Sunday, 7 April 2013

On The Atheist's Litany

This one isn't addressed to me because his atheism doesn't offend me. I'm Christian, the kind that goes to church and knows the minister. I'm okay talking with atheists unless they are actually trying hard to be offensive.

I'm guessing he has run into religious people who were making an effort to rub him up the wrong way and I can understand this reaction to that.

My problem here is that the words contain a false premise and I'd like to open that up and take a look at it.

There is a litany of bad stuff that religious people have done through history: jihads, crusades etc. And it's all true. Bad stuff sure happened. It was even done by people calling themselves religious. And this is on-going, we've all come across people using religion to justify, say, hatred of gays. No denial here. The writer clearly credits religion for causing all this evil. I've seen quite a few comments from atheists that suggest this view is common. And there's the false premise I want to look at.

Let's take the Crusades as an example. What happened was that a lot of Christians went over to West Asia (and some other places like Africa and, strangely, Southern France) with the idea of taking control of those lands away from the non-Christians who held them. This was initially about taking Jerusalem away from the Muslims. People were told that they would have all their sins forgiven if they did this, which helped swell the ranks. So, sure, religion was involved. But so was something else.

The feudal system in Europe was geared towards looking after the oldest son, younger sons got a raw deal. They wanted land. So their goal when going on crusade was to carve out an estate for themselves, ideally a big one they could call a kingdom. This explains the conquest of Syria which is not particularly close to Jerusalem, and similar activity in Egypt. It was at least as much about land and power as religion. If it were only about religion then why did they sack Byzantium (which was Christian) during the 4th Crusade in 1204? It brought a ton of treasure to Venice who seems to have instigated it and the 4th Crusade never did make it to Jerusalem.

We might question if some of these people were actually Christian or just self interested bad guys. I won't go there because we cannot see into their hearts. If they say they're Christian I'll accept that. But I don't have to agree with every other Christian and I can call it evil when I see it.

So that one was about wealth and or power. One way or another it always is, unless it is about fear and ignorance. Sometimes people manage all four. But what happens with these things is that people decide what they want to do and they co-opt whatever they can to convince other people. During most of our history religion has been one of the things they co-opt. It is a tool they use, but it isn't the cause. The younger sons wanted land, they found a way to convince others to follow them and they went for it. Yes I know the pope at the time endorsed the crusades, this is still just religion being co-opted, it is not religion as such being the cause of a land grab by Europeans in West Asia.

We can make similar arguments about homophobia. Our early ancestors had to out breed those guys in the next valley so they could defend ourselves from them, or take them over or whatever. So anyone compromising that agenda is a threat to the tribe. Again they'll co-opt religion to enforce their view. Interestingly in ancient Greece they had a problem with too much population and homosexuality was socially acceptable, even the default in some circles. And to add a twist to the notion religion is always against homosexual behaviour, it seems it various times in the past it has actually endorsed it. Blessing gay unions has been going on in my church for a while now. There are other things going on with this too. A lot of guys are homophobic because they fear rape, stuff like that. It's unnecessary and wrong, but they'll use religion to justify their position if they can.

I'm not going to go over every other piece of evil in the litany, it is a representative sample anyway.

If religion was the main cause for all this nastiness then we would expect to see societies that were not religious behave differently. Before about 1850 we could not get any experimental data on this because there were so few people then who called themselves atheists. But nowadays we actually can. We have various Marxist  regimes which are avowedly atheistic. Do they behave better or are they just the same as the religious ones?

Not really. Stalin's purges in Soviet Russia had a higher body count than Hitler's. Various spin off Maoist movements such as Shining_Path, Naxalite_insurgency and the truly dreadful Khmer Rouge claim to be atheist just as the crusaders claimed to be Christians.  I will take their word for it.

Oh, but these are not 'my' kind of atheist, you might say. Actually I hope, if you're an atheist that is exactly what you'd say. I would not suggest that this kind of behaviour is an inevitable result of atheism because it obviously isn't. And the religious people referred to in the litany above are not my kind of Christian. Religion or the absence of it, is not the cause of these evils, but the people who get involved will use whatever is to hand to do what they want.

But there is one more point I have to make. Just as all those bad guys in history claimed to be religious and did awful things, there were a lot of good people who also claimed to be religious. Remember everyone for most of our history has claimed to be religious and that is all we have to go on. If you really were still arguing that religion is the cause of all the bad stuff you have to also argue that it is the cause of all the good stuff. That means every advancement in art, science, politics and so on before around 1850 has to be credited to religion. This includes heroes like Copernicus, Galileo and Newton (who was very religious in an unconventional way, and quite an unlikeable character too). You might say those advances would have happened anyway, which is pretty much my view, but then you have to be even handed and say the evil would have happened anyway too. Certainly there is good reason to believe that the abolition of slavery in the West (there are still slaves in other places today, unfortunately) was instigated by Christians who, by their own accounts, felt moved to act because of their faith.

So can we please take a more balanced view of religion? Even if you don't agree with it there is no cause to call everything about it evil and no cause to suggest it is responsible for every evil.

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