The Enemy
Gamer Virtues, Gamer Vices

The Allegations Against Religion

How can ideals of the good lead to evil? Discussion of this topic tends to focus on the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and is rarely balanced. The distorting effects of cognitive biases make it difficult for anyone to approach the issue in an even handed manner, and those who have committed themselves to opposing religion display myside biases as terminally myopic as the worst of their opponents. The role of Christianity in creating modern Human Rights or of Islam in establishing religious toleration are downplayed in favour of the more sensational excesses of organised religion. It is never seriously considered that the problem might be institutions themselves, and not the traditions that instigate them.

Modern historians estimate that the various inquisitions were responsible for roughly 6,000 deaths over 500 years. By comparison, between 11 and 17 million people died in the Nazi holocaust (including some six million Jews) in a little over a decade. Over some seventy years, the Soviet Union caused the deaths of between 28 and 126 million people, many of them the victims of anti-religious persecutions. Even including the approximately 40,000 people who died as a result of the Crusades, the deaths inflicted upon religious people when they were the out-group vastly outweigh the deaths caused by religious institutions when they were the in-group. Even if one attempts to massage this interpretation by flippantly altering definitions (as Christopher Hitchens seems to enjoy doing), the case against militant institutions is clearly stronger than that against religion as such.

Those who have publically committed to an anti-religious agenda naturally fall prey to myside bias and have no difficulty pointing a finger at the worst excesses of religion on the one hand while conveniently redefining the worst excesses of non-religion (particularly Marxist ideology) as being effectively religious in nature. If one defines religion as institutional evil, it is a foregone conclusion that one will find that religion is evil, but such intellectual chicanery cannot convince anyone who is not already committed to the same perspective. We see in this attitude the discrimination and persecution associated with cognitive dissonance just as clearly as in the equivalent religious bigotry that condemns people for holding different beliefs.

Two other key arguments against religion – that it is false, and that it bribes people with promises of immortality – are equally problematic. Metaphysical beliefs, such as those most religions express, are by definition untestable, and as such it makes as much sense to say they are false as it does to say they are true. How would you test the claim either way? As for the lure of eternal life, the non-religious can be just as besotted with promises of this kind, as indicated in the popularity of Ray Kurzveil and the tremendous faith many unreligious people have in scientific immortality. That making humanity physically immortal would instigate the worse population crisis imaginable is somehow never considered; it makes stories of an afterlife seem quite innocent in comparison.

Part 19 of 23 in the Pentenary series.


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What is the boundary between religion and organised religion; and what is the boundary between organised religion and organisation? Examining the actions of those who are religious without organisation, or those who are organised without religious beliefs (which is probably harder to define), might help shed some light on this area.

For an interesting look at immortality, see Clarke: "The City and the Stars". I'm sure you've already read it, Chris, but Diaspar has some interesting characteristics compared to many other homes for immortals.

I find it irrelevant whether atrocities were commited by religious groups or non-religious groups. I'm not one who would point the finger at the worst excess of religion, it's more about knowing that humans have the capacity to be evil, that they have and will again be evil in the future...and when they do, they would use whatever group they belong to, based on any religion or any other non-religious belief system, as long as it can fit their evil purpose (often without even being aware of the original purpose having being modified, again whether it is religion or something else).
It is not religion that creates evil in the world, it is not anti-religion either, it's not ideologies, it is rather the existence of evil to start with (as part of the human condition), which can then be expressed in any of those forms (as well as Good).

That could be said of any action, not just genocides or such large scale crimes, sorry to come to this one but thinking about the Catholic Church child abuse scandals, anti-religious people are condemning those priests as if it had anything to do with the very fact of them being priests, so they are condemning the Church, as if the Church, instead of making people good, were making people bad...when it has nothing to do with that, being a priest, or believing in god, or not believing on god, or being anti-religion, this has nothing to do with being good or bad, some people will do good deeds, somme will commit crimes, and no holy book or ideology is going to change that.
That's why whenever I hear talks like "why is religion good?" and "why is religion dangerous?", I can't get invloved whatever mt personal belief, because I know it is neither.

