In his book ‘The Dawkins Delusion?’ Alister McGrath, writing on Richard Dawkins, writes: “Dawkins is, I think, entirely right when he exposes and challenges religious violence. It is clear that his ire is directed primarily against Islamic Fundamentalism, particularly its Jihadist forms. All of us need to work to rid the world of the baleful influence of religious violence. On that point Dawkins and I are agreed. Yet is this a necessary feature of religion? Here, I must insist that we abandon the outmoded idea that all religions say more or less the same things. They clearly do not.”
Something that has struck me as puzzling after reading many blogs by atheists all across the blogosphere, and books by the ‘big four’ of atheism is the claim that religion is the biggest cause of conflict and wars throughout history, and that if done away with, the world would be a better place. Now, for someone who is more fond of sound bites than the critical scrutiny of claims, this may seem to be a reasonable, or even more than that, a self-evident truth of the world we live in. Yet, as it’s usually the case, the truth of the matter is far more nuanced than that. Human beings have a tendency to opt out for very simple, black and white pictures of things. One example was the mischaracterization of the Genocide that went on in Rwanda as nothing more than ‘ethnic conflict dating back hundreds of years to very basic tribal attitudes’. This, I think, may have been a good reason why it was that the West did nothing but watch while thousands of Rwandans were being slaughtered by their very neighbors. There is a great article called ‘The Myth of Global Ethnic Conflict’ that I highly recommend everyone to read. Essentially, the author argues that really generalized public perceptions of what the ‘problem really is’ tend to lead to a public that either does nothing, because, after all, how could we ever put an end to a centuries old conflict, or to a public that has diagnosed the problem very incorrectly, and so seeks out to find the wrong solutions to said problem. When it comes to religion in America, I think most anti-theists have fallen victim to the second trap.
When writing about Religion, Dawkins comes up with a plausible evolutionary explanation as to how it came about. Dawkins writes that belief in God might be a byproduct of some other evolutionary mechanism. McGrath writes that “Here he moves into territory explored by fellow atheist Daniel Dennett in his recent book Breaking the Spell. Yet both Dawkins and Dennett adopt a very cognitive view of religion, defining it virtually exclusively in terms of ‘Belief in God.’ Yet this is certainly not the sole aspect of religion; nor is it even necessarily the most fundamental. A more reliable description of religion would make reference to its many aspects, including knowledge, beliefs, experience, ritual practices, social affiliation, motivation and behavioral consequences’. And it is here that McGrath touches on a point that is fundamental to the question ‘Is religion a force for good or evil in the world?’ The answer will heavily depend on how it is that you define religion. William T. Cavanaugh writes on this question:
“What would be necessary to prove the claim that religion has caused more violence than any other institutional force over the course of human history? One would first need a concept of religion that would be at least theoretically separable from other institutional forces over the course of history.”
During the famous ‘Nightline debate’ between Creationists Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron against two atheists from the ‘Rational Response Squad’, I remember the topic having gone to the question of ‘Was Hitler an atheist? Was Stalin?’ Ray Comfort made the point that Joseph Stalin was a rabid atheist who persecuted and wiped out 60 million of his own people. Surely then, if Christians are to blame for the terrible deeds done in the name of Christianity, then so too should Atheists hold some responsibility for the deeds done by some of their fellow non-believers. Yet, surprisingly (or unsurprisingly), the argument didn’t seem to hold. Kelly, one of the atheists, made the point that Stalin was a Marxist. These purges were done in the name of Marxism, not Atheism. Marxism, as defined by Kelly, is a religion where the State is seen to be a God, and so clearly it is yet another instance of religious violence. Christopher Hitchens in “God is not Great” made a similar case against the Fascism of the Nazis by calling it a ‘Quasi-religious phenomena’.
It seems to me then, that one must have a very broad and general definition of religion if one is to include political philosophies like Marxism and Fascism into the same ranks as, say, the Quakers or the Amish. And this is a very crucial point that I don’t think has been addressed by any of the prominent atheists: If you are making the case that religion is a force for evil in the world, then you must provide a definition of religion that is clear and concise so that you may make your case.
