June 04, 2007

Imagine No Religion

One of the insistent claims of the new atheism is that "the world would be a better place without religion." All the atrocities of history are typically laid at the feet of "religion." Consequently, if there were no religion, there would be no problems. There would be no religious extremists to fly planes into buildings; there would be no religious causes to fight wars over; there would be no heretics to persecute; and there would be no dogma to stand in the way of pleasurable pursuits and scientific progress. In the words of John Lennon, if we imagine there's no religion, "all the people" would be "living life in peace" and "the world will be as one."

A reply to this would begin by questioning whether it is indeed true that all, or even most, of the atrocities of history are religiously motivated. As it turns out, an objective survey of history will turn up quite a number of murderous and oppressive examples that are purely secular in nature. A few that come to mind include the Columbine massacre, the eugenics and racial elitism of Margaret Sanger and company, the killing fields of Pol Pot, the systematic purges of Stalin and Mao Zedong, the sadistic and bloody French Revolution, and probably the bulk of the barbarian invasions and national conquests of the ancient world. Only by a definition so broad as to be meaningless could we attribute these things to "religion."

Perhaps it may be argued that these persons and societies were not properly atheistic, or an appeal might be made to examples of virtuous atheists. To the issue of what constitutes a "proper" atheist, I will speak latter, but here I would point out that the same could be said of religious people. Innumerable examples of selfless devotees could be brought to bear, and religious contributions to society could also be referenced, like hospitals, universities, orphanages, emergency aid organizations, youth programs, and soup kitchens. In my own small town alone there are several dozen relief organizations which are founded, staffed, or provisioned primarily by Christians. And I will gamble that it is the same in your own town.

I would argue that the charitable contributions of religion far outweigh any of its real or alleged abuses by orders of magnitude. This could only be denied by attempting to secularize certain key contributors, but it is not fair to selectively secularize only what is flattering and then turn a blind eye to atheism's culpability in the unflattering. Or perhaps it could be denied by defining certain contributions as something other than "good," but that begs the question as to why atheism's standard of good should prevail in arbitrating this dispute. One cannot simply assert that things like proselytizing, opposing abortion, or defending traditional families are strikes against religion without first demonstrating the fiction of such things and the religion(s) that sponsor them.

The atheist's argument begins with the assumption that there is no truth in religion, but then lodges complaint against actions that may be consistent with that religion in order to condemn the religion itself. This means that if one assumes, for the sake of argument, that the religion is true, then any act consistent with that religion is removed as grounds for complaint, and, conversely, any act inconsistent with it is exempt from complaint.

Of course, what the religion actually teaches about humanity and how it ought to behave may offer grounds to question the religion itself if it is contrary to all reason and experience. However, if there is any truth in religion, then there will surely be some hard teachings involved that are distasteful to human preferences, and we must also deal with the question of how we might, outside of a transcendent standard that religion would provide, judge certain doctrines "bad" or against "right" reason.

When asking whether a behavior is caused by a belief system it must first be determined if that behavior is consistent with the beliefs in question. For a religion like Christianity there is some hope of doing so, since it is founded upon certain doctrines and is in possession of a guidebook — the Bible — to which one might appeal in making a ruling. For this reason a strong case can be made that most of what is commonly credited to Christianity is actually a violation of its fundamental principles. It is not consistent with Christianity; it is antithetical to it. And if something is inconsistent with a thing it is hard to make a case that it is caused by that thing.

I once had an atheist insist to me that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, was a Christian, as if to blame Christianity for the bombing itself. To answer such a charge it is not necessary to know anything at all about Timothy or his motivations; you must simply ask yourself if it is reasonable to imagine Jesus helping him pack his truck full of explosives. Since the answer is obviously "no," then even if McVeigh thought of himself as a Christian he must have a very different thing in mind when he uses that word — a thing which no classical Christian would care to defend.

If religious wars, inquisitions, and heretic burnings were in fact consistent with Christianity, then we should expect to have seen such things from its very inception and Christians would be repeating the behaviors even to this day rather than apologizing for them. This is exactly why the events referenced as "Christian atrocities" are generally isolated episodes in history and not things that invariably spring up wherever the Gospel is preached. Christianity has within itself exactly what it needs to be self-reforming. But no matter how divine her doctrines, because the visible church is composed of humans (some of which are only arguably "believers"), it is guaranteed to manifest flaws large and small. If the skeptic is looking for proof of God in the perfection of His followers, then the skeptic is presuming something about human nature that Christianity does not teach.

