Saturday, March 24, 2012

A response to a modern "myth"

Recently, I think I might have touched a few nerves on Facebook. I got asked why I come across as angry so often in some of my posts there that touch on religion, and so I answered. I blatantly stole the format Greta Christina used when she wrote "Atheists and Anger," and listed off a whole lot of reasons that I find to be angry about religion. I had some push-back and objections, and was accused of implying that "all religious people are assholes." I responded appropriately (which means, respectfully, and explaining my position as needed). A day or two later, I saw a link from one of those objectors, which, sans any personal comment from my friend, I took as an attempt to rebut my assertion that religion has done more harm than good. I told my friend I would examine it in more detail over the weekend. This post is the result of that, posted here because this will probably be long, and because the nature of the article cried out for a public rebuttal. 

The article is from the National Catholic Register, and is entitled "Myth 2: Religion Does More Harm Than Good," by a Father Thomas Williams, and dated April 1, 2008 (it appears to be an excerpt from a book, or perhaps a distillation of a section in a book, called "Greater Than You Think: A Theologian Answers the Atheists About God"). I know, that's ancient times on the internet, but the article is still relevant, even four years later. I think I'll respond to it by first addressing what's good or bad about the arguments, and then I'll go ahead and address whether I've changed my mind about religion being more harmful than not. Let's get started.

In their attacks on God and religion, the neo-atheist authors such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are especially vehement in their accusations concerning the effects of religion on the public order. 
The atheists charge that religion is a net evil for civilization, and allege that, on the whole, our society would be healthier and more secure without religious belief.
So far, so good. That's a fair summary of the conclusion many of us have reached (by us, I mean "New (Gnu) Atheists"; I'm not as popular as Hitchens, Dawkins, or Harris).
Hitchens, for instance, in his book God Is Not Great, asks whether the net effect of religion is positive or negative. Does religion do more harm than good (p. 217)? 
He answers with a resounding “Yes!”
Well, I haven't read that book (so I can't properly say how accurate Father Williams is portraying the book), but that does match up with my understanding of the view Hitchens held in life.
Religion is the cause of all social woes. The provocative subtitle of his book — How Religion Poisons Everything — seems to imply that religion does nothing but harm.
Hmm. Now we start to see problems. "Religion is the cause of all social woes." I am not aware of anyone claiming that "religion is the cause of all social woes." That's a very strong, very broad claim. Father Thomas is setting up a straw man fallacy here, an argument that's easy to knock down and claim he's defeated, but it's not actually the argument his opponent's making. Yet, with some sleight of hand, he can claim that it is. "Religion poisons everything" is a strong claim, true, but it's still not a claim that religion is the only cause, nor is it necessarily a claim that religion is a cause to every social woe--the woe might have already been there, and religion just made it worse. Naughty, naughty, Father Williams, trying to trick your readers like that. Not very honest of you.
This may strike us as strange, since the common wisdom of humanity has always held that religion makes people better, not worse. Our own experience often backs this up.
Just because an idea is popular, does not mean the idea is right. Ad populum fallacy, for those keeping score--claiming or implying that because a bunch of people agree with something, or are doing something, that must make it right, or worth doing. The popular question parents ask kids "If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump off too?" is an attempt to inoculate our children against that fallacy. Some examples of popular ideas, either now or in the past: the earth is flat, women are inferior to men, chocolate is delicious, and (ironically) the Catholic Church is wrong (the RCC has roughly 1 billion adherents, in a world of 7 billion people, meaning most people think the RCC is wrong). In other words, popularity of an idea says nothing about it's truth. Also, my own experience has not backed up the idea that religion makes people better, but hey, he did say "often," so maybe I can ignore that quibble.
So what possible reasons could the atheists have to make the extravagant claim that religious belief has a negative effect on people’s behavior? What evidence do they put forward? 
On close examination, it turns out that the atheists’ real evidence is rather thin.
Given your track record at this point, Father Williams, I'm losing confidence in your ability to back that assertion up. But we'll see.
Rather than examine religious teachings and practice to discover their effects on society, Hitchens, for example, prefers to offer anecdotal evidence for his claim.
Anecdotes, or examples? There is a difference. Still, like I said, I haven't read the book, so I'll assume anecdotes, and anecdotes do not equal data, that's true.
He begins his 13th chapter titled “Does Religion Make People Behave Better?” with a personal attack on Martin Luther King Jr. 
Here Hitchens makes a clever, though absurd, assertion. He asks whether King’s Christianity made him a better person. His answer is that yes, Martin Luther King did all sorts of good things for society in the area of civil rights, but … here’s the kicker … he wasn’t a Christian. He may have said he was a Christian and thought he was a Christian, but he was mistaken, and Hitchens knows better. 
“In no real as opposed to nominal sense,” Hitchens avers, “was [King] a Christian” (p. 176). 
By what rhetorical legerdemain does Hitchens arrive at this conclusion? 
The only proof he puts forward to back up this thesis is that King didn’t advocate violence and didn’t threaten people with hell, so he must not have been a true Christian. 
This is like saying that Hitchens couldn’t be a true atheist, since he is too nice a guy.
Oh, snap! If that is, in fact, an accurate portrayal of Hitchens's argument in the book, then Father Williams rightly points out a fallacy on Hitchens's part. "Christian" is a fairly broad term, one that is probably best defined as "someone who purports to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ." But that doesn't necessarily mean they're strictly following them, or that ambiguous statements by the Biblical character of Jesus have not been interpreted differently by different people (although how ambiguity is seen in some of those verses is beyond me . . .).  (No True Scotsman fallacy--I've been helping a client with an Intro to Logic course, so I've got these fallacies running through my brain)
So what do our neo-atheist authors make of Christianity’s undeniable contributions to society? 
They basically start with the Martin Luther King premise: If a person did good things, he couldn’t have been religious. If he did bad things, he must have been religious — despite whatever evidence to the contrary. 
And if a clearly religious person did something good, he must have done it despite his being religious, and not because of it. And so the deck is hopelessly stacked against religion from the start.
Damn. And here it was looking like our priestly friend might turn things around. Once again he's back to setting up straw men, and knocking them down. Atheists in general are well aware that religious people have done good things. We are also aware that atheists and other non-religious people have done bad things, Stalin being an example that's all too often trotted out.

