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Moderates, good deeds and religious fanaticism

John Stephenson argues for the need to ask religious moderates about the motivations behind their actions. Are moderates – seeing faith as virtuous – tacitly defending fundamentalists (who are the genuinely committed believers), allowing them to become the “tail that wags the dog”? Moreover are religious moderates actually engaged in religion because they are “humanists in disguise”?

One of the problems with engaging religious folk in conversation is the fact that, before falling victim to the charge of being “angry” or “strident”, we find that the rules of discourse and logic are warped and violated beyond recognition. Find me a religious fanatic who doesn’t endorse his faith through the actions supposedly committed in its name and you will have probably found me a liar.

It may not seem apparent during regular conversation – phrases such as “well as a practising Catholic” or “Judaism preaches kindness” are regularly greeted with admiration or at the worst, ambivalence – but it is when we strip away someone’s faith that such statements are shown to be contemptible. Are we really to believe that, without the promise of eternal life, the religious among us would resort to hedonistic violence and acts of self-indulgent debauchery? Suppose that next week the Abrahamic religions were shown to be apocryphal. Would we suddenly hear reports of Justin Welby snorting cocaine while out partying with Desmond Tutu and a gang of strippers? Of course not.

As is the case, kindness in the name of God or religion is done with a knife to your back. Good deeds done for fear of punishment or in receipt of reward are hardly commendable, yet believers still wish to play a numbers game – stressing the good work done in the name of Christ or Allah or some other Bronze Age almighty. Admittedly from my own experience some of the nicest people I know are devoted Christians yet, unlike the many who act as though this gives some form of credibility to the story of Adam and Eve, I pay them the honour of assuming they would behave in such a way if they did not have religion to fall back on.

Secularists such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins are keen to avoid a war of words with the religious over who “does more” – the understanding being that they are first and foremost passionate about the truth and not the resulting human behaviour of unproven tales. But perhaps more ground can be made by appealing to altruism before detailing the logical arguments against a given theology.

The fact that what we perceive as a sense of morality is innate within humanity as opposed to religion is evident by virtue of the cherry-picking so commonplace among moderate believers. Among casual Church of England Christians for example, the Sermon on the Mount may be advocated yet the more abhorrent elements of Deuteronomy or Leviticus will be ignored. I suspect that a large proportion of these individuals are religious in name alone and that, for the most part, their attendance comes as a result of habit or an intrinsically vague idea that to attend church constitutes as a “good thing”. These people have often given very little thought to the doctrine their religion entails, but understand church to be a place of warmth and community – things that most of us are drawn to.


Nevertheless, a decent case can be made for the idea that these moderates act to “shield” their more fanatical peers, whose sense of warmth and community has been replaced with homophobia, rampant prejudice and arbitrary ethical practise. If people are repeatedly told that faith – belief without evidence – is to be respected and deemed virtuous then it is easy to see why moderates will empathise with religious idiocy such as creationism or belief in the virgin birth. The result is that the more abhorrent groups within faith-based communities become the ‘tail that wags the dog”, free from criticism and protected by their quieter and less committed moderate cohorts. There is a reason, after all, that the most vocal of religious groups are fanatical.

Consequently, the need for to replace religion with a different form of opiate has never been greater, especially in light of recent scandal. Just last month the LSE oversaw the banning of “offensive” t-shirts critical of religion and Muslim employees of Tesco are likely to receive compensation due to the restricted access to their prayer room. Such occurrences are increasingly commonplace among western societies scared or unwilling to offend believers, placing free-speech in the firing line in order to prevent the faithful from playing the hurt feelings card.

Religious moderates are often humanists in disguise. They just don’t realise it and it is our responsibility to change this sorry state of affairs. The neurologist and celebrated atheist Sam Harris makes a decent point, commenting on the fact that for many individuals, religion is the only game in town when it comes to talking about feelings of “love” and “compassion”, so it is unsurprising that the “herd” will flock to wherever such expressions are voiced.

While a large proportion of charity and social work is carried out without the name of religion hovering over it; religious charitable work, in contrast, often entails a more insidious element or “catch” to it; this being the proselytization of the vulnerable during a time when human compassion is at its most treasured. The employment of aggressive conversion tactics or the use of aid as leverage for evangelism is part of the everyday spectre of “God’s work” and such behaviour should be deplored, yet the majority of believers are unaware that they tacitly support such vile activities.

If their beliefs remain immune to criticism then it is the motivations behind their acts that need to be targeted. As patronising as it sounds, by doing this we may be speaking a language they can understand.

85 comments to Moderates, good deeds and religious fanaticism

  • Lee Moore

    “Are we really to believe that, without the promise of eternal life, the religious among us would resort to hedonistic violence and acts of self-indulgent debauchery?”

    In a word, yes. The body count for the atheists overtops the body count for the religious, at least since the atheists began to gain political power in the last hundred years or so, by such a large margin that it is impossible to doubt that humans freed of the constraints of religion are capable of almost anything. If we go back to the pre Christian days of the civilised Greeks, wars commonly ended with genocide, or on a good day, enslavement of the entire defeated population.

    That is not to say, of course, that there are not a few shiningly nice people who would be shiningly nice with or without gods. Nor is it to say that one cannot discriminate between different religions. I fear the CofE much less than I fear the Aztecs. But cutting to the chase, if the entire population – except me – had the religious views of, say, Robert Runcie, I would sleep far more soundly than if the entire population were atheists.

    If Guest Writer is accustomed to being accused of being angry and strident when he converses with the godly, I am not – even as a moderate atheist – altogether surprised.

  • Ace Dacre

    If we go back to the pre Christian days of the civilised Greeks, wars commonly ended with genocide

    I suggest you start by googling “Albigensian Crusade”, then move on to the Christian Crusader massacre when they took Jerusalem. And after you have finished googling overtly Christian atrocities, lets move on to the Muslim ones.

