouraged along the lines advocated by these books, by pointing out that evidence for god’s existence does not rise above the level of evidence for fairies and unicorns, highlighting the many evils done in religion’s name, and urging people to abandon religious beliefs because they violate science and basic common sense? Or should we continue to act as if it were a reasonable thing to believe in the existence of god, thereby tacitly encouraging its continuance? Or should religion be simply ignored? The answer depends on whether one views religion as an overall negative, positive, or neutral influence in society.
If you believe, as atheists do, that the whole edifice of religion exists on the false premise that god exists, then it seems logical to seek to eliminate religion. As believers in the benefits of rationality, we should try to eliminate false knowledge since nothing is gained by having people wallow in delusion. In fact, there is much to be gained by eliminating belief in the supernatural since that is the gateway to, and the breeding ground for, all manner of superstition, quackery, and downright fraud perpetrated on the gullible by those who claim to have supernatural powers or direct contact with god. I offer TV evangelists as evidence, but the list can be extended to astrologers, psychics, faith healers, spoon benders, mind readers, etc.
Those atheists who argue against doing this and favor the other two options (tacit support or ignoring) usually posit two arguments. The first point is really one of political strategy: that by criticizing religion is general we are alienating a large segment of people and that what we should preferably do is to ally ourselves with “good” religion (inclusive, tolerant, socially conscious) so that we can more effectively counter those who profess “bad” religion (exclusive, intolerant, murderous). The second is that religion, even if false, can also be a force for good as evidenced by the various religious social justice movements that have periodically emerged.
I have touched on the counterarguments to the first point earlier and will revisit it later. As to the second point, that religion can be justified on the basis that even if not true it provides other benefits that make it worthwhile, discussions around this issue usually tend to go in two directions: comparisons of the actions of “good” religious people versus that of “bad” religious people, or comparisons of the actions of religious people with that of nonreligious people. But such discussions are not fruitful because they cannot be quantified or otherwise made more concrete and conclusive.
I prefer to argue against the second point differently by pointing out that every benefit claimed for religion can just as well be provided by other institutions: Provides a sense of community? So do many other social groups. Do charitable works? So do secular charities. Work for social justice? So do political groups. Provide comfort and reassurance? So do friendships and even therapy. Provide a sense of personal meaning? So does science and philosophy. Provide a basis of morality and values? It has long been established that morals and values are antecedent to and independent of religion. (Does anyone seriously think that it was considered acceptable to murder before the Ten Commandments appeared?)
Now it is true (as was pointed out by commenter Cindy to a previous post) that religious institutions do provide a kind of ready-made, one-stop shop for many of these things and new institutions may have to come into being to replace them. Traditional groups like Rotary clubs and Elk and Moose Lodges, that mix community with social service, may be the closest existing things that serve the same purpose. The demise of religion may see the revival of those faltering groups as substitutes. Some countries have social clubs that people belong to that, unlike in the US, are not the preserve of only the very wealthy. England has the local pub that provides a sense of community to a neighborhood and where people drop in on evenings not just to drink but to meet and chat with friends, play games, and eat meals. The US has, unfortunately, no equivalent of the local pub. Bars do not have the family atmosphere that most pubs do, though coffee shops may evolve to serve this purpose. It may be that it is the easy convenience of religious institutions that inhibit people from putting in the effort to find alternative institutions that can give them the cultural and social benefits of religion without the negative of having to subscribe to an irrational belief.
I cannot think of a single benefit that is claimed for religion that could not be provided by other institutions. Meanwhile, the negatives of religion are unique to it. We see this in the murderous rampages that have been carried out over thousands of years by religious fanatics in dutiful obedience to what they thought was the will of god. I am not saying that getting rid of religion will get rid of all evil. But it will definitely remove one important source of it. The French philosopher and author Voltaire (1694-1778) had little doubt that religion was a negative influence and that we would be better off without it. He said: “Which is more dangerous: fanaticism or atheism? Fanaticism is certainly a thousand times more deadly; for atheism inspires no bloody passion whereas fanaticism does; atheism is opposed to crime and fanaticism causes crimes to be committed.”