The other point there has slightly more of a leg to stand on, in that we are sometimes skeptical that religious people would suddenly stop being good if they lost they're religion. If you're religious, ask yourself this: if you were to stop believing in your religion tomorrow, if you suddenly came to believe that there's no god, no afterlife of reward or punishment, no physics-defying miracles, no karma, no reincarnation, would you stop being a good person? Would you stop being nice to people, or polite? If you donate to charity, or volunteer your time at a homeless shelter, and you've been doing so in the name of Jesus, or to get good karma, would you stop donating or volunteering? If you answer yes, why? If you answer no, why not? I suggest that most people would answer "No," because they would still be good people. Many, many atheists come from religious backgrounds. A number of us were even in the clergy. Many had belief, and some still miss those comforting beliefs. They may have reevaluated certain moral positions they held, but that would generally be done in the spirit of "I want to be a good person. My previous faith said that certain things were evil/good. Now that I know there's no god/afterlife/karma/whatever, I should check if the positions of my previous faith on morality are accurate." Or, "I want to be good. Am I actually being good?"

I will grant however, that there may very well be, even probably be, those individuals out there who are acting good only because they fear the results of angering their god(s). It may even be more common than I hope. To any such people: please don't lose your faith. At any rate, I still don't see the deck as being hopelessly stacked against religion when it comes to answering the question "Does religion cause more harm than good?"