    So no, the only reach change in the modern era is the addition of technology to atrocities.

  • Paul Marks

    First the word “Fundamentalist” – this word actually comes from the early 1900s essays defending the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith (God as a real being, not a collective abstraction, life after death for the INDIVIDUAL [not "collective salvation" of "the people" in a socialist future country] and so on) against the “Social Gospel” of the Progressives (the people who “when they talk about James from the pulpit mean William James not the Apostle James).

    Contrary to the “Progressive” myth the people who wrote the essays on the “Fundamentals” were not anti science – indeed many of them were scientists including evolutionary biologists (anti evolutionism was NOT one of the Fundamentals – it was not the theory of evolution but the racist moral lessons drawn by the Progressives – their desire to exterminate or at least sterilise the “inferior” in the name of “scientific eugenics” that was what was opposed in the early 1900s).

    Even in the 1920s when anti evolutionism became more important it was the moral lessons that the Progressives (FALSELY) drew from the theory that was the real object of opposition.

    Have a look at “Hunter’s Civic Biology” the work in a state (i.e. taxpayer funded) school that led to the so called “Monkey Trial”.

    This work is eugenicist – so much so that it shocked Tennessee in the 1920s (thing about that).

    And, contrary to the Hollywood myth, the people who rushed down to Tennessee to “defend evolution” were not really “pro freedom” – Darrow and the others were actually totalitarians (of either the Fascist or Communist type), but Hollywood does not like to mention that.

    Still back to the post.

    Religious people believe that atheists never do good things – false.

    Religious people believe that religious people never do bad things – also false.

    Religious people that good and evil are simply the arbitrary commands of God – that might fit Calvinists and Muslims, but it hardly fits such things as “Natural Law is God’s Law, but if God did exist Natural Law would be exactly the same” (a standard line of the Scholastics as far back as the Middle Ages).

    Religious people believe that only religious people go to Heaven – there is some evidence for claiming that about religious people, for example “I am the way, the truth and the life – there is no way to the father but through me” (although some people believe that “whether they know it or not” is also true). But this is a far from universal view among the religious – including the strictly religious people.

    For example Jews do not believe this – on the contrary Jews believe that “Righteous Gentiles”
    (including righteous atheists) go to Heaven.

    But then why obey the 613 regulations of the Torah – indeed why believe in God at all?

    The traditional answer is “you do not think we do that for a REWARD do you?”

  • John Stephenson

    Lee Moore – Yes but it doesn’t work that way does it. You say you’d sleep better were the entire population – except you – to have the religious views of Robert Runcie, but that’s based on the very assumption that religion is a constraining influence in the first place.

    Turn that on its head and you can argue that Robert Runcie was a good man regardless and he wasn’t representative of many sections of the Bible. I suppose he thought menstruating women are impure did he? Or that homosexuality is an “abomination”? Or that genocide done under God’s name was okay? I doubt it, because these probably went against his own intrinsic nature. On the other hand if he DID advocate such abhorent doctrine then this shows what a toll his religion took on his nature.

  • Lee Moore

    Ace : “So no, the only reach change in the modern era is the addition of technology to atrocities.”

    Would that that were true !

    I’ll see you an Albigensian crusade 800 years ago, and raise you 800,000 Tutsis killed only 20 years ago – with machetes.

  • Ace Dacre

    Yeah, mostly Christian Hutus killing mostly Christian Tutsis. Good thing Christianity, like Islam, are “religions of peace” eh? :-D

  • RRS

    And – the point is?

    Better reference: The Moral Sense James Q. Wilson (1993)

  • John Stephenson

    RRS – The point is that moderates are entangled in religion by accident and its tackling will become easier once they have strayed from its doctrine. While they don’t actively have a vast knowledge of the doctrine, they are part of the church/mosque etc. through habit, societal pressure and also because it is one of the only obvious places talking of good deeds as virtuous.

  • steve

    I strongly object to one of the authors statements

    He says that good deeds done in the name of expecting a reward are not commendable. That is hog wash. Good deeds done in the name of expecting a reward is a short concise description of capitalism. And capitalism has done far more to improve the lot of the poor in this world then altruistic self sacrifice.

  • One objection to that would be that the actions involved within capitalism are neither commendable nor reprehensible, but the understanding is that “improving the lot” of the poor comes as a by-product of drive for profit.

    If I were to save you from drowning I’m sure you would think of my action as commendable, yet I’m also sure you’d think differently if you later found out that I’d only done so in order to be paid a million and wouldn’t have done so otherwise.

  • yet I’m also sure you’d think differently if you later found out that I’d only done so in order to be paid a million and wouldn’t have done so otherwise.

    Not sure I agree with that. When a SAR helicopter crew braves a severe storm and consequent ‘statistically significant’ risk to themselves to pluck otherwise doomed seamen from a foundering ship, I do not think the crew of that helicopter any less heroic just because they are being paid to do so and would not be doing so if they were not being paid. They have needs and families to support too and there are a great many safer ways to make a great deal more money ;-)

  • But you’ve acknowledged that the SAR crew had other options, so it wasn’t simply about the money or “reward”…. “There are a great many safer ways to make a great deal more money.”

    Surely this bolsters my position that to be kind purely for the reward is not commendable. That’s not to say it’s contemptible either of course…

  • Surely this bolsters my position that to be kind purely for the reward is not commendable

    Actually the reason I used the example is I know a (now former) SAR helicopter pilot and frankly he did not do it because he wanted to save people (not that he thought there was anything wrong with saving people) but because he really loved to fly helicopters and he loved to fly under extreme circumstances and wars were not in sufficiently plentiful supply to fill that niche for him. So yes it was not just about the money but it was not about being wonderful to others for its own sake either… but that *was* the effect of his actions nevertheless. And I still think the crazy bastard was a hero :-D

  • steve

    @John

    You state “actions involved within capitalism are neither commendable nor reprehensible.” I disagree with that. If someone effortlessly saves the lives of ten people and is also financially rewarded for the act, they have still done more good in this world then someone who saves the life of a single person at great personal effort and altruistic sacrifice. I guess I just think it is the results that count.

