Monday Meslier: 159 – Refutation of the Argument That the Evils Attributed to Religion Are But the Sad Effects of the Passions of Men


Jean Meslier Portrait

Jean Meslier

When we complain about the violence and evils which generally religion causes upon earth, we are answered at once, that these excesses are not due to religion, but that they are the sad effect of men’s passions. I would ask, however, what unchained these passions? It is evidently religion; it is a zeal which renders inhuman, and which serves to cover the greatest infamy.

Do not these disorders prove that religion, instead of restraining the passions of men, does but cover them with a cloak that sanctifies them; and that nothing would be more beneficial than to tear away this sacred cloak of which men make such a bad use? What horrors would be banished from society, if the wicked were deprived of a pretext so plausible for disturbing it!

Instead of cherishing peace among men, the priests stirred up hatred and strife. They pleaded their conscience, and pretended to have received from Heaven the right to be quarrelsome, turbulent, and rebellious. Do not the ministers of God consider themselves to be wronged, do they not pretend that His Divine Majesty is injured every time that the sovereigns have the temerity to try to prevent them from doing injury? The priests resemble that irritable woman, who cried out fire! murder! assassins! while her husband was holding her hands to prevent her from beating him.

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I don’t agree with Meslier, for once!!

Meslier’s argument is that religion is the trigger that unleashes hatred and strife – but what put that hatred there before it was unleashed? The relationship between religion-as-incitement and religion-as-social-control is complicated and I don’t think it’s as easy to pick apart as Meslier tries to do. Eventually, I need to do a separate posting on this, I can see. It’s popular in the atheoskeptical community (and among Trump supporters!) to call islam a religion of hate but – is it? Perhaps it’s the faith of many hate-filled people, and perhaps it’s the contextualizing trigger for releasing that hatred: but what put that hatred there?  As I’ve argued in other postings, causality is more complicated than we can understand – we can’t just point at one of the infinity of causes of a situation and say, “it was this thing that caused it.”

Comments

  1. cvoinescu says

    Meslier’s stance is too black-or-white on this, I agree. However, there’s a lot to be said for religion as enabler and even inciter of hatred of “other”. At the very least, many religions push the Overton window in a direction where the hate-filled people seem less abhorrent, or perhaps even commendable for their righteous zeal. This normalization of evil alone is a great evil.

    I do have a caveat, though. I believe what I said above, but I can not support it with much evidence. We lack control groups: we don’t really know whether non-religious people, given time and a society where they are the main (or only) force, would not also develop hateful and bigoted ways to the same extent. It certainly seems religion is a major factor, and I think many of us believe that and really want it to be true, but, thinking honestly, while religion-causes-much-evil may be a plausible working hypothesis, the confounding factors are myriad, and “more research is needed”.

  2. bmiller says

    I agree with Marcus. Religion is not some outside force that acts independently on human beings and “causes” things. Religion is a meme, an element of culture used by actual living breathing human beings to justify things they already want to do. It is also a tool, a mechanism, again used by human beings, for social control by families, tribes, and the State.

    I think it is almost impossible to separate out “religion” from culture, prejudice, habit, family environment, etc. It would be similar to saying “that machine gun killed that group of villagers”. Sure, it provide done mechanism for the murder, but there are others. Just like “faith in The Party” led to some horrific murders in purportedly atheistic communist states. The Cultural Revolution was not conventionally religious, but it killed and destroyed.

  3. says

    cvoinescu@#1:
    However, there’s a lot to be said for religion as enabler and even inciter of hatred of “other”. At the very least, many religions push the Overton window in a direction where the hate-filled people seem less abhorrent, or perhaps even commendable for their righteous zeal. This normalization of evil alone is a great evil.

    Well said. I agree.

    However – and here’s where it’s tricky – how do we break apart how much it’s religion’s fault and how much it’s politics’ fault? I don’t know how to do that and I don’t think anyone can. But, as you say, sometimes religion is inciting the trouble, and other times it’s used as the justification for trouble. Sometimes it’s the religious leaders that start the pogroms and other times it’s the politicians. My approach is to distrust them both and to try to understand the relationship between those two. I’ve got a mental note to do a posting on that dynamic and how I navigate it, I don’t know when I’ll get time to write it up.

    We lack control groups: we don’t really know whether non-religious people, given time and a society where they are the main (or only) force, would not also develop hateful and bigoted ways to the same extent.

