Superstition, Rationality, and the Merits of Religion: A Facebook Debate

Last month, I was engaged in yet another Facebook debate — this time with an old work colleague of mine, who’s non-LDS. It turned out to be a great example of the kind of debate in which I wish I could engage my family and close friends, since I found it to be both intellectually challenging and amicable. Unfortunately these days, my family and friends rarely engage me in anything other than idle chit-chat, fearing that I’ll bring something up that will make them “uncomfortable”; but I digress.

The debate started off discussing whether irrationality and/or superstition is a requirement to do others harm; branched into a debate on whether Hitler was a theist or not; then came to a comparison of definitions of religion & other philosophies.

With permission from the other parties, I have decided to include the entire debate below; I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

[Note: due to Facebook’s limited abilities, I’ve taken the liberty of re-formatting the text of the debate for my blog. I’ve modified paragraph & line breaks, fixed typos, added emphasis, etc. Other than this, the debate remains unedited in terms of content. I’ve also colour-coded each speaker to make it easier to follow the conversation: I (Tom) am red, Travis is blue, and Jason is green.]

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Tom Jenson shared a link:
Seven-year-old sacrificed to the gods for good harvest in India, By JohnThomas Didymus, Jan 1, 2012. Digital Journal [Archived here]


Tom
A rational non-superstitious mind could never do something so abhorrently evil, but when it’s done in the name of God…

Jason
It’s things like this that show just how uncivilized humans still are. We are barely out of the jungle on this planet, and we have a very long way to go before we can be called civilized. Truly sad.

Travis
Although this is deplorable and it was definitely done by uneducated, irrational people, I disagree with your premise. By way of an example I give you a wikilink to a person who was both rational and not at all superstitious and accomplished so much more than these two men: Adolf Eichmann (And he didn’t believe in God.)

Tom
I would argue that a Nazi who orchestrated the holocaust was definitely not rational, as the belief that an entire ethnicity must be irradiated, is itself irrational.

Travis
I would definitely agree with that point. However, that being the case, Eichmann and many others like him were still rational human beings (being of sound mind) that had rationally accepted an idea based on their individual experiences and philosophies in the absence of any religious constraints upon them. The fact that the idea itself is irrational is very true and I would agree. The force of my point is that this was accomplished without superstition or religion as a motivating factor and that perhaps humans are perfectly capable of being horrible in both the presence of rational thought and the absence of religion.

Tom
So, your saying that an individual can be rational and non-superstitious within an irrational and superstitious system? (Remember, Hitler invoked the name of God on numerous occasions.) if so, then you’re arguing a relativistic or subjective definition of rationality — please correct me if I’m mistaken.

Is your agreement, that the Nazi mindset was irrational, one based on your own subjective rationality, or based on an idea of an objective rationality? Because if you’re saying that the Nazi system was objectively irrational, then that philosophy would run contrary to your relativist statement about Eichmann. However, if you’re saying that your subjective rationality tells you the Nazi system was irrational, then you would be consistent with a relativist philosophy that is, until you consider that, relatively speaking, Eichmann didn’t do any such atrocity, and wouldn’t fit those I was originally speaking about. As for Eichmann having acted in the absence of any religious constraints, I would argue that Hitler’s invoking the name of God, and the entire Nazi mindset was itself a type of cult or religion. Thus, superstition was still, albeit indirect, a factor.

I fully agree that humans are capable of acting horribly regardless of religiousness or superstitiousness, however it takes these qualities to bypass an objective rationality, or to claim a relative rationality. Horrible actions outside of these factors are simply irrational.

Jason
I would agree, Travis, that humans are capable of doing Horrible things with or without religion. But, with very few exceptions, religion, or belief in a deity of some kind, has been a motive for the worst atrocities in Human history. “Good people are good people, regardless of religion. But to do something truly Evil, you need religion.” Tom, once again hits the nail on the head. “Rational arguments don’t work on Religious people, otherwise there would be no religious people.” (Dr Gregory House). Most times, again, with VERY few exceptions, people who can rationalize a horrible act are usually mentally imbalanced, or criminally Insane, and obviously are not in their right mind. That’s the whole premiss behind “Rational!” If you can rationalize an irrational act, the act is no longer rational, it’s quite obviously irrational. And if you say that being irrational is rational, you have lost your mind. Does that sound rational?

