The Good Side of Religion

The Barefoot Bum, an insightful atheist blogger whose site appears in my blogroll, has written a post in which he argues that “no one does any good that follows from religious belief.” I’ve heard this argument before, both from him and others, and decided to post a refutation. Within it, I make several points which I’ve been wanting to write to this blog, but hadn’t gotten around to.

The following is what I posted (very slightly modified) to Barefoot Bum’s site, and is probably visible there in the comments section, though it’s a moderated site and I just posted it, so it’s not there at the time of this writing (and may never be, at his discretion, though I doubt that’ll be the case, since he knows me and generally only refuses to post comments from assholes—and he’s not one of those who defines “asshole” as “everyone who disagrees with me”)

In any case, I recommend you read his post first, to provide context for my response.

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.

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.

0 thoughts on “The Good Side of Religion

  1. The Barefoot Bum

    Just a minor point:

    Note, that, when arguing whether a particular belief or belief system is true, all of the following arguments are irrelevant to that point:

    You’re correct. But I’m not arguing that religion is false because it’s bad. I’m just arguing that religion is, in fact, never good (sometimes evil, usually bad, and otherwise meaningless).

  2. The Barefoot Bum

    (And yes, I did publish your comment on my blog. No, you’re not an asshole or idiot in any sense of the word. You have nothing to worry about from me in that respect.)

  3. Micah Post author

    But I’m not arguing that religion is false because it’s bad.

    Right. Sorry, I didn’t mean to insinuate that you were; the last section was intended for a more general audience.

    I’m just arguing that religion is, in fact, never good.

    Well, more specifically, you’re arguing that “there is no good that follows from religion”, which is slightly different. I’d largely agree with you that religion is never good, though there are a few religions I might make exception for (despite a small amount of fantasy, I’ve yet to find serious problems with the Quakers and some of the purer forms of Buddhism [which, despite claims to the contrary, I’d still classify as a religion for a number of reasons]).

  4. Micah Post author

    (And yes, I did publish your comment on my blog…)

    He has also now posted a preliminary response, to which I’ve also responded, again at fair length. Both, I think, make interesting reading. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing this conversation progress.

  5. Micah Post author

    Further questions from Barefoot Bum, to which I’ve responded (may not be visible yet). In my response, I touch on what it’s like to be totally in love with God, and what sort of motivation that provides, and how it’s possible to have been in a passionate relationship with God at one point, and still become an atheist later.

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