    Exactly.
    I’ve heard people blame racism on religion. But is it really religion’s fault? What if we’ve got that completely backwards? Like you, I cannot conceive of an experiment that would allow us to tease those apart. (I’m not a fan of the ‘social sciences’ for reasons like that)

    I’m familiar with Atran’s work and I think it’s interesting but it’s typical interview-and-assume analysis. I love reading that sort of thing but I can’t take it seriously because it seems to me to be a lot of self-selected sampling and extrapolating from very limited (and possibly false) information. If you enjoyed Atran’s work, you might enjoy Richard Rhodes’ “Why they kill” which is thought-provoking but has the same underlying problem: you can’t ask a psychopath “why did you do it?” and then treat their answer as evidence of anything.

  4. says

    bmiller@#3:
    The Cultural Revolution was not conventionally religious, but it killed and destroyed.

    Christopher Hitchens would pop up right around now and say (if he could) that the Cultural Revolution had many of the properties of religion — unwarranted faith in beliefs that were really unfounded, i.e.: “if we wish to be an industrial power, we will be!” When Hitch used to say that (he said it about Stalinism and Lysenkoism) he was attempting to smear bad political ideas by likening them to religion. That’s where I part company with him on that issue: I’m comfortable saying “unwarranted enthusiasm about unfounded beliefs can lead to disaster” and I lump religion and politics together as unfounded beliefs. Faith in the state and faith in god, to me, are equally ridiculous.

    “that machine gun killed that group of villagers”

    … and then we get back to causality. “NO! it was the bullets that killed them!”
    “NO! it was the holes!”
    “NO! it was the damage..”
    Attributing the cause is impossible for me – scaling back, was it the political leader who created the situation, or the political leaders’ faith, or the political leaders’ spiritual advisor…. ad infinitum?

  5. bmiller says

    Marcus: Good points! (I would agree that doctrinaire Marxism shares many attributes of a “religion” and your summary sentence makes sense.)

    I am always a little annoyed at atheists who argue that “Religion did this or religion did that” as if religion were some outside force acting on human beings. Heck, that sounds almost supernatural to me.

    I do love your blog-a different perspective on things!

  6. cvoinescu says

    Having lived through the tail end of an East European, thoroughly secular dictatorship, where religion was actively persecuted, I have one data point: racism does not seem to be caused by religion. I’m familiar with two kinds: against the unfamiliar in a homogeneous society (most people there would never see a black person in their lives, and were completely unaware of the racism of their assumptions), and a deeply ingrained, thoroughly normalized and ubiquitous racism against the Roma. That certainly predates the Communist regime, but 45 years of that did nothing to diminish the hatred. What really scares me is the sheer obliviousness (“I’m not racist, no! The Gypsies really are lazy, stinking thieves”).

    Oh, and there’s no faith in the Party — you can rule that out. The Party was almost universally hated. It was a laughingstock, the butt of many jokes. It was also feared, and membership required for career advancement in many cases. In a society where the state lied all the time about almost everything, people did not shy from becoming party members if it was merely expedient to do so. Millions did, and worried more about what their friends and family would think of them for selling out rather than about doctrine and policy. But everyone knew you had to be a member to be in certain positions. When there’s only one party and it’s conflated with the state and its institutions, being a member of said party has nothing to do with politics or beliefs.

  7. MG says

    I don’t believe Ideology is what motivates people. It’s what justifies us. .Too many people who do radically different things good and bad, claim the same religious or political justification. If they all are hearing the same higher power, why the different behaviors?
    Why are some christians in the US bigots, and some not? I think the follower has to be predisposed to certain beliefs, before they read a sentence in the bible and decide slavery is good or women have no right to speak out to men. Remember we are talking about ideology, which by definition does not map on to reality well: Supernatural gods, markets with invisible hands, workers socialist paradises, etc. I don’t think the cronies on wall st. believe in the “free market” any more than the party bosses in China believe in the rule of the workers. What we do is who we are, not what we say we goes on in our heads to justify it. It’s interesting both of these groups which claim different ideologies behave the same way, getting more power and money for themselves while keeping the rest of us in our place.
    Atran’s work is right on. Anybody who went in the military as a 18 YO like I did knows how badly a lot young men and boys need approval and a sense of belonging.to some higher cause or culture they respect. If they feel isolated or frustrated they are likely to reach out to whatever army will take them and make them feel special. The actual religion or belief system doesn’t matter much. Atran actually talks to these people on their own turf and I think that’s what a good researcher should do.
    As a practical matter, we should hold each other to account for our actions, not our claims.about some “cosmic debris”.
    (I stole “cosmic debris” from Frank Zappa, great phrase)

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