Friday, March 14, 2008

Good religion?

The other day, I discussed the four classes of religious belief, three of them negative and the fourth irrelevant. But what about all the good that follows from religious belief?

No one does any good that follows from religious belief. Zero. The key phrase is "follows from". (It's mostly irrelevant to this argument whether or not good follows from God; the argument is whether or not doing good follows from belief in God.)

It's either the case that following religious belief is doing good, or it's the case that we can talk about doing good independently of religious belief. The first case isn't an argument, it's a definition. It's obvious that the religious assume that we can talk about doing good independently of belief. When they argue the point, they discuss examples like feeding the poor, providing medical care, helping old ladies across the street, etc. They usually don't mention their efforts to stamp out idolatry, polytheism, conversions under torture, wars of aggression, and murdering letting die evil slutty women (but just the poor ones) who dare to fuck or get raped without the permission of the parasitic priests — all of which have been performed as "religious" acts.

By definition, though, determining that something is good determines that doing that something is preferable, that a person does actually want to do it (all things considered); that's what "good" has to mean. But if you already want to do something, and you can tell that people in general want to do it independently of religious belief, then there's no additional justification necessary to actually do it.

There's only two possibilities for the connection between good behavior and religious belief.

One possibility is that the person really doesn't want to do what other people typically consider good; they do "good" only because they fear some bullshit fantastical posthumous reward/punishment. Anyone who argues that they don't want to kill me because of their religious belief is basically telling me that they're a dangerous asshole who would otherwise want to kill me. And because most people get their information about religious belief from some authority, they're also telling me that if some authority convinced them that God wanted them to kill me, they would cheerfully do so.

Happily my innate skepticism and ordinary psychological knowledge usually impels me to conclude that people making such an argument are simply deluded and stupid, and not actually inherently evil. (With the exception of those such as future toddler chopper Vox Day, whom I think really would cheerfully kill toddlers if some authority told him to.)

The more benign alternative is that one's religious belief follows from one's desires. Almost all human societies have adopted the metaphor of religious belief to express their (usually their higher-order, more abstract) beliefs about what is good.

This sort of reverse entailment is at best vacuous and at worst deeply confusing, but it's definitely the case that at best doing good doesn't follow from religious belief, but the other way around.

7 comments:

  1. I like it. Here's my anticipation of the christian response:

    Perhaps someone could be an asshole and then after looking at religious tenets they have some epiphany and realize doing "good" is better. In such a case, you could argue someone becomes good due to religion.

    Personally, I'd feel such a person would have to cherry pick and not FULLY subscribe or else they could run head first into the Euthyphro dilemma and be facing potential baby killing as "good". Of course what motivates the cherry picking would be external of the religion and thus proving your point.

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  2. Barefoot, I've got to say, there's a lot of BS in this post. I've heard you make this claim before, and I guess it's time to point out the flaws.

    To firmly establish the point of contention: “No one does any good that follows from religious belief. Zero.” This statement is immediately obvious to me as false, because I have direct experiences to the contrary.

    I guess I'll submit my proofs-by-contradiction before dissecting your arguments.

    While a Christian, I can think of specific instances when I performed acts of charity or helpfulness that I was very disinclined to do, but did anyway in the end because I realized "that's what God would want me to do" (yeah, WWJD), and would not have done them apart from that. Things like cleaning up after a large group meeting, or setting up chairs, etc, before. Helping a bed-ridden acquaintance with their yard work. All of these are instances of good done that followed directly from religious belief.

    I have also been on the receiving end of good done specifically for reasons that stem from religious belief. Including twice having been _donated_ cars from church members, at two different times when we were without transportation or means to obtain it.

    Some of these things I continue to do on occasion, but for different reasons. So obviously one can't make the argument (though many do anyway) that only theists will go out of their way to do good. There are other things, though, that I'm less apt to do these days, partly because I now have a more balanced view of my own needs versus other peoples' needs—and I doubt anyone that I'm not really close to will be giving me a car any time soon. You really can't get around that there are actual, observable, acts of goodness that do in fact follow from religious belief, so any further arguments to the contrary are pretty futile. What I see and know trumps anything anyone can argue.

    Alright, on to your arguments, then.

    The first case isn't an argument, it's a definition.

    Sure, and an expanding redefinition, at that. Doesn't really bear further analysis.