Ah, but if one were immortal there would be no need to reproduce. Having said that, it is said that God had a son.

Romain - I think there's a case that someone in a very high-pressure job (priest / pastor) should be allowed by their employer to have similar support in that job to the rest of the population. The Roman Catholic dogma that priests should be male and celibate seems to me to remove a large part of the priests' support and stability. The results are, unfortunately, predictable: less stable priests, some of whom take routes to release the pressure that their society finds unacceptable.

"It is never seriously considered that the problem might be institutions themselves, and not the traditions that instigate them."

Isn't it?
If not in headlines then surely in arguments I believe (haha) that it is exactly that, the institutions, that are being put in the spot light and criticized.

The traditions are only discussed when they become evident in the problematic, institutionalized way of practicing them. It is not a problem when muslims pray in the evening within their homes. It becomes a problem (apparently) when they want to do so in a mosque built near ground zero.

I agree that it is the institution that is the problem - I think most people share your opinion.

Peter: "What is the boundary between religion and organised religion; and what is the boundary between organised religion and organisation?"

These are both good questions, but of course it is not so easy to erect a boundary in this way. We are really establishing in each case two polar positions and admitting a confusing diversity of cases in between.

(And I haven't read "The City and the Stars", although I know of it. I've only read a few Clarke novels... I found his characters a bit dry, although his settings are often brilliantly constructed).

Romain: I find much that I sympathise with in your account, although I baulk at "the existence of evil". What does it mean to say "evil exists"? Is this the same as saying "people cause evil"?

Regarding the priest scandal, it seems to me that it was the handling of the situation which warranted the criticism of the Vatican - and the fact that Pope Benedict offered an apology in this regard suggests that this criticism was well-founded.

Thanks for your comment!

Chairman: "Ah, but if one were immortal there would be no need to reproduce."

Spoken as a person with no children, I presume! >:) Do you really believe that in the event of immortality being "discovered" there will be a calm and rational decision to trade procreation for immortality? Perhaps you are a bigger romantic fantacist than you make out to be. ;)

"Having said that, it is said that God had a son."

Well if we're going to refer specifically to Christianity, God (pro)creates all life on the planet - it seems, being immortal was just not satisfying enough without offspring. :)

Peter: You argue that the celibacy doctrine is the arguable cause of the relevant scandal. But we're not talking in this case about priests having illicit affairs - that does happen, and arguably is a consequence of what you say here, but it isn't big news. This is a child abuse scandal. Are you sure these situations happened as a result of the situation you sketch here, and not because the people in question chose to become priests in order to have privileged access to children?

Malene: If you are right that it's widely accepted that the problem is institutions not the traditions, why is there so little support for dismantling or curtailing the actions of the State, the biggest institutional force in the world today?

I do not mean that the criticism should be levelled at the *specific* institutions - I mean that the criticism should perhaps be levelled at the nature of *instititions* as a whole.

See Thursday's post for more discussion of this point.

Thanks for the comments everyone!

Hi Chris,

"If you are right that it's widely accepted that the problem is institutions not the traditions, why is there so little support for dismantling or curtailing the actions of the State, the biggest institutional force in the world today?"

What classifies something as *institution*?

A critical view of the nature of institutions as a whole might only be obtained by a critical view of the individual institutions. I can't imagine it being done differently without generalizing the concept of institution to a point beyond recognition.

There are so many factors to consider in any and every institution, and each factor presents individual elements to analyze.

Malene: it certainly is a complex topic! It's made more complex by the fact that the anthropological use of "institution" is a far wider term than I mean it to be taken in this thread - for instance, fiction, promising and marriage are all institutions in the anthropological sense. But I mean something closer to "organisation".

And I agree with you that in this regard it is difficult to generalize - but oddly, this has not stopped people from having debate about "religion" which in some respects is far harder to generalize than social organisation.

Thanks for continuing the discussion!

"Are you sure these situations happened as a result of the situation you sketch here, and not because the people in question chose to become priests in order to have privileged access to children?"

Nope. But then, as a skeptic, how certain am I of anything? :-)

More seriously, I suspect a combination of factors were / are at work.

