Tag Archives: Atrocities of Religion

Lying in the Name of Reason

blind-to-truthIn his speech “Why I’m not a Christian“, the philosopher Bertrand Russell is completely willing to state wild fiction as if it were sober truth:

You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world.

If this were true, historians would report that the nineteenth century deists led the abolitionist movement, rather than Christians. We’d find that charities in our present time would be overwhelmingly secular, rather than overwhelmingly religious. We’d find that the early Christians were less, rather than more, open to racial mixing than the pagans. We’d also find that no real social progress was made until secularism became a notable force in society, rather than finding otherwise.

That such a blatantly, factually false statement can be made (and continues to be made) by persons who claim to base their positions on facts and reason is something of a scandal. As much as cultural stereotypes lend enough rhetorical plausibility to this claim, no one doing so can be relying on science or following the evidence where it leads.

But, even granting the highly dubious claim that churches are inherently resistant to change in the moral consensus (which seems to be Russell’s position), three issues remain:

First is the question of whether “opposition” can be assumed even when it is a tiny minority of churches. That seems to be Russell’s basis for making this claim, but this would definitely open him up to accusations based on the behavior of a tiny minority of atheists.

Second is the fact that Russell offers no standard of “progress”. He needs to explain why his view of progress is superior to the view of the churches he criticizes. He does not do so here, and I’ve not heard an answer to this problem from the New Atheists.

And third is the simple point that there is no logical way to get from “churches have impeded progress” to “Christianity is false”. If anger at the wrongs of churches is truly a reason why Russell rejected Christianity, then he is simply admitting to a certain amount of irrationality. Christ is not judged by the actions of the church. Rather, we are judged by him.

Only the Most Fashionable Myths Allowed

greekgoddessFailing to make a case that religion is bad for people in the present, the New Atheists often turn to (their version of) history. Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell does the same:

You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs.

The mention of this complete falsehood makes it all but required that theists point out the mass slaughter committed by officially atheist governments. Richard Dawkins, however, waves the atrocities of Communism off as “old hat” (apparently much “older” than the Crusades, which he cites against religion).

Others try to claim that the gulags were “a breakdown in rationality”, which is not nearly so true as they think. The Communists were being rational, assuming one grants the lack of a God and the absolute power of the state. But, even if one accepts the “breakdown of rationality” theory, all this shows is that secularism does not automatically encourage rationality (which directly contradicts the New Atheist platform).

There are still others (such as Christopher Hitchens) who claim that these governments were religions unto themselves. But, if one can call Stalin’s governing religious, one can certainly call the New Atheist movement a religion in the same sense.

And, of course, Russell has conspicuously overlooked the Reign of Terror in his own warped version of history.

In fact, the idea that periods of great belief in God were somehow particularly cruel rests much more heavily on the Enlightenment era propaganda that helped to fuel the Reign of Terror than actual historical fact. The idea that the peoples of the middle ages, for instance, were simply barbaric makes for excellent movies, but doesn’t reflect reality.

By my reading, the historian finds the New Atheists as exasperating as the theologian and the philosopher. Once one understands more than the glib caricatures popular culture gives to various historical periods, it becomes obvious that their view is a secular myth, rather than reality.

The New Atheists’ version of history, then, affirms their beliefs, but doesn’t fit the facts. For a group that is constantly (and wrongly) accusing others of venerating myths, this is a deep problem with their platform.

“Reject This Idea, Because I can Make Unfair Accusations About It.”

Handling-the-Stress-of-RejectionIn arguing against religion, Bertrand Russell turns to the claim that religion should be supported on the grounds that it encourages good behavior.

Initially, I found myself ready to agree with Russell, as I thought he’d make the perfectly valid point that a belief system isn’t true simply because it gets people to behave. Instead, he said this:

One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.

That is the idea — that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked.

While I’d quickly agree with anyone who claimed that religious people are not nearly so good as we know we should be, studies on the effects of religion have not turned up anything like what Russell and others claim. Quite the contrary, it has more often been a positive influence on believers and communities.

This is especially problematic for the New Atheists, who tend to put such stress on trusting and respecting science. The fact that the findings of the relevant sciences run counter to their arguments here does not seem to have phased them. In fact, many of them seem to have developed a selective deafness on this point.

But, of course, none of this addresses the question of whether God exists.

Saying that we should reject God’s existence on the grounds that Russell (or anyone else) can make the unsupported claim that religion makes people bad should not make anyone question religious belief. In my view, there is only one interesting thing about this idea: that it isn’t immediately obvious to everyone that it is a worthless argument.