“It’s amazing what some people will justify through their religion, isn’t it?”

This afternoon I got quickly irritated and confrontational towards two people on Facebook, one a progressive Christian and the other a non-Christian of some variety. I know one of them is an extremely nice and well educated person and the other person seems so too, so I do not mean to disparage either of them even as I criticize what they said today. I will even leave them anonymous to minimize any appearances of acrimony.

The dispute started when the progressive Christian was expressing frustrated shock and disgust that any religious believer would ever doubt that God cared about women. Of course He must! The non-Christian backed her up by saying, “It’s amazing what some people will justify through their religion, isn’t it?”

Now progressively minded people will often marvel like that at what terrible things religious believers will use their religions to justify. But different progressives mean different things. Some progressives mean something like “Thanks to their religions, some modern people still believe some obviously terrible things about morality and politics that they otherwise would no longer have any motivation to believe given the advances of modern culture. And it is befuddling that anyone in the modern world would place the obviously immoral (or at least outdated) writings of ignorant, bigoted, brutal ancient people over the most civilized and humane of our modern values when those ancient writings are so obviously grounded in baseless fantasies, delusions, cruelties, superstitions, and surpassed inferences about how the world works.”

Such thinking rightfully puts the blame for bad religious thinking where it belongs–in the subjection of one’s intellectual and moral conscience to faith-based ancient religious traditions in the first place.

But other progressives (or even centrists or conservatives) mean something else when they express amazement at the things people justify with their religions. They express surprise that something as inherently good as religion could be used to justify terrible things. And this really troubles me because it takes an incredible amount of hermeneutical incompetence and/or willful blindness to history not to see that religions have predominantly functioned as justifications for hierarchical, authoritarian, tribalistic, and patriarchal values systems. Why should it be amazing that people who adhere to their religions sincerely actually adopt the regressive or militaristic values often explicitly attributed to their god or gods in their sacred writings themselves? Isn’t that what you would expect? That they would believe in and adopt the values of their sacred texts?

What is particularly grating for me about expressions of surprise that any one would ever get bad ideas from their religions is that it represents either a deep insincerity or an uncritical acceptance of that religious propaganda that equates religion with morality itself. Numerous religions try to lay claim to people’s moral consciences. Often a religion will claim that it (or the god(s) it claims to represent) is the source of morality itself and that religious obedience is the highest of all moral duties–one that sometimes requires trumping other vital moral duties and/or altogether abandoning or subordinating one’s own moral reasoning to religious authorities or gods. Or, even when one does not buy this particular lie, there is a naive trust that religions will do what they promise with outrageously unjustified confidence: reliably make people better human beings.

It is precisely the lies that religious gods and human leaders are the bringers of morality itself and/or its best trainers, which leads to the equation between religion and goodness in people’s minds in the first place. And it is also precisely this equation between religion and morality that allows countless religious people to override their otherwise rational moral consciences and adopt heinous outdated values in the modern world in those cases when they do so.

So the people who seemingly suppose that religion would only inspire good in people and express bewilderment when it also inspires terrible things seem to be uncritically endorsing the same prejudice that leads religion to inspire terrible things in the first place–the one that equates true religion unqualifiedly with goodness. They just expect that that equation means that believers would interpret their religions according to 21st Century moral consciences when for numerous true believers throughout history it has meant a totally reverse thought process. It has routinely meant that their moral consciences must be interpreted only in terms amenable to the traditional dictates of their religion.

Only those modern people who are shocked and outraged that atrocities would ever be done in the name of religion assume that true religion must or always would be subordinate to our most humane, civilized, and modern moral consciences. I share the view that if there is to be a true religion in a normative sense that it would have to be one that only supported a rationally defensible morality.

But the notion that it is surprising that actual religion, as actually practiced, could ever lead to backward moralities represents a naïveté about history, psychology, and/or the plain meaning of ancient religious texts the world over that is frankly beneath any honest educated person. The cognitive dissonance required to genuinely feel shock that religion is used to support regressive values can only be explained by dogmatic, unjustified, evidence-denying faith commitments–whether to a specific religion or to the naïve liberal wish-fantasy that since people are religious and since all people must be tolerated, that religion itself must be inherently not only tolerable but as wonderfully good as most people believe.

