Religion: Force for Good or Evil

The Guardian's blog "Comment is Free" has an interesting deabte today about the issue of whether religion is a force for good or evil. Taking the view that it is a force for evil is A.C. Grayling, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. Here are highlights of his argument:
Everything human has its lunatic fringe, and we could dismiss those who kill for their superstitions as such if they were such. But the truth is that religion itself is the lunatic fringe of human thought, and that is why we see scores or hundreds murdered daily for sectarian reasons, infantile mobs yelling in the streets of Pakistan over a book they have not read, religious organisations tearing themselves apart because of their ancient prejudices against homosexuals (as if there were not genuine problems in the world to be exercised about), and much, much more besides that is puerile, nauseating or plain dangerous.

Religion's apologists in the formerly Christian western world salve their embarrassment at the way religion flaunts its true colours in these ways by fixing their gaze, and attempting to turn that of their critics, to the pleasant folk who shake hands with each other in an English country church on Sunday mornings - a much dwindled and still dwindling rump of folk, true, but harmless and even admirable for the cakes they bake for the Saturday fete, raising money for developing world children and other good causes. They waste their time in trying this on: for the kindness of such folk would still be there if they had never heard of religion and if their country town had no parish church with decorated arcading in its south porch. For kindness needs no ideology; ideologies (including religions, the prime examples of such) are required for unkindness, division, mayhem and murder.

. . .

And here is the problem. Religion premises an absolute authority over the self, which trumps everything else. In the 16th and 17th centuries "Papism" was both hated and feared in Protestant countries because Roman Catholics had a higher loyalty to the pope than to their temporal rulers and their fellows in society. They were thus seen as potential betrayers and subverters, and Guy Fawkes (would-be perpetrator of a 5/11) proved them right. The "higher loyalty" of religionists to their equivalent of pixies and gnomes places some of them actually, and all of them uncomfortably in principle, in the same boat.

And so they all hasten to distance themselves from their extremists - all religions have them - and to assert their peace-loving credentials, a claim that rings very hollow indeed in the light of history and their own sacred texts (which they have to cherrypick and heavily reinterpret to make them halfway acceptable, so filled are they with testimony against that claim), to say nothing of every day's newspaper reports under our noses.

In my contribution to the debate last Saturday I said that religion is a force for ill in the world because although there are sincere religionists, and although some religious organisations do charitable work (but 80% of British charities are non-religious, and non-religious people give more to charity than self-described adherents to a faith), they create divisions which too often lead to conflicts, teach false beliefs, and premise morality on fallacious foundations; and that the principal victims of religions are children and - overwhelmingly - women.

No doubt people will still find reason to quarrel, and peoples will still find reasons to go to war with each other; but in the absence of the portmanteau appeal, the all-trumping, simplistic, total motivation that religion provides to people who think it gives them divine sanction to murder strangers, that indeed makes the murder of strangers a moral good, there will have to be much sounder arguments and much better evidence available for doing evil. At present, all that evil needs is the name of faith.

Read it all here.

Taking the opposite view is Paul Vallely, associate editor of the Independent. Here are highlights from his response:
One of the things I find most intriguing in debates like the one at the Manchester International Festival this weekend, which asked "Is religion a force for good?", is the way that atheists tell me what I believe. They define the God they don't believe in and then tell me it's the God I do believe in. When it isn't. They offer a caricature of religion and then say, there, it's absurd. They always cite the most preposterously extreme examples.

In his TV series about God Richard Dawkins sought out a Jew, Christian and Muslim who were, each one, wackos in anybody's book. Or you get Christopher Hitchens tying himself in such knots that he has to maintain that someone like Martin Luther King was only a nominal Christian. By which he really means he wasn't a fundamentalist. Most believers aren't.
. . .

Nor is faith something fixed. Von Hugel talked about three stages in religion. As children we need stories, structure and institutions. As adolescents we ask questions and search for consistency and an identity. And in adulthood we explore the mystical element as we work through our layers of inner consciousness, and reach after the incommunicable. We need all three stages at once sometimes. And we move constantly between them. This is not moving the goalposts. The goalposts are just not were AC Grayling put them in the first place.