A powerful question that has to be answered before anyone can make any progress is the following one asked by McGrath: “What is the difference between a worldview and a religion? The dividing line is notoriously imprecise and, many would say, is constructed by those with vested interests to defend. A worldview is a comprehensive way of viewing reality that tries to make sense of its various elements within a single, overarching way of looking at things. Some, of course, are religious; many are not. Buddhism, Existentialism, Islam, atheism, and Marxism all fall into this category. Some worldviews claim to be universally true; others, more in tune with the postmodern ethos, view themselves as local. None of them can be ‘proved’ to be right. Precisely because they represent ‘big picture’ ways of engaging with the world, their fundamental beliefs ultimately lie beyond final proof.”
Now, one of my majors here in Ohio University is Sociology, and luck permitting, I hope to continue my studies in Sociology at the graduate level, specifically the field of the Sociology of Religion. Most of us seem to have a pretty firm grasp of what is religion, and what isn’t. If I were to go out today to start doing field work for my area in Sociology, I would have a pretty good idea of where to begin, which would more than likely be a Church, or a Synagogue, or a Mosque. These are traditional places that we can safely call ‘religious’. Yet, if I were to try and define what it is that I want to study, how would I go about it? Religion, like pornography, is one of those slippery topics that seem to be extraordinarily hard to define. Most people, like the famous judge who ruled against Pornography in the 80’s, would simply fall back on “I’ll know it when I see it”.
Again, McGrath writes on this: “A clear definition of precisely what is being studied is essential to the serious scientific study of any entity or phenomenon. The failure of past attempts to offer a reliable and warranted definition of religion is widely conceded in the vast scholarly literature devoted to this subject. Of the myriad of definitions of religion offered over the last 150 years, each of which presented itself as being scientific or objective, none has been sufficiently resilient or representative to command continuing support. Furthermore, definitions of religion are rarely neutral but are often generated to favor beliefs and institutions with which one is in sympathy and penalize those to which one is hostile, often reflecting little more than the ‘particular purposes and prejudices of individual scholars’ .And here is the crux of the issue I had with Kelly’s lumping of Marxism into the religious camp, it seems like by doing so, Atheists have simply defined “Religion” and labeled as “Religious” anything that they particularly don’t like. Just how broad is your definition of religion anyway? The 9/11 terrorist acts? Religious in nature. The murdering of abortion doctors? Religious in nature. The conflict in Northern Ireland? Religious. Rwandan ethnic conflicts? These were carried out by the type of ‘black and white’, ‘us vs. them’ mentality that religion promotes.
Yet why do many atheists skip over other conflicts, like for example, the terrible genocides brought about by Serbian/Croatian Nationalism?
On this William Cavanaugh writes: “The problem with the ‘religion and violence’ arguments is not that their working definitions of religion are too fuzzy. The problem is precisely the opposite. Their implicit definitions of religion are unjustifiably clear about what does and does not qualify as a religion. Kimball, for example, subjects the violence of Hinduism to close scrutiny, but passes over the violence of other kinds of nationalism in silence, despite a telling acknowledgement that ‘blind religious zealotry is similar to unfettered nationalism.’ How are they different? Forms of ‘secular’ nationalism do not appeal to God or gods, but neither do some of the institutions Kimbal includes in his list of religions, such as Theravada Buddhism. Kimball is typical of those who make the argument that religion is prone to violence in that he assumes a sharp distinction between the religious and the secular, without explicitly analyzing or defending such a distinction.”
See the problem here? In this article (http://www.jesusradicals.com/wp-content/uploads/sins-of-omission.pdf), the issue is explored even further. The problem can be summarized thus: “There is a significant group of scholars who think that the term ‘religion’ is so problematic that it ought to be scrutinized for ideological baggage or dropped entirely. On the one hand, then, we have a group of scholars who are convinced that religion has a lamentable tendency toward promoting violence. On the other hand, we have a group of scholars who are not sure that religion even exists, except as an intellectual construct of highly dubious value. The first group of scholars carries on as if it did not know the second group even exists.”