  • John,

    > Richard Dawkins [is] keen to avoid a war of words with the religious over who “does more” – the understanding being that they are first and foremost passionate about the truth and not the resulting human behaviour of unproven tales.

    Sorry, seriously? Dawkins? Er, no. He wades into this fight every morning before his first cup of tea.

    > you can argue that Robert Runcie was a good man regardless and he wasn’t representative of many sections of the Bible. I suppose he thought menstruating women are impure did he? Or that homosexuality is an “abomination”? Or that genocide done under God’s name was okay? I doubt it, because these probably went against his own intrinsic nature.

    It never ceases to amaze me how prevalent this limited understanding of the nature of religious debate is amongst people who would look down on anyone who denies evolution. Look, the fact that The Bible contradicts itself all over the place is a feature, not a bug. It has forced Christians to think and to debate about which bits to prioritise for two thousand years, and it has instilled in them the belief that our understanding of God’s will is flawed and fallible. It has forced Christian ideas into an evolutionary environment, in which the ideas must compete with each other to see which are most fit for the purpose of running a human society. And lots of the ideas have perished and died, as is good and right. The very reason the Mormons send their young men around the world to try and spread the word is that they recognise this and believe that an individual’s beliefs aren’t up to much until he’s had to argue the point with those who disagree with him. This idea unthinkingly tossed around by atheists that Christians merely pick and choose any old bits they like from The Bible and that they are in some way being hypocritical or dishonest when they ignore the rest is historically ignorant and laughably clueless. Not to mention that it necessarily ascribes a level of tongue-dragging stupidity to St Paul — who, let us remember, edited The Bible and thus had and discarded the opportunity to make it consistent — that I simply don’t think is credible. The contradictions are meant to be in there, and they’re a Good Thing.

    The beliefs you mention didn’t go against Runcie’s intrinsic nature, if by “intrinsic” you mean the way he would have turned out no matter what. Obviously, the fact that he was a Christian and had studied and taken part in these debates meant that we cannot say how he would have turned out if he hadn’t. His nature and his beliefs cannot be separated; they influenced each other. As for those of us who grow up as part of a society built on centuries of Judeo-Christian foundations but happen not to believe in God, we can hardly claim that we’d be just as nice without those foundations. Where’s our evidence? How could we possibly have any? Which is why the modern atheist enthusiasm for not merely disbelieving religions’ metaphysical claims but also rejecting the demonstrable good that Christianity and Judaism have done over the centuries is, at the very least, reckless. Building a society in which the rubbishing of our foundations is popularised, on the mere assumption, with zero evidence, that those foundations were never needed anyway… Jesus, what are people thinking?

    (I’m an atheist, not that it matters.)

  • Ace,

    What Lee actually said was

    > If we go back to the pre Christian days of the civilised Greeks, wars commonly ended with genocide

    Yes, there has been genocide committed by Christians. I think the point was that one should look at trends over time, and conclude that the rise of Christianity has, on balance, in the end, led to a reduction in finishing wars in such a way. No-one ever claimed that new ideas take hold overnight.

  • My view, Squander, is that it was not Christianity so much as the European Enlightenment which was responsible for that trend. Now although I too am an atheist, I would argue that it was Christian, actually Catholic, notions of individual agency that lay at the root of the Enlightenment, it was not really Christianity per se that should get the credit ;-)

  • To play devils advocate with my own article, you could argue that the point of the piece still stands regardless of where our notions of individual agency came from. If they were influenced by Christianity then it would be argued that this was only by the doctrine that agreed with our inherent sense of morality – hence the moderates who now conform to these parts in the 21st century.

  • Reconstruct

    I expect most Quakers would accept every word of what you have written.

  • > If they were influenced by Christianity then it would be argued that this was only by the doctrine that agreed with our inherent sense of morality

    Argued on the basis of a guess based on a pleasant notion, though, not on the basis of any evidence whatsoever. It could also be argued, on the basis of actual historical evidence, that Christian notions of morality were probably not so inherent as all that, since, if they had been, promulgating them wouldn’t have required quite so much civil disobedience, literal self-sacrifice, and bloody revolution.

    Perry,

    Since you bring up the Enlightenment, I’ll just throw out the theory that monotheism led to the development of science. It replaced the old notion of multiple gods battling it out based on whims and fickle emotions with the idea of everything that happens having just one cause which does not change. Not a theory that can be proven, really, but it has historical evidence on its side and I think it has a lot of merit.

  • I might add that Christianity took a lot longer to catch on than National Socialism. If belief systems take hold because they gel with our pre-existing intrinsic nature, well, shit.

  • Squander Two – No, some evidence would be things like the “golden rule” found in many different religions.

  • Surellin

    First, Judaism has surprisingly little to say regarding an afterlife. It isn’t even mentioned in the Torah. Second, the enduring appeal of certain religions is that THEY WORK. Lives lived according to the Ten Commandments (or many other religious/ethical codes)are better than those which are not. Societies which follow the Ten Commandments (or whatever) are more successful than those who don’t. So, no, the religious aren’t going out orgying if their faiths are shown to be false – they have a good thing going and know it.

  • Lives lived according to the Ten Commandments (or many other religious/ethical codes) are better than those which are not.

    Oh really? :-D I take it you are not a woman living in Saudi Arabia then.

  • Rich Rostrom

    This essay is one of the most gratuitously offensive things I have ever read here.

