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Stop that! June 25, 2007

Posted by Joe in agnosticism, atheism, belief, Christianity, church state separation, creationism, fallacy, freethought, god, morality, religion, theism.

To my fellow atheists/agnostics etc…:

Stop blaming all, the majority of, or any tragedies of the past on religion!

It’s a distraction!

War, genocide, terrorism, brussel sprouts; None of these are caused by or promoted by religion! All good people oppose these things. Since the person you are arguing with will not admit to being a bad person they will either oppose them or pretend to. As a result any discussion that ventures to this territory immediately puts the theist on the defensive. It will turn a civil discussion into a heated argument faster than anything.

I offer proof in the form of every review I have read of The God Delusion written by a theist, and now I read that The End of Faith contains the same points.  That’s enough for me to not bother with those books.
In reality these things are human foibles. They will always exist to one extreme or another as long as humans do.



1. Ed Yong - June 26, 2007

*stands up and applauds*

Well said, that man. It’s a gross and arrogant generalisation that relies on a massively skewed and selective view of the evidence. That doesn’t sound very scientific, now does it?

2. Joe - June 26, 2007

Not at all and it just generally makes the atheist look like a jerk.

3. Richard Wade - June 28, 2007

I agree that this card is played too often in discussions between atheists and theists, and that it often stops what might have been productive dialogue.
Are you saying that the Crusades, the Inquisition, the centuries of killing during the Reformation, generations of murder in Northern Ireland, the mutual slaughter of Sunnis and Shias, worldwide terrorist attacks, the continuing murder of people accused of witchcraft, the persecution of Chester Smalkowski in Oklahoma and tens of thousands of other individual outrages have NOTHING AT ALL to do with religion? Not even the slightest influence?
Are you saying that even though religion has played a role in all that bloodshed and strife that we should simply not talk about it because some religious person will take offense and “get defensive?”

Maybe they have much to defend.

For far too long religion has enjoyed a “hands off” status in our culture, where any negative effects on individuals or society have been either ignored or rationalized as being caused by something else that would have happened anyway. As a result, now when religion is criticized even in the most polite, respectful, reasonable and factual terms, religious defenders cry “Oh you’re full of hate! You’re rude and unfair!” In an era where destructive energies are available to almost anyone, religion can no longer be given the Get Out of Jail Free card. It has to answer for its problems; it has to repudiate its fanatics. It isn’t going to do that without being confronted with the truth.

If “it’s a distraction” what are we being distracted from that would be more important to discuss? I think it is possible to honestly discuss the not-so-nice aspects and effects of religion factually, using the evidence without skewing it, without “looking like a jerk.” That’s a subjective reaction anyway. To many people you’re a jerk if you just don’t agree perfectly with their views. You can’t make avoiding being called a jerk your primary guideline for discussion unless you want to live on Sesame Street.

There is much written by Dawkins and Harris that I don’t agree with. But for you to dismiss their books as not worth reading just because of some whining reviews written by theists who miss their old untouchable status is very silly on your part. Consider judging the books for yourself.

4. Joe - June 28, 2007

I don’t think religion should get get a hands-off status or should not be asked to defend any negative consequences it may produce. I do believe that the case that many of those things are caused by religion is greatly blown out of proportion.

Do you hold atheism (or communism for that matter) as responsible for the mass murders of the Soviet leaders? No? How can you hold religion responsible for the crusades then? Do you think they were really motivated by religion? I highly doubt it.

The reason why I call it a distraction is because I am sure that Dawkins’ book is full of many other great points in favor of atheism, but this was all I read about in critical reviews. This and his charge of “child abuse” which I also find to be over the top.

I do plan on reading The God Delusion though. After watching the YouTube video of Dawkins reading the introduction to the paperback edition.

5. Richard Wade - June 28, 2007

Joe, I was going by your use of the words “all,” “any” and “none” in the first part of your post. It sure sounded like you think there’s zero connection between religion and atrocities. In some cases, as you say the influence has been exaggerated, but in other cases it has been acknowledged accurately and in some cases it has been minimized, ignored and denied.

To compare the Crusades with the pogroms of the Stalinist era is not a very good argument for diminishing religion’s role in the Crusades. Actually it’s more of an indictment. Stalinist style communism was a cult practiced with religious fervor, as close to a secular religion as anyone has come. Regardless, the excesses of a non-religious movement do not get religious movements off the hook for their excesses. That’s like arguing that person A is less culpable for armed robbery because at a different time and place person B committed armed robbery too. The Crusades were probably more of a land grab with religion used as a rationale. But that still is a very grievous effect. Even if the central ideology of a religion does not support atrocities it is easily perverted and misused by ambitious leaders, supported by complicit clerics and complied with by devout masses. The other examples I listed are far more strongly motivated by religious ideas and can’t be so easily dismissed as “just” a hijacking of religion for the sake of greed.

It reminds me of the endless and futile argument about how guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Well, guns make it really easy, and religion is really easy to use to inflame people into murderous conflict. It’s a dangerous object to have around children. (read childish, backward people.)

Like you, I too think that Dawkins’ comparing child religious indoctrination to child abuse is over the top, and I strongly disagree with his and especially Harris’ insistence that religious moderates lend “cover” for religious extremists. That’s absurd; they offer no evidence for this contention, and there’s plenty of evidence that religious moderates are actually the fundamentalists’ strongest opponents.

If religion were to magically disappear from the minds of humanity overnight we would still have greed, anger, racism and stupidity to contend with and we’d still have conflicts flaming around the world, but we wouldn’t have the gasoline of “God said it’s okay” to throw on those flames.

