Reza Aslan recently made an argument in defense of religion that I’ve heard often – basically it boils down to religion being responsible for nothing.
It goes something like this (taken from the Friendly Atheist Site):
I think the principle fallacy of not just to the so-called New Atheists, but I think of a lot of critics of religion, is that they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false.
People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity…
It seems like a logical viewpoint — if you are just a person who doesn’t know much about the history, philosophy, sociology of religion — it seems like a logical thing to say that people get their values from their scriptures. It’s just intrinsically false. That’s not what happens. People do not derive their values from their scriptures — they insert their values into their scriptures.
Does this apply to good deeds as well? When religious people say they gave to charity or did some other noble act because they were moved by the holy spirit or their scripture, can we ignore it and tell them it had nothing to do with their belief in God?
I’m pretty sure many would take offense to such a proclamation.
Why do we seem intent on ignoring what people tell us. If I say I was once a Christian (which is true) a segment of the population will insist that I wasn’t. If a suicide bomber says they were intent on killing people to attain heaven, why do some of us say he’s lying or simply dismiss his claims? If a Christian (or other religious person) asks me where I get my moral framework, are they saying this because they don’t believe they get theirs from God and their particular brand of scripture?
As The Friendly Atheist Said in his post:
As Linker writes, atheists take religion seriously. We listen to what devout believers say. We see what’s written in the holy books. We don’t sugar coat it to make it more acceptable.
Aslan is willing to ignore all of that because, in his view, religions are all the same and what’s written in the holy books is irrelevant. That’s a dangerous way to think when some religions — and some believers who take the Words of God literally — pose real threats to society.
It’s the same defense I hear over and over from both atheists and religious people – what the books say isn’t important. It’s what people do. There is no bad religion, only bad people, which I consider to be a weak argument and incorrect view. If religion can be credited for the good things it teaches, it can also be criticized for the bad things. You can’t have it both ways.
The defense that beliefs don’t matter because there are good Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews (insert religious or political affiliation here) is flat out false. Imagine if we used this defense when considering other types of ideologies or belief structures.
- Nazism isn’t bad, there are only bad Nazi’s. Many Nazi’s are moderate and don’t believe Jews and other groups should be gassed to death. Look at all the good Nazi’s have inspired in their fellow people.
- There are good communists and bad communists.
- There are good dictators and bad dictators.
- There are bad cults and benevolent cults.
Hell, many of the arguments put forth by theists against atheism use the idea that because we don’t believe in a higher power or use their archaic set of moral codes, we have no basis for morality. If they don’t believe that beliefs matter and have an effect on behavior, they wouldn’t be using that argument.
In any group there are good people and bad people. That doesn’t mean that the ideology they’re part of is true and not harmful. It doesn’t mean the ideas they have adopted are good ideas. Of course some of what religion teaches is good, and that’s great, but we can use those parts (most of which can be found outside religion anyways) and honestly point out the harmful things these dogmas say about reality and how we should treat one another. Anyone who has sat down and honestly read the bible, Torah or Qur’an (or most other religious texts) can see the harmful nonsense mixed in with the good bits. You can easily cherry-pick good verses to line up with societal norms, but those bad bits are still there and the person who uses those bits to justify hating homosexuals (for example) are equally as correct as the person who condemns such behavior based on their holy book of choice.
If beliefs didn’t influence behavior, then we might as well stop trying to teach kids morals. Parents who are religious might as well never read the bible to their children or talk about ‘Christian morals’ or a good ‘Christian upbringing’. Humanists might as well give it up – what they’re passing on doesn’t matter.
I remember when I was a much, much younger Christian. I had all types of (what I now consider to be ignorant) beliefs that influenced my behavior.
For example, I was taught that AIDS was a punishment meted out by God because of homosexuality. My behavior reflected that. I didn’t like homosexuality. I thought homosexuals were immoral and going against the will of God. I could easily find passages in the bible to back up my view, even if I ignored the bits about stoning them because I believed God would handle it once they were dead. My hands were clean. If I told a homosexual they were an abomination, I was actually doing them a favor.
My beliefs influenced my behavior and those beliefs were reinforced through the church community I was a part of. Only later, after I’d been exposed to other ideas, did I see how wrong I had been. Those new beliefs replaced the old ones, and now my behavior reflects my belief that homosexuals are people and deserve the same rights, opportunities and protectuion under the law as heterosexuals.
When I believed that homosexuality was against Gods will, was I a bad person?
I don’t think so. I did many things that were what I consider to be good deeds, but the fact remains that my initial beliefs certainly affected how I behaved.
If you want to argue that religion is beneficial, that’s fine. We can have that discussion.
But arguing that it has no influence whatsoever is nonsense of the highest order. Not even religious people act like that’s true.
If you’re religious, do you think religion influences the way you act?
If you’re an atheist, do you think religion influences behavior in any way?
As always, thanks for reading. I’m sorry for the longer than usual post.