    It's obvious that the religious assume that we can talk about doing good independently of belief. When they argue the point, they discuss examples like feeding the poor, providing medical care, helping old ladies across the street, etc.

    I'm having trouble seeing what the second sentence has to do with the first. The items you list there may be done for various possible reasons, religious belief being one among them. In particular, the second sentence does not demonstrate that “the religious assume that we can talk about doing good independently of belief.” A religious person can talk about all of those things in the specific context of doing them for religious belief, and quite happily assert (and I've known some few that do, quite wrongly of course!) that they would be impossible apart from religious belief. (Naturally, I'm not refuting your assertion that we can talk about doing good independently of religious belief; I am, however, questioning whether you've successfully argued the point.)

    Your argument wrt “wanting to do it anyway” is a good one, but does not quite lead to your conclusion. In particular, it is non sequitur that if you already want to do something, and you can tell that people in general want to do it independently of religious belief, then there's no additional justification necessary to actually do it. Wanting to do something and doing it are different things, and just because I may want to do something (or, more specifically, desire that it be done, not necessarily by me) does not mean that I am not in other ways disinclined to do it.

    Obviously, for all the cases of helping with yard work, or setting up meetings, etc, I wanted to do them, in the sense that they were good things to do. However, I also wanted not to do them, in that I did not particularly like doing them enough to be willing to actually volunteer for it. What tipped the balance in many of these cases actually was the WWJD thinking.

    I'll still help with odd jobs, setting up and tearing down at meetings and events (though, of course, without being a churchgoer, I attend fewer meetings at which to have such opportunities). Sometimes my desire to do a good thing so I continue to be the sort of person I want to be is enough to outweigh my disinclination to do them. And, while there may be some things I decide not to do because "WWJD" wasn't there to tip the balance, there are other things that I do that I might not have done when a Christian, and wishing to be a particular sort of person, along with heightened desires for squelching ignorance, superstition and irrationality, tip the balance on those occasions. So I don't think any conclusions may be drawn about whether religious beliefs or their lack or more or less likely to produce a larger total of “good deeds.” This does not change the fact that some good deeds do in fact stem from religious belief.

    Anyone who argues that they don't want to kill me because of their religious belief is basically telling me that they're a dangerous asshole who would otherwise want to kill me.

    Of course. However, it has nothing particular to do with your argument. First of all, you're speaking here, not of doing good because of religious belief, but of not doing bad because of religious belief. Doing good and not doing bad are perhaps similar, but certainly distinct concepts.

    Second of all, regardless of whether you want to categorize "not doing bad" as a form of "doing good", you have just asserted that its cause is, in fact, religious belief. Ridiculing someone for making decisions based on religious belief is obviously a poor way to demonstrate that the decision did not follow from religious belief. If this point had been relevent to your argument (in other words, if "not doing bad" were a form of "doing good"), you would have just succeeded in firmly disproving the conclusion you are attempting to make.

    Note too, though this is irrelevant to the argument, that most Christians I've met would actually agree with your conclusion that they are “a dangerous asshole who would otherwise want to kill me.” Wretched sinners saved by grace, remember? These folk happily admit that they are evil by nature: it is in fact an intrinsic part of their belief system. :p

    ##

    It's concerning to me that many atheists I've conversed with (and for those who do not know me, it's perhaps worth pointing out that I am, in fact, firmly an atheist myself) wish to paint particular (or all) religions (and/or their practitioners) in black-and-white. If no good ever follows from religious belief, while of course evil does and has demonstrably followed therefrom, it follows that religious belief (at least those which have demonstrably resulted in evil, which doesn't necessarily include all religious beliefs) is pure evil. Nothing is pure evil; not one thing. It may certainly be argued that religious belief, and in particular, certain religious beliefs, produce more evil (much more evil, even) than good; and even that the beliefs themselves are therefore evil. But nothing is evil in all of its aspects. Nothing in life is ever that black-and-white.

    Note, that, when arguing whether a particular belief or belief system is true, all of the following arguments are irrelevant to that point:
    - It tends to produce more good than harm.
    - It tends to produce more harm than good.
    - It tends to make the believer happier (thanks Bertrand Russell!)
    - It tends to make the believer less happy.
    - It is immoral not to believe,
    - Dire consequences will result to you (boy, have I heard that one) and your family (think of your children!) if you do not believe.
    - All or some or the majority of the accepted leadership in that community of believers/unbelievers are immoral and/or hypocrites.
    - All (or some, or the majority) of believers/unbelievers are immoral and/or hypocrites.