Travis
I wouldn’t argue in defence of relativism, I leave that to the post-modernists. Being a functionalist I believe there is a definite and quantifiable locus for right and wrong. I would say that if invoking the name of god makes one a religious leader, then Hitchens and Dawkins are two of the biggest Christians in the world, they never shut up about god.

Hitler was a secular humanist leading a party whose philosophy was also secular humanist. For more info on that read the myth of the twentieth century by Rosenberg I think (though I wouldn’t recommend it, it’s wicked boring).

My contention is that one can, in full grasp of rational thought and in absence of religious motivations still commit acts that are morally atrocious.

If we are to begin asserting that any idea based on an irrational set of information is ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ also an irrational idea and therefore superstition and therefore religious; then I and everyone else would have to cede the argument that all irrational thought originates from religion because the only quality required to be considered a religion would therefore be that it is irrational. However, my point is simply that it is fallacious to assume that the absence of religion and superstition would ipso facto remove the possibility of atrocities being committed. I would love to believe that, it’s just that I’m not that naive.

Jason. Ah yes, the “God is not good” argument. Yes, I agree that religion can be blamed for most of the atrocities that have been committed in human history. However, that’s a straw-man argument. What Atheist anti-religion philosophers haven’t really figured out, or have been afraid to admit, is that those standards by which they hang religion can also be used in the reverse. Most of the great moral triumphs and nobility of the human race can also be chalked up to religion by the same standards. If you take a step back and throw away the ideological agenda from both sides you realize that both sides of the argument are right and wrong at the same time. What mankind needs is not for us to have a better philosophical standpoint on which to base our ideas but rather a better engine from which those ideas are generated. In simpler terms, humans don’t need better software, the software needs better humans.

Tom
Travis, your Eichmann example was entirely an argument for relativism: He acted rationally relative to his experience and philosophy. Now you assert that you believe there is “a definite and quantifiable locus for right and wrong”, which is contrary to your original relativist argument.

Hitchens and Dawkins, by any stretch of the imagination, are not invoking the name of God to rally support for their cause, since they readily assert that there is no reason to believe in one. If you’re equating using the term “god” as being the same as invoking the name of God to gain support for a position, then you are grossly mistaken. Also, I never asserted that invoking the name of God made one a religious leader, only that Hitler used it (whether he believed in Him or not, which is a debate unto itself) and people’s credulity toward a god, to gain support for his agenda.

I do assert ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ within the idea of an objective rationally. I do not however, claim that all irrationality is superstitious and/or religious, but that all superstition is irrational. Irrationality is not the only quality of religion, and I would never say that one couldn’t be an irrational atheist, as I have come across many. Hitler’s Nazis were cult-like for many reasons beyond their irrationality, and the distinction between a cult and a religion is a blurry line at best.

I’m curious to know how “the great moral triumphs and nobility of the human race” can be shown to be exclusively religious in nature and that they couldn’t possibly have been able to come to fruition without religion. Hitchens and Dawkins are not afraid to admit that religion has helped societies to some extent at some point, but most religions are bronze-age world views that are no longer required to answer the questions they once did, and are now actually impeding modern ways of thinking.

Coming back to my original statement, I hold to my assertion with the following clarifications: “A[n objectively] rational [and] non-superstitious mind[set] could never do something so abhorrently evil. [Otherwise, the action would be objectively irrational, or subjectively rationalized within an irrational or superstitious framework].”