But it’s not. At least not usually. Usually it is as ordinarily functional and corrupt a species of human institution as any other. And this should no come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to a millenia worth of world history or who employs even basic reading comprehension skills when reading sacred texts or centuries’ worth of theology and popular religious writings.

None of this is to say that no religious people every did or thought any good. Neither do I naïvely deny that many people have found through their religious commitments and traditions themselves the intellectual and/or psychological inspiration to be better people. And I am not even saying that the “truest” versions of religions are their most regressively fundamentalistic forms, which wholeheartedly embrace numerous things that are morally and intellectually backward within their received traditions. By all means, my progressive religious friends and all you non-believing redeemers of religion the world over, go and update and revamp religion for 21st Century. Make it less irrational and more humane. I even try to explicitly help with the project in some ways by encouraging forms of rationalistic atheism that recuperate and rehabilitate the good things that presently people think they can only get from faith-based religion.

But could we all please dispense with the lie that it makes any sense whatsoever that a God who endorses our modern Enlightenment egalitarian values inspired a book so rife with misogyny, homophobia, slavery, theocracy, tribalism, misology, child sacrifice, and genocide as the Bible? Because the claim is false on its face and a majority of your hermeneutical contortions to imply otherwise belong in psychology textbooks as prime examples of cognitive biases and in logic textbooks as choice illustrations of fallacies.

And can we stop promoting the baseless and harmful prejudice that religion inherently equals goodness? That prejudice has led too many people to defer to too many supposed religious authorities to their own detriment and to the detriment of others to be tolerated any longer. Yes, religion is capable of good. It is also capable of evil in potentially equal or greater measure. There should be no default assumption that it can only be expected to yield either good or bad in any greater measure. There should be no feigned or real surprise when any given religion corrupts people’s thoughts or actions. There should only be shrewd efforts to counteract its deleterious influences as rationally and morally as possible. And insofar as religions systematically teach people to subordinate their intellects and their moral consciences to human and textual authorities that make assertions ungrounded in (or even antithetical to) reason and enlightened values, they should be treated with a fair modicum of suspicion and moral contempt, rather than with a presumption of goodness.

Your Thoughts?

Key posts on related themes:

Why Let The Fundamentalists Define Their Religions?

What I Think About How To Engage Religious Liberals, Moderates, and Fundamentalists

Against the Religiously Lazy Defenders of the Pious

Islam, 9/11, and “True Religion” (Or “What Could George W. Bush Mean When Talking About True Islam?”)

True Religion?

Why Progressive Interpretations Of The Old Testament Still Do Not Justify Its God Morally

What About Philosophical Christianity With Progressive Values? A Debate With Marta Layton

The Dangers of Religion Itself

The Value Of Religious Moderates And The Danger Of Isolating Religious And Political Fundamentalists

Answering Greta’s Objections: My Goals As An Atheist Writer

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  • smrnda

    I’m always surprised by how progressive believers can know very well what barbarous things are in a religious text but can go on about how there’s probably some explanation that we just can’t get. It’s like a person in denial that their spouse, kid or parent is an alcoholic.

    Part of this might happen because people formed their emotional attachments to religion before they would have scrutinized its teachings, in social world where shared religious beliefs formed a common bond. Even in the face of some awful things in say, the Bible, the fact that grandpa was a Christian means that there must be some good explanation, or else grandpa wouldn’t have been a believer. The ‘explaining away’ of the troubling aspects is never done, but the idea is that if so and so is still a believer, they must not be that troubling.

    Another issue is that we are living in the present, and horrible things done in the past don’t affect us immediately. The Bible says the thing you do with a rape victim is marry her off to the rapist – this isn’t something that’s happening now so it’s a purely academic concern to believers who argue there’s probably some way to view it as acceptable. The Bible tolerated slavery and its been outlawed, so the fact that the Bible condones slavery isn’t a relevant issue in the present in the same way.