“If we really want to address the problem of violence in the contemporary world, we must treat violence as the problem-violence as such, that is, not absolutism, blind obedience, and the rest. Only in this way can we tell the difference between the abbot of a Trappist monastery and Jim Jones. Both command obedience, but only the latter does so in service to violence instead of peace. Only if we treat violence as the problem can we also tell the whole truth about the violence of putatively ‘secular’ ideologies and nation-states. An adequate approach to the problem would be resolutely empirical: under what conditions do certain beliefs and practices- jihad, the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, the sacrificial atonement of Christ, the role of the United States as worldwide liberator- turn violent? The point is not simply that ‘secular’ violence should be given equal attention to ‘religious violence’. The point is that the distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and should be avoided altogether. Self-identified Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others would still be subject to scrutiny, but a fuller and more adequate picture of violence would emerge. The beliefs of the Jim Jones and Osama bin Ladens of the world are a significant part of the problem of violence in the 21st century. At least equally significant is the evangelical zeal with which ‘free trade’, liberal democracy, and American hegemony are offered to-or forced upon- a hungry world.”
Ultimately, is religion a force for good or evil in the world? That depends. If you define religion as ‘all that is bad with the world’, as most atheist rhetoric these days seems to do, then yes, it is a force for evil. But obviously this doesn’t work. You have already defined it as bad. You can define religion as ‘Oppressive, threatening, violent, and abusive’, but you haven’t actually told us anything. The same thing can be said for any government, or any other ideology that can be deemed ‘secular’. Is religion good or bad? I personally have to side with Michael Shermer on this question and simply say ‘Religion is good when it does good, and evil when it does evil.’ That’s it. Not the most insightful revelation, or really anything we didn’t already know, but at its core it shows the truth of the situation.
On this, McGrath writes about a “tragic event in North America that took place in October 2006, within a week of the publication of The God Delusion. Interestingly, the episode illustrates both the negative and positive sides of religion. A gunman with some kind of religious grudge (he was ‘angry with God’) broke into an Amish school in Pennsylvania and gunned down a group of schoolgirls. Five of the young girls died. The Amish are a Protestant religious group who repudiate any form of violence on account of their understanding of the moral authority of the person and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. When those unfortunate schoolchildren were murdered, the Amish community urged forgiveness. There would be no violence, no revenge- only the offering of forgiveness. The gunman’s widow spoke, gratefully and movingly, of how this provided the ‘healing’ that she and her three children ‘so desperately needed.”
To summarize, this is something that I wish more people would take to heart, as it brings to light the heart of all this: “Madame Rolande was brought to the guillotine to face execution on trumped-up charges in 1792. As she prepared to die, she bowed mockingly toward the statue of liberty in the Place de la Revolution and uttered the words for which she is remembered: “Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name.”
Is religion a force for evil or good in the world? I say both. If you insist of asking the question “Well, which one does it do more of, evil or good?”, I would say good luck making that kind of calculus. One quick glance through history and the inter-relationship between religion, culture, and politics will leave one with the feeling that religion is almost inseparable from human experience itself.
On this, Shermer writes “However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported…Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.”
Take religion out of the equation, and what’s left is a huge gaping hole. Any attempt to fill this whole with ‘this is what would have happened’ is to fall into the trap many historians call “What-if” history. The problem with “what-if” history is that it is nearly impossible to take into account each and every single one of the possible variables that could take place in the absence of a specific event or ideology in place. These ‘what-if’ history books make for some interesting reading, but ultimately, they can shed no real light on what would have actually happened.
In light of this, let us try to build bridges rather than keep destroying them like I see too many believers and unbelievers on the blogosphere do.
“All ideals-divine, transcendent, human or invented- are capable of being abused. That’s just the name human nature is. And knowing this, we need to work out what to do about it rather than lashing out uncritically at religion.”