A response to Jeff.

Someone I went to school with (named Jeff, hence the title of the post) left me this message on facebook this morning:

So, I’ve been meaning to ask you this for a while, JT. I went to Missouri State, and watched you debate there and I have seen your posts on Facebook over the years now, as well. Within that time (the better part of a decade) I spent a little time as a Christian, then a little time as an atheist, and have now spent many years as an agnostic about the existence of god, let alone some specific religion. So, though I find both sides interesting, I don’t exactly have a dog in the fight.

From everything I can tell, I’ve always found you to be a genuine person who is saying what he really believes, and is saying it because he cares.

But as I have watched you spend so much time and energy focusing on trying to take down religion, I’ve increasingly wondered, do you really think that a world without religion would be a world without the ills that you attribute to religion?

It seems to me that if religion is a human construct that has been found all throughout the world during human history, that religion is much more likely to be evidence of what human nature is, as opposed to being the source of us abandoning what would be our nature otherwise.

Without religion, people still do great things and still do horrible things. There are still mothers who hear voices and kill their children, even if that voice isn’t Jesus. Human beings still war with each other, belittle each other, claim superiority over each other, hate each other, be politically polarized, etc. without an assist from religion.

Without involving god, people still manage to be racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic, judgemental, greedy; manage to lie, cheat, steal, assault, murder, rape, molest… in fact, I can’t thing of one single thing that is a negative in our society that actually requires one to be religious in order for such a thing to exist.

People also do many amazingly great things specifically in the name of religion. They build shelters, dig wells, feed and cloth the needy, give support for those who mourn, express love, forgiveness, and acceptance…all because god told them to.

People often bring up war as the quintessential illustration of how evil religion is, since there have so many involving a religious perspective. But, if people in their nature tend to war with each other (as demonstrated by the atrocities that are still perpetrated without god as a basis), and 90+% of the world has generally believed in one god or another, wouldn’t it simply be the statistical probability that most wars would involve a religious perspective if most people have a religious perspective? That doesn’t exactly demonstrate any casual relationship of war being at all dependent on the presence of religion.

You have also always struck me as someone who has the desire to be rational. But in your presentation of religion, and it’s role in the world, you don’t seem to make what would be a rational presentation. A rational presentation would not be to just continually post all of the negative things that you come across, but also to post the positive ones. Likewise, for a rational analysis of what role religion is really playing, you would have to post the negatives and positives you come across that have nothing to do with religion. That would allow for an evaluation of what the balance is (good or bad) for both religion and non religion, and a comparison of if there is a significant difference.

However, you seem to have clearly planted your flag, and have chosen to endeavor to only show one side of one half of the story. It seems as though this may reveal a degree of confirmation bias on your part.

But this always leads me back to that same question when I read your posts. Do you really believe that if all religion were to vanish tomorrow, that there wouldn’t be conflict, wouldn’t be wars, wouldn’t be judgement, wouldn’t be closed mindedness, etc.? Is there really a single ill of our society that would vanish with religion? Or is not the tendency for both good and bad simply inherent to human nature…

Seemed sincere, so I decided to respond.  I elected to respond publicly because I’ve heard a few of these things before, so I figure a response here can serve a broader purpose.

But as I have watched you spend so much time and energy focusing on trying to take down religion, I’ve increasingly wondered, do you really think that a world without religion would be a world without the ills that you attribute to religion?

The ill I attribute to religion is institutionalized irrationality, from which much of everything else I gripe about flows.  Do I think that people would stop being irrational if religion were gone?  No.  I’ve known plenty of atheists and I regret to say that atheists enjoy (or don’t enjoy) our share of assholes.  Neither are atheists immune to pride, unreason, or many other flaws.  However, whereas I might be wrong about something politically, it’s not because I have set myself upon that position against all evidence to the contrary.  For normal subjects people are generally at least trying to be reasonable and simply failing.  Religion seems to be unique in that it tells people they don’t even need to try to be rational, that doing so is a threat to their eternal life, and that believing without evidence is a virtue.

This results in people doing things out of care but actually creating suffering and negatively impacting society.  I don’t doubt that fundamentalist Christians, for instance, care about the world and that this care is their motivation for trying to legislate discrimination.

