Ophelia's last but one instalment in our discussion about religion (for the backstory see these posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) makes 'at least one concession', and it's a concession I'm entirely happy with since it shows that we are in agreement on the point that got me into the discussion in the first place. Her concession contains the following:
I do think religion can motivate people to be good in general, and I've said that in other N&Cs.This, however, is pretty much all I set out to argue against Ophelia's original post: that being an atheist needn't, and shouldn't - and in my case doesn't - commit a person to denying that there are some good aspects of religion. I say 'pretty much' all, rather than just 'everything', because there was also a secondary, tactical difference about whether, given that there are some good aspects (as well as all the bad ones), it is better to be balanced by acknowledging them, as I think, or non-balanced in order to shake up people's thinking - Ophelia's suggestion. But in the face of my counter-suggestion that it is hard to see why secular rationalists would be recommending deliberate lack of balance as an intellectual virtue, Ophelia has not pressed the point, and so I let that one rest. On the substantive issue originally in dispute between us we now agree - a measure of agreement also reflected in this later post of hers.
If I'm posting again on this - and at length - it's because I think there are still a few residual misunderstandings, so that Ophelia's concession comes at the cost of rebutting viewpoints I haven't put forward (because they aren't mine) - almost as if I must be trying to slide something by here that is more far-reaching, and more damaging to the atheist cause, than the single and simple point I set out to defend: namely, that historically there have been some good features of religion. But I'm not. That was the whole deal. Once it is conceded, we have a consensus - save for the residual misunderstandings. And one of these abuts on a theme widely enough shared amongst the commenters at Butterflies and Wheels, and of sufficient moral and historical importance, as to merit extended consideration in its own right.
In my previous post (5 above) I spoke of the danger of 'a certain (prejudicial) selectivity in only recognizing the power of religious belief to influence people when you perceive that influence to be harmful'. To this Ophelia has responded by saying:
Norm may have a point. It may be that I do think of religion as more powerful [my italics] 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... 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.But this is a displacement. It responds to a point I haven't made. I haven't claimed any kind of parity between religion's influence for the good and its harmful influence, much less that the influence for the good might have been greater than the harmful one. I've simply said that secular rationalists who insist upon the authority of evidence - the more so in that they clearly do recognize the power of religious belief to influence people - shouldn't shut their eyes to, or denature, the evidence for religious belief having good effects where it does. This is not a comparative point about whether religion has done more good than harm historically. I have no idea how I would go about computing that if I wanted to; but I do start out sceptical towards any easy claim that the good influence has predominated, knowing - just for example - about the torments inflicted by the Inquisition, about the centuries of Christian anti-Jewish teaching that formed a background condition to the annihilation of European Jewry, about the religious certainties that today allow jihadists calmly and proudly to behead and mutilate and bomb without regard to considerations of the age or guilt or innocence of their victims, not to say of elementary human compassion, and so forth. My point was, again, the simple one I made: not about more harmful versus more beneficial; just that if belief has the power that it manifestly does to influence human conduct, then those of us who claim to give proper weight to empirical evidence need to be scrupulous about the evidence in both directions.
There's a comparable displacement in what Ophelia says about my analogy with Joe: the guy with a mixture of good and bad qualities, such that one can say he does have some good qualities, and say this even if the bad ones are very bad. Following a suggestion from Tom Freeman, Ophelia says, quite reasonably, that a person's bad qualities can be so bad that we should hesitate to call him a good person even if he does some good things. But my argument wasn't that the good qualities make him into a good person come what may. (Think about it: how could I be saying that? That would be... a rapist and mass murderer is a good person because he plants a flower for his neighbour who's an invalid.) It was a more modest point, and harder to rebut: that a man with some good qualities alongside his bad qualities does have the good qualities as well as the bad ones, and typically we recognize this.
Then, Ophelia continues to resist the relevance of analogy to making my case. Everything, she says - food, movies, people, institutions, ideas - is good in its own particular way and bad in its own particular way. I don't need to take a view about this claim in order to defend the proposition that a body of beliefs and institutions (in this case religious beliefs and institutions) can, just like a person, a book, a movie, a bowl of soup, or pretty well anything, combine good and bad qualities. That is all my analogy was meant to show, and I don't believe Ophelia has demonstrated why religion is intractable to being analogized. Indeed, if her argument here did establish that, then analogy in general would be in trouble.
There is, however, something rather more important at stake than just defending what I have argued and distinguishing it from what I haven't. I turn to the theme I said merits consideration in its own right. I mean the resistance to the claim that religious belief can motivate, and has motivated, people to act for the good. Ophelia's initial expression of scepticism about this (now withdrawn if I understand her correctly, or at least considerably softened), and the apparent certainty of other contributors to the discussion that that claim is false, strike me, as I have already said, as having an air of complete unreality. It is as if Martin Luther King and Pius Ncube respectively hadn't existed and didn't exist; as if many others hadn't given their time, their energies and in some cases their lives to acting for the good, on account, at least partly, of their religious convictions. So let's probe this one a bit. I paraphrase some of the responses at Butterflies and Wheels to my example of the Polish rescuer.