    I would summarize the author’s view as follows:

    ***
    Sincere religious believers do bad acts for religious reasons. Any good acts they do from religious belief are under compulsion and don’t count.

    “Religious moderates” who profess belief but won’t do the bad acts are just closet atheists, who should “come out” and stop enabling the bad actors.
    ***

    The author, like a good many militant atheists, presumes to know better than believers what their beliefs actually mean and require. He also claims to know what many of them
    “really” think, and implicitly accuses vast numbers of people of lies and hypocrisy.

  • Regional

    There’s no such thing as a religious moderate. It’s not like Pavlov’s Dog where a bell is rung and you howl for the toppings on your pavlova.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    The belief that moderates my actions is my total fanatical devotion to the golden rule. I always try to treat others as I would like to be treated, and I try to be the first to do a good deed, and thus start a virtuous cycle of good actions. Other religions have other standards, but nothing quite like the golden rule. In fact, the reverse of the Golden rule is a good definition of evil- doing to others what you would object to if they did it to you.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Incidentally, it was Jesus who gave us the parable of The Good Samaritan, which was designed to show that good deeds would be considered as a way of getting into Heaven, even if the race or the theology of the doer was B-grade, not A-grade. So there is still hope for you atheists and agnostics!

  • “Sincere religious believers do bad acts for religious reasons.” – No, sincere religious people may do bad things for reasons that aren’t related to religion in the same way an atheist would.

    “Any good acts they do from religious belief are under compulsion and don’t count.” – Nope. These actions DO count and I pay them the compliment of assuming they’d do them anyway. I make this point by using the Justin Welby example.

    ““Religious moderates” who profess belief but won’t do the bad acts are just closet atheists, who should “come out” and stop enabling the bad actors.” – Maybe I should have made this point clearer. I don’t necessarily think they are closet atheists. When I say they are humanists in disguise, I am saying that they are simply attracted to the parts of religion that appeal – like love, kindness etc. I am not saying I know what they think, but I suspect I may be right in my suspicion that they haven’t applied a lot of thought to their religious beliefs.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    I wonder if atheists look at the consequences of their ‘creed’, or do they just accept the ‘good’ bits? For instance, Peter Singer advocates ‘euthanasia’ for babies born with physical defects. Religious moderates don’t. Enforced Atheism (fanatical atheists?) is the creed of communist countries. Those are atheists who live by their beliefs! Perhaps it would be better if EVERYONE was moderate in living by their beliefs?

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I get very tired of all this self congratulation at the expense of out-groups. The fact of the matter is, if you’re not an adherent of a particular religion, you’re not going to be able to fully understand the motivations of its followers. Trying to use a cereal-box understanding of a religion in order to pick holes in it is just childish point-scoring for your own amusement.

    In the case of Christianity, not applying the more bloodthirsty Levitical mandates is nothing to do with inconsistency or not thinking their beliefs through. In fact there is 2000 years of doctrine and debate that explains why this is the case, so it is very well thought through indeed.

    Although I’ve not known a little thing like facts to get in the way of the more vociferous atheists when they’re in full auto-back-pat mode.

  • Rich Rostrom

    John Stephenson October 10, 2013 at 12:30 am: “Any good acts they do from religious belief are under compulsion and don’t count.” – Nope. These actions DO count and I pay them the compliment of assuming they’d do them anyway.

    That’s not what you wrote. What you did write is “Good deeds done for fear of punishment or in receipt of reward are hardly commendable…”

    Your assertion that “they’d do them anyway” denies any religious motive for good acts.

    What you think you are refuting is a vulgar parody of religion: a set of rules handed down from the sky to be obeyed mechanically. Religion can be a lot more than that. It can be a set of teachings about how to think about life, and those teachings can motivate people to do good acts not specifically commanded by scripture.

  • John,

    > No, some evidence would be things like the “golden rule” found in many different religions.

    Found in religions, you say? Er, and that backs up your point how?

  • I wonder if atheists look at the consequences of their ‘creed’, or do they just accept the ‘good’ bits?

    Atheism is not a creed, as a result the only thing atheists agree on is “gods do not exist”… you can be a libertarian, conservative, socialist, fascist, warmist, skeptic, republican, monarchist, statist, anarchist atheist.

    In fact, I would argue that much of John Stephenson’s thesis can be reworded ever so slightly and directed at irrationalist atheists as well.

  • Squander two – it support my argument because these religions are evidently incompatible in many ways, yet have similar traits. I would argue these are traits inherent within humanity.

  • Lee Moore

    Perry : you can be a libertarian, conservative, socialist, fascist, warmist, skeptic, republican, monarchist, statist, anarchist atheist

    But you can be a libertarian, conservative, socialist, fascist, warmist, skeptic, republican, monarchist, statist, anarchist Christian too.

    Perry : the only thing atheists agree on is “gods do not exist”

    That would seem to involve believing something which is, as yet, unproven. Sort of like taking it on faith, one might say. For those who are uncomfortable about taking things on faith, mere scepticism about the existence of gods is safer.

  • But you can be a libertarian, conservative, socialist, fascist, warmist, skeptic, republican, monarchist, statist, anarchist Christian too.

    Indeed, but you also have a whole bunch of other notions that comes with the ‘Christian’ bit. Indeed ‘Christian’ is logically (but clearly not in practice) incompatible with many of those other notions (as Christian socialist is a bit like a pacifist mugger) … whereas an atheist just excludes the existence of “god” from any such description.

    That would seem to involve believing something which is, as yet, unproven. Sort of like taking it on faith, one might say. For those who are uncomfortable about taking things on faith, mere scepticism about the existence of gods is safer.

