Sunday, March 16, 2008

Pure Evil?

Micah Cowan has criticized my earlier essay, Good religion?, in his post, The Good Side of Religion. I think it's a good, thought-provoking piece, and I intend to discuss the various points he raises in a number of posts here. The crucial point, the connection between knowledge of or belief about what is good and the actual motivation to act on that belief, is subtle and complicated, so I'm leaving it for last.

Micah asserts that I think religion is pure evil:
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.

This is not quite the case. First, I say that some religious belief is simply vacuous; vacuous is not even bad, much less evil. Secondly, I assert that some religious belief is caused by one's beliefs about what is good; that sort of belief per se is bad or evil only to the extent that one's bad or evil beliefs, not one's good beliefs, are causing one's religious beliefs. I criticize the practice at a more abstract level — I think it's always bad to justify any practice, however otherwise good, by virtue of submission to authority — but a religious belief caused by a good belief is not itself bad. To say that no good — and much bad and sometimes evil — follows from religious belief is not to say that religious belief is universally bad.

However, I do think that religious belief is never good. If I thought it were sometimes good, then I would sometimes be religious. But I'm never religious; where religion isn't bad, it is — in my not-at-all humble opinion — simply irrelevant, meaningless, ludicrous or just dumb. So Micah is not too far off the mark.

More importantly, though, I think Micah is conflating bad with evil. Shooting yourself in the foot is bad. Shooting someone else in the foot is evil. I think religious belief causes the most harm to believers themselves. I also think that most clergy are just as deeply deluded as their followers, and sincerely (but mistakenly) believe they are doing their followers good, not harm. Still bad, still dumb, but not evil. For me to call something evil, it must not only cause harm, but intentionally and knowingly cause harm to others.

I'll deal with the more substantive criticism of Micah's post later this week, but I'll say this now: Religion is often evil, usually bad, and never good.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to respond, Larry.

    First, I say that some religious belief is simply vacuous; vacuous is not even bad.

    Agreed. That's why I decided to incude the "at least those which have demonstrably resulted in evil, which doesn't necessarily include all religious beliefs" disclaimer. :)

    If I thought it were sometimes good, then I would sometimes be religious. But I'm never religious; where religion isn't bad, it is — in my not-at-all humble opinion — simply irrelevant, meaningless, ludicrous or just dumb. So Micah is not too far off the mark.

    I'm still having some trouble seeing where I am off the mark, or how what you've said differs in substance from what I said. Perhaps if I'd said "a mixture of pure evil, vacuousness, ludicrousness and stupidity"? In any event, what I meant by pure evil is actually "wholly absent of any good whatsoever", which of course is what you're claiming (at least as I understand it). Does that phrase meet more with your agreement?

    Given that statement, I think my arguments still stand: that there are religions and religious beliefs that do in fact have some "saving grace", even if it's not enough to actually save them from being, on the whole, bad or evil.

    I think Micah is conflating bad with evil. Shooting yourself in the foot is bad. Shooting someone else in the foot is evil.

    I like the analogy.

    But I don't think I'm conflating anything. The word bad itself is conflated with evil: it's one of its possible meanings. I think you've known what I'm saying, but I believe that pretty much everywhere I've used the word "bad" I've essentially meant your "evil"; except that I tend to regard "evil" as referring to something a bit more qualitative than "bad" (more "over the line", I suppose), so I will tend to use the latter as a milder form of the former (which, after all, it is).

    I agree with you that the core of my argument is wrapped up in the belief/want/sufficient-motivation stuff. I also agree with you that it's somewhat subtle, and sublety of that sort makes me nervous that I've subconsciously set up a tautology for myself, arranging definitions so that my arguments cannot fail. :) However, I believe that my disproofs-by-example were fairly sound refutations to your post, and currenty hold the belief that the arguments wrt sufficient motivation is true.

    Whether it is correct or not, though, I will concede that it's a much weaker argument than your "second argument case" from the Good Religion? post—that religious beliefs can result in good actions that we would not wish to do if we lacked those beliefs. I believe I pointed out properly in my first response that you failed to refute that argument.

    However, I do not make that argument, because I do not believe it to be true. I cannot think of a single case where I believe that religious belief caused someone to do good deeds that was truly against their desire. All the examples I gave were of actions which, at least at some level, were within the realm of what the actor "wanted" to do. (Christians complicate this argument for themselves somewhat, with their belief that the Holy Spirit has reformed their wants and desires to desire the good, where formerly they would have wished the bad.) The argument I'm left with, then, and which I've made, is not that good can result wholly from religious belief, but that religious belief can give appropriate "prodding" to preexisting dispositions and result, cooperatively, in good. Rephrase your argument, then, to "no good ever follows from religion alone", and there's really nothing further to discuss.

    As an exception, though, there is the interesting case of formerly "evil" people having radical, life-altering experiences at the acceptence of a new faith. People with poor self-images, who made destructive decisions (to themselves and others), and who were continuing to make destructive decisions until the time of conversion, where they received a massive psychological interrupt that allowed them to seperate their current self ("new man") from their past decisions ("old man/flesh"), and thus start making radically different decisions (this essentially is, I suppose, the "Holy Spirit" argument mentioned in the preceding paragraph).

    This case fascinates me because I believe it to be an integral part of how religious memes procreate: such a person is generally unshakable in their faith (which they believe to have been amply proved through this radical change), and eager to share it with others. And there clearly are significant benefits from it (including good actions that would otherwise not have occurred), so I'd be interested on your thoughts on this. (Whether that good is enough to compensate for the bad, and whether better alternatives might not be found that don't rely upon fantasy, while still providing the beneficial "psychological interrupt", are of course other questions.)

  2. No matter how altruistic the initiators of whichever religion you speak of, were.As soon as leaders other than the initiator take over the religion is then open to abuse by the leaders and ends up being a parasitical entity feeding off the fearful and gullible.
    Is that evil ? Maybe not but it is inherently corrupt,and has permeated society to a degree that now acting more like a cancer harming the society it pretends to protect.


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