Friday, 24 February 2012

Religion Doesn't Divide People, People With Religion Divide People

Ivan, at From Wine to Water, sets out a commonly-used religious argument. In religious conflicts, it goes, religion is the excuse, not the cause. The elimination of religion would not reduce the amount of conflict in the world; we'd simply switch to a different excuse and keep on murdering. It is true that religion doesn't seem to occupy the same fundamental psychological status as things like tribalism and fear of the unknown - but if we atheists accept that religion's not responsible for religious conflict, we lose a key plank of the argument that religion is harmful.

Probably the most common response to this is that hoary old Steven Weinberg quote: it takes religion for good people to do bad things. However, I'd agree with Verbose Stoic that any ends-justify-the-means ethics (especially utilitarianism) can also serve as a motivator for good people to do bad things, countering Weinberg's response as stated. So at the moment Ivan's argument seems pretty solid.

Still, I disagree with Ivan. Why is that? Well, imagine this parallel argument. In war, armies are the method, not the cause. The elimination of armies wouldn't reduce the amount of wars in the world, we'd simply switch to a different method and keep on warring. This is pretty unconvincing, since it doesn't matter whether armies make war more likely - they're a tool of war and should be opposed by people who oppose war.

Religion doesn't create strife (at least, not most of the time) any more that it creates sexism or class war. Instead, religion was created (probably unconsciously) by the same forces that created conflict and oppression, as a tool for justifying and perpetuating conflict and oppression.  Opposing religion opposes strife in the same way that opposing automatic weapons for cops opposes police brutality.


  1. Just for the record, I wasn't fully embracing the argument I quoted. So you and I may not really be disagreeing.

    The sentiment I agree with most is this: "Are party and faction rooted in men’s hearts no deeper than phrases borrowed from religion, or founded upon no firmer principles?" Division, violence, bigotry, etc. are rooted pretty deeply in us. And when we feel gut urges that lead us in those directions, any attempts at rational thought, religious or otherwise, don't seem to make much difference.

    Some relevant questions would concern how deeply a particular bad thing is rooted in us, and how a particular religion does or does not support the bad thing--in its official doctrines, in its unofficial sociology and folk theology, by directly urging the bad thing, by indirectly enabling or supporting the bad thing, etc.

  2. You're right, I should have made it clearer that you were presenting an interesting argument, not making an actual case. My post assumes that religion originated as an authoritarian tool - but like any tool, it can be twisted to (superficially, at least) oppose the purposes for which it was created. Before we ask questions like how, historically, a particular religion has related to oppression and whatnot, we ought to consider the underlying cultural effect of religious practices.

    I think this relates to your most recent post on the social class of teachers - while religions might provide short-term relief for oppression, the culture and assumptions that are built into them (so I'm claiming!) teach the wrong long-term lessons.

    Short version of all this: master's house; master's tools.