    This sort of fallacy is beneath you, seriously. I do not take my rejection of a notion ‘on faith’, I take it on the basis that either it is falsified or it does not actually explain anything and thus it cannot be ‘falsified’… and indeed the “theory” of god does not actually explain anything but is rather a way in which the process of theorising is shut down. It is in effect an unfalsifiable ‘anti-theory’.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Perry, aren’t you rather falling into the trap mentioned by Rich that you are suggesting you know what the religious “really” believe when you say that “a theory of God” can in fact be characterised as shutting down theorising? Since you do not share the religious’ world you, you cannot know that. There may be people who incorporate a theory of God into a very rigorous world-view, it just so happens that you’re not one of them. Your inability to imagine such a person does not preclude their existence.

    There seems to be a arguments coming from the atheists here which can be taken as either a thinly veiled insult against the religious, or a somewhat conceited declaration of how they are superior to the religious, or both.

  • Paul Marks

    It is not sensible to discuss the Bible from a Christian perspective without understanding that, to Christians, the Old Testament is read from the perspective of the New Testament.

    And it is not sensible to discuss the Bible from a Jewish perspective without understanding that, to Jews, the Torah is understood via the Talmud (a rather large work – spanning many centuries of thought).

    Critics of religion tend to think all they have to do is read X from the Old Testament because that is what religious people believe – or at least what “fundamentalists” believe.

    Sorry – it is not.

  • Perry, aren’t you rather falling into the trap mentioned by Rich that you are suggesting you know what the religious “really” believe when you say that “a theory of God” can in fact be characterised as shutting down theorising?

    Not really. I know that many fine people do not let their religion get in the way of most rational theories, and indeed some of those fine people write for samizdata.

    However the ideas in which god is imposed are impossible to refute because they are not really theories about reality at all. I was raised a Catholic of the Thomist variety and when I started this blog I did not describe myself as an atheist. I am not even ‘anti-religious’ in the same way I am not ‘anti-anything’ that does not appear to be an attempt to really describe reality but rather psychological artifice and/or a social technique. I would even say these can be useful and effective, in much the same why I think some traditional Chinese medicine can be useful and effective, even if the traditional theories of why it can work are, I suspect, complete hogwash. I just don’t see how religious notions can be regarded in any other way.

  • John,

    > it support my argument because these religions are evidently incompatible in many ways, yet have similar traits. I would argue these are traits inherent within humanity.

    But there are plenty of other belief systems and religions that have caught on amongst humans that do not have these traits, or are activle antithetical to them. You’re cherry-picking evidence here, starting from your conclusion and working back. Look! Religions A, B, D, G, and H all share common attributes. That can only mean those attributes are pan-religious, which can only mean they preceded their respective religions, which can only mean they’re inherent to humanity. (And we’ll just pretend religions C, E, and F never happened.)

    As I suggested earlier, if belief systems catch on because they’re compatible with all the stuff humans already inherently believe, then the fact that National Socialism became as popular in about a decade as Christianity managed in five centuries tells us that our inherent beliefs are fucking awful and that we could probably do with a bit of religion to counteract them.

    Paul,

    > Critics of religion tend to think all they have to do is read X from the Old Testament because that is what religious people believe – or at least what “fundamentalists” believe.

    Yes, quite. And I wouldn’t mind their ignorance quite so much if they didn’t always combine it with arrogant crowing about the ignorance of those of whom they’re ignorant.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    However the ideas in which god is imposed are impossible to refute because they are not really theories about reality at all.

    I’m certainly willing to concede that much of what is said about God is impossible to refute by its nature, but that doesn’t make it a theory that has nothing to do with reality.

    Lets suppose I am a physicist who hypothesises a new type of sub-atomic particle -let’s call it a Mysteron. These Mysterons could potentially explain much which is currently mysterious about the universe. However there is a problem – they cannot be measured directly by any known means. Only their effects can be observed. As a result a number of different theories spring up to explain the same data, most of which deny the existence of Mysterons altogether.

    That doesn’t mean any theory which does utilise Mysteron particle physics is not based in reality. There is much which is “real” in the absolute sense which cannot necessarily be known, proved or disproved by humans.

    Indeed, a cognitive bias toward falsifiable explanations for the phenomena we observe in the universe may result is coming to entirely the wrong conclusions. It is quite possible for their to be an entire subset of information in this universe which is absolutely “true” and “real” but for various reasons cannot be refuted. Requiring falsifiability of all theories might be just a limiting as refusing to accept any information for which a mathematical proof cannot be provided.

  • Requiring falsifiability of all theories might be just a limiting as refusing to accept any information for which a mathematical proof cannot be provided.

    Then it is really not a theory at all, it is just a fanciful notion (which is not to say it is therefore necessarily a worthless notion).

    Is that a limitation? Well yes ;-)

  • Perry:

    I know that many fine people do not let their religion get in the way of most rational theories, and indeed some of those fine people write for samizdata.

    I think that you are again implying that by definition, religion is necessarily separate from the rational. I think what others here are getting at though, is that religion is not entirely about faith. Moreover, depending on the religion in question, the faith component may be even very small compared to the rational one. For example, to be a Good Jew, you do not have to believe.

  • In any case, while I’m obviously having the same problems with the post as others here, there’s one point that I do take from it (whether it was intended by John or not) – and that is the point about the ‘moderate’ adherents, where by ‘moderate’ he apparently meant people who cling to religion as a result of (or a search of) feeling, rather than that of rational thought. IOW, if you choose to associate with an ideology (and to me religion is an ideology that happens to have a deity component to it), then at least make a minimal effort to educate yourself about its values, principles and history. Because you can be sure that eventually things will be done in your name, whether you like it or not.

  • Sure Alisa but then a ‘good Jew’ who does not actually believe in god (i.e the Torah is an evolved set of social notions rather than divinely inspired cos there ain’t really a god to inspire people, just the man-made idea of one) is following a set of social conventions.