While the evils done in the name of religion are often dismissed as aberrations by religious apologists, they actually arise quite naturally from the very basis of religion. When you believe that god exists and has a plan for you, the natural next step is to wonder what that plan is, what god wants you to do. To answer this, most people look to religious leaders and texts for guidance. As political and religious leaders discovered long ago, it is very easy to persuade people to believe that god expects them to do things that, without the sanction of religion, would be considered outrageously evil or simply crazy. (As an example of the latter, recall the thirty nine members of the Heaven’s Gate sect who were persuaded to commit suicide so that their souls could get a ride on the spaceship carrying Jesus that was behind the Hale-Bopp comet that passed by the Earth in 1997.)
The belief that god is solidly behind you and will reward you for obeying him has been shown to overcome almost any moral scruples or inhibitions concerning committing acts that would otherwise be considered unspeakable. The historical examples of such behavior are so numerous and well known that I will not bother even listing them here but just look at some of the major flashpoints in the world today, where the conflicts (even if other factors are at play) are undoubtedly inflamed by perceptions that people are acting on behalf of their god: the vicious cycle of killings in Iraq between the Shia and Sunni, between Israelis and Palestinians, between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland (now thankfully abating), and between Hindus and Muslim in India.
Just recently, certain Islamic groups have called for the death of a Swedish cartoonist who is supposed to have drawn a cartoon disrespectful to Islam. This is yet another example of how religion seems to destroy people’s basic reasoning skills because for some religious people, it seems perfectly reasonable that they have to fight and kill to defend their god’s honor.
The obvious response to this call to avenge god by killing the cartoonist is to point out how absurd it is that humans think they have to protect their god’s interests by fighting and killing people. Do such believers think that god is some kind of mobster boss who has to have goons to carry out his wishes? Pointing this out would reveal the impotence of god and ultimately the absurdity of the idea of god. After all, any rational person should be able to see that if their god has the abilities they ascribe to him, he should be quite capable of taking care of himself. He can not only kill the offending cartoonist but even wipe the entire country of Sweden off the map to drive the lesson home that he will not be trifled with.
But our ‘respect for religion’ attitude prevents us from pointing out such an obvious truth, because it gets too uncomfortably close to revealing the absurdity of the underlying premise of religion. So instead what happens is some theologian is trotted out who argues that what their religious book is ‘really’ saying is that it is wrong to kill, despite the existence of other passages in the same religious books that have been used to argue to the contrary. And so we end up with yet another dreary debate between the so-called ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ about what god is ‘really’ like and what he ‘really’ wants from us.
This is why religion is bad. Not only is it false, it is dangerously false. Believing in such a false idea requires people to abandon rational thinking and makes even murderous intentions seem noble to them. If, as I argue, all the claimed benefits of religion can be provided by other institutions, and it has negatives that are solely its own creation, then it is hard to see what utility religion has that makes it worth preserving. I think that the conclusion is quite clear. The best selling atheist authors are, in the long run, doing us all a favor by directly confronting religion and showing that we would all be better off without it.
Next: Why can’t we all get along?
POST SCRIPT: Silly talk shows
The Daily Show reminds me again why I long ago stopped watching the political analysis shows on TV.
John, you and mano miss my points a good deal.
1: Of coruse no one kills “int he name of Ahtiesm”. But no oen kilsl int he name of theism either.
Atheism is not the oposite of religion, and merely saying “I beleive in God” is not equel to tellign tyou what religion I am. ( Nor is beign an Athiest proof of lack of religion.)
But Atheistic Ideologies have proven to be far mroe dangerous, and Mano’s caracaturisations of rleigion as universlaly evil, because htye hinder resosn and lead to extremism, lifted formt he pages of Harris and Dawkins, is ismply a false argument.
Everythign van be used for evil. Sicnece can be sued for evil. Politics can be used for evil. Anothe rpsoter said love can be.
Simpe beleif in God has never motivated anyoen to kill anyoen else either. its always correlary beelifs, just as with COmmunism.