Jason
Travis, Your argument that people can do horrible things without religion is valid, but everything else you are saying is complete nonsense. Using the Argument that Hitler was a secularist is outright wrong. Hitler was 100% a Roman Catholic. It’s well documented that he attended mass, prayed before meals, etc. Almost all NAZI paraphernalia contains the phrase “Got Mit Us!” Or roughly translated… “God is with us.” He believed it was God’s will for him to destroy the Jews. So to argue that Hitler was motivated by secularist beliefs is an outright lie created by the Catholic Church to distance themselves from the ‘scandal.’ The Catholic Church was in favour of what Hitler was doing, and never made any claims to the contrary. Hitler was praised by the priests of Germany for the Holocaust, and was considered a religions hero, much the same way Osama Bin laden is considered a hero by his religious followers. I like what Penn Jillette said about god, and I’ll leave this argument on that note, “If god, however you perceive him her or it, told you to kill your child would you do it? If your answer is no, you’re an atheist. There is doubt in your mind. Love and morality are more important to you than your faith. If your answer was yes, please reconsider!”

Later boys, and try to play nice.

PS: 1 agree 100% with Tom on this one!

Tom
[I should correct an improper use of the latin “post hoc ergo propter hoc” by both myself and Travis. This phrase means “after this, therefore because of this”, which is a logical fallacy. This is not applicable to the above situation since we were not discussing whether an act can be rational FOLLOWING a previous irrational act, but rather that an act can be considered rational WITHIN an irrational system.]

Travis
Actually, I know what “post hoc ergo propter hoc” means and was using it correctly. What you are talking about is “cause and effect”, “post hoc ergo propter hoc” is the act of making an argument seem logical by omitting an assumed premise which is faulty. The omitted assumption in this case being:

  1. The actions of these men are irrational and superstitious and
  2. THE IRRATIONAL AND SUPERSTITIOUS ACT WAS PERFORMED BY RELIGION, therefore
  3. Religion is irrational and superstitious and by extension all acts that are irrational and superstitious are religious in nature.

By omitting 2 from the argument, you commit “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacious reasoning which brings me back to my original point: this argument only works on people who agree to the faulty assumption that religion bears responsibility for the act itself. I am not arguing that religion is great and atheism is bad. What I am saying is that blaming a religion for the evil that men do is the same as blaming the hammer for hitting your thumb. Or, in terms that you would likely agree with, it’s the same as fundamentalist Christians blaming the rise of atheism for the decline of traditional values.

Jason, I spent about two years (formally, and several years since then) studying Nazi’s and the Holocaust in the wider framework of anti-Semitism. Hitler was raised Catholic, like around 70% of Austrians, but he left those ideas behind for a secular humanist worldview. His beliefs, what little we know of them, were an extension of 19th century post-colonial racial theory to the idea of manifest destiny. Being in church no more makes one a Catholic than being in a tree makes one a bird. What he did believe in was the divine will of the Aryan people (represented in his Philosophies in the Germanic Peoples) and a type of Teutonic neo-paganism. He saw ALL forms of Christianity as semitic bastardization of German culture but was politically astute enough to keep that largely “in-house” while leading a nation of predominantly Christian people. The closest he came to ‘Christian’ was that he approved of a true Christianity purged of all Semitic influences, considering Jesus was Jewish I couldn’t even speculate what that would look like, but he never claimed that he believed in it: he had no problem with the word God (Gott) to describe that divine will since it was a completely German term. As for the church’s collusion in the holocaust you couldn’t be more right. But to blame religion for that might draw serious objections from Bernhard Lichtenberg, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Leisner if they hadn’t been murdered.

Oh, and to clarify my stance on relativism. Again, I’m not a relativist. I believe right and wrong are not relative, I assert that human “reasoning” is both imperfect and subjective.

Tom
“Religion is irrational and superstitious…”
– Yes, all religions are by their very nature of belief in the supernatural. Is it rational to believe in something that has absolutely no evidence for it while there is mounting evidence against it?

“… and by extension all acts that are irrational and superstitious are religious in nature”
– When did I suggest this? I clearly stated, “I do not … claim that all irrationality is superstitious and/or religious”.

In reference to my original link, these men could very well be seen as acting rationally within their superstitious context (relative / subjective), but because that context itself is irrational, any act performed within it is thereby tainted with irrationality (objectively speaking). I am not claiming “that religion bears responsibility for the act itself”, only that religion & superstition is used to ‘rationalize’ objectively irrational acts. I stand by my statement that the use of “post hoc ergo propter hoc” was incorrect, as this is not a cause-and-effect scenario.

