Saturday, July 20, 2013

Religion isn't bad.

The debates over religion have many layers. The primary debate, or at least what I think should be the primary debate, is over whether they teach things that are true or not. After that, we get to whether religion is good or bad for the world. I don't really like getting too caught up in the second sort of discussion. It's not that I think that religion has been good for the world, because I don't, but I think that talking about whether religion itself is good or bad kind of misses the bigger picture.

These sorts of debates tend to fall into the same talking points over and over again. It's kind of like this:

Nonbeliever:  Religion brought us the Crusades! And witch burnings!  And flying planes into buildings!

Believer:  Oh yeah, what about Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot?

Blah blah. And of course, sometimes you get the spectacularly misinformed nonbeliever (looking at you, Bill O'Reilly) who insists that Hitler was an atheist. Pretty strange considering how much he spoke of  Divine Providence and how his regime banned atheist organizations. If you want to try and tell me Hitler wasn't a Christian, that's a conversation worth having. But calling him an atheist? That's demonstrably wrong.

I already reviewed Justin McRoberts's CMYK, but in it, he brings up that humanity doesn't need religion to do awful things. It's a good point. He even asserts that things like slavery did not come about because of religion, and I totally agree with that as well. Nobody needed a holy book to exploit people.

Of course, the flip side of this is that if people don't need religion to do bad things, they don't need it to do good things as well. Some of the world's prominent philanthropists are atheists, so no religion required for that. Also, if you're religious, I'm sure that your atheist neighbor will be just as likely to do nice things for you like give your car a jump start as your Sikh neighbor would.

So, what am I saying? Is religion neither here nor there on the good/bad scale?

No, but religion emboldens ideas, whether they're good or bad. If you think that Jesus wants you to do good works, that's not necessarily going to be the reason why you do good things, but it helps you to feel justified in what you're doing. However, you can turn this around, and it can also lend an unearned credence to horrible ideas.

It's true that religion didn't create slavery. However, it sure as heck helped give some motivation to those who perpetuated it. In the Christian world, the fact that The Bible condones slavery sure helped those who wanted to keep it going. (And please, don't write to me saying that it doesn't and give me crap about "context". This is a stupid argument. It specifically says that you can beat your slave as much as you want just so long as you don't kill him. There is NO CONTEXT in the world that can make this anything other than an endorsement for slavery unless the very next line is "Scratch the previous sentence, 'cause that's plain evil. Just checking to see if you're paying attention.") Yes, I am aware that many prominent abolitionists were Christian and claimed to oppose slavery out of their religious convictions, but again, the flip side of this is true, unless you want to try and tell me that there aren't a lot of Christians in the South.

The thing is, you can have bad reasons for doing things that are good. If I donated money to help fund prostate cancer research because I thought that if I didn't, gremlins would eat my earlobes, the fact that I'm doing something good wouldn't somehow justify my belief in gremlins, would it?

The problem then is not religion, but a lack of critical thinking and proper skepticism. This addresses pretty much every religious atrocity, from large-scale horrors like The Holocaust (don't tell me that wasn't emboldened by religious beliefs when you have over a 1000 years of both Catholicism and Protestantism scapegoating the Jews as "Christ Killers") to smaller-scale atrocities like parents who don't take their kids to the doctor because they think that Jesus doesn't want them to do that.

This also confronts your secular abominations like what happened in The Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Believers love to throw that one around. "It was all done in the name of atheism, and they killed more than anybody else!" While it's true that they were atheists, or at least, they preached an atheistic doctrine, I should also point out that The Crusades would have probably claimed a lot more lives if they had the same technology as the Soviets did. But back to my point, while it may have been an atheistic regime, guys like Stalin weren't trying to enforce skepticism and critical thinking. Under that program, Stalin's word was law, and he was not to be questioned. Atheism? Sure. Skepticism? Quite the opposite.

If people were encouraged to think critically and skeptically, we would still have bad ideas, and we'd still have people doing evil things. However, those bad ideas would be subject to question, because with skepticism, there are no sacred cows, and EVERYTHING is open to debate. People don't get to point to their Bible to justify everything from opposing same-sex marriage to handling poisonous snakes. And nobody gets to come forward and say that his or her ideas are automatically better and not to be questioned, whether he claims to be speaking for Jesus, Shiva, or The Fonz. Religion might not necessarily be bad, but it's often a conversation stopper when one can just point to a divine authority and say: "It's the will of Zeus!"

