In Which I Make at Least One Concession

Now to ponder Norm’s answer, or parts of it.

But I fear that she’s lost sight of what this discussion is about. It’s not about whether we accept religion, nor even about whether we give it an all-round good report, in which the positive aspects outweigh the negative ones…The issue was about seeing only the bad in religion as opposed to taking a more balanced view. To justify the former approach Ophelia needs the ‘Hegelian’, contaminating move – and I suggest that that is why you find it in her original post, even though it wasn’t her intention. For if you stick with what she intended, then all you’ve got is that for her the bad in religion is more important than the good, overshadows it, and therefore is too high a price to pay. Nonetheless the good is still there, and it can be identified as such and given its due, with everything said that needs to be said about the other darker side. But you have no basis, now, for just leaving out the good aspects as if they were nothing.

I’m still not convinced that the Hegelian, contaminating move is what I need – unless I misunderstand what the Hegelian, contaminating move is, which is quite possible, since my understanding of Hegel is exiguous. But as far as I do understand, contamination isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the fact that if a particular good of religion depends on a supernatural truth-claim (as, for instance, surely the consolation of religion does), then it is not contaminated but weak, vulnerable, fragile. It still functions as a good in some sense, but at the price of being deluded. Now…there is something to be said for being deluded. (I wrestled with this during the writing of that pesky book. In fact the first thing the book says is that we don’t always want the truth.) But even though there is something to be said for it, it is still being deluded. I take being in a state of delusion to be a high price. Possibly worth it, in some circumstances, but still high. If that boils down to a ‘contamination’ argument – then okay, that’s what I’m arguing.

But that, surely, is how an analogy works. I’m inviting people to think about how we manage to distinguish good and bad in other matters without allowing the bad simply to ‘disappear’ the good.

Yes…But we distinguish good and bad in other matters in different ways for different kinds of good and bad, don’t we? I do, anyway! Bad food is one kind, bad movies are another, bad health is another, bad people are another, bad ideas are another, bad institutions are another. Socrates would probably whack me over the head at this point, but I don’t seem to be able to extract some sort of abstract non-particular essence of good and bad and talk about it indpendent of the kind of thing we’re talking about. I do think a bad person is one kind of thing, and – whatever religion is, is another. Just for one thing, a person has intentionality, so in talking about the good and bad of one person we have to think about how the person herself sorts out good and bad. As Tom Freeman said in comments – consider the patriot who does good things, but does them for white supremacist reasons. Is that a good person? Highly debatable! Or Norm’s Joe. If Joe’s ‘ferocious temper’ causes him to beat up women on a regular basis, do we think he’s a good person all the same? I don’t. I can agree he does good things, but that he’s a good person? No. (I know, I know, determinism – never mind that now!) But religion doesn’t have intentionality. That by itself makes it difficult for me to think about the good and bad of religion in the same kind of way I think about the good and bad of a person. So even if that is how an analogy is supposed to work, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t! That is, it doesn’t seem to help me think about how we manage to distinguish good and bad in other matters.

Finally, in reply to my story of the Polish Catholic who risked her life to save a Jew in danger, Ophelia questions whether the religious belief was a necessary condition of rescue: couldn’t the woman have done the same just through being a good or courageous person, or from a different set of beliefs?…Ophelia ends here by questioning the efficacy of religious belief in moving people to act in heroic ways on behalf of others – and she is now joined in that by some commenters in her comments box. Not only does it fly in the face of evidence collected about the motivations of actual rescuers, and not only does it contradict more general historical evidence about the motivating power of religious belief; there is, as well, a certain (prejudicial) selectivity in only recognizing the power of religious belief to influence people when you perceive that influence to be harmful, but where on the face of things it appears to be for the good, denying that it is what it seems. Isn’t this exactly the sort of fast and loose way with evidence that rationalist atheists criticize in people of faith? There is an air of complete unreality about the notion that religion has never motivated anyone towards the good.

I didn’t intend to question that efficacy in general, but only in particular. I wasn’t making a flat denial that that was what motivated the Polish Catholic, but only asking how one would know. I do think religion can motivate people to be good in general, and I’ve said that in other N&Cs. Still, Norm may have a point. It may be that I do think of religion as more powerful in inspiring domination, anger, hatred, vindictiveness, exclusion, punishment, than in inspiring the opposites – and he may be right that that’s prejudicial selectivity. I’ll have to think about that. (Not that I never have before. But I’ll have to think harder.) I suppose the truth is that I suspect it does. Because of – the evidence of human history; the numbers; the world around us at present. The prevalence of religion compared to the rarity of kindness and good governance. The searching thoroughness of certain kinds of religious sadism and cruelty. I suppose it’s the same with the Polish Catholic. If it really was her religion that made her do what she did, why were there so few people like her and so many people unlike her?

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