I totally understand that there is a big difference between being raised in a particular religion (practicing its social customs etc.) and actually believing in its theology. That’s why I wouldn’t claim that Hitler was Catholic, or necessarily even Christian. There’s plenty of evidence that he may have at least been a deist of some sort. However, whether he believed in a supreme being or not, he utilized others’ beliefs in one. Therefore, the group mindset of the Nazis had a definite religious underpinning. Regardless Travis, your assertion that “Hitler was a secular humanist” is so completely off the mark that I’m rather stunned. Humanism isn’t a philosophy that can be used to rationalize genocide, just as Buddhism couldn’t possibly be used to rationalize suicide bombings.

If you believe in an objective morality, how could one subjectively rationalize an objectively immoral act to be moral? Regardless of their reasoning for said act, their rationality would be objectively irrational.

Travis
I have a broader understanding of humanism than most. Your understanding of humanism is good, your understanding of Hitler is not. Hitler’s ideology extended only to humans, not those he considered sub-human. He saw everything he was accomplishing as beneficial for humans and his parties rhetoric concerning the holocaust often spoke of being “strong” so that they could do the unspeakable for the good of the German race. The secular part is a bit of an assumption since no one knows for sure what Hitler believed; I make my assumption based on the opinion of Albert Speer, probably his closest friend, who said he was very skeptical and negative about religion.

In any case I think we’ve gotten done a rabbit hole with Hitler. Stalinist communism is just as good an example with a decidedly irreligious worldview that still managed to rack up a murder count somewhere north of the eight figure mark. Even then, Marxism isn’t a philosophy that can be used to justify atrocities either, somehow it still happened. The common denominator for evil is not religion, it’s just not an argument that stands up to any scrutiny.

All religions are actually not by their very nature belief in the supernatural, but rather a system of understanding for a collection of realities including that which is beyond human comprehension. Most also contain philosophical and ethical systems for human interactions with each other as well as the world at large. As for “I’m curious how the great moral triumphs and nobility of the human race can be shown to be exclusively religious in nature”, millions of people are alive today because of the charity of religious people who take it upon themselves to donate their time, skills and money to help the starving and the sick. However, I never claimed they were exclusively religious in nature; I asserted that you cannot blame religion for all the evil committed in its name on the one hand and deny all the good done in its name on the other. I then asserted that religion is a tool used by people for both good and bad and to make it responsible for either is philosophically unsound.

Tom
Travis, If you were aware that your understanding of humanism is broader than most, then why wait so long inform me of that? If you are using a vague or alternative definition of a term that is knowingly different from what most understand it to mean, the onus is on you to be clear and upfront about it. (Also, I’m still waiting for your definition.) For clarity, here is a definition that illustrates my understanding: “Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, world view or practice that focuses on human values and concerns. In other words, it is an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters” You’re correct that my understanding of Hitler is limited, but that doesn’t negate that his ideology simply doesn’t reflect Humanism as it is widely understood (as defined above). Altering one’s view to de-humanize a group of people, and include “the divine will of the Aryan people”, both run contrary to Humanism. Humanism of this sort would be far from a “broader understanding”, as it is incredibly narrow.

Skepticism does not equal secularism. To attach “secular” to “humanism” in this way is quite misleading since “secular humanism” itself is pre-existing concept. “Secular humanism is a secular ideology which espouses reason, ethics, and justice, whilst specifically rejecting supernatural and religious dogma as a basis of morality and decision-making. Secular humanism contrasts with religious humanism, which is an integration of humanist ethical philosophy with religious rituals and beliefs that center on human needs, interests, and abilities”. Again, Hitler’s use of religious dogma (whether he believed it or not), and his lack of ethics and (objectively) immoral acts, are all contrary to secular humanism.

I’m not overly well-versed in Stalinist communism either, so you’re going to have to help me understand how these atrocities “somehow still happened” with a Marxism philosophy, since I get the feeling that whatever philosophy was used, no longer resembled Marxism.

That’s quite the apologetic definition of religion. “… A system of understanding for a collection of realities…” – what understanding can you have when multiple realities haven’t been shown to exist? “… Including that which is beyond human comprehension” – if it’s beyond our comprehension, how can it be included in a “system of understanding”? Isn’t the belief of realities beyond human comprehension the very definition of supernatural?

