I know I’ve directed your attention towards this argument before, but I honestly believe it is the coup de grâce in the debate over whether or not faith based belief is inherently beneficial or harmful. Before I go on any further, I need to make my standard disclaimer. In deference to Greta’s post, I used the word religion in the title. However, I am speaking only of one particular variety of religion, namely the kind that relies on faith based reasoning. It is acceptable in some circles to define certain ethical philosophies as religions, even though they are not based on the supernatural, deities, or magic. Personally, I’m very wary of granting any religion a pass on this, but in deference to the possibility that there might be a genuinely scientific ethical philosophy that calls itself a religion, I restrict my criticisms only to faith based religions.
Here are Greta’s words:
And it is therefore uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self- correction. It is uniquely armored against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality … and extreme, grotesque immorality.
I’ve made this argument before, and most of my readers are probably familiar with it. However, today, I want to address a counter-claim from those who believe faith-based religion to either be benign, beneficial, or neutral as a moral force. Many of these people will claim that the negative aspects of religion are counter-balanced by its ability to mobilize groups of people towards socially beneficial behaviors, such as charity, caring for the sick, self sacrifice, and the mobilization of large groups of people towards the common good.
This counter-argument is really a common theist argument in disguise. Atheists and the non-religious have been portrayed by the religious as morally depraved, unhappy, missing out on something, etc, for as long as they’ve been visible. The thing is, nobody’s ever stopped to demand evidence. The assumption that religion inspires people to be more moral is just a reverse version of the same claim — a claim that has never been demonstrated scientifically.
And let’s review our basic critical thinking, shall we? What do we do with claims for which there is no evidence? We assume them to be false until proven true.
Just to be clear, let’s state this again in a different way. Before we discuss causality, we must address whether or not there is even a difference in behavior. Is there a difference in the amount of good moral behavior between faith and non-faith based belief systems? In order to claim that faith has a positive effect on people’s morality, we must first demonstrate that there is, in fact, a difference that demands an explanation!
I have yet to see the evidence.
On the other hand, here’s a very, very long list of bad moral behavior that is at the very least strongly correlated with faith based religious belief. We can also talk about very specific examples of religious ideology and bad behavior. I have used myself as an example before, and my critics are unusually silent. To recap, when I was a Christian, I was bigoted against gays. I believed gays to be morally depraved, sinful, and genuinely evil people. The only reason I believed this was that I believed god had said it was true. I had no other evidence either for or against the belief. Because of my religious belief, I treated gays poorly, excluded them from social activities, and spoke badly about them to anyone who would listen. This is undeniably bad moral behavior.
Are there non-religious homophobes and bigots? Yes, there are. I don’t think I’ve ever said that religion is the only cause of bad behavior. I’m quite tired of that objection, as a matter of fact. The only question at hand is whether or not religion does cause bad behavior. In at least one example — me — I can testify that it does. This is still a long way from being able to say that faith based religion causes bad behavior on a large scale, but wait… didn’t we just look at a long list of bad behaviors that are strongly correlated with faith based reasoning?
To be fair, there have been occasional studies that have at least demonstrated a correlation between religious practice and a couple of good moral behaviors, but we’re not talking about big differences. We’re talking about differences of a few percentage points. I have never claimed that there aren’t people who believe God wants them to build houses for free, or donate all their extra money to charity. However, when I look for large-scale mass movements of humans, I simply don’t see anything positive that balances with the negative.
Where’s the corresponding long list of good behaviors that are strongly correlated with faith based reasoning? Where is the effort to end poverty that is correspondingly as large as the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition? Where is the effort to promote egalitarianism and equal rights that is as large as the effort to criminalize, marginalize, and legally discriminate against gays?
Frankly, I’m tired of having the burden of proof shifted on me. When I claim that faith based reasoning has no reality check, I’m stating the obvious. When I claim that faith based reasoning can be used to justify otherwise unjustifiable actions, I am stating the obvious. Yet, for some reason, when I move from this claim to the observation that sometimes faith actually does get used to justify otherwise unjustifiable actions, I’m raked over the coals.
Yet… the same critics fail to justify their own claim — that religion elevates people’s morality to any significant degree.
To conclude, let me make sure to articulate the double standard very clearly:
- Faith is unique in that it allows, and perhaps even encourages, justifying the unjustifiable. The cause of this is the lack of a reality check.
- Good behavior can be, and often is, justified with a reality check, quite apart from faith. In fact, it’s quite simple to justify any good behavior without faith.
- The defenders of religion are the ones making an unjustified claim — that faith also has the property of increasing the intensity or frequency of good acts which can and are perfectly justifiable without faith.
Until it is demonstrated that faith does, in fact, increase the amount of good in the universe, we’re left with several disturbing realizations:
Faith can be used to justify the unjustifiable. There is a very long list of unjustifiable bad behavior that has been directly attributed to faith by the very people committing the acts.
We have no corresponding long list of exceptionally good behavior directly attributed to faith by the very people committing the exceptionally good acts. We have no evidence that faith is used to justify the justifiable significantly more often than it is justified without faith.
In light of these facts, I find it disingenuous at best for anyone to suggest that it is we, the atheists, who must justify our claim that religion is a force for evil.