    It's my belief that there are even several good things that arrive from certain practices that are encouraged in religious settings, that are significantly more difficult to achieve outside of those settings. The practice of prayer, for example, though based upon and directed at a lie, still has important psychological benefits, and while some people are able to find meditations that are not quite so steeped in fantasy that provide similar benefits, I've failed as yet to find a reasonable replacement with which I can get comfortable, and I'm not very good at playing pretend. I have encountered one atheist on YouTube who admits to still praying regularly to the God he knows without a doubt does not exist (for mainly emotional reasons, I gather).

    A practice of "lovingkindness" has psychological, behavioral, emotional and some tangible benefits as well, and generally results in "good deeds" towards others. This practice is obviously attainable outside of religion, but is still (AFAICT) somewhat more rare there (not that it isn't fairly rare within the religious community). Mainly, because despite the many harmful (especially fear- and guilt-ridden) structures present in most religious systems, there is often also a structure in place to promote both the practice and attitude of lovingkindness towards other human beings. The Dalai Lama suggests a form of meditation that consists of sending concentrated thoughts of good will and lovingkindness at an object or person. I have mixed feelings about this, and can't quite manage to practice that myself; and the practice obviously has no real, tangible or direct benefits to the target of such thoughts—it is a psychological exercise only. And yet, the exercise itself can form good "mental habits", which can in turn bring indirect benefit to the target.

    A practice of humility is also beneficial, also somewhat less frequent outside of religious structure (where, however, it is often caricatured and grossly exaggerated to the point of some harm to its practitioner). I would like to see more structures encouraging attitudes of (appropriate) humility and lovingkindness among freethinkers' children, to encourage the right sorts of psychological habits and practices, that can be very valuable when they are older.

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  3. Bum, you're exactly right on this. The human brain has evolved to the point where individuals have a concept of good and evil. Some aspects of that concept are societally driven (which is where religions mainly fit in), but quite a few ideas seem to be universal. Believers have always tried to impose both their universal and societal moral values on their god, but clearly that's a failed strategy. Societies have changed over time -- while sacred writings haven't. Hence, the whole phenomenon of moral cherry-picking. Today's more tolerable and tolerant religionists have a BIG problem trying to base their modern systems of morals on books that were written thousands of years ago for cultures that were quite dissimilar from ours.

    To expand on Philly's comment, with which I completely agree:

    The Euthyphro Dilemma is no dilemma at all for atheists. It's only a philosophical problem for those who start out with a god-belief.

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  4. Micah:

    It's rare that anyone calls bullshit on my work in such a well-thought-out and intellectually interesting manner. I still think you're mistaken, but I think you're mistaken in a good way. I'd like to republish your comment on the main page of the blog and respond to it there.

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  5. It's either the case that following religious belief is doing good, or it's the case that we can talk about doing good independently of religious belief.

    As this reads, it seems to be a false dilemma. Shouldn't you use the qualifier "only" in the first alternative for it to make sense?

    More broadly, when you claim No one does any good that follows from religious belief, your argument applies to actions engendered by any belief.

    So, I think your claim boils down to "No one does any good that follows from [their] beliefs".

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  6. Barefoot:

    It's rare that anyone calls bullshit on my work in such a well-thought-out and intellectually interesting manner

    Why thank you. :) It's probably because your posts are usually quite free of any bullshit (while, of course, being inflammatory enough to invite emotional responses from those who disagree with you but lack a real defense :D - I'm curious: what's the ratio of clueless comments you have to throw out to comments that make it to the site?).

    I think you're mistaken in a good way.

    I look forward to finding out what that phrase means. :)

    I'd like to republish your comment on the main page of the blog and respond to it there.

    Cool! It went on my site as well, as I ended up saying some things I'd meant to over there for a while, but had never gotten around to.

    I suppose, given the length (I appear to lack the ability to write tersely), I ought to have just posted it there and pinged you, instead of taking up space (twice, if it goes on the main page). Well, I suppose that you can probably replace my original comment with a link to the new post.

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