Religion's not the problem, it's just a symptom of the real problem: the lack of critical thinking and skepticism.

And I realize that there might be some Christians (or other theists) out there who are saying, "Hey! I'm a Christian, and I'm a skeptic, too!"  While probably worthy of another blog post, my quick response is:

No. You're not. If you believe that a guy died on a cross and came back three days later, and your basis for this is either your subjective, personal relationship and/or a series of writings that were written at least a couple of generations after the supposed event took place, then you are NOT a skeptic. I'm sure that you're a wonderful person in every other regard, but you can't have your Jesus and critical thinking too.  (Sorry to pick on Christians. Substitute any other supernatural event and/or belief system that's been debunked and it works just as well...except for Shinto, that stuff's legit.)

14 comments:

Tony from Pandora said...

Concerning Hitler...

I read 'Mein Kampf' in high school. I remember there were some parts where he stated in true Blues Brothers fashion that he was 'on a mission from God'. But, as many politicians today, it seemed to be to gain favor in the eyes of the public more than anything else. His actions are in stark contrast to what Christ taught. But maybe he was simply more into 'Old Testament Justice'.

Concerning Stalin...

You say he didn't promote skepticism. So? Under atheism, why does he have to? The leaders in the crusades, Hitler, people who blow up abortion clinics... these people are standing on one moral platform while preaching from another. Their actions don't line up with the principles of Christianity. There are no principles to which Stalin must adhere... he was a perfectly genuine atheist.

"we'd still have people doing evil things. However those bad ideas would be subject to question..."

Unless you're under Stalin... to what do you point to him, saying that what he did was "bad", without him saying, "So?"

"Religion emboldens ideas..."

So does money, sex, and politics.

And to Christians NOT being critcal thinkers/skeptical, my personal response is that yes, I started out as a skeptic, but now I'm not. I think you can have critical thinking, and NOT be a skeptic. As a nurse, we are heavily taught critical thinking skills to assess patients. But part of the critical thinking process is taking on faith, what the patient tells us. There is some info that can only be gathered by personal experience on the patient (pain, emotion, taste) So while I can be skeptical of a person's statements, I must accept them in order to deliver a treatment plan. And if they tell the truth, the recommended treatment works, and I'm no longer skeptical. With Christianity, I was skeptical of others' testimonies, but seeing their transformations, and 'trying it on' myself, I find that the treatment works.

Lance Johnson said...

Regarding Hitler - Like I said, I'm willing to have the "Hitler wasn't a Christian" conversation. I'm not willing to have the "Hitler was an atheist" conversation aside from me simply debunking it.

Regarding Stalin - "You say he didn't promote skepticism. So?"

So that's my whole point. It's not that we need atheism; we need skepticism and critical thinking. Atheism is simply a result of that.

"Their actions don't line up with the principles of Christianity."

I'm aware of this argument.

"There are no principles to which Stalin must adhere... he was a perfectly genuine atheist."

All atheism means is the nonbelief in gods. You're right, one can be a "perfect" atheist and have no principles because atheism doesn't address principles one way or another.

"to what do you point to him, saying that what he did was "bad", without him saying, 'So?'"

Nothing. The man was a sociopath.

" I think you can have critical thinking, and NOT be a skeptic. As a nurse, we are heavily taught critical thinking skills to assess patients."

I should have clarified that one can be a skeptic and a critical thinker while still being a Christian; however, one cannot apply these to Christianity and STILL be a Christian. People are able to compartmentalize their brains into believing whatever they want to believe.

"With Christianity, I was skeptical of others' testimonies, but seeing their transformations, and 'trying it on' myself, I find that the treatment works."

But if you're being a true skeptic, you have to deal with the fact that other religions have transformed people's lives. Read The Autobiography of Malcolm X for starters.

Matthew Holderfield said...

This is kind of off topic, but your post makes me wonder if there is anything that people should *not* be skeptical about... Like carbon emissions and climate change, or evolution. When is it acceptable to take someone else's word for it?

Lance Johnson said...

I think that in cases like the ones you mentioned, it's fine to come to a point where you say that you agree that those things are legit. (Because it's a bit more involved than just taking some random person's word for it, right?)

But you should remain skeptical in the sense that you're willing to change your mind if given new evidence.

Matthew Holderfield said...