  • Kodie

    It always grates to hear someone who is more liberal or not a Christian pretend their religious beliefs are more rational. They appear more rational most of the time, so I guess that’s why it grates when they come up with their justification through their religion. I grew up secular in an area where I was not confronted with deep religious convictions, so my reaction is similar to the time in my late teens when I realized anyone at all took their religions seriously, and was shocked. I think a lot of people may have similar experiences just going with the flow, assuming having a religious belief makes someone good, and that it’s impossible to navigate life without some spiritual connection, which they seem to not live so much by as keep in their pocket, to show off, to seem deep, not just good, but important.

    It’s when they suddenly find reason to take it out and show anyone. I find most people over-estimate how nice they actually are in ordinary interactions that it’s impossible to tell that they consider themselves good by the power of their spiritual convictions. I’m talking about the accumulation of impolite social behavior, people who never think they are in the wrong. If I’m driving home from the supermarket and drive by the gigantic Catholic church, and a lone driver is impatient to get out, fine, I can relate. But to see someone butt into traffic and skim up the right so they can cut in front of the first driver in line when the light turns green – I know it sounds petty, but why do we bother teaching kids to take turns and be patient? Religion obviously doesn’t make anyone a better person, but it does tend to make someone feel entitled to be treated as if they were. Anyway, since most people have a religion, it’s weird to see them justify their own beliefs by noticing what’s wrong with somebody else’s. When you criticize something done by someone religious because of their religion, and the liberal’s reaction is to say “well, you don’t mean me of course, I just want to let you know we’re not all like that”. They can see what’s wrong with it, but they can’t see themselves using similar justifications to choose their belief as valid and another’s as not valid.

    Eventually something comes up that they will try to justify through their religion which is potentially harmful, even if that is that they prayed over a big decision or took something as a sign that they should make that decision. I talked with a Taoish-Buddhish “spiritual-but-not-religious” and she liked this guy and he had a weird birthday and she has a weird birthday and even though he seemed a little distant after their first date, she’s asking me (a person who has made terrible relationship decisions and currently very single) and I’m all, like (inside), that’s the stupidest reason to go out with someone you don’t really sound like you like at all, ever. Of course “good decisions” turn out to be “the right decision,” even if the other way would have been ok too, and if you depend on god to show you signs every time, “bad decisions” are supposed to be “lessons”. Because if you read a sign and it told you to go and you went, it’s because you talked yourself into doing whatever you wanted to do/couldn’t talk yourself out of not doing it/ignored actual valid signs to avoid doing so, and it turned out terrible, sometimes you think it means you’re supposed to double-down and try harder, and sometimes you learn the hard way, and god had intentions over all of it to show you to yourself. Yeah, it is amazing what some people will justify through their religions. I really don’t expect people who don’t exhibit their religious propensities (and are generally nice, rational people to talk to) to come up with this stuff pretty often, when they use their normal rationality to criticize someone else’s beliefs. When a liberal Christian says “we’re not all like that,” I’d really like to say, yeah, you kind of are.

  • Dave

    Existance is a nice place. If you want Jesus, it will give you Jesus. (Right? “seek and ye shall find”) If you want Isis it will give you Isis. To ask if something is real is pointless. Anything you can think of and name is real: it is the way our small brain works. Otherwise how could you think of it? Religion is not the creator of the universe, it is the thing we use to deal with the creator and the creation. You want to kill for your religion, you got it. You want to have a pure, loving, compasionate God (Jesus loves me this I know…), you got it. You want to be an Atheist, you got it. Everyone is right.

    But people want to live in societies, and to live in a society people have to know how to act. And so they turn to the religion and mythology and find reassuring ways to get people to live together.

    Even war can be reassuring in the way that if someone you know was killed by violence in your neighborhood you might be shocked, but may not be shocked by the American soldiers who are killed every day in war. After all they believed in something that took them to war and so they upheld their beliefs. It can be reassuring to have them on our side.

    Something happens when a person believes in religion (or Atheism) and seeks guidance in mythology (or cynicism). The real world becomes what they believe. It makes people happy in this world.

    • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

      Anything you can think of and name is real

      Nope. “A proof of the axiom of choice from the other axioms of set theory.” There, I just thought of something and named it which we’ve actually proven cannot exist.

    • Bobby Struck

      Dave, this seems like an accurate depiction of the sociological construction of religion and other world-ordering nomoi, but I disagree with your equalization of atheism and religion.