Thats the poitn I am making. Mano seems to argue that ” if they think its gods will” peopel will do violence therefore rleigion is evil. But thats just stupid. One won’t be rid of brutality by ridding the world of theism.
As neither Atheism on tis own nor Theism on its own has ever been direclty respoincible for anyoens deaths.
ITs the same point.
But Mano’s arguments focus oly on the evil doen int he name of religion so as to create a fasle picutre and he doesnt study th ehumanity behidn it. ANy mor ehtna he studies what rleigion is when he suggests things like rotary clubs can fill the void of we got rid of rleigion.
His argumetns are simply excuses to be rid of relgiion,and not rational int he slightest.
This is the sort of arrogant posting that I am talkign about.
I’ve alreayd poitne dout the disdaneful use of spellign god in th elower case, which is not only rude, btu a violation of proper grammer just to shwo contempt for somehtign you say doesnt exist. (No, it snot “a genetic” when used as a spacific beong.)
But declaring “Religion” as “Obviously false” and dangerous is simply a mean of creatign a false image of “religion” ( Here actulaly theism, as rligion isnt ‘beleif in an interventionsist god”) as somehow dangerous to justify a hatred of it.
The truth is, Religion is not really the problem. Everyone has a religion, even those who critisse religion. Sam Harris has a religion. RIchard Dawlisn has a eligion. Een Mano SIngham has a rleigion.
Religion is simply the worldview one adopts, and nothign more.
That said, isn’t the claim that “Beleif that god is behidn you makes you do bad things” a rather shallow, and ppointedly absurd argument? Can’t one argue the same thign abotu Athiesm? THat the lack of beelif in God makes one immoral, simply because one no longer has any real basis for morality, and cna justify th emost heinous of acts?
Atheists complain about that argument, as the argument basiclaly says one cannot be moral without beleif in God, since God is the basis of morality.
Yet, somehow its logical to make he reverse claim, that beleif in God undermines morality?
Just because you can cite examples to suit your agenda, such as SUicide Bombings and the Ismalic Cartoon scandal, doens’t mean that “Religion” is universlaly a motivator for heinous acts.
Most Humanitarian acts are, in fact, motivvate dby Religious beleifs. Fromt he Red Cross to the Salvation Army tot he Meals on Wheels programme to Alcaholics Annonymous.
Before you claim that other insitutions can do the same, keep in mind that the religious institutions nevertheless actulaly have a better track record of both optianign cvolunteer work, and for atual success.
On the other hand, ignorign this, and focusing only on Suicide Bombings and other problems form the Middle East ( and ignoring, copnsequently, the enture cultural and political situation that greatly contributes) is simply unjustified.
Yoru basiclaly arguign that beleif in God only brigns abotu bad things, and that any good things doen int he name of God can be jhandled elsewhere. Cant the bad done int h name of God, though, be done int he name of other institutions? Hans’t the Soviet Union rpven this? What about Timothy McViegh? He was Agnostic.
Coem now, blaing all the worlds evil on beleif in God, or vlaimign beleif in God makes osmeone mroe violent and does no good, si simply the hight of arrogancy, and is as bigoted and morinic as any claim you make agaisnt religion itsself.
WOuld violence relay be mroe tolerable if doen in the name of the state, or Humanity?
Incedentlaly, Voltaire didn’t live to see the Fanatisism of the Soviet Union, which was openly Atheistic, or Red China, or North Korea.
DO you think Fanatisism is limited to “Religion”?
Do you really think that simply focising on the bad, and ignorign the good, done by rleigion is logical? ( And no, the bad does not outwigh the good.) DO you really think that tryign to only focus on what proves your point is sicnetific?
Atheists are capable of torture, vioence, crime, and meyham.
rid the word of religion ( as you narrowly deifne it) and you do not make the world a better place. Actualy you’d make it worse, as repeated clinical studies shwo rleigion to be a stabilising factor in peopels lives.