Don't you think that is how most believers view their "faith?" I remember having to take the word of friends, family and a lot of well respected people, not to mention a history of biblical scholars and priests, all at face value. I always felt that I could re-evaluate given new evidence, but it took a lot more time and evidence than I would like to admit before I really rethought my position on spiritualism.

I like to think if myself as a skeptic, but part of that is recognizing that evidence is culturally relative. One man's "expert" is another man's quack. Since positions on carbon emitions usually align with political philosophy on government involvement in market economics, I believe there is reason to raise a skeptical eye on the issue. I can understand how someone might feel the same way about evolution.

Lance Johnson said...

"Don't you think that is how most believers view their 'faith?'"

Honestly? No. Faith, by definition, doesn't change with evidence.

"...recognizing that evidence is culturally relative..."

Do you really think this? I would say that "what's accepted as evidence is relative" but critical thinking crosses cultural boundaries, don't you think?

"Since positions on carbon emitions usually align with political philosophy on government involvement in market economics..."

I'm not too sure that I agree with this. While there are certainly a lot of conservatives out there who deny man-made global warming, not all conservatives deny it, if you catch my drift. Have you ever checked out NASA's site on global warming? Are they politically motivated to endorse the idea?

I first read about it in one of Carl Sagan's books. Did he have some kind of political agenda?

Matthew Holderfield said...

"Faith, by definition, doesn't change with evidence."

I don't think it works that way for most people. For some, maybe, but most Christians will cite some sort of justification for their belief. Authors like Lee Strobel come to mind.

"Do you really think this? I would say that "what's accepted as evidence is relative" but critical thinking crosses cultural boundaries, don't you think?"

I do think evidence is subjective, particularly personal testimony. Of course, logic is cross cultural, but not very much science or religion can be boiled down simply to logic. Interpretation plays as much a role as logic. I see scientists debate evidence all the time. What is perfectly logical to one person is absurd to another.

"While there are certainly a lot of conservatives out there who deny man-made global warming, not all conservatives deny it, if you catch my drift. Have you ever checked out NASA's site on global warming? Are they politically motivated to endorse the idea?"

I am not saying the correlation holds down to the individual, but on the aggregate, political affiliation (and specifically opinions on economic regulation) is an excellent predictor of opinions on climate change. As a group, professional scientists are about 3x more likely to self-identify as "liberal."

"I first read about it in one of Carl Sagan's books. Did he have some kind of political agenda?"

Like I said, it doesn't necessarily hold down to the individual, and I don't think advocates of climate change necessarily have an agenda, but the political implications of carbon emissions and climate change fit nicely with a more traditionally "liberal" world view, meaning that people who self-identify as "liberal" are more likely to accept opinions that affirm their political worldview. From what I know of Sagan, I think he probably fits that profile.

Lance Johnson said...

"For some, maybe, but most Christians will cite some sort of justification for their belief. Authors like Lee Strobel come to mind."

Is a justification the same thing as evidence? Lee Strobel's justifications are a joke and don't hold up to any kind of genuine scrutiny. His proofs are nothing more than circular arguments.

So yeah, there are Christians who will use the language of skepticism, but they're not really using it when they accept "the proof of the Jesus story is the empty tomb!" and other arguments where the Bible is used to prove itself.

"What is perfectly logical to one person is absurd to another."

So, is reality subjective then? I mean, there's a process to determine whether something is logical or not. If one guy's point is self-contradictory, for instance, he can insist that he's being logical all he wants - but he's not.

"As a group, professional scientists are about 3x more likely to self-identify as 'liberal.'"

But why is that? Do they identify as liberal because they're scientists or are they scientists because they're liberal? Or is it just a giant coincidence?

Is it possible that one side of the political spectrum is less likely to accept the scientific method?

Matthew Holderfield said...

"Is a justification the same thing as evidence?"

No, not the same, but you are aware that evidence is used for justification. And, personal testimony is a form of evidence. Written record is evidence. And, interpreting that evidence is - to some degree - subjective. I agree that Lee Strobel is wrong, but it's also not the same thing as pure faith.

"So, is reality subjective then?"

No, but interpretation of evidence is subjective.

"Do they identify as liberal because they're scientists or are they scientists because they're liberal? Or is it just a giant coincidence?"

I'm willing to bet it isn't a coincidence, because it's a statistically significant difference. Why? I have ideas, but all I am saying here is that the science of climate change is associated with a specific political ideology. That doesn't make it untrue, but it does speak to how people interpret (and/or collect) evidence.

"Is it possible that one side of the political spectrum is less likely to accept the scientific method?"

