Taking it personally and ignoring the bad stuff

I’ve decided not to write anything more directly on Chris Stedman’s “Toxic Atheism” piece, but I think this piece, which I recently wrote to be included in The Book.

The question of whether “religion” is bad or whether “Islam” is bad is slightly more complicated than the question of whether religions or a particular religion have morally odious texts and doctrines (which they clearly do). So I’m going to save it for later chapter. But there’s one reaction atheists get when we say things like that that I want to address here.

That reaction is, “oh, but what about all the good religious believers in the world?” When objections like this are used to argue that a criticism of religion is not just incorrect, but should be off the table entirely, the idea seems to be that critics of religion are being unfair to the good religious believers by saying these things about religion, or about a particular religion.

To which I reply: atheists know about the good religious believers. For example, early in The End of Faith, Sam Harris says:

Of course, people of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused (Harris p. 14).

Harris goes on to argue that the abusive religious moderates are still problematic in their own way. One point he makes is that, “Moderates in every faith are obliged to loosely interpret (or simply ignore) much of their canons in the interests of living in the modern world” (one example would be Muslims who ignore the hateful passages in the Quran that Harris documents in such great detail). Whether you agree with such criticisms or not, Harris knows the moderates exist, and can’t be accused of suggesting otherwise.

To give another example, in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins talks about working with his friend, the former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries, to defend science teaching in schools (Dawkins 2006, p. 335). And after discussing all the horrible things in the Bible, he writes:

My main purpose here has not been to show that we shouldn’t get our morals from scripture (although that is my opinion). My purpose has been to demonstrate that we (and that includes most religious people) as a matter of fact don’t get our morals from scripture.

When he says this, he’s taking for granted that there are lots of religious believers who managed to be good in spite of the nasty stuff in their holy books. In fact, the fact that religious believers, even those who think of themselves as “orthodox” or “traditional,”routinely ignore the nasty stuff is what makes pointing out the nasty stuff and effective criticism of religion. Yes, there are hard-core fundamentalists who’ve their holy book cover to cover and reconcile themselves to everything in it, but they’re very much in the minority, and that’s what makes this kind of criticism of religion more than just “preaching to the choir.”

I feel a little silly having to say all this. Isn’t it obvious that Dawkins can disagree with Harries about one day and work with him on something they agree on the next? Unfortunately, I see too many people talk about how not all religious believers were the same, or how atheists and believers should work together, and present it as if it were a criticism of popular atheist writers. The fact that at that many people will assume you reject these obvious points if you say anything bad against religion is really just another example of the taboo against any criticism of religion, no matter how reasonable.

  • MNb

    “there are lots of religious believers who managed to be good in spite of the nasty stuff in their holy books”
    That’s the key, isn’t it? One thing is what religion proscribes. Another thing is how believers put their stuff into practice.

    “critics of religion are being unfair to the good religious believers”
    I’d like to ask if critics of Soviet-Communism (and even Nazism) are being unfair to the good communists (and even the very, very few nazists)?
    You see, I strongly suspect that the whole argument is just another version of “religion is special”.

    • eric

      I see it as the opposite. Talking about the distribution of religious believers shows that religion is not special; its just another human activity and that different people draw different things from it. Pointing out that (1) it influences but does not direct our morals and (2) it influences different people different amounts, but the average of the bell curve is somewhere around the “not much” mark, makes it pretty much just like any other hobby.
      Its wierd but sometimes I get the feeling that a lot of atheists would like for religion to be a stronger driver/predicter of behavior, and seem upset that it isn’t. Be glad it isn’t. Isn’t that what we are going for? More rationalism and less influence?

      • Chris Hallquist

        The difference between religion and other hobbies is that no one claims hiking is the true source of morality.

        I agree with you that we should glad religion isn’t more influential. But if religious believers were consistent, religion would be much more influential. What I’m saying is, “hey, a lot of this stuff in the Bible is stuff we can all agree is awful, you ignore huge chunks of it, so let’s dispense with even paying lip service to the Bible in our debates about gay marriage (or whatever).”

        • eric

          Humans aren’t consistent. We make decisions based on context and use different decision-making processes in different contexts. As a general capability, this is a good thing; its a positive adaptation to be able to shift gears depending on context and the information and time you have available. Religion is, at worst, a misapplication of this generally good adaptation; it carves out an exception for specific claims that should, rationally, be considered within the same context as similar claims.
          I agree with your argument about dispensing with lip service; I think its a strong argument to point out when religious people make arbitrary or post hoc decisions about when to obey scripture. But I think its a very weak argument to imply that a type of global inconsistency per se is a weakness of religion. Its neither necessarily a weakness, nor is it unique to religious people.

          • MNb

            I agree.
            Point is that quite a few believers think their morals are consistent because they derived them from their Holy Book. The whole argument “there can’t be an objective moral standard without god” is based on this assumption.
            So not we atheists should be blamed for pointing out inconsistencies – believers should for not accepting that they are inconsistent. I don’t have any problem with believers who admit it; it annoys me that so few do.
            I know I’m inconsistent; last time I counted I came to four, which means that in practice there are lots more inconsistencies.

  • Kodie

    Sometimes I think religion is like having a job and someone criticizing something about your company. I can’t remember when I first noticed it from this angle. Say you have a job and that is to love Jesus. Someone else who doesn’t work there comes along and says, “your boss is a real jerk – psychological issues, bad temper, arbitrarily withholds necessary supplies/potable water/essential benefits from some departments while favoring others” so you’re like, “I’m so lucky to have this job, and my boss is the smartest person I ever met and I wouldn’t question his methods for getting things done as we’re a very successful company; people in the warehouse should feel blessed to have that job at all and pray that one day they get promoted out of that department so they can get paid fairly as we do here in marketing; I hope I have this job forever and do everything I can to stay on my boss’s good side”.

    It’s like, you’re religious and that’s how it is, like it or not, and it doesn’t do anything to criticize it. They agree with you and they’re aware of the problems but there’s really nothing they can do to change it. God is still god, after all, they stick with the plan to get into heaven. They’re hands are tied in that respect, you are not criticizing their belief in a flawed system, you are complaining about the things they are powerless to change. It would be like someone criticizing you – you live on earth and it’s getting cold outside and there are hurricanes, hungry people, crime, etc., and you’re like, what am I going to do, move to another planet? Kill myself? I can’t change the weather, I can’t change cruel allotment of fortune.

    • DSimon

      But, it actually is possible to change one’s beliefs! A lot easier than moving to another planet, and in some cases even easier than having to find a new job. Still not easy, given how challenging it is to honestly criticize one’s own beliefs, but possible.

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  • http://asktheatheists.com/questions/answered_by/13-george-locke/ George Locke

    This is an interesting excerpt and makes me want to read the book. I hope you hire a copy editor, though! One easily overlooks phrases like “Dawkins can disagree with Harries about one day and work with him on something they agree on the next?” in a blog post, but when you’re paying money to buy a book, this kind of thing gets annoying.


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