Of course, I have here been defending Christianity as opposed to "religion" in general. However, most of those arguing against religion train their guns primarily on Christianity and only employ things such as Islamic extremism for the sake of the juicy examples it affords. I will not take pains to defend religion at large, though each group surely has its own defenses to offer. I am only obliged to defend what I believe to be true: classical Christianity. If any who consciously differ from that truth consistently commit offenses, then it is not Christianity's burden to bear, and they "prove" the truth of atheism only as much as they prove Christianity, or anything else in opposition to themselves. The sins of the one, or even the majority, do not categorically invalidate all. If this were not so then we must condemn all thought of government because of the abuses of communists and fascists.

In fact, the rejection of religion would be a bit like the rejection of all formal government. Gone would be any objective moral framework, historical narrative and vision, or idea of absolute justice. But what would take its place in a strictly atheistic world? What ethical theory follows from atheism? John Lennon thought we could all "live as one" if we gave up on religion, but given that atheism's only dogma is the rejection of the supernatural it is impossible to say what such a world would yield.

Many atheists would propose something like secular humanism, but that is merely a broad ethical creed that begs for consensus over details, and it is no more objectively binding on its supporters than a New Year's resolution. And even if its followers were all passionately committed to it and everything derived from it, it is not the case that all atheists are on-board with it. Some atheists are nihilist. Some are anarchists. Some are communists. Some are hedonists. Some are quite sympathetic to religion. And some are just psychopaths. The frightening thing about atheism is that while it is difficult enough to say what is consistent with it, it is quite impossible to say what is inconsistent with it.

Unlike with Christianity, there are no grounds on which to even begin a debate over how atheism is to be lived out. So long as there are no gods and souls being appealed to, then it all equally qualifies as atheism. But worse than that, without a transcendent standard of morality, there are no grounds for saying how atheists ought to behave or why they ought to behave in any proposed way. Along with God goes any idea of fixed and binding moral imperatives. Morality simply becomes whatever humans define it to be at any given time and place. Lennon's imaginary world of brotherhood would be spoiled in the determination of which humans have the power to control the definition of the good and true. And the hunger for power is a very human trait. History has taught us at least that much.

Religions that explicitly teach violence aside, from a purely theoretical perspective it only makes sense to think that if one believes in divine justice, from which even death is no escape, then one is more likely to be concerned about his or her own good behavior. If people do bad things in contradiction to a system that teaches otherwise, then it must be the case that something else is driving them. I would suggest that something more subjective is at the bottom of human aggression — something at the very heart of humanity. As one sage has said, human depravity is one of the most empirically verifiable of all the doctrines of Christianity.

If we removed religion, people would simply find alternate grounds for oppression. There would always be substitute causes, movements, and justifications for evil persons to employ in their service. People have an incorrigible need to feel justified in their actions — even hardened criminals will make excuses. Religion is simply one very powerful justification to be leveraged. Removing the "excuse" of religion will not magically make bad people into saints. It would be as reasonable to believe that removing gangster rap and heavy metal will leave us with responsible and well-adjusted teenagers.

Some might argue that Europe has become largely secularized and it is doing just fine. Well, that returns to one's definition of "fine." When the news delivers stories of moral absurdities — stories that could make even an atheist cringe — they often will originate in one of the European bastions of secularism. Some notable examples would be: sex vendors at sporting events, a woman marrying a dolphin, the mainstreaming of pornography, problems of child pornography rings, lesser standards for what qualifies as child pornography, welfare recipients being forced to take available jobs in the sex industry, involuntary euthanasia, porn stars in politics, football (soccer) riots, and the breakdown of the traditional family. (Of course, I am begging the question to think that an atheist will take issue with such things. But for those who merely shrug at my list, it proves my point that it is indeed consistent with atheism; and for those who are troubled by it, it proves my point regarding the diversity of atheism.) Additionally, when it is said that Europe has become secularized it does not necessarily mean that it has become atheistic; it has simply become more diverse and "spiritual" but less inclined toward organized Christianity.

But even if all religious people died tomorrow in some great pluralistic rapture, I would expect that the world would not immediately descend into a pre-modern barbarian chaos. Modern atheists are so fat with the moral capital of their Christian heritage that they could probably live for decades before suffering bankruptcy. And most are either in denial or have quite forgotten that if there is no God anything is permissible. Well, anything that you can get away with at least. In a world without purpose and standards beyond personal happiness, what taboos can stand?