The responses included: that the rescue must have been despite rather than because of her religion, given that Polish Catholicism was infected by anti-Semitism; that, as rescue activity was a minority reaction amongst Polish Catholics, religious conviction couldn't have been responsible for the rescues that did occur; that if the same religion could lead people to opposing practical conclusions, religion as such couldn't have much to do with those conclusions; that religions are as often exclusive of others as they are inclusive (of all humankind); that the conception of the (religious) good itself involves morally dubious elements as well as morally positive ones; that people may act well simply because they are virtuous people, and therefore giving religion the credit for their actions is not to the point; that (similarly) since religion is not the only possible precursor of some particular good act, religion shouldn't - presumably anywhere - get the credit.
These responses either ignore or fail to grasp - they certainly do not attempt to meet - the observation I have now made twice and will repeat here for a third time:
[R]eligious belief is not a necessary condition of any practical good; it is also not a sufficient condition. But the same can be said of any competing secular outlook.But the same can be said... But the same can be said. Since the identical operation as just summarized above can be carried out whenever somebody apparently does something because of, or partly because of, a belief she holds, it is a kind of arbitrary dealing to perform it only where someone has given religious reasons for acting well. It is especially arbitrary where this is combined with the impulse to take it for granted that religious belief influences people to do harm. Watch...
He killed them, he said, because he had learned from the priest that the Jews murdered Jesus Christ. Or: he beat her, he said, because his religion taught that this was his duty as her husband when she went astray. Now, who's to say that religion was the effective cause? Some Christians rescued Jews rather than killing them; others did neither. And there were non-religious anti-Semites participating in the killing of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. The man may really have beaten his wife because he was a bully and a coward. And so on.
Why people act in certain ways and refrain from acting in certain ways is a complicated business: it has to do with character, situation, interest, hope or fear, peer pressure, judgement of consequences, and several other things - including, prominently, belief. If anyone wants to deny this last item, I'm not going to be the one to waste time arguing with them. But in any case those pouring cold water on the claim that some of those who came to the aid of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe did so for religious, among other, reasons do not deny the efficacy of belief in general; they question only the efficacy of religious belief in promoting the good. It is, I repeat, a kind of arbitrary dealing.
Here's something else. Not only is the relation of belief to other sources of action complicated. Systems of belief are more complex, internally, than some of the comments I've paraphrased above suggest. I'll venture another comparison or two here. An eminent poet is offered an honour in the New Year Honours List, and he declines it, citing as the reason for doing so his lifelong socialist commitment: as an egalitarian he is against honours systems. Another eminent socialist poet accepts the same honour. Though she too is an egalitarian, she thinks that honours are an OK way of helping to bring worthwhile achievements to public attention. Does this prove that the first poet must have declined the honour for other reasons than his socialism? He could, after all, have turned it down just to look good in the eyes of certain people. Is the second poet not a socialist, even though she thinks of herself as one? Some, of course, may say that, and they may even be right to say it in certain cases; but it ain't necessarily so. The ways of belief and ways from belief to action are many and various.
A dedicated communist in the 1930s fights valiantly against Nazism; he undergoes torture at the hands of the Gestapo without cracking. He says that his communism, his commitment to the idea of a better future world, motivated him. Another communist, who also believes in a better future world, thinks that long-range ends justify ugly means; he is willing to join in propagating lies put about by the party, and he justifies the Moscow trials knowing that the accused are innocent. There is nothing inherently bizarre about people acting sometimes well and sometimes badly in the light of, broadly, similar belief systems. It is possible that the first of the two communists here might have held up under torture even without his communist beliefs - because of his hatred of fascism or of a personality strong against attempts to humiliate and degrade him. But those beliefs may also have been important. You need a stronger reason for doubting them than the simple fact, which is always true, that he could have arrived at the same action by another route.
A belief system is rarely a seamless whole. It contains different parts, aspects, propositions, strengths, weaknesses, gaps, taboos, permissions. It can, accordingly, prompt people, through some of this content, towards acting well, even when it also causes harm by way of other of its features. You may hold as firmly as you want that the central core of religion - belief in a divine being - is delusory, an abdication of the ways of reason and so on, but this will not negate the fact that the great religions also embody certain moral teachings and not all of these are wrong-headed or pernicious. They can also strengthen people and console them in certain ways. The tendency I've here summarized, from the discussion at Butterflies and Wheels, to belittle the religious inspiration for actions that were good, and sometimes heroic, has exactly nothing going for it other than an easy logical exercise that could be carried out with the same swift deflating results on whatever belief system those performing the exercise themselves live by.
My Polish Catholic was an abstract example, but it was an example distilled from many cases I have read about, cases from all over Europe: of individuals who took grave risks and who explain their reasons for doing that partly in terms of their religious outlook. It is true that people can sometimes be confused about their reasons for acting, but where someone risks his or her life, or even makes large (time and energy) sacrifices for others, this does tend to concentrate the mind. If many of those who do this give the same kind of reason for doing it, then that is prima facie evidence that the reason they give counts for something. You need better than the 'not a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition' move to confute it. Speaking for myself, I am inclined to place more confidence in the reasons such people - and not only the religious ones, because others took the risks in the light of other beliefs - gave, than in a generalized scepticism based on nothing more, apparently, than the notion that because religion is a bad thing on the whole it must be all, or close to all, bad. That is not a defensible proposition in itself, and in my own judgement it carries no weight against the self-explanations of the rescuers.