Critics of religion get stuck somewhere between the infantile and adolescent stages. Saying that believing in God is the same as believing in gnomes and pixies is an inexact analogy. You don't start believing in gnomes and pixies as an adult. But you can start believing in God. I did. Religion is embraced in adulthood by people with wide experience of life and with intelligence. Not because it answers questions like why children die of cancer or of hunger in Africa. But it does help believers like me to penetrate deeper into my own psychological self.

There is a coherent social vision running through the Old and New Testament, focused on a God who demands justice, who takes the side of the poor and the marginalised, and who calls for a radical new understanding of human love, commitment and responsibility. That informs how I behave and treat other people.

Take the theological notion that we are all made in the image of God. When I'm dealing with someone who's threatening, a poser or a prat, that notion acts as an additional check on my instinct to dismiss them uncharitably. I am not saying you can't be good or moral without religion. Humanists can and many are. But a Christian humanist like me does not premise morality on fallacious foundations; rather my morality is undergirded by my faith at a much deeper level. Religion doesn't make me a better person than AC Grayling. But it makes me a better person than I would be without it.

Faith isn't just good for some individuals. It is good for society. Go out in Manchester tonight and you will find people of faith doing soup runs to the homeless; presbyteries giving shelter to asylum seekers; Christians giving up a day's salary a week to work for those organisations in the city most in need; street pastors out at 2am working, in tandem with the police and city council, with young people and drug addicts who have no one to turn to. It's the same across the country, whether its shelters for the homeless in London or Salvation Army members in Glasgow who collect food on its sell-by from Marks & Spencer every night and take it to drug addicts in tenements where the doors bear scorch marks and axe blows.

Some 80% of British charities may be non-religious, but the research by the Home Office's Bureau of Volunteering shows that those committed to one of the historic faiths are between three and four times more likely to get involved in than others. I've seen examples all over the world. People of faith are the first in many difficult situations and they are usually the last to leave.

. . .

Atheists who are unable to acknowledge this make two common mistakes. First, in their compilation of all the evils associated with religion, they make a consistent causal assumption. They assume that all the bad to do with religion is caused by that religion. All the bad done under the banner of science or secularism, or the millions killed by atheists like Pol Pot or Mao Tse Tuing, has other causes. That's because of ideology, greed or lust for power. A massive 30% of all British public money spent on science goes on military research, but no one would say that that problem is intrinsic to science; rather it is an abuse of the creative power of science by corrupt political priorities.

To say religion is the cause of the bad linked to it - whereas science and secularism can take the credit for the good things associated with them, but are absolved of responsibility for the bad - is weird logic. It puts a filter on the atheist argument. It allows them to select only facts that seem to prove their case. But all it really proves is that their logical method is biased towards that result from the start.

. . .

The truth is that it is not religion that is the problem. The problem is the human heart, the capacity we all have for evil. And the temptation we all have to externalise that evil and project it out onto others. When a society rejects God it has a tendency to trascendentalise other values. It makes a God of The Master Race, The Worker's State, of liberté-fraternité- égalité:. "Liberty what crimes are permitted in your name," said Madame Roland to the statue personifying that virtue as she went to the guillotine.

Yes, of course people do vile things in the name of their religion, but the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford - a secular body - has conducted a major study called the Religious War Audit covering the major wars of the last three and a half thousand years. A number are undeniably religious - the 7th century Islamic conquests, the Crusades, the Reformation wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. Yet far more have been killed since political leaders shrugged off their religious traditions to experiment with a range of post-religious ideologies like communism and fascism. Nazism murdered 15 million, Soviet Communism had between 9 and 60 million victims, Maoism killed an estimated 30-40 million. Atheistic totalitarianism has perpetrated more mass murder than any state dominated by a religious faith.

Ironically the difference between religion and secular ideologies is that religion understands that humans are flawed and thus always operates with a contingency of grace and forgiveness. When secular movements bump into human failure their own ideology breaks down.

Read it all here.

I made a very similar argument that religion is not a force for evil here. As i said in that post (and in the comments), I think that the source of evil is human nature, and that humans will seize any excuse to justify evil--whether it is religion, tribalism or ideology. And, there can be no denying that religion played a major role in major societal reforms such as the end of slavery, civil rights and even the human treatment of POWs.


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