Monday, October 27, 2008

Asymetric Beliefs about Good, Evil, and Religion

I made a response to a comment to my previous blog that I think deserves more development.

I argued that California’s Proposition 8, which would ban homosexual marriage, provided an example of people claiming to do harm to others because God told them to. Then, I was asked to look into the prospect that an atheist can also oppose Proposition 8, and be opposed to gay marriage completely. The answer points to an asymmetry in the way some atheists look at the relationship between morality and religion.

On the one hand, we hear that religion is the source of a lot of evil. From this, people draw the conclusion that if get rid of religion, we can get rid of this source of a great deal of evil.

On the other hand, we are told that religion is not the source of much good. The impulse to do good comes from another source (typically, I hear it argued, from our genes). Atheists also have access to this ‘other source’ of good, so it is not only possible but common that a person can be good without religion. If we get rid of religion, this will leave the amount of goodness in the world untouched

I do not see any basis for this asymmetry other than the fact that it has emotional appeal for somebody who already hates religion and is looking for an excuse to attack it.

The fact of the matter is that both good and evil come from other sources. Kindness, charity, parental affection, all come from other sources. Then they get written into the religion. Atheists have the same access to this source of kindness, charity, and parental affection as theists have, and are capable of being just as good as theists.

Similarly, hatred, bigotry, the disposition to divide the world into “we” and “they” and to attack ‘they’ groups violently also come from another source. They then get written into the religion. Atheists have the same access to these sources of hatred, bigory, and injustice as the theists have, and are capable of being just as evil as theists.

The point is easy enough to prove. Everything in religion is made up. It was created by humans from “another source” and then written into the religion. The forces that caused people to select “this religion” or “that religion” have no divine origin. They are natural human processes – at much at work in the brains of the atheist as in the brains of theists.

Otherwise, this evil would not have been invented and, as such, would never have found its way into scripture. It had to come from somewhere, and none of it – none of the good and none of the evil – ever came from God. It all came from some other source.

Which means that you can’t fight evil by fighting religion. The other source of evil will still exist, and will still drive evil, even without religion – just as it will continue to drive good, even without religion.

Having said this, one of the roles that religion plays in morality is as a way of rationalizing unjustifiable actions. It provides a way of giving an illusion of legitimacy to actions that cannot be justified outside of an appeal to religion.

This is different from saying that evil comes from religion. The evil does not come from religion – that evil comes from someplace else. However, insofar as these dispositions are evil, they seek some form of justification. An appeal to religion is a particularly useful form of justification (at least within our current culture) because an assertion that “God wants this” is not subject to any further proof or justification. We are supposed to take the word of the person who advocates something harmful on faith – without asking too many questions – without, in fact, asking any questions at all.

This role of giving something the appearance of legitimacy actually applies to good and evil both. Depending on the moral character of the person who is inventing any given religion, that person will often use religion to give legitimacy to anything he seeks to promote – regardless of whether he promotes good or evil. Good and evil people both can and do make appeals to religion as a way of convincing people that what they want is what God wants. The good person just happens to want what is right (and, consequently, so does his god). The evil person wants that which is wrong (and, consequently, so does his god).

However, only the evil person needs religion.

The good person can use the fact that he is promoting something that people generally have reason to promote to demonstrate the legitimacy of his morality outside of religion. The good person can defend honesty, charity, kindness, responsibility, liberty, and the like without appeal to religion. He may choose not to. He may not actually believe that he can do this. However, he can. The requirement for something to be good is that it be something that can be justified by appeal to the reasons that people have for promoting it, which does not depend on any religion.

The evil person, on the other hand, has no legitimate place to turn to justify what he seeks to promote. He needs the illusion of legitimacy, and religion provides a very useful illusion. Once he assigns his prejudice to religion, he can then stop anybody from asking any further questions about the legitimacy of his moral claims. He only needs to say, “God wants it this way; and that is something you must accept on faith, without asking any questions.”

It is a very useful way of arguing, if you can only get your audience to go along with it – to claim that the harms that others will suffer as a result of adopting the speaker’s moral attitudes needs no justification or defense – that it is to be taken on faith.

Yet, it is still the case that these prejudices and unjustified moral attitudes do not come from religion or god. Prejudices cause people to believe absurd things and to think them profound. Some people accept the absurdities of religion. Some people accept blatant contradictions like thinking that evil must come from religion and be reduced by reducing religion, while good must come from some other source and can live without religion.


anticant said...

Religion gives a great many people a jolly good excuse for doing evil in the name of their 'God'.

anton said...


In a nutshell!!!

Martin Freedman said...

This looks like a specific informal fallacy - obviously based on others as you noted - that we could call it "Argument From Religion". So religion is not the root of all evil - another fallacious claim - but the argument from religion is an all too popular fallacy to justify unwarranted bad acts and evil. So getting rid of religion - not that I am suggesting it nor whether it is feasible - would not remove nor reduce evil but would remove an unwarranted justification for evil.

Still I feel I am missing something, lets use the clearest recent egregious examples such as the 11th September attacks and the London/Madrid bombings. Surely these were directly due to specific interpretations of the Koran. I know the specific interpretation is outside that text and that other exogenous non-religious factors contributed obviously but these acts were done specifically in the name of Allah and Islam hence religion was - or at least this sectarian version was - the direct cause, however mistaken, of those acts. Am I making myself clear?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Yes, "getting rid of religion" would eliminate an avenue that people can use for illicit justifications for bad actions. However, people who can convince themselves to accept absurd religious propositions can convince themselves to accept absurd non-religious propositions. I suspect that substitute false belief systems can very easily replace religion, so there will be no great advantage.