Is it really true that it would be the end of evil if we made an end of religion? As I've argued, it would only be the end of evil in the name of religion and the end of our grounds for naming anything evil. Evil would remain, but would be called by a different name, and it would be celebrated, tolerated, medicated, or carefully regulated — but never judged.

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10 Comments:

At 6/04/2007 9:01 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Good post!

If we removed religion, people would simply find alternate grounds for oppression.

I totally agree with this. What I noticed while majoring in history is that history is a long tale of depressing tragedy, and most of the tragedy was brought on by people. From my point of view, the common denominator wasn't religion. It was who was in power. That leads me to believe that people are basically corrupt, and all they need to fulfill their corruption is the opportunity that power gives them. Any justification will do, and religions happens to be a convenient choice because almost all societies throughout history have been religious. The more secular societies that have emerged in the last three hundred years haven't yielded any better results.

 
At 6/05/2007 9:18 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
On the central idea of your post, I agree with you, the case that the world would be better without religion has not been made.
The two areas that weakened your argument in my view were:

1)The claim that religion or belief in god is necessary for true morality. (We have debated that a few times).

2)The claim that Europe is somehow less moral than, for example, the U.S. (I'm not saying that because I'm from Europe!) Pulling out a few cases of stories from the news proves precisely nothing.

 
At 6/05/2007 2:45 PM, Blogger Paul said...

How's it feel to be smarter than Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris? You seem to lack their bias of a raw loathing of religion, anyway.

I expected you'd take issue with at least my assessment of European morality. Here's my responses:

1) Again, I'm not saying that atheists can't be generally decent folk (according to my own definition of "decent"). I'm just saying that there is no guarantee of such, because being an atheist does not imply anything at all about your moral perspective other than that it is not transcendent. Of course, there is the issue of defining what it means to have "true morality" anyway, given that in the atheistic world morality is whatever we humans define as "true." I know you have your ideas about sensible guiding principles, but you are just one human defining truth. The other problem is that even morally sensible atheists (again, by my definition) still tend to be quite a bit more permissive than theists. Consequently, as a Christian it would be true to say that atheist are typically less moral.

2) I didn't just pull out examples of Europeans behaving badly (well, maybe one or two were like that, such as the dolphin marriage); I used examples of behaviors that were either uniquely European or, more importantly, were the result of the moral laxity in certain areas. For example, Europe is more sexually open. Consequently, the age of consent, the definition of child pornography, the tolerance of "sex work," the diversity of domestic arrangements, and other similar things are naturally affected. Perhaps you have no qualms with this, but it just is the case that secularism will have its affects on the mores of a culture. One could only say that Europe is no worse than America by being selective about what one considers better or worse. Of course, my "bias" is the Christian ethic. Atheism's would be somewhat more minimal, and so there are probably plenty more taboos to be shed before hitting its lowest common denominator. I don't expect a functional society can bear up under the social strain of finding that basement.

 
At 6/06/2007 5:33 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

How's it feel to be smarter than Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris?
I wish. Though it is true that I do not share their antipathy to religion, which I think can be a force for good in the world.

On your point 1) I think the main problem is that it begs the question. If I am right about the nature of guiding principles, then I will not be just one human defining truth at all, since all people will be subject to the parameters that these principles impose. Further, in order to make the case that permissiveness is bad you would have to cite some mutually agreed measures. Then we would be into haggling. More STD's you say? More sexual fulfillment I say. More marital breakdown and fractured family structures you say? Less people having to spend a lifetime trapped with abusive partners I say. And so it might continue. I am not really endorsing these views in themselves, rather I am trying to point out that your view might be a bit parochial.

The problem with 2) is...well it begs the question in those areas where it is not focusing on particular facts about Europe. So phrases like 'moral laxity' are actually contained within the premise that Christianity has special access to moral truth.
Where you address the actual state of Europe in moral terms compared to the U.S., your examples do not stand up. For instance, most child pornography websites are hosted in Russia and the U.S. Furthermore, morally speaking, I think shooting people dead is morally more serious than tolorating sex work. Do you see how this could all go? I want to avoid trading gun crime statistics and things like that.
I offer my criticism of what I saw as the weaker points of your argument in good faith, but I agree with your main point.

 
At 6/06/2007 11:18 PM, Blogger SLW said...