While I do not think things like homophobia and irrationality will disappear if religion were to vanish (I’ve never said I thought as much), I do think they would be significantly lessened were religion gone.  Try this experiment: go out at random and ask people their position on gay marriage until you find someone who opposes it (in Springfield, MO this should not take long).  Knowing nothing about them other than that they live in America and hold that particular discriminatory viewpoint, I would be willing to bet you $1,000 they identify as a Christian.  This, of course, does not mean that all Christians are bigots, but it does suggest that of the bigoted population (with regards to gay people) is made up mostly of religious people – who are bigots expressly because of what the bible commands of them.  Even if bigotry and homophobia would not entirely die with religion, I don’t see how it can be argued that they would not sharply decline once people’s empathy is allowed back into the recesses of their minds that have been occupied with Jesus.

It seems to me that if religion is a human construct that has been found all throughout the world during human history, that religion is much more likely to be evidence of what human nature is, as opposed to being the source of us abandoning what would be our nature otherwise.

It may very well be human nature to so desperately want to one day be reunited eternally with everything a person has lost in life that they’ll believe absurd stories in order to get it.  It may very well be that we want answers to big questions so badly that we’ll convince ourselves we have them, even without evidence.

It’s also human nature to overeat given the opportunity.  It’s human nature to be angry when we shouldn’t, to envy others when we have plenty, etc.  What is human nature is not necessarily the best for which we can strive.  So even if I admit deluding ourselves about people rising from the dead or whatever other spiritual fantasy we hold, I need not admit that those things are good for humanity.  And I don’t.

Without religion, people still do great things and still do horrible things. There are still mothers who hear voices and kill their children, even if that voice isn’t Jesus. Human beings still war with each other, belittle each other, claim superiority over each other, hate each other, be politically polarized, etc. without an assist from religion.

That is true, and I’m opposed to those things as well.  However, without religion, how often do you think a parent will look at his newly born daughter and decide that the first order of business is to carve away her clitoris?  Without religion, what are the odds homosexuals would be facing life-imprisonment in the hyper-Christian nation of Uganda?

I have never said that religious people never do good things or that atheists are never cruel, nor would I ever say that.  It’s simply not true.  But to my eye there seems to be no good act performed by a religious person that isn’t performed by atheists.  Yet there seem to be countless atrocities committed for explicitly religious reasons that are simply not being mirrored by atheists.  Religion doesn’t need to be the source of every piece of misguided malice for it to be the source of enough to garner my attention.

And yes, people will still find reasons to oppose one another without religion.  But I suspect without the absolutist nature of religions like the Abrahamic faiths the way we resolve conflict may gravitate more towards discussion and reason rather than things like Jihad.  For instance, if an atheist sees a cartoon he doesn’t like, at worst he would stop reading the publisher of the comic and write a strongly-worded letter.  You probably won’t see atheists ending lives over it.

Or if atheists find certain things icky (like gay sex), how often do we try to legislate against it if there is no harm but our icky feelings?  I’d say hardly ever.  But religion has convinced plenty of people who have never been harmed in the least by homosexuality (because it’s not harmful) that they not only have the right to intrude upon the private lives of their neighbors, but also that doing so is their moral responsibility.  So while conflict will never go away, the ways we may resolve it change once religion is gone.  We may also alter how we perceive issues worthy of conflict – looking at things like how much happiness or suffering a particular thing/behavior creates instead of just what a bunch of ancient people thought about it.

When the most clever being in all the universe has declared your enemies for you, discussing your position in an open fashion can easily be taken of the table.

People also do many amazingly great things specifically in the name of religion. They build shelters, dig wells, feed and cloth the needy, give support for those who mourn, express love, forgiveness, and acceptance…all because god told them to.

This is true.  But we don’t need bad reasons to be good.  There are reasons to build shelters that don’t involve sacrificing our good sense at the altar of faith.

If you read my blog, you know that every month or every couple of months I post a story about a parent with a sick child who died, not because their illness is considered deadly in the 21st century, but because those parents did not take their child to a doctor.  Through neglect, such parents kill their children.  The irony is that they loved their children as much as you or I would love our child and wanted them to get well just as any other parent would.  But because they had an irrational belief about the universe, their care for their offspring was twisted into deadly neglect.

This is why good intentions are not enough.  Most people have good intentions, which means that most cases of  human-caused suffering are the combination of good intentions with bad ideas about how to achieve the goodness of their intent.  The good intent is not the problem, the irrationality that produces bad ideas is.  This is why every good person has a responsibility to try to be reasonable to the best of their ability – to make sure their good intentions are borne out in reality.  And that is why I criticize religion: it is the foremost institution telling people that they don’t need to be reasonable, that faith is sufficient, etc.  While this may at times get people to build shelters because they think it’s god’s will, this is the same mechanism that moves parents to forbid medical care to their children, to create suffering because of moral prescriptions dreamed up thousands of years before we figured out that slavery was shitty, etc.