    And they are presumably doing so for either practical or emotional reasons (neither of which is ‘wrong’ in and of itself really) rather than trying to offer up a theory of existence based on god… indeed these social conventions may (or may not) be splendid and have many good consequences (which brings me back to my Chinese medicine remark).

  • staghounds

    I take issue with your example. It’s not just religion that keeps strippers away from people like Welby and Tutu, they are notoriously dull and also bad dancers.

  • they are notoriously dull and also bad dancers.

    I have obviously met a much higher quality of stripper than staghounds. Indeed I remember Nadine, an engineering student at Rutgers who was stripping her way through college and… oh, is this microphone on?

  • …and some of them are doing it for philosophical and ideological reasons. My point is that the simplistic model of a god as a bearded guy in the sky may not be as central to religion (or to all religions) as some atheists like to think. That’s why I think that religion is an ideology like any other, with a deity thrown in (although, granted, different deities having been given vastly different weights in different religions). Religion is less a theory of existence than it is a blueprint for human conduct.

  • Tedd

    Perry:

    I was once a SAR pilot, and I think your point that saving lives isn’t always the primary motivation is valid. Few people have a motivational calculus that simple. A better example of altruism might be the actual SAR techs who jump or sling out of the aircraft and do the rescuing. Unlike pilots, whose experience is likely to lead to a comfortable civilian job when the ass-kick of SAR flying fades as motivation, SAR techs take enormous risks with a career path that mostly only leads to more enormous risks. I admire the character of SAR techs more than that of any other professional group I’ve worked with. But, even there, the motivational calculus is not simple. Some people are driven toward that kind of thing and, in the absence of something “heroic” to do, would likely be jumping off cliffs in a bat suit or following some other, equally thrilling path.

    Anyway, the money’s not great either way, so that’s definitely not the motivation!

  • The message of this article was simple. If you require the notion of a deity for acts of kindness then that’s clearly disagreeable. However, if you invoke any other reason for doing the acts other than the reward/fear of punishment of heaven/hell then you surely admit that religion, in relation to these acts, is unnecessary.

    That’s not too hard to understand…

  • Laird

    Religion is less a theory of existence than it is a blueprint for human conduct.

    That’s an interesting take on it, but if true why are so many religions (or rather, their adherents) so violently opposed to other religions? A simple disagreement over optimal human conduct can’t account for that.

  • Alisa

    Laird, quite the opposite: human conduct is the only real basis for disagreement. Questions such as what can one take and under what circumstances (including the taking of someone’s freedom or even life, not just “mere” property) are the real stuff human society is made of. Religions are some of the most common systems attempting to set these rules (AKA ‘morals). All the stories and legends are just decorations and props.

  • Alisa

    Of course organized religion can be something quite different, mostly about power and control.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    John, you mean that to you, doing acts of kindness because God tells you to is disagreeable. But to a Jew, doing as many commandments as possible is considered good precisely for that reason- God wants them to do it. So do you think every practicing Jew is mad?
    And why would it be disagreeable? If you believe God exists, then it makes good sense to get on His Good Side, or, at least, not get Him angry! The fear of the Lord would indeed be the beginning of wisdom! Finding out what God wants would then make perfect sense!
    So it all depends on your viewpoint, doesn’t it?

  • Lee Moore

    I think a theory can be a real theory, even if it’s not falsifiable. I might propose the theory that there are little green men somewhere in the universe. The theory is not falsifiable, because there is no experiment that could be devised to confirm it. But if some little green men were to be found, the theory would be confirmed as true. So that’s the sort of theory that can be confirmed by real world evidence, but which cannot be dismissed by real world evidence. All theories of the form “There is at least one member of the Set S” are like this. The theory that god(s) exist is like this. Since such theories are not falsifiable, the assertion that any particular one is false, requires an act of faith. It may be faith backed up by lots of reasoning, eg men are the product of earthly evolution, so the odds against men, whether small and green or not, evolving elsewhere from primeval slime, are gigantic etc. But it still requires faith to go from “it’s incredibly unlikely that there are little green men”, to “there are no little green men.”

    Scientific theories are usually trying to provide a rule along the lines of “All members of the Set Y behave like this.” Theories of this type are falsifiable, by any appearance of a contradictory case. But such theories cannot be confirmed, they can only ever be “not falsified yet.” The theory that there are no little green men, or that there are no gods, is like this. Since such theories are falsifiable but not confirmable, one cannot assert that “there are no little green men” or “there are no gods” on the basis of evidence, one can do so only on faith.

  • That puts the theory of god on a par with the theory of that one of the planets orbiting Proxima Centauri is made of cheese, Lee. Can I falsify that ‘theory’? Well no, not readily… but I think that falls into the category I previously labelled “fanciful notions”.

  • Lee Moore

    My third sentence in the 12.29am post should read :

    “The theory is not falsifiable, because there is no experiment that could be devised to refute it.”

    Unfortunately confirm snuck in instead of refute, by mistake.

  • Lee Moore

    Well I agree that God is a fairly fanciful notion these days. In days of yore, though, and not as yore as all that, God was a much less fanciful notion. He (or they) served to explain a whole pile of otherwise inexplicable phenomena. No doubt the continuing popularity of God into the scientific age owes something to the past value of the notion, and perhaps something to human psychology.

    But to return briefly to the topic of the original post, I should be very grateful if you would stop proclaiming the non existence of God at the top of your voice as it is liable to frighten the natives and may make them behave very badly. The continued existence of the God of Robert Runcie, though it may have unfortunate effects on voting habits in relation to income tax, is generally a great force in taming the otherwise savage and lawless breasts of the English.

