A Mingled Yarn

Norm has commented on my comment on his comment on why not mention the good of religion as well as the bad. So I want to see what I think about what he thinks.

First the more minor, contingent issue – my claim that because there is a lot of unmixed criticism of atheism (and rationality, science, secularism) around, people like me don’t always feel like giving mixed criticism back.

I see no reason why opposition to religion, forthright, outspoken opposition to it, cannot, as with anything else, recognize the virtues in what it opposes if there are any.

No, nor do I. It can. But I’m not convinced that it always ought to. I can see plenty of reasons for doing so (tactical, epistemic, moral), but I can also see reasons (same kinds) for not doing so. Sometimes strong, non-balanced comment can shake up people’s thinking – or it can just entrench it further. Sometimes I, for one, feel like going the attempted shake-up route, rather than the mollification route.

But the less minor point is the more interesting to both of us, I think.

But Ophelia’s basic strategy of argument is flawed. In a quasi-Hegelian move, she disallows application of the usual resources of analysis – of analytical discrimination – where religion is concerned. It’s all just a unity, and because something very bad is at the heart of this unity, everything else in it must be bad too, as if poisoned, transmuted, by the badness.

A quasi-Hegelian move? Moi? Surely not! On account of how I wouldn’t recognize one if it bit me. No, but seriously, that’s not what I’m saying, and if it came out that way, I said it badly. I don’t think religion is all just a unity, and it’s not a matter of poisoning, as in contamination. It’s not that the bad bits kind of leak into the good bits, making them dirty or polluted. (Is it? Hmm. Yes, maybe, in a way. I probably do feel that way about it. I do have a visceral dislike of having religion forced on me. But I don’t think what I’m saying depends on that – I think what I’m saying is something slightly different.) It’s that I don’t see how to have the good parts without subscribing to the supernatural truth claims, so I don’t see how to have the good parts without subscribing to (what one takes to be) a lie. It’s not a matter of contamination but one of what is more important. As I said – I think the cost is too high. That’s not pollution, I don’t think, it’s a matter of competing goods.

Joe is a good friend: generous, loyal, funny, a great conversationalist. But he has a ferocious temper, is dishonest in business and in his sexual relationships, is vain and neglectful of his old mother. Must we say that he is all bad, then, because he has these bad qualities, and his other, better qualities, are all mixed in with the worse ones as part of the single personality?

No, but that’s not the right analogy for what I’m saying. Valuing or not valuing a particular person is one thing, and valuing or not valuing religion qua religion is another. I realize some people can take the good of religion and ignore the bad – some people go to church just for the music and community, without believing a word of it. My point is just that other people can’t, or don’t want to, and that there is a reason (a goodenough reason, I think) for that.

There are radicals of one kind and another who can see some of the insights in conservative thought, anti-socialist liberals and/or Weberians who recognize some theoretical strengths within Marxism, Marxists who identify moral and political resources as well as grave deficiencies in classical liberalism. All this is just par for the course. But by her quasi-Hegelian, anti-analytical move, Ophelia would forbid us to approach religious belief in the same way. The move is artificial and arbitrary. You can’t show that religion is all bad simply by focusing on what is bad about it.

But that’s because I take religion to be a different kind of thing. (And I think I’m right, too. If it weren’t a different kind of thing, would it get the special demands for respect and deference, the calls not to ‘offend’ it, that we’re always noticing? Isn’t it generally agreed that religion is a special case of some sort?) Liberals and Weberians don’t base their claims on the existence of a supernatural deity. So I don’t think my move is arbitrary, because the supernatural deity aspect of religion is precisely the stumbling block.

In Warsaw in 1943, a Polish Catholic risks her life to save an endangered Jew. She does so because she has been taught from childhood that all people are the children of God and it is a sin to take innocent life. How, in the face of that – which has happened plenty, and in many other historical variants as well – can one say there has been no good in religion, or that this good is merely apparent because of what it is mixed together with? I could give more than this, but it is enough. Just two things: that religious believers have often been motivated by their beliefs to act in beneficent, caring, selfless, heroic ways; and that there are universalist variants of religious belief which, in historical context, have marked a significant progress for humankind…

But do we know that it was the Catholicism, or the children of God teaching, that made the difference? Do we know that an atheist couldn’t and wouldn’t have had the same thought and the same motivation? Maybe we do, maybe we do – maybe there is some way to know this, and there are studies that back it up. But as of this moment, I’m not convinced that I do know that. I can see that it could be true – but I can also see that it could be untrue. Counterfactually, if the Polish Catholic had been taught from childhood that all people are people even as she is and it is bad and wrong to murder people – is it possible to know that that would not have motivated her to act as she did? And do we really want to give religion the credit for qualities and actions that come from somewhere else – from personal courage, generosity, kindness, for instance? Maybe the Polish Catholic acted the way she did because she was a good human being.

But my point isn’t to deny the existence of good in religion, or to say that it is all bad, it is simply to say that the price is too high.

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