On “Good People” doing Bad Things

This post is a continuation of the series “An Anal MBA responds to the atheist authors“, and after covering evolution, quantum physics and Whac-a-mole, the time seemed right to move on to a new topic: the relationship between religion and morality.

Just to clear the air from the start – I do not think you have to be religious to be a good person. Roughly half of my friends are either atheist or agnostic, and they are very good people (otherwise I wouldn’t be friends with them). Likewise, I myself was a very nice person when I was an agnostic, and actually am still a really nice person now that I am religious and write about God all the time. While I do think there are very important relationships between faith and morality (which I will be discussing in the next few posts), in practice, I see faith and good behavior as mostly unrelated.

It is for that reason that I am choosing to start off the discussion of religion and morality with a challenge to a cherished concept within the new atheist literature: that religion actually tends to make people behave worse than they otherwise would. This view is perhaps best summarized in this quote by Steven Weinberg:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.

I have seen this quote cited on numerous atheist blogs, and I have to admit it is very catchy. But it’s also a big load of hooey.  I mean really, religion is the only thing that makes ‘good’ people do ‘bad’ things? Hmm, gee, what about hunger, or poverty, or political oppression or war? Those all seem pretty darn effective at driving normally ‘good’ people to do things they are less than proud of.  Heck, I’ve seen some pretty ugly results just when you mix overactive hormones and a bit too much tequila.

Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not GREAT  is a prime example of the New Atheist attempt to lay the blame for all the world’s evils on religion. In the chapter “Religion Kills” he describes the devastating violence he has witnessed in places as diverse as Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade Bethlehem and Baghdad (as he says, just to ‘stick with the B’s’). His stories from these places are indeed deeply disturbing, and I do not doubt that religion plays a part in the evils he describes. However, it seems extraordinarily simplistic to say that religion is the only cause of the violence in these places.  As John Burton puts it in his book Conflict: Resolution and Provention:

The so-called “religious” conflict in Northern Ireland may not be primarily a religious conflict. It has far more the features of a class conflict consequent upon discriminations. So it may be with some of the conflicts in the Middle East, where it is assumed that religious fundamentalism is a major source of communal and inter-state conflict. It is likely that religion is frequently made the vehicle of protest against discriminations, and against the treatment of some nations by greater powers as if they were colonial territories.

To turn this idea on its head a bit: if religion inevitably leads to violence, then why hasn’t the United States been consumed by sectarian warfare given its high levels of both religiosity and religious diversity?

Another case in point is the contrast between the recent histories of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. I was living in the Czech half of Czechoslovakia the year the country voted to split into two nations: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I was teaching English at the time – and some of my students were Slovak (although most were Czech). For the most part relations between the two nationalities were completely civil, although there were occasional remarks about the subtle language differences between them. The division of the country came about via democratic means, and was accomplished with no bloodshed. As we all know, the former Yugoslavia’s story was the polar opposite.

So why did ethnic/nationality differences in one country lead to violence, while in another they did not?  Why do people of different faiths in certain countries kill each other while in other countries they live together peaceably?  The obvious answer is that there can not be a one-to-one relationship between religion (or nationalism) and violence.  There must be other factors involved.

Richard Dawkins acknowledges the points I’ve made here, as he says in The God Delusion:

It might be said that there is nothing special about religious faith here. Patriotic love of country or ethnic group can also make the world safe for its own versions of extremism, can’t it?  Yes it can, as with the kamikazes in Japan and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

Dawkins then goes on:

But religious faith is an especially potent silencer of rational calculation, which usually seems to trump all others. This is mostly, I suspect, because of the easy and beguiling promise that death is not the end, and that a martyr’s heaven is especially glorious.  But it is also partly because it discourages questioning, by its very nature….Christianity, as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue….

I will save for another post his point about the relationship between belief in an afterlife and irrational behavior, but I will close this post by addressing his point about how faith discourages questioning. The reason I titled this blog ‘Seeing Faith: in search of faith that is not blind’ is because of my belief that faith actually can survive, and grow stronger, through questioning. This is based on my own experience of coming to faith through questioning, (and through quite a bit of reading). While I agree that too often religion is presented as something that must be swallowed whole (and is often perceived to be a bitter pill as a result), that is not what religion has to be nor what it always is. There are actually numerous examples of robust questioning within faith traditions-from the Talmudic Jewish scholars, to contemporary Christian scholars such as Marcus Borg who integrate findings about the historical Jesus into new ways of thinking about Christian faith,  to Christian mystics such as Gregory of Nyssa who said:

…the true vision of God consists in this, in never reaching satiety of the desire. We ought always to look through the things that we can see and still be on fire with the desire to see more.

This ‘desire to see more’ is exactly what I was describing in my last post: that the human drive to comprehend the ultimate meaning of our existence is what religion really is about.   I try to practice a faith based on questioning not just for myself, but in dealing with my children. I always encourage them to question me about religion, and my 9 year-old budding-atheist daughter is particularly good at challenging me. She may in fact turn out to be an atheist. As long as she’s thought it through, and asked a lot of questions, I can live with that.  OK, now I got to get back to preparing to teach Sunday school…

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4 Responses to On “Good People” doing Bad Things

  1. seeingfaith says:

    My friend Joan sent me this comment by email, and gave me permission to share it:

    I enjoyed this very much…especially since I have had experience similar to yours in Czech / Slovakia. Mine was in Lebanon and Israel/Palestine where small groups of faithful Jews, Muslims and Christians have been working AGAINST violence since the beginning of the modern troubles there. They have been the silent witnesses to a better way to live – with our shared, imperfect glimpses of God’s love. In a place where an inability to share land has been the crux of the matter – fueled by the terrible prejudices from the WWII era – which caused the U.S. (and others) to close immigration to refugees after a certain point – leaving many war refugees the need to find a homeland elsewhere. Does recorded history ever tell the whole truth? We have left out most women’s, American Indians and other “least of these” people’s stories from our historical records. The victors too often re-write history….sigh! When will we understand that in order for us to have a glimpse of truth we need everybody’s stories included?
    Also, Steve and I were on the inside of the East and West German wall history…because of our dear friendship with Pastor Hans Fetzer and our exchanges there over the years (5 times), and our being Godparents to their children. The small quiet groups of people trying to truly follow Christ on both sides of the wall – (after the hideous lessons of the Nazi era) – were the “underside” of what became the revolution to tear down that awful wall. Their patient, ,kind faithfulness toward each other over years was the “under story”.
    Also, in South Africa – through my Dad’s best friend, a prominent South African “colored” theologian, I learned the “inside story” of how the ANC and Mandela were influenced greatly to struggle NON violently to change the injustice of Apartheid through the struggle within the church there – which culminated in declaring Apartheid “a heresy”.
    We, by our nature, are self oriented (that is one meaning of “sin”) creatures who want to think we have all the answers. Sometimes it is simply our egos that are the problem, and sometimes we use religious constructs to justify our bad behaviors. But, bottom line for me is that in all our good and bad choices we need to recognize that we do NOT know it all. Therefore, doubt and faith go together-in a natural partnership – in recognition of our need to show compassion to everyone. I am now in the place were I know that I am in need of grace because I am a human being…looking for all that is loving and peace MAKING – leaning toward what I believe is the intention of a loving God – exemplified in Jesus who KNEW what it was to be TOTALLY human like us and to suffer – like we do.
    I hope this makes some sense in our ongoing conversations – which I enjoy so much!
    Thanks as always, Louise,

  2. seeingfaith says:

    This post was sent to me via email from my friend Steve, who gave me permission to share it here:
    Always great to read your insights and musings! One of my ultra-left heroes is Chris Hedges, long a NY Times correspondent in Middle East and other troubled places (e.g. former Yugoslavia), where killing and mayhem so often were attributed (in western media) to “Islamic fanatics/extremists”… which was just as erroneous as saying The Troubles in N. Ireland were result of a historic Protestant/Catholic sectarian hatred.

    Most people who care to think for 2 seconds, and actually learn about that conflict, realize it’s based on economic injustice and racism and classism, e.g. social/caste divisions, really a “haves vs. have-nots” struggle exacerbated by British colonialist occupier behaviors… etc. It’s so easy for media (and many historians, sadly), to glom onto facile nomenclature for giving titles to epic and complex struggles, throwing away any nuance and perpetuating dangerous stereotypes… plus mis-labeling and plain old ignorance.

    Another side of that coin is the real evil, violence and mayhem wreaked upon innocent folks by “religious fanatics” in ANY of the world’s major religions – people who misread, misuse, misapply, and skewer the texts and theology of their particular faith… people who just plain MISS the gentle and loving and peaceful core of their faith and/or holy writings. As you know, The Golden Rule exists, with only minor linguistic differences, in the writings and/or teachings of EVERY religious system that has built a following and endured for more than a generation (except maybe Scientology)… so it’s too bad that followers don’t put that core religious value at the top of their list of ways to “follow/practice their faith.” The Crusades were the result of that kind of arrogant & selective reading of Scripture and church doctrine up until that era in Europe; the Islamic misuse of the notion of “the hajj” is equivalent: what was originally given as a teaching about INDIVIDUAL, personal “struggle” against temptation and “worldly” forces has been twisted into this militaristic, aggressive corporate action against other human beings and whole nations.

    I’ve had, in interfaith dialogue over the years, many examples of imams or other spiritual leaders in Muslim communities bemoan all of the above – and the same goes for the horribly violent and sinful misapplication of “Sharia law” in so many predominately Muslim lands and tribes. It’s like Jews and Christians taking, out of context of course, some of the extreme and bizarre capital punishment verses in the Hebrew Bible and actually applying them, real-life, today. It’s all the stuff that give the currently-faddish atheist writers carte blanche to paint all religion with a broad brush of hypocrisy and malevolence.

    Just some of my thoughts thanks to your having piqued them…

    Gratefully, Steve

  3. Day Charles says:

    Everyone is missing the point – all the causes of bad behaviour cited are prompted by external conditions. Only religious bad acts (unless you include psychopaths) have an internal causality.

  4. seeingfaith says:

    Hi Day, thanks for the comment. You’re raising an interesting point – basically that religion is unique in that it causes people to do bad things for ‘no good reason’ (i.e., there’s no possible economic or political benefit). I would still have to disagree that religion is the only thing that can do that. Hitler, Stalin and Mao are all lovely examples of people who committed atrocities in the name of other ideologies that were not religious (were, in fact, anti-religion). I just finished reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis and he has some interesting comments about the human tendency to want to embrace the ‘myth of pure evil’ – that there are people out there that are just completely bad. I agree with Haidt (who, by the way, is an atheist) that this is a fundamental human pattern that has frequently manifested itself within religious traditions, but can raise its ugly head in many different contexts. I also think your division into ‘external’ and ‘internal causality’ is problematic – based on modern neuroscience, I think religion and politics and economics would all be classified as ‘external’ causes (while genetic and neurological configurations would be the only things classified as internal).

    By the way – I apologize for the delay in approving and responding to your comment. I am a mom and summers are chaotic for me (the kids don’t have a regular schedule). Thanks. – Louise

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