      Religion, like all world-ordering nomoi, certainly is the product of a dialectic that begins with externalization, moves to objectivation, and then comes full circle with the re-internalization of truth-claims that seem to come from something transcendent but are really just products of the initial externalization of human consciousness. In this way, it simultaneously creates and is created by “the world” through an ongoing conversation.

      The worlds that we create — the nomoi — including ordering constructs like religion, ARE objectively real things, insofar as they are commonly recognizable as what they are, even though they may be experienced subjectively in different ways. But that doesn’t mean that every single individual nomos is true.

      For example, the Christian theodicy attempts to pacify the fear of death by integrating it into a nomos where death is a necessary transition to eternal bliss. It tries to do away with the problem of evil by positing a malevolent devil with an ability to interact with the world. The nomos forever expands to legitimize itself and comfort its subscribers when new evidence is presented. Oh, evolution is now undeniable? It was god’s work all along. Eventually, the whole thing hits a point of absurdity where it becomes clear that theologians are just trying too hard.

      Though any given nomos may seem to account for every facet of reality through this kind of expansion, there are ways to objectively analyze nomoi with competing truth-claims to determine which of them track most consistently with the universe’s overarching logos.

      For example, life on earth is EXACTLY as you would expect it to be if there were no all-loving, all-caring, all-powerful deity interacting with it. Human suffering and death requires no elaborate theological treatise to be explained. It’s exactly what you’d expect to happen to a species living on a hostile planet on the knife-edge of survivability and without a loving caretaker.

      By using logic, rules of non-contradiction, etc, we can rationally assign probabilities to the facticity of various nomoi, truth-claims, etc. My point is that the atheistic worldview is not simply an alternate but equivalent method of world-ordering vis-a-vis religion.

      The atheistic nomos is demonstrably and manifestly more plugged into the universe’s pervasive logos. So while the socially constructed world does become what we believe, as you say, there are ways of making our “world” more objectively representative of reality. To come back to the issue of morality, one that is more closely aligned with and based on the fundamental nature of reality will inevitably be better able to deal with the experiential and tangible expressions of that reality.

    • DSimon

      Anything you can think of and name is real: it is the way our small brain works. Otherwise how could you think of it?

      It’s real in the sense of being a thought in our minds, but that’s not usually what people mean when they say things like “Australia is a real place”. If it weren’t a real place outside your thoughts, you’d be very disappointed if you tried to visit.

  • Laurent Weppe

    Thanks to their religions, some modern people still believe some obviously terrible things about morality and politics that they otherwise would no longer have any motivation to believe given the advances of modern culture

    And you just have to watch how the social darwinists who use atheism as the latest fashionable way to scream “Fuck the Rubes” behave to realise how flawed this hypothesis is.

    Also Being born and raised and living in a country much less religious than the US, I can easily see what happens when people who believe terrible things about morality and politics stop being religious:

    They keep on believing terrible things about morality and politics (that’s quite anti-climactic, isn’t it?).

    Exceeeeeeeept that instead of “God Says so” they say:
    Science says so:
    Science says that women are less talented than men in mathematics therefore women who express ambitions in any domain where numbers are involved are incompetent hysterical women who want a job they do not deserve
    History says so:
    History says that Arabs enslaved more people than Whites therefore Whites are entitled to discriminate against people of Muslim/Arabic descent
    Everyone says so
    Everyone knows that there are way more pedophiles among gays than straight people: just look at all the boys molested by gay priests!
    and Worst among the worst: Shutupimsmarterthanyou and I say so

    You posit that the equation “religion equal virtue” is what leads people to adopt heinous values. But that’s nothing more that a variation of Hanlon’s razor; “never attribute to malice what can be attributed to bad religion“. But if you weaken or take away the “religion equals virtue” equation, you don’t get to see a decrease in heinous people: you just see them adopting another set of justifications: which shows that things may be working the other way around: people choosing to adopt heinous values first, then using religion as a tool to justify themselves. The real naïveté here is not much to adhere to the “religion equals virtue” idea, but to ear someone saying “I’m good because my religion says so” and assuming he is sincere.

    (also: why isn’t there a preview and which html tags work here?)

