Friday, June 14, 2013

Religion Poisons Everything?

There is a fundamental inconsistency in the way many atheists relate religion to good and bad actions.

When a theist does something bad, religion is to blame. "What do you expect? You give a person a desire to please god and a belief that god is pleased by a suicide bombing or killing apostates or some other horrendous act, and they go out and kill people. Religion poisons everything. "

When a theist does something good, this is because of our inherent good nature. Evolution has disposed us towards fairness and charity. Giving people a desire to please god and telling them that fairness and charity please god, while brutality and injustice do not, has absolutely no effect on the disposition to be kind and just."

This inconsistency not only reflects an intellectual fault, but a moral failing. This is prejudice - a disposition to prejudge theists as bad because they are theists and give them no credit for goodness, not unlike the same types of attitudes we see in some towards other population subgroups.

Consistency would see both good and evil potentially motivated either by religion or our nature.

I go with the view that dispositions towards good and evil can be found in our nature. This, of course, creates problems for the popular thesis that we can answer the question, "What is good?" by looking at our nature. It also creates problems for those who claim to have proved that nature provides us a disposition to do good - who cannot, at the same time, give us a theory of "good" that our nature is supposed to be disposing us towards.

Religion is not to blame. No god was involved in the writing of scripture. Its contents and its interpretation do not come from an external divine source that we can blame for all of our problems. Religion comes from human beings and, actually, does a good job of reporting our nature. It tells us of the moral character of the people who wrote it - real human beings with human flaws that some people today treat as "all knowing" and "perfectly virtuous". Its interpretation tell us more about the person reading scripture than it does about the scripture itself.

There is no evil written into scripture that cannot also be written into an atheistic philosophy. Human beings who can write these evils into a religion can also write them into an atheist philosophy. Saying that "religion poisons everything" simply ignores the fact that the real fault - where religion is at fault - comes from the people who invented it and follow it. Those who can invent and follow a vile religious practice can invent and follow practices that do not mention a god.

We can see an example of this in Sam Harris' defense of torture.

We see evidence of this in Ayn Rand Objectivism, Communism, multiculturalism, social Darwinism, and other atheist philosophies.

Steven Weinberg said:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

This is unvarnished bigotry, plain and simple. Atheists, too, can embrace philosophies with twisted concepts of what is right and wrong. When they do, then the charge mentioned above is just as applicable to that atheist as it is to any theists.

However, this fact does not appeal to those people who want the emotional satisfaction of seeing "us" atheists as morally superior to "them" theists. Weinberg's quote sooths our tribal prejudices - so it is embraced and promoted where it should be condemned.

Atheists have some work to do when it comes to morality. Converting people from theism to atheism simply is not sufficient.


Unknown said...

Alonzo, I am in agreement that not being religious is by no means an assurance of morality.

Yet, you say:

"Consistency would see both good and evil potentially motivated either by religion or our nature."

Good and evil (intentional action) can be motivated by both.

Desirism holds the (simplified) view that desire + belief = intentional action. The religious memes (the various beliefs) are surely damaging in that they are false, and false beliefs (tend to) limit the good you can do in the world (desire + false belief = misguided intentional action).

Our nature gives us some desires (anger) and some beliefs (what to do when angry). Other ideas, such as religions, can cause us to believe in different facts and have different desires-as-means.

I think that it is true to say that religion causes people to do bad things, even if it is one of many motivators.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yes . . . there is a problem with false beliefs cause people to fail to fulfill their desires.

I typically speak about a person drinking a out of a glass that she thinks contains clean water that is actually poisoned.

And it is true that religion contains false beliefs, thus bringing about the types of failures mentioned above.

Religion is not the only source of false beliefs. There are many atheist philosophies that also contain elements that are false. I mentioned Objectivism, Communism, Multi-culturalism, Darwinism.

I would actually put on this list utilitarianism, Kantianism, the Lockean theory of rights - just about every theory invented. Sam Harris used act-utilitarianism to justify torture.

Even Desirism - at least as currently conceived - belongs on the list. If it is not entirely wrong, it still contains an error somewhere such that it risks motivating people to do things that would not be ideal.

The focus on religion is misguided.

Sean Sherman said...

I tend to agree with the post. I'm of the opinion that to criticize a particular religion/belief your criticism would need to be unique about the religious beliefs. Or else the non-unique elements of religion that are good things can be chalked up to religion - I can't have my cake and eat it too.

That usually boils down to supernatural beliefs not being real or as you said 'false beliefs', which vary considerably.

Then there is the false belief that false beliefs are a positive - or faith. And again, these vary considerably.

DavidS89 said...

First off: I don't think what Weinberg said is biggotry. Perhaps a little hyperbole, but what he means is clearly correct.
He is simply saying that for good men to do bad requires blind faith in something so that you go against your rationale and moral compass, you wouldn't do that unless you're either psychotic or believe in a delusion (religion).