Bravo Paul! That was a work of art. The reasoning was broad and thorough and you even had me laughing at times (OL with "some are just psychopaths"). Thanks as well for,
"Modern atheists are so fat with the moral capital of their Christian heritage that they could probably live for decades before suffering bankruptcy."
The smugness of many atheists in view that heritage is like Ted Kennedy calling for tax increases to redistribute the wealth of the upper middle class or feminists berating historically patriarchal Christianity.
Since you truly deserve it, let me say again, thank you.

 
At 6/07/2007 9:24 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks Stephen! You can be the next...uh...first president of my fan club. Glad you liked that one. It might end up on the LifeWay.com site, and positive feedback from readers like you and Sam (and Psio even) help me to make that decision. However, one of my editors thinks it needs some restructuring. I can see that; it was kind of a stream of consciousness dump for me. Hope I don't get too distracted by other things to get the necessary edits done. Here's another essay that they liked but is in need of some changes, which I never got around to doing. You might like that one too if you haven't seen it already.

 
At 6/07/2007 9:46 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

Regarding this statement: "I do not share their antipathy to religion, which I think can be a force for good in the world."
I've dialoged with several atheist/agnostics who feel the same way. Two were even willing to allow their kids to be raised in the church (having religious spouses) so that they could have good values instilled into them. This strikes me as odd if atheism were true. It means that a fiction is capable of doing important work (even by atheist standards) that atheists either don't want to do, have meager resources to do, or have no rational capital to do it with. In any case, it doesn't leave me with much confidence that a purely atheistic world would produce much fruit.

I think your taking issue with what criteria we might use to define the good simply proves the point that your "guiding principles" boil down to mere subjectivity. Unless, of course, you are suggesting that one of us might be right about such a thing as how we ought to handle our sexuality. The problem that then arises is that your moral framework relates to what these guiding principles "impose" upon us, as if to say that morality is based upon certain constraints of nature (e.g., what "works," what is healthy, what fosters peace & survival, etc.). But in typical non-theistic fashion, I sense from this, and our other dialogs together, that you would lean more toward the permissive side of things, for the sake of happiness, and less on the side of the constraints that nature imposes, like disease, unwanted pregnancy, social and emotional damage, etc. Even if we could agree upon your pseudo-objective guiding principles, there is no reason why an atheist ought to feel obliged to follow them, nor do I believe that sympathetic atheists would be guided by them where they imposed constraints upon their preferred behaviors. For example, homosexuals seem quite willing to live with the inherent risks and reproductive limitations of that lifestyle, and abortions and antibiotics are regularly employed to circumvent the constraints that nature would otherwise impose on the promiscuous. In practice, then, the your moral criteria is a buffet of subjectivity and has no real incumbency to begin with.

On your European observations, I am tempted to respond with comments like, "there is a difference between (blindly?) hosting a web site and being the developer and content providing of it," but as you say, let's avoid statistical and anecdotal ping pong. I know the US has plenty of fertile ground for selective examples as well. My point about "moral laxity" in relation to secularism still holds, I believe. Would you not say that secularists are more prone to removing restriction on certain things? For example, restrictions on when, how, and with whom one may have sex and domestic arrangements, or, what substances are available for consumption. Perhaps I should say that a more secular society would be more "relaxed" in its policies toward many things, and if you consider things like sex and drugs to be in any way "moral" issues, then it follows that secularism results in a more relaxed view on certain moral issues — particularly the issues I mentioned. Maybe those relaxed standards are positive in your view, but it is still true that there is a relationship and that certain things naturally follow from one attitude over the other.

I do appreciate your input on the post and the points of our agreement on this and other matters. It's good to have critical eyes around, though, as it serves to temper my writing. It would probably have a different flavor if I was writing directly for the LifeWay site. Of course, I'd prefer if we some day had more in common, but you know how us silly Christians like to proselytize.

 
At 6/08/2007 11:15 AM, Anonymous sacred vapor said...

when I encounter these kinds of claims against religion, I prefer to divert to the real issue... which is not 'religious viewpoints' per se, but the underlying worldview. So, religion is a subset of WORLDVIEW...albeit a major component nonetheless.

If we use the term 'worldview' in place of the term 'religion,' then atheism which is also a worldview needs to account for the same claims it proposes. I think you have successfully shown in your post that atheism is also a culprit of such attrocities.