If unreason were to be blinked out of existence, we’d still build shelters, dig wells, feed and cloth the needy, and all that good stuff.  But we’d stop burning women with acid because they seek an education.

You have also always struck me as someone who has the desire to be rational. But in your presentation of religion, and it’s role in the world, you don’t seem to make what would be a rational presentation. A rational presentation would not be to just continually post all of the negative things that you come across, but also to post the positive ones. Likewise, for a rational analysis of what role religion is really playing, you would have to post the negatives and positives you come across that have nothing to do with religion. That would allow for an evaluation of what the balance is (good or bad) for both religion and non religion, and a comparison of if there is a significant difference.

You seem to think I oppose religion because the irrationality religion produces always produces horrible outcomes.  I have never said this and, to my knowledge, never acted like I believe this.

I do, however, think irrationality is bad.  So posting a story where a religious person builds a shelter because they think a man who rose from the dead commanded them to isn’t really something that interests me.  Do I think building shelters is good?  Absolutely.  Do I think believing a man rose from the dead is admirable?  No, I do not.  Do I think people would not build shelters if they stopped believing a man rose from the dead?  No, I do not.

What’s more, the mechanism that allows a person to believe god wants them to build shelters is the same mechanism that allows people to believe that god wants them to kill apostates.  There is no better evidence that a pro-shelter god exists over a pro-genocide god.  Neither is more likely to be right than the other, and if you are convinced by my earlier argument that people have a moral obligation to be reasonable, this should bother you.  If I posted an article that said “Yay, someone built a shelter because they think a guy rising from the dead told them to” then I’m not just lending my approval to building shelters, I’m lending it to irrationality.  I’m saying it’s ok to believe things for lousy reasons so long as the results mirror the results of believing things for good reasons.

But I don’t believe that.  It’s not ok to believe things for bad reasons because of the potential to have our goodness corrupted by it.  The poison does not need to taint everybody for me to still think we’d be better off without the poison.

However, you seem to have clearly planted your flag, and have chosen to endeavor to only show one side of one half of the story. It seems as though this may reveal a degree of confirmation bias on your part.

The story is that humanity would be better off without irrationality.  You are responding as if the story is that religion always produces cruelty.  I’m telling the former, you’re responding to the latter.

I have never once said that I think religion never produces good behavior (for lousy reasons).  But you chastised me for it.

I have never once said that all ills would evaporate upon religion’s death.  But you chastised me for it.  I would ask you how many ills driven expressly by religion – or by the insistence that believing something is more important than the soundness of the methods you used to reach that belief – need to go extinct along with religion for us to yearn for that outcome?  If you read my blog on a daily basis you’ll know there’s plenty of them out there, even if they’re not the sum of what plagues humanity.

But this always leads me back to that same question when I read your posts. Do you really believe that if all religion were to vanish tomorrow, that there wouldn’t be conflict, wouldn’t be wars, wouldn’t be judgement, wouldn’t be closed mindedness, etc.? Is there really a single ill of our society that would vanish with religion?

You say these thoughts enter your mind every time you read my posts.  I find this ironic since I’ve never said or implied that all war would stop if religion were to die (even though I believe some/much war would).  I’ve never said conflict would cease without religion (I don’t believe it would).

And as far as single ills go, I can’t imagine people would be trying to use public funds to give their religion a leg up over others.  I can’t imagine we’d keep burning women for the crime of seeking knowledge.  I can’t imagine discrimination against LGBT people would continue to get taken seriously by our leaders.  I can’t imagine we’d keep slicing the clitorises off of newborn girls.  I could keep going, but you get the picture.  And what’s more, the absence of religion doesn’t need to lead to a Utopian society for me to think that it would lead to a better society.  So all cruelty wouldn’t go away, but maybe more good intentions would result in truly beneficial results without the prescribed irrationality found in many religions.

Or is not the tendency for both good and bad simply inherent to human nature…

There are a lot of things in human nature that we’d be better off to ditch.  You’ve not really established that religion is part of human nature (any more than believing in democracy is part of human nature) – but even if you did, so what?  I’m interested in what produces the most happiness and alleviates the most suffering, not what is in our nature.  It’s in our nature to be selfish more than we should.  Who would argue that’s a good thing simply because it’s our nature?

Hope that helps us to be on the same page.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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