Incedentlaly, your argument abotu Antecedant morality is also a rather poor presentation. You do realise that rleigion and mroality are inexcerabley bound, and stem form he same source, right? Religion exists to identify morality, as wlel as to identify meaning and prupose, and to explain the world aroudn you. Morlaity exists as a set of behavioural patters that int he end are part of religion.
( And no, they arent Antecedant to Natural law, or basic understanding of the world.)
Clearly religion (using the narrow sense of “major organized religions”) can be a motivation for good, as you note. But it has also been used as a motivation for acts of evil, as in the examples that Mano writes about.
I am not aware of cases where atheism (in the sense of “lack of belief in god or gods”) is the motivation for either good or evil. Surely there are good atheists, just as surely as there have been very brutal states that have promoted official athesism. But it doesn’t seem that atheism was the motivation for the brutality, but just a corollary to a philosophy (communism, juche, etc.) that justified the authoritarian state. If I am wrong, please point me to examples where lack of belief in a god is the direct cause for evil.
I don’t believe in love. I see no proof of it in the lab. The troublesome part is I can’t prove that it doesn’t exist either.
Now people tell me about love all the time. How it changed their life. How they are a better person because of it. How they know the minute that love entered their life and they were completely converted by love.
I read in the paper ever day about how people are killed because of love. Recently an off duty police officer killed 7 because an ex-lover called him a name. Clearly, this ‘love’ affected his rational thinking abilities. No one not in love would kill someone over being called a name.
We know of wars caused by people in love. Children have their lives changed because of parents who once were in love now deny that love and argue and fight and now provide unhealthy environments for their children.
Yet, the love parade persists. We have love based holidays. Valentines day, Sweetest day, and entire industries devoted to this love phenom. Africans are enslaved and children tortured because of the diamond industry which exists totally because of this ‘love’ hype. Let’s be clear, ‘love’ kills thousands every single day.
I’m going to actively start attacking this false idea of love. When I see a married couple at a dinner party I’m going to tell them how irrational they must be.
I’m going to protest any teachings of love in the classroom. I will not let my child’s teacher allow her students to pass out Valentine’s Day cards. There will be no holding hands in the high school.
At the end of the day we will be better to be rid of this blindness caused by this false idea of love. Love does not exist. Get over it.
Scientists have actually shown that love exists in a lab. They’ve compared the brain scans of 2 people in love vs. 2 people not in love.
Love is a testable hypothesis.
Although I doubt you’d see it that way on a Hallmark card…
Funny story. Deep brain scans reveal parts of the brain under intense activity when nun’s are in deep prayer. Is not it a bummer when a counter argument is countered, and the whole point of the discussion is obscured.
It is funny to watch the pattern of American Culture. All of a sudden it is hip to be an atheist.
People are “coming out of the woodwork” now.
Lot’s of people are going to write books and make a lot of money off of the same feeble minded sheep who bought into Y2K, Diet Fads, “I support the troops but not the war”, the Green movement and so on. Can anybody think for themselves?
For example. Nobody cared about global warming or alternative fuel until very recently. Now thanks to web 2.0 and Al Gore, everyone is a crusading climate expert with a blackberry and 3 marriages.
Or mac culture and hybrid cars, where people sit and stew in self aggrandizing glory because of their posited superiority; not aware of the facts. (Most hybrid cars’ core battery causes more damage to the earth than the amount of CO2 an average car emits during its lifetime. But who cares, Al Gore did not talk about chemical pollution in his film. Mac’s being notoriously buggy, but otherwise an alright computing platform. But at the end of the day, its still just a computer, and you can’t figure out how to configure POP3 yet. No Unix touting privileges for you)
I guess my point is that who really cares.
I understand that many regard this sentiment as submissive apathy, but lets be honest.
How much time do we waste being told what to believe by other people? This question and entire comment I am making is exquisitely recursive. Carrol would be proud. But really, lets assume all prophets were actually maniacs or sly con men. They simply influenced people to believe in a certain religion.
Funny story, I was reading this blog by this guy named Mano who was influencing people to believe in this one religion.