This then raises all sorts of issues such as what foundational grounding (meta-ethical) does atheism have for even claiming these attrocities to be evil? but that's another discussion.

nice post,

vapor

 
At 6/08/2007 12:07 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Oops, I just found out that Sam Harris (one of the unholy trinity of atheism and author of "The End of Faith") appears to believe in reincarnation. Now that certainly opens some holes in his critique of religion.

 
At 6/08/2007 8:07 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
This strikes me as odd if atheism were true. It means that a fiction is capable of doing important work (even by atheist standards) that atheists either don't want to do, have meager resources to do, or have no rational capital to do it with. In any case, it doesn't leave me with much confidence that a purely atheistic world would produce much fruit.

I have no problem with fiction being capable of doing important work. I think if religions disappeared, other ways of configuring and motivating groups to do good works would take up the slack.

I think your taking issue with what criteria we might use to define the good simply proves the point that your "guiding principles" boil down to mere subjectivity
It proves no such thing. You could try to persuade me otherwise by actually offering a proof of some kind I suppose.

Unless, of course, you are suggesting that one of us might be right about such a thing as how we ought to handle our sexuality.
I am suggesting that I am right. This is because I use evidence and reason to modulate a finely tuned and honed set of inference systems in the brain that deliver moral intuitions and attendant emotions. You, on the other hand, seem to use dogma. The track record of dogma versus rational thought speaks for itself.

The problem that then arises is that your moral framework relates to what these guiding principles "impose" upon us, as if to say that morality is based upon certain constraints of nature (e.g., what "works," what is healthy, what fosters peace & survival, etc.).
Morality is subject to certain constraints of nature in the context of rational cooperating beings living together.

But in typical non-theistic fashion, I sense from this, and our other dialogs together, that you would lean more toward the permissive side of things, for the sake of happiness, and less on the side of the constraints that nature imposes, like disease, unwanted pregnancy, social and emotional damage, etc.
If by 'permissive' you mean a wanton disregard for the consequences of behaviour then no, but if you mean empowering and facilitating human fulfillment within an ethical framework then yes.
Let us not be united against nature in the case of malaria or meningitis and yet divided on other causes of human suffering due to some things people wrote down a long time ago.

Even if we could agree upon your pseudo-objective guiding principles
Careful, your polemic has popped out, do tuck it back in will you?

there is no reason why an atheist ought to feel obliged to follow them,
There is every reason, not least that they would experience a genuine feeling of obligation.

nor do I believe that sympathetic atheists would be guided by them where they imposed constraints upon their preferred behaviors.
Well, I have direct experience of not doing things that I might have preferred to do but for the fact that I thought it would be wrong. What evidence do you have? Pause a while before you dip into the pool of anecdote...

For example, homosexuals seem quite willing to live with the inherent risks and reproductive limitations of that lifestyle, and abortions and antibiotics are regularly employed to circumvent the constraints that nature would otherwise impose on the promiscuous.
Your argument is persuasive against promiscuity and lack of mutual respect. This leads to risky behaviour. I agree with you on that. It has nothing to say about homosexuality. You might want to invoke all kinds of teleological and biological arguments at this point but they are irrelevant. A responsible monogamous homosexual person who practices safe sex is objectively safer than a promiscuious heterosexual person who does not. And who is to say what the teleology of whole populations is about.

In practice, then, the your moral criteria is a buffet of subjectivity and has no real incumbency to begin with.

On the contrary, it benefits from not being founded on a set of truth claims for which the evidence is wanting.

On your European observations, I am tempted to respond with comments like, "there is a difference between (blindly?) hosting a web site and being the developer and content providing of it,"
This is an odd way to begin conceding a point, and I notice that you ducked the gun crime issue.

My point about "moral laxity" in relation to secularism still holds, I believe.
Well, that is no surprise since given your premises, it is a tautology.

Would you not say that secularists are more prone to removing restriction on certain things?
Would you not say that the religious are more prone to imposing arbitrary restrictions based on their culturally influenced, parochial and unverifiable beliefs? See, I can do caricature too!

I do appreciate your input on the post and the points of our agreement on this and other matters.
Thanks, and likewise.

It would probably have a different flavor if I was writing directly for the LifeWay site.
I shudder to think.

Of course, I'd prefer if we some day had more in common, but you know how us silly Christians like to proselytize.
Me too, and I appreciate your integrity and intelligence, if I have seemed combative here, it is only because I am standing up for what I believe in.

 

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