I agree that religion mutually reinforces the bad acts that they help to justify. Once evil intentions are written into a religion, that religion can then be used to promote evil intentions. However, on the issue of symmetry, it also follows that good intentions written into a religion can then be used to promote good intentions.

To whatever degree we hold that religion was responsible for evil such as 9/11, inquisitions, jihads, and the like, we need to hold that religion is equally responsible for good, such as charitable work, building hospitals, and caring for the wounded.

This does not imply that religion does equal amounts of good and evil. It simply says that if there are mechanisms in play whereby it makes sense to say that religion is responsible for evil, then there are mechanisms in play for saying that religion is responsible for good - unless one can come up with an argument in defense of some sort of asymmetry.

Anonymous said...

There is a positive correlation between goodness and truth, between morality and rationality. Introduce irrationality into your ethos or ethical reasoning and you can arrive at bad prescriptions for acting or, if you will, at bad desires, i.e. desires that when acted upon thwart other desires.

Religion requires of its adherents a certain degree of suspension of rationality ("leap of faith"). This is the root of the asymmetry of evil and good in religion:
"A good man will do good deeds, a bad man will do bad deeds, it takes religion to make a good man do bad deeds." - Steven Weinberg

I dare to dispute that other than the rare freak occurrence a bad man would be moved to do good deeds because of religion.


Martin Freedman said...


Did you not make an argument very recently that it does not matter how much religion does good, that still does not justify nor excuse the harm it also does? I agreed with that, the issue here is not that to the degree religion could be the cause of harm, it can also be the cause of help, it is that if it, let us call it "the mechanism", can cause harm, regardless of how much help it could otherwise do, and the lack of such a mechanism reduces harm in the world, then we have reason to demote this mechanism?

Now we may not be able to eliminate the mechanism and there may be non-religious instantiations of such a mechanism, extremes such as communism and fascism spring to mind (although this makes me think they are quasi-religions) but that does not alter the facts that some instantiations may be worse than others, and some of these more egregious versions are specifically religious.

I also largely agree with Heisenberg76 although I would not quite have put it his way. Other mechanisms such as the promotion of faith and promotion of the myth of "faith is a virtue" can also be used to cause harm or help. I think you are confusing two related but different mechanisms.

Now any religion, even nontheistic religions such as Zen Buddhism can be used to promote bigotry, hatred and worse e.g. D.T Suzuki's support for an extremely violent version of Japanese imperialist ambitions. Many are surprised to hear this implying, correctly I think, that some religions have built-in features that make them more easily to adapt to doing harm than others. Any unbiased examination of the The Koran and the Bible versus most authoritative (they do not have sacred) Buddhist texts would show this. In other words there are some instantiations that are worse than others and if we cannot eliminate the underlying mechanism because it will always have some appeal to some people we can at least try and mitigate its effects by demoting, criticising and condemning the worst instantiations of this.

PS I humbly suggest you switch to the "embedded below post" radio button in your Admin->Settings->Comments->"Comment placement" radio selection. It only takes a minute and should work straight off with your blog.

Anonymous said...

One thing about religion is that, well, it tends to be very difficult to change; if evil gets written into a religion, it often gets stuck there, gaining a weird sort of permanence that secular beliefs lack.

Coogan said...

Great point. I would assert that the evil person doesn't need to appeal to religion, either. Just some do, perhaps due to their narcissism or otherwise weak self-images. I don't know.

I've also been dissecting Proposition 8 in my blog, but I'm not trying to plug myself, specifically (though I just did--heh). I like how you approached the problem in a way that sheds light on the much larger issues of religion and god.

Good and evil don't flow from religion--they flow into religion. My ideas of good and evil originated with my parents, but they did not couch those concepts in religious terms, at all. I try to be good for reasons that have nothing to do with the threat of punishment from a god.

Anonymous said...

if evil gets written into a religion, it often gets stuck there, gaining a weird sort of permanence that secular beliefs lack.

I dunno about that. I mean, technically they may still be in the text, but no one pays it any attention. To take the religion I'm most familiar with - the bible still condones slavery, and advocates capital punishment for all sorts of minor crimes, and is strictly anti-freedom-of-religion and freedom-of-speech. Children and women are regarded almost as property. All this is still in the text, but has absolutely no effect on the culture.

anton said...

My ideas of good and evil originated with my parents.

I totally concur. I got my concepts of good and evil from my grandfather who was an avowed Atheist (certainly not from my mother or father who were basically of the evil variety). The fact that these concepts fit so nicely into a religious premise had nothing to do with religion. I found that I was, and still am, particularly appealing to the religious fraternity, some of which still insist that my values and morals came from a God. I consider their proclamations as demeaning, arrogant and self-serving! In effect, I get really pissed off when a religious type claims that my morals, creativity and inventiveness came from God and that I should be thankful to that God! YUK!!!

Martin Freedman said...

To compact my previous comment, after re-reading your post Alonzo, surely one needs to acknowledge that some religions make it easier to rationalize and pseudo-justify harms than others. Granted that some want some form of religion rather than none, we all have a reason to discourage the more egregious versions - the ones that make harms easier to justify - over others. To tortuously paraphrase Hume "One should proportion ones condemnation according to the ability to (pseudo-)justify harm"?

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