But let's go on to the more important part of your post.
I whole heartedly agree that atheists have to solve this whole morality thing before we go on a crusade to save the world from religion.
I used to have a very narrow view that the world would be better once we got rid of religion (I still believe this though), but I hadn't really considered the existential void that it would lead behind. Once I did a few years ago I stopped being so agressively atheist because I don't have all the answers...

I wonder sometimes if belief in God, aslong as it doesn't cause any harm to anyone else, might be good within the desirist view?

It's false, sure, but if it gives you a sense of purpose (which you desire) then does it really matter that it isn't true?

The belonging, the purpose, the ability to live a life without constant existential angst is what they desire and religion fuifills it, so isn't it immoral to take it away from them?
Would it really make their life any less meaningful if they died without knowing the truth ?

Unknown said...

Yes, there are many wrong beliefs, but some beliefs are based on evidence (and easy to change according to new evidence) and some beliefs are based on ancient politics, exploiting good desires to do bad things (hard to change because they are revealed by the creator of the universe).

Unknown said...

Alonzo, is the desire to please a god a good desire?

Unknown said...


A quick follow-up. You say that focus on religion is misguided. You offer the evidence that most (well, all) philosophies contain untruths, which (given your glass of poison example) have strong potential to cause moral failures.

I would point out you haven't given a reason to say that a focus on religion is misguided. It is a 'fallacy of gray' to say that, because all philosophies are misguided, then they are all misguided equally. Sam Harris (who you seem to disagree with a lot) makes a comparison between religion and sports; there are sports like Thai Boxing, and there are sports like badminton. Some 'belief systems' will more reliably cause harm than others (Jainism or Christianity?). I think that, generally, it is easier to find specific religious philosophies that more reliably do bad than a specific non-religious philosophy. At the very least, religion in itself causes such a significant amount of harm that a focus on religion is not 'misguided' (this comment in no way disagrees strongly with your discussion of Wienberg).

Evidence of religious damage:

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Ben Pace

I will start with the proposition that the fact (if it is a fact) that the most destructive philosophy is religious is not the same as saying that it is destructive because it is religious.

Though it might be the case that Objectivism compares to Islam in terms of total harms currently being done.

Anyway, if religion is not that which makes a philosophy bad, then it seems best to focus on these bad philosophies in terms of that which makes them bad, and on in terms of that which makes them a religion.

Unknown said...


Yes, I agree - you may find this interesting (Admittedly, some of it does rely on having read a fair bit of LessWrong):

Also, your comment sounds like something an effective altruist might say... "Let's figure out the most corrosive memes in our philosophies, and fight those" as opposed to many people's "This is a corrosive meme, I'll fight this" (obviously not in those terms).

Personally, I think that LessWrong & friends (e.g. Luke Muehlhauser) are the answer to that question; I wonder if you know about CFAR?

Anonymous said...

Compare atheist vs Christian or other monotheism dominated countries on the global peace index. It is quite obvious where morality is lacking. The US ranks 87th 70ish% monotheists while Norway and other parts of Scandinavia with logical, reasonable, generally reality confronting people are the most peaceful. It isn't a coincidence. people who value knowledge know better not to kill or harm in he name of something not known and unsubstantiated. Religious people miss the morality boat- they all had to be reminded of morals and told what to do by their sadmasochistic leaders. Forget belief- Lets be real.

Anonymous said...

Thank You. I cringe every time someone brings up that Weinberg quote for the exact reason. Especially since it's so pathetically easy to counter. One just has to say "Patriotism".

From then, all counterarguments like "well that's not much unlike a religion" are just embarassing embroidery, much akin to "Well, when it says God wants us to stone people for working on sabbath, what it ACTUALLY means..."

Just no. We should say what we mean. Doubtlessly, religion can motivate people to do or say some vile, nasty stuff. But any ideology will do just as well. Even the secular, liberal, "nice" ones (I personally am tired of being called a rapist by a certain variety of feminists all the time, just because I happen to be male).

At the very least, if the argument is that religion does more harm than good (which the argument often seems to be), one should supply the quote by an appropriate annotation.

Unknown said...


Above you characterize Sam Harris as having defended torture.

Can you provide a citation for this serious charge?

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

see i have a question, what do you think about souls immortality kindly share your thoughts. i think this is the biggest problem of us,, god has made our soul immortal so that it can never die. but this also means that our suffering is never going to end. who wants to live a life which has no ending its shit,

bryan free said...

There is no such thing as good or evil, only co=operation or resistance for the mutual good.
Giving a mystical "Character" to these facts of existence is the root of all religion and it's "Mystical" and therefore un-analyzable posit is the perfect lynch pin for those who seek to exploit ignorance and greed in their fellow travelers.

Anonymous said...

I see you cannot justify your assertion that Sam Harris defends torture. You didn't even bother trying, and you've had over 2 years. Probably since his position is complex and nuanced. You would be required to copy his entire post on the subject, and you would be shown to be seriously mischaracterizing it.
Perhaps you should actually read what he wrote, rather than rely on second hand opinions of others.

I see you also provide quotes without saying who wrote them, or providing sources or links so others can see the context.

And you talk about atheists morality?