  • bgates

    if you invoke any other reason for doing the acts other than the reward/fear of punishment of heaven/hell then you surely admit that religion, in relation to these acts, is unnecessary

    That, or argue that there is more to religion – a concept to which certain towering intellects over the course of many centuries have devoted their lives – than the idea that there are certain acts which should be performed so that after death one wakes up on a cloud in front of a gate in a pleasant environment with a blue/white/gold color scheme vs acts which should be avoided lest after death one wakes up in a fire-filled cave with a red/orange/black color scheme.

  • Lee,

    > In days of yore, though, and not as yore as all that, God was a much less fanciful notion. He (or they) served to explain a whole pile of otherwise inexplicable phenomena.

    Richard Dawkins himself wrote (before he became quite such an intolerant bastard) that atheists such as Hume, who had their ideas prior to Darwin, were intellectually dishonest for not addressing the matter of biological diversity. It needs explaining, and, after evolution, “A deity made it that way” is the second-best explanation.

  • John,

    > If you require the notion of a deity for acts of kindness then that’s clearly disagreeable. However, if you invoke any other reason for doing the acts other than the reward/fear of punishment of heaven/hell then you surely admit that religion, in relation to these acts, is unnecessary.

    But you are assuming that individuals live in a historical vacuum and that their ideas are not shaped by the past ideas of others, which is obvious tripe. I’m an atheist, and I do not for one moment believe that I would have the same moral ideas had I been born into a world in which Judaism and Christianity had never happened. My morals may not be shaped by my own religious beliefs, because I don’t have any, but they are certainly shaped by religion.

  • William T Reeves

    Judging solely from your essay it is clear that you have missed the essence of Christianity. Of course ignorance of that which you hold in contempt is an essential attribute of modern progressive man. It makes them easy to refute, though.

    And I reject your argument that our humanist and civilized natures would still exist in absence of religious faith. Becaus!e that assertion is an untestable hypothesis. Religion permeates our civilization so deeply that one cannot tease out what is due to faith and what is not.

  • How is it an untestable hypothesis? We see humanists/atheists doing good deeds every day with no belief in a higher power/deity/religion etc.

  • Lee, scientific theories do not deal (not directly) with the existence of something or other (or lack thereof), they deal with observable phenomena, and as such constitute an attempt to explain those. IOW, your little-green-men example would be relevant if your theory would use their existence as an explanation of something that you or anyone else had actually observed (like saying, for example: rain is caused by little green men in the sky pouring water down onto the ground). The same of course applies to gods.

  • …having read your next comment though, I see that the above explanation may have been unnecessary – sorry about that.

  • John,

    What William said:

    > I reject your argument that our humanist and civilized natures would still exist in absence of religious faith.

    What you said:

    > We see humanists/atheists doing good deeds every day with no belief in a higher power/deity/religion etc.

    Can you genuinely not see that these are two very different things? Even after several people have explained the difference to you?

  • Lee Moore

    Alisa – I was not alleging that all theories were scientific ones. But I think I’m still going to disagree with you even on science. I believe one of those clever johnnies in the twenties (Dirac maybe ?) proposed the existence of anti particles, having concluded that they were a necessary consequence of another bit of theory. This seems to me an example of the sort of theory that deals directly with the existence of something, and which is willing to accept observation of a phenomenon predicted by the existence of the something as proof of its existence. You are free to call it a prediction rather than a theory if you prefer, though strictly it is an assertion about now rather than about the future.

    I have a vague recollection that the Bohrians had another theory that if it wasn’t observable it didn’t exist. Or at least wasn’t worth bothering with. Or there was nothing else there except the observed phenomenon. Or something.

  • Lee:

    having concluded that they were a necessary consequence of another bit of theory

    To truly settle this we would need to look closely at that other theory then. Not that I’m interested in counting angels on pins, mind:-) In any case, my general point was that we humans don’t normally just go looking for things in the mere hope of finding something or other, but rather we either look for explanations of reality as we see it, or for solutions to problems with which reality presets us. God as explanation/solution is no different.

  • I think this is exactly right Alisa. “Little Green People” (lets be inclusive, eh?) or “Orbital Cheese Planets” or “Virtual Particles” or “God” can be used to try and explain things that are only amenable to partial observation (the bleeding edge of physics has often contained many such ‘placeholders’ as people struggle to fill in the gaps). But the trouble is many people seem to reverse the process in the case of ‘gods’ and come up with theories that fit the placeholder.

    That said, I am not a priori against the very notion of ascribing some aspect of some theory of reality to ‘god’ if that actually seems to make sense and actually explains something (which I have yet to see I might add… and that said, I suspect my notion of what that ‘god’ might be like is more akin to the ‘Blind Idiot God’ Azathoth than the Abrahamic notion) :-D

  • Squander – I can the see the point you’re making, but my argument can simply be applied to those individuals who founded the religious ideals which have supposedly influenced humanist ways today.

  • Indeed, Perry. But I’d like to reiterate my previous point, which is that religion is only partly about using gods to explain things and fix problems (the faith part). Rather, it is mostly about morals (whether those particular morals are acceptable to Us, The Good Guys, is an entirely separate question and varies according to a particular religion/denomination).

  • GoneWithTheWind

    I think you missed the point or at least cannot see the forest for the trees. Religious people often cite their religion when they explain their actions. That does NOT mean without their religion they would not take any “good” actions. It is simply a conversational idiom. I might as easily say because I love to watch football then … Here is my take on religious people. Withut exception all of the religious people I have known in my life (I’m 70) have been good people and many or them exceptional people. For those who were not religious certainly many of them were good as well but again without exception all of the bad people I have known in my life were not religious. Maybe it is a lack of a moral compass that allows a person to become bad or maybe it is that good people like to embrace religion and it’s moral beliefs. Who knows. As for atheists the difference is are they “Atheists” as in advocates and activists or do they merely have no religious beliefs or preferences. The former are generally small minded and unpredictable while the latter are simply people much like all people in that sone are good some are not but most are no different then you or I.