Ahhh – Hitler, Stalin, now “religion does good/charity” – bringing out all the classic apologetic arguments, eh? Where did I suggest that religion doesn’t motivate people to do good? Can you really say that these people wouldn’t do charity without religion? I know plenty of atheists who do lots of charity, and to me theirs seems to be from a much more genuine concern for others than the religiously prescribed reward-and-punishment motivation. On the other hand, I can think of numerous examples where religious dogma was the motivating factor for atrocities; just take 9/11 for example. Can you honestly say that those suicidal jihadist hijackers would have done what they did without their religious dogma and supernatural belief in a continued existence that would receive eternal rewards? So yes, religion can be motivation for both good and evil, but that same good can be found in the non-religious and is therefore not exclusive to religion. Whereas religion (or superstition of some kind) is quite often the motivation used by the (objectively) irrational to warrant their atrocities. Though immoral acts can still be done by the non-religious (as I’ve noted numerous times above), they simply cannot rationalize their acts by claiming they’re being done in the name of secular humanism or atheism – it simply doesn’t follow.

Travis
Hitler’s humanism was a divergent idea much in the same way reform LDS is divergent from regular LDS. The Nazi party had a three-tier understanding of “human” (sometimes four, because of Neitze’s ‘superman’). The Aryan races were human, the Slavs were sub-human and the Semitic and African races were non-human. Their belief was that it was their destiny to create a better world through the expansion of Aryan culture, the subjugation of the Slavic cultures (purely for their own benefit because they were too degenerate to run their own society) and the elimination of the non-humans (originally by emigration, but after the war opportunism took over). It is a form of humanism that was very popular in the early twentieth century that would possibly be better labelled nationalist humanism or racist humanism. It was popularized in the book Foundations of the Nineteenth Century by Chamberlain, one of the few books that we know Hitler read. It isn’t an example of humanism being well applied; to say that that means it isn’t humanism may be a fair point, but that would also mean that the 9/11 terrorists aren’t Muslims. I would agree that they aren’t but that would be what they call themselves.

As for rationalizing: I’m sure you understand that the human mind can be applied to rationalize (perhaps a better term is justify) virtually anything.

Going back to the original point. To say that a rational and non-superstitious mind would never commit such an act, is just not true. History is rife with examples of people who are perfectly rational (which I take to mean in full possession of their mental faculties) that committed horrible acts without the influence of either religion or superstition.

Re: my definition of religion, the definition of religion has to be vague because many major religions deny the existence of the supernatural.

Apologist: the defense of a position with the systematic use of reason.

In this case you’re the apologist. I’m not advancing a position, I’m opposing yours. Or, at least opposing the dogmatic simplism of the statement. But, if you dislike my examples let’s talk about some of your preferred examples.

Tom
If I simply used the term “LDS” you would rightly assume I was speaking about the current largest branch of Mormonism, as any reference to a different branch or time period would need additional description, such as “Reform LDS”. Simply saying that I have a broader understanding of “LDS” would not be accurate since I am fully aware that, in conversation with someone else of my time and similar knowledge, there would need to be further clarification on my part to differentiate the branch or era to which I’m speaking. As for the 9/11 terrorists not being Muslim, this is not parallel to your use of Hitler’s “Humanism” since the term “Muslim” is not being applied anachronistically. (This, of course, assumes that you define “Muslim” as “one whose religious beliefs and practices are based on the principles as described in the Qur’an.” What specific subtype of Muslim one is, is determined by which passages one does or doesn’t adhere to.)

Perhaps “Justify” is a better term than “rationalize”. Yes, people can subjectively justify almost any action, but does that make the act objectively rational? If history is “rife with examples”, I have not come across one yet that I haven’t found to be irrational and/or influenced by supernatural or superstitious beliefs (though, I’m not an expert on every atrocity). If there are “many major religions” that “deny the existence of the supernatural”, please provide some examples. I cannot think of a single one.

