Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A bullshit free society

I recently came across the following statement in an online discussion on the topic of religion:

"I secretly dream for all religions to be eradicated so that one day we will be able to construct a bullshit free society and be able to do scientific research without being interrupted. [Religious groups] oppress, brainwash, burn for millennia, [and then say] 'We're a religion of peace now.' "
My response to this person was to take the "bullshit" sign and point it right back at his statement, following up with this explanation of how I think the world—and history—really work with regards to this issue:

What do Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism have in common? Each one, along with most other religions, is now and has always been "a religion of peace". Oppression, brainwashing, and "burning" (whatever that is supposed to be) aren't religious practices, but political practices. Religions don't do those things unless they become powerful enough that they have become political forces. When you have an institution such as the "Holy Roman Empire" as an example, it tends to be ruled by people thirsting for power rather than goodness. People of faith want to trust their spiritual leaders, but the more political clout your church/mosque/temple has, the more likely it is to attract the wrong sort of leadership. Jesus knew:
[Jesus] told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” -Matt. 13:31-32
As skeptics have pointed out, mustard seeds don't become trees. So what is Jesus talking about? You'll find in Jesus' parables, birds are usually symbolic of evil, and I believe this story is suggesting that Jesus fully expected the church He started would be host to evil men who would use it for their own interests.

Does that mean that if religion can be a tool in the hands of evil men, we should then toss it out? Right before the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus tells another that I think is closely related:
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them.’” -Matt. 13:24-29 (my emphasis)
In other words, churches—just like all institutions—will have some "bad seeds", but that doesn't mean you toss the good for the sake of the bad.

We actually can know that removing religion from society isn't the solution because it's been tried before, in places such as Russia. The USSR under Stalin was strongly anti-religious. This of course led to "a bullshit free society..."
Stalin created a cult of personality in the Soviet Union around both himself and Lenin...towns, villages and cities were renamed after the Soviet leader and the Stalin Prize and Stalin Peace Prize were named in his honor. He accepted grandiloquent titles..., and helped rewrite Soviet history to provide himself a more significant role in the revolution. At the same time, according to Nikita Khrushchev, he insisted that he be remembered for "the extraordinary modesty characteristic of truly great people."
...freedom "to do scientific research without being interrupted."
Science in the Soviet Union was under strict ideological control by Stalin and his government, along with art and literature. There was significant progress in "ideologically safe" domains, owing to the free Soviet education system and state-financed research. However, the most notable legacy during Stalin's time was his public endorsement of the Agronomist Trofim Lysenko who rejected Mendelian genetics as "bourgeois pseudosciences" and instead supported Hybridization theories that caused widespread agricultural destruction and major setbacks in Soviet knowledge in biology. Although many scientists opposed his views, those who publicly came out were imprisoned and denounced.
...and of course, these enlightened atheists didn't "oppress, brainwash, burn..."
Researchers before the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union attempting to count the number of people killed under Stalin's regime produced estimates ranging from 3 to 60 million.
(The above excerpts are from the Wikipedia article Joseph Stalin.)

Does that mean atheism is evil? Of course not; it means that using political means to force ideology on people—regardless of the ideology—will be unsavory, to put it lightly. It also doesn't mean that communism is a bad thing, mostly because Stalin and the leaders who followed in his office were not practicing communism. In fact, as I wrote some time ago, communism and Christianity have more in common than either is likely to admit.

The point that I am trying to make with all of this in a nutshell is that it's power that corrupts people, not religious ideology. If the day comes when (as many atheists have been suggesting for centuries to be right around the corner) religion is somehow eradicated from the earth by the cleansing light of reason, does anybody really think that there will be no more hatred, stupidity, or violence? I've got to say, even as a Christian, I find myself doubting that would be the case if the whole world were uniformly Christian.


David Learn said...

Um, how often are birds used in Jesus' parables as symbols of evil? Other than the parable of the sower, I'm drawing a blank.

Brucker said...

What, are you trying to argue for bullshit-free Biblical interpretation? What kind of Christian are you?

Seriously though, I think you're right in your point. I'm realizing that I was quoting something I heard in this case and not something I researched myself. It's something I try to avoid, but obviously fall prey to more often than I should. I should probably edit that out, or at least add a note to it.

Still, I think the general argument is reasonable enough, and I definitely stand by my interpretation of the parable of the weeds, but thanks for pointing out my own bullshit, as I think we all need that from time to time.

