Monday, August 1, 2011

No, YOU Shut Up! - Universal Good

For those of you just tuning in, check out the introduction to this conversation that I'm having with Justin McRoberts. He submitted his first question, and here is my response. I'm going to break it up a little because I don't accept the assertion that's inherent in his question.

You’ve stated that religious faith is bad for people.

Yes, although even I'm uncomfortable with such a blanket statement, as it allows little room for nuance. For some it's as bad as a mosquito bite. For others, it's as bad as an atomic bomb.

This implies some kind of good; a universal good, at that.

No it doesn't.

Whew. Well, that was easy. I guess it's my turn to ask a question now...

Nah, okay, let me elaborate. All it implies is that I have an opinion as to what's good and what's not. This is something that I have in common with the vast majority of people in the world. The big difference with me and people of faith is that I don't justify what I think is good by stating that my opinion is based on the directions left to me by an omniscient, omnipotent, invisible mystical creature. So yes, it implies a good, but the "universal" part is a bit of a leap.

Can you describe the “good” religious faith is an obstacle to?

First, I have to define "good", I suppose. "Good" is what's beneficial to us as a species. We're a cooperative species, so whatever is helpful for the greatest number of people is what's good. We don't need an invisible being to tell us that killing, lying, and stealing is bad. In fact, I think it's kind of sad and cynical to think that we do.

Faith might motivate people to do good, but I would assert that there are motivations based solely on reason that could still provide that motivation. For instance, I once helped a blind lady get to where she was going. I could have ignored her when she asked for help and nobody would have known about what a jerk-move I just pulled. Why did I help her though? Because I want to live in a world where we help one another, as one day I might need help. The only way I can have any direct control over that is by doing what I would want others to do if the situation were reversed. Nobody and no deity needs to tell me that. I can figure it out for myself.

While faith is not needed to do good, it is too easily used to justify bad. Do I really need to lay out the examples of where this has happened? You have everything from the Crusades to Japanese Kamikaze pilots to September 11th. Can you have evil deeds without faith? Absolutely. But the problem with faith is that it actively encourages followers to not question. It encourages them to accept things based solely on authority, and it's the authority of those who claim to speak for the divine.

In other words, faith gives people reason for doing bad things. Nonbelievers are stuck with their own rationales for the bad things they do. And let's face it, saying "You should do this because the ultimate force in the universe said you should!" is much more compelling than "You should do this because I personally think it's a good idea." Even atheistic regimes like Stalinist Russia and North Korea had to borrow the trappings of religious thought in order to turn their leaders into divine authority figures.

Also, faith is the enemy of reason. "Faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding." Guess who said that? No, not Richard Dawkins. Martin Luther, that's who. Reason is what provides us everything that enabled us to survive, from our ability to hunt and gather to agriculture to fire to vaccines. Reason will get us out of the messes that we're in today - from global warming to figuring out how to get food to starving people.

Faith made it a controversy when somebody dared to say that the Earth went around the sun. Faith sets us behind the rest of the civilized world when people can't accept the basic biological principle that we evolved from other species the same as any other animal. Faith makes people stop asking questions. Instead of trying to figure out the complexities of our universe, too many of the faithful are happy simply believing that "God did it."

Is it a universal good; can it be applied to all people?

No, I do not think that there is a "universal good". There are some things that are almost universally considered good. You'd be hard-pressed to find a society nowadays that condones killing, theft, and lying. However, even with those there are exceptions to which most reasonable people would agree. (It's okay to kill somebody who's trying to kill you; it's okay to steal food that would get thrown away in order to feed yourself; it's okay to lie to an abusive husband about the whereabouts of his wife.) Every situation must be considered, and we're not always going to get agreement. All I can give you is my view on what's good for each situation. This is based on what my parents taught me, the society in which I live, and what I have reasoned out for myself.

And here's the thing - I'm going to assert that this is true for you and every person of faith that exists. It's not like Christians have been following the same moral code consistently since the death of Jesus. They once didn't have a problem with slavery. Now they can find all sorts of reasons why their faith supposedly condemns it. What changed? After 1800 years, did they find that elusive Bible passage where God clearly laid it all out that slavery is, and always has been, wrong? No, they changed with the times.

I've had Christians ask me this question, or variations on it before. Usually it leads to something along the lines of: "You can't explain where good comes from; therefore, Jeebus." The bottom line for me is this: until people of faith can even demonstrate that there IS a "universal good" this question is ultimately irrelevant when it comes to determining whether such a being exists or not. Because even if my answer is completely illogical, it still doesn't bring us any closer to proving that a deity exists. And even if one does, that does not automatically make him what anybody would consider to be good.