My use of the term “apologetic” was in reference to “theistic apologetics” which is an area of study for the defense of theistic beliefs. My apologies (pardon the pun) for not being clearer. I only pointed out that you seemed to have pulled out the top three arguments theistic apologists use consistently, despite the arguments having been refuted for years. The next one on the list would be Pol Pot.

To see these arguments applied dogmatically, I refer you to the Blair vs Hitchens “Is Religion a Force for Good or Ill” debate (admittedly, Tony Blair doesn’t do the theistic side any favors). Yes, I am the apologist in reference to my original statement, but by opposing my argument, you are in turn defending your position. Thus, we have both been apologists in this discussion.

Travis
I think if you reread what I have put you might find that I am not arguing in favour of a theist viewpoint. That isn’t my view in the first place. What I am arguing is the sense in which many Atheists (I’ll use the capitalised to refer to those atheists with an anti-religious agenda in general, not all atheists) saddle religion as the source of all evil and no good. By similar logic death row should be populated by only guns and knives. Therefore, if religion can be considered itself “responsible” for that which is done in its name, it would have to be responsible at all times, not just when it suits the atheist agenda.

For the confusion on humanism I apologize. I was unaware but probably should have realized that your understanding was less of the history and development of humanism and more on the modern ideals; but understand that I’m not blaming humanism either. The force of my argument (rather, the point of view of other people who I would forward here) is that “evil” or “good”, whatever those concepts would mean, is accomplished by solely human effort. Whatever tools are applied to the effort bear no more responsibility in the commission of that effort than a gun does in the commission of a crime.

As to religions that deny the supernatural there is Theravada Buddhism, types of Confucianism, Jainism, types of Shinto, Aristotelian religions and Pythagoreanism (the last two which were major but are sadly now gone apart from their influence in Christianity) are the ones I’m aware of.

And my last thought for the evening: Don’t you think it is the teeniest bit egotistical to presuppose that Atheist charity is altruistic and religious charity stems from some more self-serving motives; Is it even possible for a person to act in a way that is not self-serving? In either case, would the motivations of the person make any difference in the application of the charity?

Tom
I don’t know of any Atheists who claim, or even suggest, that religion is the “source of all evil and no good” – this is a straw-man argument. What these Atheists (with the capital ‘A’, or more accurately, ‘anti-religionists’) argue is that most of the world’s greatest atrocities have been, and continue to be, perpetrated by those acting with the belief that they are doing the will of a god, supreme being, or metaphysical entity of sorts, which can be tied directly back to their religious beliefs. Religion is a system by which ideas of a metaphysical ‘higher purpose’ are not only shared but enforced among its adherents, often with an exclusionary and elitist mindset. Now, to be fair, this description does fit more to a western theistic idea of religion, opposed to the more non-theistic eastern religions. However, my original statement with which you took issue, did not use the term ‘religion’ and did make reference to ‘God’, which should have suggested a theistic belief and not religion as a whole. In this sense, the term ‘antitheist’ is a more appropriate description of my statement than simply ‘atheist’ or even ‘anti-religionist’ (but labels are rife with their own issues).

I am fully aware that not all religions are created equal in terms of their potential for doing “good” or “evil”, and we should all be quite cognizant of this. As for your examples of religions “that deny the supernatural”, I’ve done, albeit extremely brief, research of each one and have found that most of them do have supernatural beliefs of some kind, while the others can’t hardly be defined as anything more than a philosophy. Ultimately it comes down to how one defines ‘religion’.

To me, religion can be broken down into 4 attributes: a philosophy + rites, rituals, practices or traditions + superstitious, supernatural or transcendent beliefs about metaphysical entities, realms, or processes + combined into a shared organized system. If you remove their beliefs in the supernatural, they’re simply shared philosophies, with or without cultural traditions associated with them. A supernatural belief is what makes these philosophies and/or ritualistic traditions uniquely religious.