Lastly, please never use the argument that “so and so ” never hurt anyone so it is superior to something else (Something with a frightful history of human massacre). Whether you are an atheist or not, this idea should be received with horror.
Let us develop affinity for complete mental autonomy and passive thought while culture and free thought decline a little more.
This is not a god no-god issue at all. You know why? Because it does not matter. We all die, and I do not believe that removing god with improve anything. Fact or fiction, it keeps people in line. Working on the same rudimentary principals as our judicial system in terms of imprisonment.
So it is really a waste of time trying to bum everybody out when you might as well enjoy life and believe what you want. I would be willing to make the wager, and my name isn’t even Pascal.
This is one of your more satisfying posts on this topic recently.
Thanks very much!
You acknowledge the “one stop” value of the local religious
institution. I might offer that these are not always simply an
unrelated collection of benefits. An effective religious institution
usually also strives to make connections in meaning between all of
these things. For some, there is a coherence between the activities
of supporting others, giving to the poor, working for social justice,
and meeting together to share in that experience. This means that,
for some, there is an additional benefit that is more than the sum of
But I also agree that in principle it is true that some of these
benefits — may even all of them — can be obtained from other groups
or activities or programs. But if the demand for such non-religious
groups would be out there, one might think that such groups would be
growing. Supply and demand, market economy and all. Hmmm. I do not
see it. But perhaps this will change in the future.
While I agree that the benefits of belonging to religious
organizations might be met through non-religious means, I do not
understand you claim that the negatives of religion are unique. In
particular I am puzzled by your example. Yes, there have been
murderous rampages that are motivated my religion, but murderous
rampages are motivated by many non-religious ideas. How is this
unique? In fact I might make an inverse statement — there is no
negative aspect of any religious perspective that has not been
generated by some other group, organization, government, etc. Murder,
fanaticism, genocide, oppression, etc. Seems to me religion has no
corner on this market, either.
We’ve been over this before, but I think this idea that you introduce
at the end that religious people must “abandon rationality” is rather
uncompelling. You’ve never really offered any evidence to support such
a claim, or at least none that I feel is very persuasive. Where are
all of these people who are now pitching rationality out the window
because of their religion? A persons religious views do not
automatically influence their application of rationality within any
other sphere of inquiry. Yes, a literalist or a fundamentalist who
puts unbending dogma scientifically above verifiable scientific facts
can and should be criticized. But I do not see hoards of liberals and
moderates people making plainly irrational decisions in their lives
and in the world as a result of being influenced by religion. In
particular, I see no evidence at all to suggest that a person who is
religious more prone to making irrational decisions than a person who
is an atheist is. From my point of view atheists seem just as capable
as anyone else at abandoning rational arguments when it suits their
needs. Christopher Hitchens for example has made what I consider to
be some remarkably irrational arguments for his supporting the war in
Also: thanks also to the new posters. I want to express my
appreciation to Zar who is quite colorful in expressing some of the
frustrations I have had with some of Mano’s arguments on several
points. I would not put it in quite the same way as Zar, and I do not
agree with all of the points there, but it’s good to see some new
thoughts here. However, I would suggest that Zar do what I do —
write your post on an editor with a spell checker and then cut and
paste into the comments section.
I liked bob’s post on love…made me laugh! Thanks. Brainwaves
respond to people who claim to be having religious experiences also,
from what I have read. So brainwaves are not really supporting the
existence or non-existence anything — other than that when people are
feeling something strongly you can see this in terms the firing of
neurons in the brain.
I think Mano writes some of the most interesting and thoughtful ideas
on these subjects — but for me the site is much more interesting if
there are also people here willing to post regarding which ideas they
find persuasive and which ones they do not and why. So please keep
posting those comments.
Maybe “unique to it” was not the best choice of words. What was meant was that religion can be the source of many good things and of many bad things. If we get rid of religion, we lose both. But we can obtain every good thing lost by other means and other institutions, so the net result is that we need only lose the bad things.
Also, I have made the distinction in the past that the useful distinction is between rational and irrational beliefs and not between rational and irrational people. Nobody is purely rational. Everyone has some irrational beliefs. But the key is to be able to recognize adn accept that they are irrational and work to eliminate them.