  • Paul Susac

    First off, I want to say great post Daniel! Articulate and well thought-out. Bravo!

    My own thoughts on this matter tend toward two main concepts: Privilege and Functionalism.

    One of the ways that humans are irrational is that we irrationally (and unconsciously) form in-groups. We privilege our in-group and see it as more virtuous than other in-groups, and we do this on the basis of no evidence whatever. This has great survival value on the level of our genes, but it’s not particularly good for creating harmonious populations above about 120 people.

    This 120 person limit appears to be caused by a hard-wired limit on the processing capacity of the human brain – it takes a lot of grey matter to keep track of that many relationships. But here’s where religion comes in. By creating a group identity that is formed around an ideology, it becomes possible to expand this circle of privilege WAY beyond this hard limit. A religious identity serves as a membership badge for a privileged in-group. You add onto this the idea of a divine, omniscient authority who can punish cheaters and miscreants in sneaky, round-about ways, and you not only have a large, resourceful in-group you have a large in-group that is self-policing.

    This privilege and functionality form the (largely unconscious) framework that give rise to the insight-free comments of Daniel’s target phenomenon. So what is going on inside this frame? This woman who Daniel quotes is showing an interesting piece of evidence about that: Namely, she is assuming that her religion and her deity have values completely consistent with her own. This last piece is important, and I call it the “Narcissistic standard of evidence:”

    Because privileging one’s in-group is so automatic and unconscious for us humans, and because we internalize our socialization through our relationship with our in-group, we tend to equate our deities with our value system. This reasoning (if you can call it that) is internally consistent since the WHOLE POINT of having a deity is to help you manage and modulate your relationship with your in-group. The fact that it is objectively wrong is besides the point – it serves the narcissistic needs of the individual, so as long as it can’t be dis-proven (and even sometimes when it can), the person will cling to it because it serves them socially, psychologically and emotionally.

    However, since religious in-groups are so big they embody a large range of values, and norms. So what this means is that the individual forms a religious identity that serves their social needs (by binding them to a large and resourceful in-group), but that contains vague, self contradictory and inconsistent beliefs and values. They the SELECT the beliefs and values out of their ideology that serve them best and project those values onto not only their deity, but onto their ideology as a whole.

    This is why Liberal Christians think Christianity is all about love and goodness, and conservative Christians think that liberal Christians are not “real Christians.” They are unconsciously (and without insight) defining their whole in-group according to THEIR values. It is also why people through out time and space have always thought that they expressed the values of their gods, and NOT that their God was really just a projection of themselves.

    Notice that this is also one of the reasons why you can’t talk about religion in polite company. When you insult a person’s deity, you are LITERALLY insulting them. This makes it dangerous social territory.

  • Paul Susac

    So I want to offer one quick caveat on the above post:

    No doubt there are MANY people of faith who do not adhere to the model I outlined above. I am not trying to suggest that the process I have described is the whole picture, but I DO think that it is one of the things that is going on in religious identity formation and belief. Obviously religion belief and identity formation area all complex phenomena, and a one-page essay is hardly the whole picture.

    I have come to view religion as a form of social technology – like money, it is can serve as a social process that our species does in order to create functionality beyond what tribal societies can accomplish. To put it simply: It’s not a flaw, it’s a feature. But it is a dangerous feature.

  • http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com Quine

    The Twentieth Century started with a massive wake-up call on 9/11 to all of us and caused many to decide that that was the “last straw” and they (including myself) could no longer keep silent and let religion facilitate evil through ignorance and delusion. We are the “Fed Up Atheists” who need nothing “New” to get us going, the logical refutation of religion is old, the need is simply to stand up and say so.

    Against this we have things like the post today by this Catholic priest, including the statement that he sees a segment of atheists as:

    … the authentic atheists. They plod through life eating, working, shopping, breeding and sleeping, and God never seems to flit across their consciousness. Members of this sub-species may be sparkling sophisticates or ill-bred boors. They may be the decent and moral folks next door, or they could be despicable murderers. In a frightful way, it doesn’t matter. If they exist, perhaps they have bred and spread like the alien bodysnatchers, and exist in our midst like spiritual zombies—indistinguishable in the teeming mass of humanity except to those few who see them and tremble.