Having It Both Ways: Atheists on Religion, Believers on Religion

There’s this problem I’ve been running into in atheist writing, an example of bad thinking that crops up again and again even from some very intelligent writers. Richard Dawkins does it; Sam Harris does it a lot; cool atheist bloggers I read sometimes do it.

It’s bugging me, and I want to point it out.

Here’s how the thinking goes. When they’re dealing with the issue of great people doing good things who seem to have been inspired by religious faith — Martin Luther King, Gandhi, yada yada yada — many atheist writers argue that these people would have done those same good things even without religion. Compassion, empathy, a vision of how much better the world could be — that’s what inspired these people, the argument goes. They didn’t need religion to fight the good fight.

But when they’re talking about bad people doing terrible things who seem to be inspired to their evil deeds by religion — Osama Bin Laden, the Crusaders, etc. — these same writers are all over it. “See?” they write. “Look at the terrible things religion inspires people to do! See what a bad influence religion is in the world?”

And I don’t think you get to have it both ways.

Either religion inspires people to act, or it doesn’t. It makes no sense to argue that religious faith inspires people to do evil, but not to do good.


And this is a big but.

Many defenders of religion do the exact same thing — only in reverse. They point to people like King and Gandhi to show what a positive force religion is in the world… but then argue that the Bin Ladens and Torquemadas of the world would have acted exactly the same without religion. Politics, hunger for power, xenophobia, flat-out psychosis — that’s what drove these evil people, they say. Not religious faith.

Which is just as messed up. Defenders of religion don’t get to have it both ways, either. If you want to point at all the wonderful people in the world who are inspired by religion, you need to be willing to look at all the massively fucked-up shit that religion inspires as well.

So which way do I think it is? Do I think people, on the whole, would act differently if there were no such thing as religion?

I think that’s a separate post. I’ll rant about that tomorrow.

Having It Both Ways: Atheists on Religion, Believers on Religion
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10 thoughts on “Having It Both Ways: Atheists on Religion, Believers on Religion

  1. 2

    Thanks for pointing this out so clearly. There are other logical inconsistencies in Sam Harris’s book that should be addressed by someone who is a better writer than me. Someone like you?
    Frankly, I don’t think Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins are doing atheists many favors, but I’m too tired right now to go into all the reasons why. Your point above is a good example.
    Please keep cutting through the fog for us. I appreciate it.

  2. 3

    I don’t like Dawkins, because he is basically a “fundamentalist atheist”. I don’t think being as dogmatic as fundamentalist is going to be productive.
    I think of the bad side as not being religion, but as abuse of religion, just as the Nazi theories of racial superiority and experiements on death camp prisoners were not science but an abuse of science.
    (and the mis-use of science is also something avoided by the fundamentalist atheists)

  3. 4

    I would like to propose that the idea that “people would act nicely without religion but wouldn’t act badly without it” is actually an intellectually defensible position.
    It all has to do with two simple questions:
    Do there exist societal equivalents that remain separate to religion that can inspire people to do good to the same degree that religion does?
    Do there exist societal equivalents that remain separate to religion that can inspire people to do bad to the same degree that religion does?
    I would argue that the answer to these questions doesn’t have to be the same. And I believe that is the misunderstanding you have with Dawkins’ and Harris’ arguments is just that. They aren’t saying “Religion can only inspire badness and all the goodness comes from elsewhere” What they are saying is “While religion can inspire goodness, there exist irreligious equivalents that can inspire goodness to the same degree, however there is no element of society that inspires ‘badness’ to the same degree that religion does, it is the greatest of all divisive forces in human society.”

  4. 5

    No, I understand that that’s what Dawkins and Harris are saying. I just don’t agree with it.
    I think the best counter-examples are Stalinist Russia and the Cultural Revolution in communist China. In both cases, non-religious ideologies in secular (indeed anti-religious) societies were the inspiration and justification for horrific brutality and evil.
    Dawkins is fond of saying that Stalin’s atheism didn’t cause him to be a tyrant — and he’s right, it didn’t. But it sure didn’t stop him, either. If the question is, “Do there exist societal equivalents that remain separate to religion that can inspire people to do bad to the same degree that religion does?” I think both Stalinist Russia and the Cultural Revolution in China show that the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

  5. 6

    Some people have argued that Communism was a religion; that it had all the dogmatism, blind faith, and other aspects, except that it didn’t include a diety or afterlife.

  6. 7

    There are good people and there are bad people. In my mind, I discern a person’s goodness/badness on their behaviors — how they treat the rest of us. And I try to discern why they behave as they do. Religious people AND a-religious people seem to enjoy highlighting the goodness of their own camp, while highlighting the badness of folks in the other camp. But I’ve met both kinds of people from both camps.
    So, I’m not sure that a person’s religion or lack of religion is the sole or even primary key. People do as they do because that’s just who they are. It would be ideal (imo) if we could leave the religion/non-religion identifiers off, and just take people on the merits of their own behavior. But that’s just me, and I’m not the ideal person — I like finding idiocy among the religious and goodness among the non-religious. 🙂

  7. 8

    I don’t completely agree with the premise of this article.
    Things aren’t black and white. While we still do have a depressing amount of creationists and other religions, some people over in the ME make it seem like they’re entrenched in blind faith. Not all of them, but enough for their actions to have far more momentum than the US.

  8. 9

    You should read Gandhi’s autobiography. He happily recounts many incidents in which he abused (as we would say) his own family, denying them education or medical assistance, because he felt it right to impose his rigid religious beliefs on those he had power over. I admire Gandhi’s honesty, his ability to identify political targets to campaign on and his organisational powers. I recognise that the same rigid refusal to compromise on his beliefs was what led to great achievements in his political achievements. But Gandhi was not an especially pleasant person. He derived his own belief system based on Hinduism and while some aspects (rejection of caste, respect of all religions) seem humanist, he was also authoritarian and chauvinistic.

  9. 10

    But Sam Harris et al. don’t actually say that specific individuals (like MLK) weren’t inspired by religious faith to do good. Of course they were. They are simply criticising the position that you need religion to be good, which you most certainly don’t.
    Religion is the most dangerous form of tribalism and suspension of reason and critical thinking. There are definitely other forms of this, and sometimes in areas where religion plays no role, but why compare religion with these other evils? Atheists are not generally supporting these evils, but rather their opposite in science (including one of morality!), a free press, democracy, etc.
    The point is that human beings are generally good people by nature. If left undisturbed by religion, we probably will end up as good people (unless disturbed by some other form of malicious tribalism). Sometimes religion won’t harm the morality of specific believers, and sometimes even improve it, but because we are good by default, and that most religions teaches some pretty immoral things, most often it is clearly a bad influence.

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