This impulse to generalize specifics and then isolate generalities has always annoyed me in debates about religion. And I totally agree with you about the force of an organized institution that brings about so much crud. I assume it's simply a matter of psychology. A human mind can only organize so much stuff, then they need help. Then the helpers need help, etc. Eventually you get a sprawling tangle of miscommunication and inefficiency. That is why I am so opposed to growing our federal government.

Josh: to my mind, very little recognition has been given thus far to the role of the organized institution - prior prejudices tend to intercede.

As for opposition to growing federal government, alas, in the US as much as anywhere, this battle is very difficult to win.

Democrats want to fix social problems by spending money on top-down programmes - a policy that wastes considerable funds but tends not to solve any of the problems targeted since they need to be addressed bottom-up. While they are committed to government as the means to solve problems, they will not support a reduction in the scale of the institution.

Conversely, Republicans wish to minimise the money sent to the central coffers, but insist on the importance of defence - and thus end up spending more money than even the Democrats propose. While they say they want smaller government, the commitment to defence as absolutely necessary means they cannot support a reduction in the scale of the institution either.

But the "third party", the Libertarians, have policies that only an abstract-minded individual could comprehend the merits of, and thus will always have at most about one tenth of the vote.

Reform in the States thus requires a wholly new dialogue - one that the polarisation of the political landscape makes difficult (but not, I think, impossible) to begin. While Democrats and Republicans demonise each other, however, eternal deadlock is the inevitable consequence.

Thanks for your comment!

The examples of the crusades and the inquisition that you talked about were rather a long time ago, when populations and the death tolls of wars were both far smaller; it is somewhat misleading to compare them to 20th century holocausts.

However, in an attempt to find some more recent examples, I came across this:

It brings starkly home the fact that of the many wars mentioned, it is very difficult to point to one and say that religion was the sole cause of it; even if the two sides don't share a religion there are generally other reasons for dispute.

This begs the question: why do so many people consider religion a force against peace?

Perhaps it is because religions create false differences between us? Or perhaps it is because a highly religious people seems to move with more singular purpose than a largely secular one.

Before you point out that it was the relatively secular USA/UK who recently attacked the relatively religious Afghanistan/Iraq - point taken; I did say "seems" :-)

Jon: your point about the difference in the proportions of the populations is well made; my general point here regarding Crusades and Inquisitions is that the impression people have of these events ("millions were killed!") doesn't match the historical data.

Also, in the case of the Crusades, religion was much less of a motivating factor than is often assumed. The fact of the matter is, the kingdoms of this time had many armed and bellicose knights lying around and were afraid if they weren't given an enemy to fight it would lead to civil war - so political rather than religious factors were key to the Crusades coming about. This doesn't assuage the Church's role in supporting these wars, but they can't be seen as instigators in this case.

I suspect the reason religion is seen as a force against peace is because bad reputation accumulates like a pile of gravel - it keeps getting bigger over time - while good reputation is like a pile of leaves; you don't notice it and then it blows away in the next big storm.

For me, national identity is just as decisive as religious identity, and singling out the latter while ignoring the former is a sign of prejudice.

Almost all religions, as abstract entities, are forces both for and against peace, although if you look at religious individuals instead of religious traditions there are many more religious individuals who favour peace than who call for war. It is saddening that Islam has developed a reputation for being a warlike religion; it's a gross misrepresentation of the Muslim world as a whole. But it only takes a small proportion of "bad apples" to dominate the headlines, and (as some Muslims conducting positive community outreach recently pointed out to me) "Muslims hold peaceful festival" is hardly headline news. :)

What really complicates this issue, however, is the way that nations like the US, with a majority of Christians, are willing to pursue foreign military action. To me, this is against the teachings of Jesus, and difficult to square with the core values of that religion. As long as people believe that armed forced can be gainfully deployed in the pursuit of peace, peace itself will be impossible to reach.

I still hope for a time when the primary role of the military will be disaster relief, and the application of armed force will become merely a skill that is practised, and not one that is exercised.

Thanks for sharing your views!

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