So I guess this leads ME to some questions: Do YOU think that there's a "universal good"? If so, how do you know what it is? If there is one, then why is there so much disagreement as to what's good and what isn't - even amongst people of the same religion? If it's impossible to know for sure the mind of a being who decides what's good and what isn't, then how is that different from us having to figure it out the same as if there wasn't such a being?

Here's a link to Justin's blog where you'll find his eventual response.


Matthew said...

I agree with the majority of what you wrote. The only problem I see is your insistence that religion is bad... If your definition of good is subjective and personal, then religion may be bad for *you*. On the other hand, if a definition of good is informed by culture, or as you put it:

"We're a cooperative species, so whatever is helpful for the greatest number of people is what's good."

If this is true, then religion is, by definition, "good."

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Yeah, I knew that contradiction was hanging there, but I was trying to be as succinct as possible. This is why I made the point of stating that "religion is bad" doesn't give enough nuance for me to say that I completely agree with it.

Obviously, religion has its uses and helps to foster our cooperative nature. However, it also has a tendency to work against that nature as well, as it creates groups that look at themselves as being superior to other groups. I would think that the ultimate goal is for all humans to think of themselves as being part of ONE group - the human race.

Justin McRoberts said...

I'm going to pick up where Matthew picked up and take it a bit of a different direction.. one that leads us directly into Mordor...

I'm posting something else 2mrw and will tinker with a response hopefully by Friday.

Matthew said...

So, Would it be fair to say that religion may be good for some people?

I'm not sure I can articulate my own thoughts on this in a blog comment, but it seems to me that this must be true on some level... curious if you agree.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

@Matt - "Good" is just too broad of a word. Let's say that when some people get religious, it's definitely a preferable choice to what they may have been doing before. If a person was an alcoholic and religion got him off it, then yes, that's unquestionably "good".

How about this - faith CAN be good, but getting rid of it is better.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

@Justin - Bwak!

Dan said...

Let me give a little context before i comment. I am a preacher's kid by birth, and a struggling contradiction caught somewhere between heretical progressive Christian and hopeful agnostic by experience. I love Justin's perspective, style, and take on the Christian it or hate it, the faith needs to be reinterpreted because it has become the enemy of the things that it says it stands for.

I honestly have a hard time disagreeing with any of the points you just made.

I did want to make one quick observation... I think it is a mistake to define "faith" as the "absence of reason" - although historically many followers of any movement, religious or political or whatever, eventually seem to resort to their flavor of blind loyalty, making themselves the pawns of whatever megalomaniac of the moment sees fit to exploit them.

And that is the major fault with organized religion.

True Christianity (i.e. putting into practice the teachings attributed to Jesus), in my estimation, would actually be the opposite. Jesus primary commandment was to engage your heart, mind, soul, and strength and to remember that loving your neighbor was the benchmark reserved for measuring your ethic. To me this is the opposite of ignoring reason and checking your brain at the door.

Assuming there are untapped (or spiritual) dimensions of reality, I would define "faith" as a highly developed sense of reason and intuition within these unseen realms that actually helps to make MORE sense out of reality.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Thanks for the comments, Dan.

I think it is a mistake to define "faith" as the "absence of reason"

I don't think that's a very apt definition either. However, I would say that faith is the moment where reason stops. True, many of the teachings of Jesus make sense when one uses reason and reason alone. But once you believe he walked on water, you're not exactly using reason anymore.

Matthew said...

@ Dan and Lance,

Actually, I think "absence of reason" falls a little short. My favorite definition of faith is from Miguel de Unamuno, "Religious faith is not only irrational, it is contra-rational." He takes it one step past the absence of reason and puts faith in direct contradiction to reason. That isn't to say that all aspects of religious life conflict with reason, but faith itself does.

Interestingly, so does hope.

Matthew said...

@ Lance,

I'm not sure I can say that losing faith is better or not. It has been the case for me, but I can imagine that it's not always a good thing for the addict. If faith was the only thing keeping the addict sober, then maybe faith is good (or better).

Lance Christian Johnson said...

If faith was the only thing keeping the addict sober, then maybe faith is good (or better).