With this definition, here’s how your list of ‘non-supernaturally based religions’ looks:

  • Theravada Buddhism’s highest goal is to achieve Nirvana (a state that transcends the material world) = metaphysical beliefs.
  • Confucianism is simply a philosophy, unless one includes the rituals of ancestral worship and sacrifice as being a fundamental part. Then those two superstitious practices could place it within my definition of religion.
  • Jainism believes in karma (superstition) and the heavenly souls / guardian deities, Yaksha and Yakshini (supernatural/metaphysical).
  • Shinto can be divided as being either a religion, which uses shrines (superstition) and/or believes in dieties (metaphysical), or simply as a philosophy / school of thought, depending on the type.
  • Aristotelianism and Pythagoreanism, by today’s standards, are either religious due to the metaphysically related rituals & ideas, or a philosophy if rejecting the ritualistic side.

Again, without the supernatural/superstitious/metaphysical elements, these philosophies are no more religious than humanism or communism. If you are to broaden your definition of religion to include these philosophies, then by that same logic, you’d have to conclude that science itself is religious.

Using your analogy that religion is a tool or weapon, you must acknowledge that these weapons are not simply used to fulfill a purpose, but that the tool itself suggests a purpose. A sniper rifle has a very specific function. This is not to say that one has to use the rifle to kill (since you could very well decide to shoot cans, for instance), but it’s design does suggest its intended function. Choosing what function to use the tool for is analogous to cherry-picking scripture, which is why we have moderate Muslims and jihadist Muslims, or polygamous Mormons or non-polygamous Mormons; same tool, different applications. But lest we forget, the rifle is still designed to kill.

If a life is taken by a bullet shot by a rifle, is it the rifle’s fault? No. It’s the fault of the person who pulled the trigger. But the rifle enabled the person with the means and opportunity that he otherwise would not have had (an opportunity to shoot from a far and safe distance, unlike a knife would afford him, which in turn helps to aid the perpetrator since his own risk of injury is reduced). It could also be said that anyone who has a rifle is bound to shoot it eventually, and it’s only a question of what/who is going to be in its line of fire.

Also keep in mind that the sniper rifle was created by other people who had perceived a need for it (they wanted to kill). Then by creating the weapon, showing its use and function, and distributing it among people, a perceived need was filled, even if the new weapon owners hadn’t previously thought that need existed (and I would argue still does not exist). Just as with rifles, I view religion as an outdated method of resolving a perceived need.

You must also acknowledge that a person will only have a limited variety of weapons at their disposal (the ones of which they have a knowledge and understanding, and the priority being given to the one(s) with which they have experience) and that in itself will help to dictate the actions of said person. If a person was trained with a knife as his weapon (which might be analogous to, say, Christianity), then the damage that could be done with it would be minimal when compared to someone who was trained in bomb-making (say, Jihadist Islam). Whereas, those without any sort of training in weaponry, would not necessarily resort to using a weapon at all.

Ultimately, this whole Religion-is-a-tool/weapon analogy is inherently flawed and overly simplistic, since an object is not analogous to the socially constructed ideology of religion. I’ve never even heard of a religious person thinking of their religion as a tool for accomplishing a task, since it’s thought of as a way of, and outlook on, life.

I understand why it could be seen as egotistical to think of atheistic charity as more altruistic, but you cannot deny the overwhelming motivating force behind most theistic religions: to do charity simply to gain favour with an all-seeing all-powerful God who has the power to condemn you to an eternity of stoking the fires of hell if you don’t. At the very least, it taints the theists’ own humanistic motivations. It may be true that no charitable act is truly selfless and altruistic, but do the ends truly justify the means?

Travis
I would definitely compliment you on an elegant breakdown of religion. You could put that down in a textbook! The definition of religion is a big problem; I’ve rubbed shoulders with Calgary’s most brilliant minds on the subject and none of them will put their name to one. The only definition I have ever been able to get any agreement on from some people (some will refuse to commit no matter what) is that the world is made up of two philosophical camps: When asked if life has a purpose, there are those that will say it has an intrinsic purpose and those that do not. Anyone that fits in the first group can be defined as a religion. It has been pointed out to me that this would make Theravada Buddhism and Jainism part of the second group since it can be argued that they hold the idea that impermanence negates the possibility of anything intrinsic. Likewise types of non-religious philosophies hold that there is meaning to life that it manufactures for itself, putting that also in a grey area.