Hitchens and company claim to follow the Gospel principle of judging a tree by its fruits, but as for the tree of religion, they consider only the rotten fruits, never the good ones. The innumerable saints, geniuses and benefactors nourished by the Christian faith simply count for nothing.
I'm not so sure that first sentence is entirely true, but even if it's close to true, the question becomes: how much do we need to? Many of the religious take pains to tell us how great they are, and how you need religion to be good, and don't hesitate to give examples. Which is fine, if they believe it, they should make the argument; but if they're so busy pointing out the good, why shouldn't those of us who disagree point out the bad? At any rate, when I get to addressing the actual question at hand, I'll look at the good as well.
In making their case, Hitchens and company refrain from considering the almost countless ways that Christianity has benefited the world as we know it today. 
What of the hospitals? What of the orders of nuns established to care for the dying or educate young girls? What of the soup kitchens and orphanages? What of the preservation of classical culture? What of the artistic and literary treasures? 
Instead, they choose to enumerate the things that Christianity hasn’t done to better the world or hasn’t done well enough or has simply done too slowly!
Hmm, yes, well, if you're going to seek to demonstrate that religion (not just Christianity, by the way) does more harm than good, then a part of that is going to be rebutting the idea that religion does a lot of good, by showing where it has failed.
This pseudo-methodology can be used to discredit anything. 
Let’s take the example of one of the most beneficent disciplines there is: medicine. Imagine if you were to undertake a study of the biggest blunders committed in the name of medicine throughout history — from botched surgeries, to bleeding with leeches, to cranial boring, to the hellish experimentation afflicted by Nazi doctors on war prisoners — and used such research as an indictment of the entire field of medicine. 
During the unprincipled years of the late 19th century, for instance, medical quackery abounded, and hundreds of traveling medicine shows extolled the virtues of worthless potions and products, from Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root, to Dr. Pierce’s Nasal Douche, to Kickapoo Indian Sagwa, to Dr. Hercules Sanche’s Oxydonor. 
By Hitchens’ standard, medicine has been an unmitigated disaster for humanity, and all doctors should be shuffled off to the guillotine! Yet if there can be good medicine and bad medicine, why can’t there be good religion and bad religion?
Actually, no. That analogy doesn't work. Implicit in the claim that "Religion does more harm than good" is the idea that religion does at least some good. What's at issue is the balance of harm vs good. The balance for medicine is clearly on the side of good, and so "Hitchens' standard" would not be condemning doctors to the guillotine.
Moreover, in their search for historical examples to make their case, the atheist authors spill very little ink calmly confronting the teachings and practices of religions today (except in the case of Islamic fundamentalists) and instead spend page after page describing the most hideous examples they can find of errors committed in the name of religion in centuries past.
Actually, most atheist authors that I've looked at -if you include bloggers and commentators, as I do- spill most of their ink confronting the religious teachings and practices of religion today, and not just historical, and not just of Islamic fundamentalists.
For example, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II before him have repeated over and over again that God and religion cannot be co-opted to justify violence. Violence in the name of religion is an aberration. Yet nowhere do Hitchens or his cronies acknowledge this.
Catholicism is hardly the only religion out there that gets criticized by Gnu Atheists. It cannot follow that what one religious leader of a specific religion says about violence necessarily applies to every religion. Given the history of violence in the name of religion, it could hardly be called an aberration. Still, I'll acknowledge (after a Google search) that both those popes have made statements against violence (though I could not find sources for John Paul's quotes). Of course, there's still a Just War doctrine that's held by the Catholic Church.
Time after time Hitchens makes the claim that anything done in the name of religion could just as well be done in the name of secular humanism. Thus — he says — religion really contributes nothing.
An accurate assessment of the late Hitchens's views, as far as I know them.
He seems to miss the more important point: People actually do many good things by religious motivation that they wouldn’t do otherwise. People could be compassionate and selfless in the name of secular humanism, but the fact remains that they more often are compassionate and unselfish in the name of religion.
There's a claim that needs some examination. I'll attempt to do so in Part 2.
There is no doubt that religious people could do more, and Hitchens’ accusations, though mean-spirited, do oblige us to a serious examination of conscience and a renewed commitment to offer a more consistent witness. 
Yet an impartial examination of the facts will lead any objective observer to the conclusion that religion, and Christianity in particular, has been and continues to be an overwhelming force for personal and social good.
The religious do need to do some serious examination of conscience, that is certainly true. Next, I'll examine the claim itself that "Religion does more harm than good," and see if, as Father Williams claims, it really is a myth, as that was the end of the article. Not a good showing on his part, I think.

1 comment:

  1. I'm very happy you took the time to write this long response. It looks like you've spent a lot of thought. I'm writing a debate about 'Does Religion Do More Harm Than Good?" and found your article on religion very helpful.

    However, I'd like to point out a major flaw in your response. You repeat time and time again that Father Williams is 'knocking down straw men'. You also state at the beginning that you have never read the book that the article is talking about. Therefore, I do not think that you have enough claim to deny Father William's analyses. I believe you have reasonable doubt, but that's not enough, is it?

    Thanks anyway for the response. I do enjoy reading your blog. And I can use this against my opponent!