(See also this post.)
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite.” William Blake
Not a rational belief (where’s the evidence?), but I like it. My reaction? Not rational, but I value it.
All irrational (i.e., non-rational) beliefs are not dangerous. Some are even helpful.
Belief in a Higher Power helps people recover from addictions. I aspire to be more like Bishop Tutu and dozens of other religious people I know. They have something. I believe that something derives from their irrational beliefs. Loving your enemy, for instance — not at all rational. The father’s welcoming back of the Prodigal Son — not at all rational. But ok by me.
TO correct my spelling and make the point better:
Of course no one kills in the name of Atheism. But no one kills in the name of theism either. This is the logical flaw to Mano’s argument, as well as other show use this line of reasoning. They postulate Atheism as a separate Philosophy, and in opposition to religion.
Not all religions believe in God, though, and Atheism is not the opposite of religion.
That said, no one has ever killed in the name of theism. No one has ever killed in the name of beleiving God exists.
John, you said it was corollary beliefs that lead to the brutality. Can’t the same be said of any religiously slaughter?
Do you really think the Inquisition only happened because people believed God existed?
Saying “Atheism didn’t cause this all on its own” doesn’t prove my point invalid, but strengthens it.
No one is “Simply” an Atheist. They have other beliefs related to their atheism. No one is “Simply” a theist, they have other beliefs too.
and no one can trace any evil deed to mere Atheism, but no one can trace evil deeds to mere theism either.
The fact remains though that the Sovidet Ideology was Starkly Atheistic. Mano’s argument is that Religion causes an increase in the probability of VIolence, base don a rather bizzarre charecterisaiton of what belivers in God are like, completley ignroes both the realitys of Human nature and the lessons from History in regards both to the actual causes of hostility and to Atheistic regemes. Atheism has never ended violence whenever it wa simposed, even if Atheism in and of itsself was not the sole factor int he brutality. (Just as beleiving in Gods existance was never the sole factor in any attrocity ever commited.)
My point is not to say that Atheism in and of itself leads ot barbarianism, but that Atheim is not the soluiton to cruelty in the world. If men do not kill in the name of religion, they will kill in the name of something else.
One also has to queasiton why Mano thinks religion woudl lead ot Brutality base don a poor sampling of history , that ignroes societal and political factors. Given that nothign directly links religious beelif to slaughter in his post, one truely miust notice this.
In fact, studies have repeateldy shown that the more religiously invovled a person is, the less likely to commit violent crimes that person is, in the ocntext of the western world. THis contradictd Mano’s premise.
The religion actually acts as a mean to stabilise his life and Impart Values. And no, Mano is wrong, you can’t replace religion with Roati clubs. Religion doesn’t just serve social needs, it acutlaly exists to impart values and to shape charecter.
And if you rid the world of it, such thinks as the SOviet Union will fill the void by having everyone simply follow the state, or somethign ese will.
People need structure, and a comprehensive way to understand the world around them, and this is what Rleigion provides. SOcial clubs don’t. Nor does anything else.
Alan Durbin says
I feel bad for those that beleive there is no God. I also feel sad for those who are under the thumb of any church or religion. Did you know that McDonalds Corp. is the second largest landowner in the world? The first is the Catholic Church! Organized religion is dangerous for many of the reasons you pointed out and also for the reason that the bible says the Anti-Christ will come from within the Church (Pope). I guess we will all find out who’s right someday…eh? Just better hope whatever you beleive is correct!
being an atheist myself i still find it hard to believe that people buy into religion. the perfect example through Christianity is william the 6th, who knocked off the church to get rid of his wife.
Organized religion is intermediary between the supernatural and natural. Supernatural is somewhat of a misnomer because all that exists exists within nature.
Extending the point that it wasn’t right to murder even before the 10 commandments, where does the concept of right and wrong originate. Locke’s utilitarian perspective of justice fails to explain the existence of “right and wrong” in uncivilized primitive societies.