Friday, October 17, 2008

Religion and "More Harm than Good"

Today, I want to spend some time on a point that I made in yesterdays post. It is a point that relates to something I read this morning – an article that suggests that the "New Atheism" argues that religion "does more harm than good".

This question – phrased this way – contains an assumption that is, itself, morally questionable. It suggests that the way we should evaluate something is to sum up all the good that it does, then sum up the harm it does, and accept everything where the good exceeds the harm.

However, this is a nonsensical way of doing moral calculus.

It suggests that if we have something that produces (to speak abstractly) 10 units of good, that it can then produce up to, but not more than 10 units of harm without any moral objections being raised against it. If it produces 10 units of good and 9 units of harm, then it still does not do “more harm than good” – which means that it is immune from criticism according to the standards listed above.

It is easy to see why an institution that does great harm would want us to use a standard like this. It is easy to see why an institution that does great harm, and great good, would want us to simply ignore the harm that it does in virtue of the fact that it does good. However, it is still the case that a competing institution that does a little less good, but also does significantly less harm, is a better institution. The fact that the first institution passes the “less harm than good” test does not save it from this type of criticism.

Yesterday, I wrote about Proposition 8 in California to remove the right of same-sex couples to get married. This is an example of an institution motivating people to behave in ways that are harmful to others. The claim that the religious institutions in this case do good in other areas is irrelevant. It is still the case that an institution that does just as much good as these religious institutions – but which does not contaminate the good that they do with harmful actions such as these – is a better institution than one that mixes good deeds with great harm.

On this, there is the related issue that faith is a good thing – that a person ‘with faith’ is somehow better off than a person 'without faith'. This, of course, is a prejudice. A person 'with faith' is like a person living his live in an experience machine – some type of machine that makes a person believe that she is living a wonderful life when, in fact, her life is a lie.

However, even independent of this consideration, we have to question the value of faith when it is faith that somebody else deserves to be harmed. The people who are most adamantly in favor of Proposition 8 – the people who put it on the ballot and contributed millions of dollars and countless labor hours to get it passed – are mostly people of great faith. However, the institutions they have faith in are institutions that are driving them to do harm to others.

The idea that we must respect another person's faith – when that faith causes them to come at innocent people with laws that do great harm – is absurd. The person who shall be harmed by an action has a right to demand that those who do them harm actually justify their actions. "I have faith that you should be made to suffer" simply is not good enough.

There is also the question – when we consider doing harm and doing good – of the difference between prevention and response. We typically see religious institutions responding in great numbers to those who are the victims of poverty, health problems, natural disasters, and the like. We often hear the claim made that atheists seem to contribute less to these types of efforts than theists (thus concluding that theists are 'better people' than atheists.

However, when we turn our attention from the realm of response to the realm of prevention, we see a huge difference between the contributions of atheists compared to the contributions of theists.

The theist recipe for prevention is to have prayer in schools, pass laws against abortions and gay marriage, and to prevent atheists from holding public office and positions of public trust. This, to them, is the model way to prevent every type of evil from terrorist attacks to plague to hurricanes.

Actually, this follows the pattern that ancient tribes used where, when they were faced with a anything unusual and potentially harmful – from famine to a solar eclipse – respond by identifying some segment of the population that needs to be sacrificed to the gods in order to win their favor.

If you listen to people talk, Proposition 8, and similar laws and amendments around the country, are the 21st century equivalent of identifying some group of people who need to be sacrificed to the gods, so that the gods will be pleased and grant our community good fortune. It is not as brutal and bloody as the silver dagger and the blood-stained altar, but it has the unfortunate effect of doing harm to far more people.

To make matters worse, they are using the government as an instrument to force this sacrifice on others. This is not a case of people sacrificing volunteers from their own religion to appease the gods and buy their favor. This is a case of people going to the government and getting a law passed telling others, "By law, you must submit yourself to being a human a human sacrifice to our God, who will not protect us from terrorists and earthquakes unless your well-being is offered up as a sacrifice to Him."

The atheist recipe for prevention, on the other hand, is to take measurements of nature, form a hypothesis of how nature operates that best explains those observations, use that hypothesis to make predictions, test those predictions, then keep the hypothesis that makes accurate predictions and throw out or modify the hypothesis that does not.

Then, using the power of prediction that they acquire from this method, decide what the results will be of particular actions and choose the actions that will produce the best results. The scientist predicts the direction that a hurricane will take, so that the reactive elements commonly associated with a local church simply has less to react to.

When we measure the ‘charity’ of theist and atheist organizations, we typically do not count the lives saved by the science that said, 'A hurricane will hit in three days.' We tend to count the polio victims who received aid on the side of the ledger, but we do not count the people who did not get polio because biologists (with a firm understanding of genetics and the theory of evolution) never got polio, or small pox, or (some day) malaria.

Malaria, for example, will not become a thing of the past by praying to a God to get rid of it. Malaria will become a thing of the past when people put into practice the things that scientists have learned about malaria through their detailed study of the physical world.

There are those who clearly believe that religion does do more harm than good. Rather than hold that religion might do 10 units of good and 9 units of harm, they would argue that it does 1 unit of good (perhaps) and 10 units of harm.

However, for the purposes of this posting, this dispute is of little consequence. However much or how little good comes from religion, we can do better if we can get rid of the harm. We can set the question of how much good remains once the harm is removed for another day.

Religious institutions that do harm certainly have a strong motivation to get us to adopt a “more good than harm” standard. It gives them a license to do harm, so long as they can assert that there is some good elsewhere being done.

However, we have no reason to accept this standard, and many strong reasons not to. Those strong reasons not to come from the unnecessary harms that those religions want a license to commit.

It does not matter whether a particular religion does more good than harm. California's Proposition 8 is an example of certain religions doing harm. Their "good to harm" ratio of a religion is probably going to be higher for a religion that does less harm than for a religion that does more harm. That is to say, the good to harm ratio is going to favor the religion that does not motivate others to support Proposition 8 than for the religion that does.

Morally, the question of "more harm than good" or "more good than harm" turns out to be substantially irrelevant. Regardless of the current ratio of good to harm, thta ratio would be better if only those religions associated with harm would simply cut back on the harm they do.


anton said...


Great Post!!! And now if we could only get the Christians to read and heed your message. I printed out copies and slipped them under the doors of the "Fundies" in my building. I don't think they will accost me in the lobby anymore with the latest news of their "great deeds"!!!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Very good, and relatively clear post. You brought up a couple of points that I have never thought about. Best of all you made me think. Bravo.