Certainly i would agree that religious people don’t view religion as a “tool” and it is an overly simplistic analogy. Perhaps a better example, which is all too sadly not an analogy, is that religion is a bureaucracy. When a religion starts (in all but a small minority of cases) it has the best of intentions; It seeks to improve life for its adherents (and often for non-adherents as well). It creates a new social reality or framework to push humanity into better purposes. After the initial stage however, with the death of its leader it has to systematize quickly to avoid the problem of lacking one person with clear vision so grey areas are harder to navigate and rules are born. As the system grows so do influences from outside (the superstitions you were talking about). At some point it reaches a critical mass where the system has more power than any collusion of individuals within it, at this point it is impossible to stop (like a barreling locomotive if you would indulge another analogy). It is this point at which the systemic evil can occur, when a group or individual can use the system to influence that force to their/his or her own will. I agree that at that point it would seem to be a weapon to do harm. That is the fundamental flaw of bureaucracy; the very effort to remove the human influence from the system makes it possible to abuse the system to do inhuman things.

So I guess it comes down in my view to the question, “is a religious bureaucracy easier to influence than a secular one?” That’s impossible to answer fairly. Religions remain the largest and firmest established bureaucracies in human history and remain so in the present, however, non-religious bureaucracies do not comport themselves better when taken advantage of in similar fashion. I would maintain in a more full examination that it is still the human element that causes the abuse not the system itself. The fact that God can be linked to most of these atrocities is proof only of statistics: The devil may be in the details but “God” is in 96% of the world’s homes.

I think I might be bold enough to say that what you and I would both agree that, given more than a pithy sound bite on Facebook, your definition of reasonable would be a lot more specific and that you and I would agree such an act would be impossible in the bounds of a rational mind. However, I would still argue the point that a rational, reasonable mind would preclude such an act and still allow for a belief in God.

Lastly, as to charity: I am mostly prodding you. I agree that intentions are important. I would argue that there are some people who adopt a world view and use it to become better people (not just to score points on a perceived cosmic balance sheet). I am however, a functionalist as I said (if you are googling that there is a psychological theory that will come up, for Google purposes see Pragmatist) so I do believe that in this case “the ends justify the means”; a better way to say it would be that “a person’s felt need for help does not care what motivates you to help them”

Last thought and then bed: Have you read anything About Max Weber or Emil Durkheim? If not, look them up, I think you would like them.

Tom
Travis, this has been, by far, the most intellectually stimulating conversation I’ve ever had on Facebook. I really appreciate having someone to push me to really think through my pithy comment. I have learned a lot, and I thank you for that. Unfortunately, I’ve also learned that I have a lot more learning to do! (isn’t that always the case?). I will definitely be looking into Max Weber and Emil Dirkheim, as well as a few other things we touched on. Feel free to keep me on my toes in the future.

Until next time.

Travis
The feeling is entirely mutual Tom. You’ve definitely stretched my intellectual horizons. Keep on searching for the truth. I don’t know how long you’ve been openly Atheist but you have a fascinating journey ahead of you. Modern atheism has a very rich philosophical history. The origin of atheism (or at least religious criticism) goes all the way back to Socrates (as far as we know) but the modern movement really has four major founders: Karl Marx, Fredrich Neitze, (I’m guessing you’ve heard of those two) Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim. Weber and Durkheim often get overlooked but their work is very illuminating.

I’ll also say thanks for being a good sport. Most people, especially those on the other side (spoiler: I pay both sides equal service) aren’t quite so understanding. Rest assured, I only poke the ones where I really believe I can learn new things.

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Posted on 2012-02-26, in Atheism, Culture, History, Personal, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Eichmann an atheist? Senior was an active member of the Evangelical Church and his son remained in the faith until 1937, long after most SS men broke with religion.

    According to David Cesarani, a leading Holocaust historian and Research Professor in History of the Royal Holloway, University of London, Eichmann’s final words prior to execution were:

    “Long live Germany. Long live Argentina. Long live Austria. These are the three countries with which I have been most connected and which I will not forget. I greet my wife, my family, and my friends. I am ready. We’ll meet again soon, as is the fate of all men. I die believing in God”

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