In that scenario, then yes, I agree. But I think that if one can both keep the sobriety and lose the faith, then that's even better.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

I don't think that hope necessarily conflicts with reason. It depends on what you're hoping for. I could hope that I have a good day tomorrow, and it's reasonable to expect that I have a good chance of that. If I hope to sprout wings and fly, well, then, yeah...

Dan said...


"However, I would say that faith is the moment where reason stops."

I disagree. I would say that most of us function as if that is what “faith” means – and of course, if you live your life by that definition, then of course, by definition, faith is irrational. To further explore what I am getting at, I would say faith is for the heart what reason is for the mind. It is something that you know is true even when you can’t explain it, but in my estimation, faith incorporates reason, it does not circumvent it (in most cases).

There are times when human logic fails to adequately explain the mysteries of the universe. Faith is what drives us forward to explore the unseen realms; this can be spiritual, mythic, even scientific. Faith is that “thing” that gives us the drive to love and create, to explore, to invent, to write poetry or fiction, to create myths and legends.

Faith is not blind acceptance. In fact, I think that doubt is a part of faith. The act of questioning itself is not afraid that the universe as we know it would collapse if we happen to be wrong. This takes incredible faith, a faith that for one reason or another, is notably absent in most of the church circles I have found myself in over the years. These days I live in my doubts. There is not a whole lot that I enthusiastically affirm, but yet the ember that drives me forward to keep exploring, using reason, intuition, and creativity…I would call faith.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

I guess that's another reason why I think that "faith is bad" is too simplistic. First we have to start with a definition.

Matthew said...


I'm not sure I'm willing to say anyone would be better without faith. I guess I would rather leave that up to the individual to decide for their self. Although, I agree that religious faith seems to generally do more bad than good.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Would you say that people who lose their children to treatable diseases because they decided to pray instead of going to the doctor would be better off without faith? In cases like that, it's pretty hard to argue that their faith wasn't the direct cause of their tragedy.

Matthew said...

I don't know. Blaming religious faith seems like a sweeping generalization. They just seem like crappy parents and crappy people. I'm sure there are a myriad of reasons that's the case, and I'd probably agree that religion contributes. Maybe they would be better off without religion, but I'm just not sure religion is the central problem. I would guess that most people of faith would object to something like this... and I'm sure there are plenty of atheists (or other non-theists) who may do the same thing under the guise of "alternative medicine." At any rate, I don't feel comfortable saying that a person would or would not be better without religion. I know that's the case for me, but I don't think that is necessarily the case for everyone else.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

I'm talking specific cases here though and not people who pray in general. Surely you've heard of these cases where the parents clearly state that they didn't take their kids to the doctor's because they thought that prayer would take care of it.

Obviously that doesn't represent religious people in general. I was just trying to come up with a pretty easy example where the mistake that these people made is directly attributable to their particular faith.

Matthew said...

Yes, I agree that religion can be bad... and I think it is often a bad thing for many people. I'm just hard pressed to say it's a bad thing for all people. I think it's a deeply personal belief, and if someone thinks it's good for their life, then who am I to say they are wrong?

Lance Christian Johnson said...

When their belief directly leads to harming somebody, then I personally have no problems with calling it wrong.

Matthew said...

There is my point. I don't think that the belief of a God directly leads to harming anybody. Their belief that God will answer their prayers may cause them to neglect their parenting duties, but their belief in God is not causal.

Theism is no more to blame for bad parenting than atheism is to blame for the fall of communism.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

I think we may be using different definitions of the word "faith" then - or at least, we're looking at it differently. I'm using "faith" to mean the whole ball of wax that a person has about the supernatural. Could those people believe in God and still believe that it's better to take their kids to the doctor than just pray? Yes.

But by "faith" I meant not just their belief in a creator but their belief that he will answer prayers to the point where they could neglect taking their kid to the doctor. If they didn't have THAT particular faith, the kid would still be alive.

Franklin Evans said...

I do plan to post at some length later, but Lance's initial premise and later adjustments requires at least one rejoinder: Lance, religion is not just monotheism.

I certainly agree with your antipathy towards dogma, but it lives and sheds dogma tics under polytheisms (Hindu) and nontheisms (Buddhism) and a few in between.

My Pagan spiritual faith has no deity per se. I can be stubborn about my beliefs, but that's not dogma, that's just plain orneriness. I don't require anyone else to believe a damn thing... though having used the word, I'll close with a (paraphrased, possibly mangled) quote from the movie "Dogma":

It doesn't matter what you have faith in, it matters that you have faith. ;-)