Na said...

It seems to me that when the religious try to deny that religion is directly responsible for the negative actions of it's adherents by using the Stalin comparison, they slip into the position of accepting Stalinism as equal to religion. Which is more of a home goal than anything else.

However the argument is a little specious anyway; as I think I've said this before on your other blog, the big problem with religion is dogma. Stalin replaced one dogmatic system with another (Stalinism).
I would certainly be opposed to any dogmatic system; religion gets most of the attention because it is the most prevalent.

The case of Stalin proves that atheism doesn't necessarily protect a society from having a dogmatic system, however religion guarantees it.

Na said...

You're comment at the bottom "You actually could care less!" reminds me of this:


Brucker said...

I feel like I've been seeing a lot of atheists misunderstand the point of this comparison (elsewhere, I'm certainly not the only one to use it) but I'm not sure why. Maybe I can put it this way:

The accusation that this is meant to counter is that "religion" is the only source of bad things happening on a grand scale. Since Stalin was not religious, this serves simply as a counterexample, not an indication that such behavior would be typical of any atheist politician.

I'll certainly grant that there is probably more danger of dogmatism in one's politics when one is religious, as the atheist is at least not going to be operating under the assumption that "God is on my side." (Which is further bullshit: God is on God's side. Oh well.) However, the larger point I'm trying to convey is that dogma is the real problem, but once again, there are plenty of non-religious ideologies that are dogmatic, and not every religious ideology is as dogma-laden as you might think. In fact,...well you could check out these extremists for example.

Na said...

I don't think that anyone claims that religion is the only source of bad things, and if that's the position you're arguing against, you are arguing against no one. One famous quote which accuses religion of being a source of bad things is

"With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion."

Now I think we both agree that this should be expanded to read “dogma” in place of “religion”, but there is a difference between the role religion plays in relation to dogma and that atheism can play. There is no direct link between Stalin's atheism and his actions; it can't be said that following the tenets of atheism he felt it was his unholy duty to kill people.
He wasn't totally adverse to religion, just to challenge to his authority. Remember he established a new national church (The Moscow Patriarchate), which he used to extend his control to satellite nations; he just wanted the church to be answerable to him, just like everything else in his cult of personality, total control. He also killed his party members, again nothing to do with his atheism.
What I would say is his use of atheism allowed him a means of being unchallenged by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR).
However, this is because atheism has no innate value system, the value system usually attributed to atheism comes from secular humanism, which is different. The criticism that comes to religion from the atheist is because once you don't believe in religion, such things as different treatment of people based on their gender or sexual orientation due to one's religious conviction can only be seen as sanctuary for bigotry, this is inescapable for any atheist who believes in civil rights.

With religion, although a powerful enough psychotic person could also simply use religion as a means of tightening their grip on the people (like Stalin did with his atheism); the cart is put before the horse. Another powerful person can also believe that carrying out certain atrocities is good, because of religious conviction; the horse can go before the cart with no noticeable change in outcome.
I would also add, where conflicts aren't started by religion, religion generally serves only to exacerbate problems and make resolution impossible (unless religion can be put to one side).

It should be noted that although dogma is the source of these kinds of problems, it does depend on the content of the dogma to whether it can. You couldn't for example have a murderous Jain tyrant.

Loved the link :D

Brucker said...

If you don't think that anyone is making this claim, then you haven't run into many of the same people I have on the Internet, such as the person who I quoted at the beginning of the post. This was far from the first person I've heard make such a statement. (I've also heard a few people make the statement that atheists are intrinsically evil, which obviously I don't buy either.)

I know that Stalin's actions had very little if anything to do with his atheism, but that's also the point I'm making about horrible people who are (claimed to be) religious. I believe that evil tyrants in general, whatever beliefs they claim to be operating under, are really operating to serve their own ends. Even if they claim to be serving God, that's only an excuse for their actions, not the driving force.

I see what you're saying about religion being a "sanctuary for bigotry", and while you're right, I still don't think atheism is completely immune to such ideas. If someone wants to hate homosexuals, they'll find a good reason to do so with or without religion. (One might argue that homosexuality is an evolutionary dead-end, for instance, or that it simply doesn't make sense biologically; these are arguments I have heard, but certainly not as frequent as appeals to cherry-picked verses from the Old Testament.)

