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…