  • Bill Reeves

    John Stephenson:
    I said “And I reject your argument that our humanist and civilized natures would still exist in absence of religious faith. Becaus!e that assertion is an untestable hypothesis. Religion permeates our civilization so deeply that one cannot tease out what is due to faith and what is not.”

    And you asked the reasonable question: “How is it an untestable hypothesis? We see humanists/atheists doing good deeds every day with no belief in a higher power/deity/religion etc.”

    Religion is a fundamental driver of the assumptions of even atheists that are part of those cultures. Western Atheists (almost) automatically assume that women and homosexuals deserve essentially equal rights with men. Atheists/agnostics from other religious traditions (for example my wealthy friend from Lahore, Pakistan) believe that there is no God and that Mohammed is not his prophet but in no way shape or form believe that women should have equal rights within his culture, much less gays.

    Indeed, IMHO devout western atheists have more moral commonalities with devout western christians than they do with atheists from other religious traditions. Religion matters because it is the substrate upon which a culture is built. You cannot take the religion out of the man even if he doesn’t believe in the God for which it exists.

  • Western Atheists (almost) automatically assume that women and homosexuals deserve essentially equal rights with men. Atheists/agnostics from other religious traditions (for example my wealthy friend from Lahore, Pakistan) believe that there is no God and that Mohammed is not his prophet but in no way shape or form believe that women should have equal rights within his culture, much less gays.

    Quite so but that suggests that John may be correct then, as the traditional western religious view was quite anti homosexual and it was very compatible with women having less rights. The fact Christianity in the west now thinks otherwise is because it has followed the now prevailing secular values, not the other way around. But in Pakistan, the atheist of whom you speak is still rather ‘muslim’ in outlook. Sorry but Christianity does not get the credit for equal rights for woman and homosexuals :-D

  • William T Reeves

    Judaism was the first to posit that all men are equal under God. Christianity explicitly extended this to women and non Jews. Everything that we westerners believe about liberty, autonomy or human dignity arises from those religious foundations, including tolerance of alternative lifestyles. “Let the sinless one throw the first stone”.

  • Everything that we westerners believe about liberty, autonomy or human dignity arises from those religious foundations, including tolerance of alternative lifestyles.

    Yeah sure, very tolerant.

    Christianity only became a (fairly) benign influence after more than a millenium and a half of struggles against alternate secular power structures (i.e. it became benign when it had its fangs pulled).

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Christianity was vulnerable to being defanged because of its basic premises – it’s hard to argue for violent acts when Christ himself wasn’t a violent guy as written in the holy texts.

    Some other religions might not be as vulnerable, and I doubt secular power structures can affect them that much. A certain Religion of Peace(TM) comes to mind.

    So I think the characteristics of a religion still matter, and the bedrock of modern civilization is still based on Christianity.

    Those who can reason out their own moral principles don’t necessarily need it, but it’s an important ‘heartware’ code for those who can’t and need guiding principles in their lives.

  • Bill Reeves

    i think that Christianity today is undermining secular institutions as much or more than secular institutions are undermining Christianity. The explosion of Christianity in China, Pentecostalism in Latin America and Africa and the ongoing vigor of American Christianity demonstrate it. It is true that in Europe Christianity has almost died out among the natives. But of course the secular natives are dying out too. And who’s replacing them? The religious.

    There is a line of reasoning that argues that societies will always return to their patriarchal religious roots. Why? Patriarchal Religions produce lots of children per woman. Seculars produce very few. Because the religious believe in the future.

  • Seculars produce very few. Because the religious believe in the future.

    I also ‘believe in the future’… indeed so much so I am delighted to have religious people mass producing sproglettes for the joys of technological secular bourgeois civilisation to progressively turn into, well, people like me. Hell, if the state just got out of the way and allowed secular civil society to actually FUNCTION, I would even take the same view of muslims in the west.

  • Cthulhu is my co-pilot

    Christianity was vulnerable to being defanged because of its basic premises – it’s hard to argue for violent acts when Christ himself wasn’t a violent guy as written in the holy texts.

    Yeah it only took about 2000 years though ;)

  • Bill Reeves

    The problem is that your secular hijacking of the ‘sproglettes’ (I love the term) is predicated on a rather (shudder) Marxist view of human development where the human natures of the little sprogs can be ‘nurtured’ into seculars or raving Maoists depending upon the environment they grow up in. But if as I believe, foundational beliefs about transcendence and ethics are primarily heritable attributes, then the secular’s failure to sprog till you (wog? or is it wog till you sprog?) results in recursion into (a much more technologically sophisticated) religious patriarchy. Think modern day Salt Lake City rather than first century Jerusalem.

    Which isn’t necessarily my preferred outcome but it beats modern day Riyadh by at least a Millenium (and I’ve been to both).

  • It is not really “Marxist” to observe that better opportunities for personal autonomy tend to attract people away from cultures that diminish personal autonomy.

    That is why I do not share the view that the long term trend for liberty is pointing in the wrong direction even though sometimes I shudder when I think about what lies between “here” and “there”.

    Indeed my views on the viral nature of secular western culture are shared by Al Qaeda and Boko Haram, even if we rather differ on where the + or – sign goes, which is why they like to throw bombs in our direction and we often reciprocate.

    I was raised a Catholic in the Thomist tradition, so naturally I do not share your views on the reliability of foundational beliefs about transcendence and ethics being primarily heritable attributes ;-)

  • Bill Reeves

    And judging from the recent revelations in the Economist about the reliability (or lack thereof) of academic science, my ‘scientific evidence’ may have less validity in our debate than your Thomism. Imagine that: a Thomist Atheist and a ‘Scientistic’ Calvinist and neither has a decent stick to beat the other. What’s the world coming to?