I see what you mean with your horse/cart metaphor, and you may be right, but I still think the key is that power corrupts people. An individual religious nut can at best do something like bombing an abortion clinic while a religious nut in a position of power with a larger supporting political structure could round up all abortion doctors and put them to death.

I would wholeheartedly agree that (unfortunately) religion exacerbates certain societal problems. In fact, (and I wrote about this sort of tangentially before) even when everyone involved happens to be the same religion, that's no guarantee of peaceful agreement. If it were, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. would all be singular, unified religions instead of fractured sects and denominations.

Also, I'm not convinced that "the content of the dogma" would override the corrupting influence of power. Aside from the fact I usually bring up in similar contexts that Buddhist sects have warred against each other in the past (despite Buddhism being one of the most dogmatically peaceful religions I know of), your mention of Jainism led me to about a two-minute search for Khārabēḷa, a Jain from the 2nd century BCE referred to as a "warrior emperor". Sure, not much in that article indicates he was anything like Stalin or any religious tyrant one could use as an example, but he did seem to start a lot of wars, so go figure.

Na said...

Without seeing more of the conversation you had with this person I can't really judge, but if they were claiming that religion is the cause of all evil, then that is ridiculous.
However, I think the quote you give at the beginning says something different.
Bullshit refers to a position that doesn't care if it's stating the truth or not, just that it is believed. Accepting that, then the person is saying that religion in society handicaps its scientific progress. The next sentence doesn't claim that all bad things stem from religion, but instead is attempting to qualify the bullshit status they have attached to religion by bringing up the more violent means it has used to gain its present "believed in" status and popularity, and juxtaposing it with a claim by religions groups that their religion, despite the past violence committed in its in name that gave it its privileged position, is now a religion of peace (though people actually claim that their religions have always been peace orientated despite violence committed in religion's name, which even though have proved convenient to their religion's wealth and dominance in the world, are utterly separate from it). I think what the person is trying to do is say the claim of being peaceful is the modern version of the same marketing campaign that said either you're with us or we are going to hurt you; say whatever works to be believed in.
Just as an added note, you question what "burning" is referring to, my guess would be the witch trials from the 1500s until the 1800s where women and children we burnt at the stake for being witches.
Actually if God were real and he believed that disbelief in him was evil, from the point of view of anyone who believes that moral objectivity stems from God's word, we atheists along with people of faiths that have the wrong God would technically be evil. It's just that from a morality that is stems from the human experience, this God wouldn't be good.

I'm not at all convinced that religion is never the driving force behind the negative actions of powerful tyrants who claim to be serving God. Though I would agree that there are likely those that just bend religion to match their will. However, I think that religious people in positions of power that cause harm to others in the name of God, often really do think they are doing God's work according to how they have interpreted their religion, and probably just believe that their will is in line with God's; any success then serves to verify their delusion and the delusion of their followers.
I think one of the things you might be saying is that if there were no religions these people would still seek the same goals purely motivated by politics. Even granting this, I think without the context of religion there are some nasty religious trappings that would disappear (even things that started as cultural and not religious I think are maintained today by religion), and they would find recruitment and acceptance a lot harder to obtain.

Atheism is utterly immune to such ideas, as it simply is not within the purview of atheism. An atheist on the other hand is not necessarily immune, though I suspect that the examples you give of non-religious reasons for such bigotry are more often than not the religious trying to back up their religiously inspired views. However, in civilised society we have managed to label these views and the people who hold them as undesirable. We have recognised that these views are both flawed and should carry no legal weight regarding anything. That is with the exception of religion. Only with religion do people think that these views can be acceptable held and paraded to the public, only with religion is there a belief that there are reasonable grounds to implement these views into laws. Civil rights should not be forced to end at the church gate.

Na said...

I definitely agree that power makes a big difference, not just because of the degree of the effect they can have, but also because much of what the people do can often be put down to fear of the ones with power (real or whose existence is not verifiable).

Finally, I would be more than happy to say that dogma regardless of content is the problem, as I feel it is a concession I have to add to my view anyway. However, I think that the wars fought by Kharavela would have to be done in order to enforce Jainism or he would have had to use Jain doctrine to promote and justify going to war. Otherwise it seems that he did it in spite of his Jainism. It may well be the case that he did do this, but the closest I have found that suggests it is that Jainism spread in the wake of his campaigns, but nothing saying that his campaigns were fought to spread Jainism.