I suspect acceptance of science has more to do with the subject matter than it does with the scientific method (though Republicans do report higher skepticism of scientists, but I think views on climate change, birth control/abortion and evolution skew this statistic). I doubt Republicans are more likely to be skeptical of string theory, but maybe that would be a good control question.

My whole point is that "skeptics" are usually selective about where they direct their skepticism. It's not clear to me why skepticism of climate change or evolution should be any different than religion.

Lance Johnson said...

"And, personal testimony is a form of evidence. Written record is evidence."

And yet if I claimed that you had killed a guy and wrote it down, would that be enough to convict you in a court of law?

Are Darwin's writings on evolution the same kind of evidence as the fossil record and DNA?

I guess what I'm saying is that there's evidence, and then there is evidence, if that makes sense.

"interpretation of evidence is subjective"

Okay, if I looked at the fossil record and said that it was evidence for Scientology, would that make my interpretation just as valid as a biologist's?

"My whole point is that 'skeptics' are usually selective about where they direct their skepticism. It's not clear to me why skepticism of climate change or evolution should be any different than religion."

I would say that it should be different because in the case of climate change and evolution, the evidence is objective. Fossils, DNA, ring species, etc. are stronger pieces of evidence than something that some unknown author wrote down in a book. As for climate change, the rising average global temperatures, along with the climactic results, are observable and objective as well.

Matthew Holderfield said...

"And yet if I claimed that you had killed a guy and wrote it down, would that be enough to convict you in a court of law?"

In far too many cases, yes. Especially if I were black.

"I guess what I'm saying is that there's evidence, and then there is evidence, if that makes sense."

Yes. I agree. But, for many people, the most reliable evidence is the word of a respected individual. The weight of evidence is - to some degree - subjective. Remember, at one point the most compelling legal evidence was eye witness testimony. That standard changed as we learned about plasticity of memory and discovered DNA evidence. Now, we are learning that DNA testing is not always as accurate as we once thought. Interpretation is subjective.

"Okay, if I looked at the fossil record and said that it was evidence for Scientology, would that make my interpretation just as valid as a biologist's?"

I don't know what you're getting at here. It doesn't sound compelling to me, but do you have any credibility with scientologists?

"I would say that it should be different because in the case of climate change and evolution, the evidence is objective."

Yes, the physical evidence is objective. But, again the interpretation is subjective. Nobody is debating the existence of DNA, fossils, or measured CO2 concentrations, it is the interpretation of that evidence. That's where culture (or political viewpoint) has significant influence.

Lance Johnson said...

"But, for many people, the most reliable evidence is the word of a respected individual...Now, we are learning that DNA testing is not always as accurate as we once thought. Interpretation is subjective."

And that gets to the heart of my point. With the first one, it's "So and so said X, case closed." With the other, you change what you think as new evidence becomes available. With religious thought, even when the objective evidence contradicts the word of the respected person, nothing changes.

"It doesn't sound compelling to me, but do you have any credibility with scientologists?"

Would that really make a difference to you? I don't think that it should.

"...it is the interpretation of that evidence. That's where culture (or political viewpoint) has significant influence."

Are you trying to say that one interpretation is as good as another? I can't imagine that you are, but that seems to be the logical conclusion of this particular train of thought.

I'm not denying that people interpret evidence based on their preconceived notions, but don't you think that there are ways to be more objective? If not, it seems to me that anything and everything is equally legitimate.

Matthew Holderfield said...

I'm not sure if my last comment went through, but I think my points can be summed up with this:

"Skeptic" should refer to an attitude when considering evidence, but should not be associated with a particular conclusion.

I think when "skeptic" gets tied to a particular stance we put ourselves in a precarious situation that comes close to dogma. Unless the "evidence" in question amounts to "proof," then interpretation is involved. Not all opinions are valid, but they aren't necessarily mutually exclusive with "skepticism." One's beliefs can be wrong, yet remain a skeptic.

That's what I was trying to get at with all the climate change and evolution stuff. "Skeptic" should not be linked to evolution and climate politics. Those things may be "right" but, like atheism, they are not synonymous with "skeptic."

Lance Johnson said...

I don't know what happened to your other post - maybe got lost in Spamville.

Anyway, I see what you're saying now, and I agree. Being a "skeptic" shouldn't mean that you agree with conclusions x, y, and z. It means that you should be ready to change your mind about things given sufficient evidence.