I’m all for civil and respectful discourse on all these issues. But it still has to be honest and thorough, and not deny the ugly reality that people will refuse to see unless they’re confronted with it. If that confrontation has to be gentle then it still has to be persistent.

6. Melinda Barton - July 3, 2007

Mr. Wade,

Actually, the concept of a progressive hierarchy of races is not derived from religion but from 17th, 18th and 19th century science. This theory was read “retroactively” into scriptural interpretations.

As for the communist example, anyone who uses this to imply that all atheists are violent is as foolish as anyone who uses the Inquisition to imply that all theists are violent. The only thing the communist example proves is that it doesn’t take religion for humans to commit atrocities. As many similarities as one may be able to find between communism and religion, it is not a religion but a nonreligious ideology.

Any ideology, any system of belief, can be called upon in the right circumstances to promote violence and bloodshed. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find an ideology or religion or any system of belief (including science) that was not called upon to justify horrendous acts that benefitted those in power or those who sought power.

In the absense of religion, we will still be left with political, economic, and ideological systems that promote the interests of the “in group” at the cost of the “out group”. This is, unfortunately, the nature of the human animal. The “right” circumstances can move even the average “good” person to acts of “evil.” I’d recommend the book, “The Lucifer Effect” by Phil Limbardo, who directed the Stanford Prison Experiment. It’s highly enlightening.

7. Joe - July 3, 2007

That book is definitely on my must read list!

8. Ken Perrott - July 5, 2007

I agree that concentration on religious violence was a weakness of The God Delusion and the End of Faith. However, I do think it was worth re-iterating the violence done in the name of religion over the years – often religion is just presented as o good thing, despite the ridiculous beliefs.
Both Dawkins and Harris have said that they didn’t intend to deny violence by non-religious groups. The weakness is that they didn’t pursue the subject in further detail.
However, I think there is a need to seriously look at the source and vehicles of violence (evil). We will find that religion played (and plays a role). But we will probably also find that educating people to use evidence, reason and logic in the way they perceive the world will help prevent violence, whether it is in th name of god, or the more secular king and country.

9. religionandatheism - July 9, 2007

Broadly speaking, recent popular atheism is too keen to reject religion for its morality. The inherent danger of evidentially unjustified beliefs, and the absolute conviction in the unerring word of God, or worse still, his absolute laws, IS a dangerous absurdity. What is completely wrong, however, is for atheists to misrepresent religion as capable only of being destructive. Religion has done good for the world. The moral arguments about religion being harmful are actually repeated over and over ad nauseum. I’ve reviewed this rather curious phenomenon here:

10. religionandatheism - July 9, 2007

Incidentally, for those interested in a book by a theologian specifically dealing with religion, sectarian violence and whether religious is dangerous, try reading the aptly named “Is Religion Dangerous?” by Keith Ward. It is a well considered reply to the morally-reductionist atheist.

11. bluerat - July 9, 2007

Here is a typically obtuse piece of analysis from Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith:
“Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon.” (p.129)

What Harris fails to mention, presumably because it is so completely inconvenient to him, is that that perching of the superpowers was not so stable. Everyone here has heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I presume, but how many of you know that the order to fire nuclear-tipped torpedoes against a US Navy Frigate was actually issued by the USSR? What saved the world from a nuclear war was the good sense of Vasiliy Arkhipov, the commander of the Soviet sub. He countermanded the order, presumably at great personal risk, and persuaded the vessel’s invigilating political officer and its captain that they should surface. For what Wikipedia’s short entry on the topic has to say (and it’s a crying shame that as important an event in human history should receive such scant attention), you might be interested to go and read this stub: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasiliy_Arkhipov
In his celluloid retrospective, The Fog Of War, made decades later, the former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, noted that “Rationality will not save us”. Some will cynically assert that McNamara’s film seeks to reestablish the long-lost perception that he was a moral man. Nonetheless, his warning – that rationality will not save us – should be heeded by all those rationalists who assert their preferred ideology as the answer to the world’s ills. Note, that I’m not defending religion.

12. bluerat - July 9, 2007

You may all, incidentally, be interested to read Is Religion Dangerous, by theologian Keith Ward. I don’t agree with Ward on matters of faith, but his analysis is very welcome and fairly balanced. I’ve met him and he’s a man of great intellectual integrity. I recommend the book highly.

13. bluerat - July 9, 2007

You may also be interested in a short piece I wrote reviewing the arguments seemingly repeated ad nauseum in the theist-atheist debates regarding the morality of religion. The post is here:

Alternatively, it has been posted on the affiliated blog ReligionandAtheism:

14. Melinda Barton - July 10, 2007

Blue Rat,

I’ve actually begun a point by point refutation of Sam Harris on my blog. I was going to do a normal review and merely state that he has a whole host of logical and factual errors (with a few examples), but I could predict people arguing that I just took a few needles from an otherwise strong haystack. I’ve got two sections done so far (about 50 pages). I’ve got the notes done for the rest and will add them section by section.

15. Paul Sunstone - July 20, 2007

Seems to me religion is a great facilitator. It facilitates good or evil depending on the inclinations of who uses it.

16. Joe - July 20, 2007

Agreed Paul. It can be a force for good or evil. The believers tend to focus on the good and the nonbelievers the evil. An unbiased assessment of the balance would seem impossible.

17. mwatumao arap kabvokho - September 27, 2007

People,bad once will always hide behind something religion or otherwise to commit evil things against their fellow human beings,can we agree apartheid in southafrica was commited in the name of religion or race?,how comes the same evils were commited in other parts of africa by some african rulers[not leaders-leaders govern by fairness].We should be objective n understand ignoranr people will always hide behide some obsruct to xploit their evil thought.

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