Friday, March 7, 2008

The Root of All Evil

Many critics of religion label religious organizations or beliefs as the principle cause of wickedness in the world. Richard Dawkins, one of religion's more outspoken opponents, aired a two-part documentary on religion and faith entitled "The Root of All Evil?".

I believe this argument to be flawed and suggest a new one that critics of religion should internalize that doesn't forgo the power of the first one. I'll begin with a very insightful quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago:

"To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he's doing is good... Ideology - that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination... That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations. Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions."

It is simply an empirical fact that the biggest mass murderers of the twentieth century were not motivated by religion but instead by ideology, namely Marxism. Estimates of the deaths both of starvation due to failed economic policies and by executions under communist regimes range from 94 to 144.7 million. It is the fact that the leaders of these regimes were so unwavering (religious, I would say) in their adherence to Marxism that they allowed the greatest human rights violations humanity has ever seen to occur.

Here is how the argument should be reformulated. Unwavering commitment to ideology is the greatest cause of evil in the world. However, because the nature of religion involves belief with little evidence, without any evidence, or sometimes against the evidence, it necessarily yields ideological dogmatism. Therein lies the danger of religious belief.

6 comments:

Ben said...

I appreciate your understanding of the power of ideologies... it's rare that someone outside Christian intellectual circles recognizes that the greatest crimes against humanity have been from communists... both in the USSR and Cambodia.

However, I would make a distinction between the approaches to ideologies. You mentioned "It is the fact that the leaders of these regimes were so unwavering (religious, I would say) in their adherence to Marxism"... being unwavering in devotion to something does not necessarily imply religion. A better word here might have been zealous.

When I get a little more time next week (I'm travelling this weekend), I'll post some more thoughts. But it the mean time, and I'm sure you're familiar with this question, exactly who is determining what is good and evil here?

Scott said...

A few things.

First of all, the Oxford English Dictionary includes among its definitions of religious as "Scrupulous, exact, strict, conscientious". "Zealous" is defined as "Full of or incited by zeal; characterized by zeal or passionate ardour; fervently devoted to the promotion of some person or cause; intensely earnest; actively enthusiastic". Dogmatic belief does not require passionate enthusiasm but it does require strict and conscientious adherence. "Religious" is absolutely an appropriate adjective.

Regarding the question of good and evil, I can't read your mind but I imagine you're going for something like Dostoevsky's "if God is dead then everything is permitted" argument. In other words, the absence of a robust theism inevitably leads to moral relativism.

Such an argument isn't a very good one. We know that certain things aren't permitted. Such things include punishing others for the crimes of their parents or ancestors, genocide, and slavery. But looking at the Old Testament, we observe a God who not only allows these things to happen but who facilitates and encourages them. Arguing that moral authority comes from such a being only fuels the case for anti-theism regardless of whether or not such a being exists.

Ben said...

A pity we can't read minds... I think it would come in handy.

1) I am beginning to think that it is impossible to look at good and evil outside of a religious framework. I say this because I have yet to find a secular philosophy that establishes a firm basis for objective values. It is not my intent to say that there are not secular moral systems; certainly there are. But when an atheist says that religion is at "The Root of All Evil", I have to ask where his definition of evil comes from, and why he thinks that way.

2) I don't think that your reference to the Old Testament really does justice to the text. Remember, the Bible (at least, within Catholicism) is not primarily intended to be a historical text, but a theological work to be interpreted in a faith community. That's why one can be a good Catholic without thinking that the Earth was created in six days. And every Catholic theologian will answer that so much of what happens in the Old Testament was the result of less than ideal circumstances.

Scott said...

Regarding your first point, there exists a refutation almost as old as civilization itself. In Plato's
"Euthyphro", the eponymous deuteragonist is having a discussion with Socrates over the nature of the gods. Early on in the dialog, Socrates famously inquires the nature of piety:

"Socrates: The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods."

Shortly after a typical brilliant execution of the Socratic method, Socrates convinces Euthyphro that something is loved by the gods because it is holy and not vice versa. In other words, the gods are pleased by things like peace, love and harmony because they are pious and good; they are not pious and good because they please the gods. The converse works the same way. The gods (ideally) despise things like murder, rape, genocide and slavery because they are wrong; these things are not wrong because the gods despise them. These acts are wrong because they are wrong and if a deity or demiurge were purported to deem them right (as the Judeo-Christian and Mohammedan God does) then belief in such a being should be suspended on moral grounds. It is true that ethics is a complicated field and that many equally good and erudite scholars within it disagree. But not a one of them would deny the objectivity of morality nor would they accept as moral any doctrine which entailed that the aforementioned practices condoned and commanded by the Abrahamic God were moral. Furthering the argument from morality, I pose Christopher Hitchens' challenge: Name a moral action taken, or a moral statement made, by a believer that could not have been made by an atheist. As a corollary, name a wicked action or statement that derived directly from religious faith. No one has come up with an answer to the first question and to summon a multitude of answers to the second you need only a matter of seconds.

Your second point skirts the objection. It's one thing if the human agents of the Old Testament perform morally abhorrent actions under "less than ideal circumstances" as you put it. But it's quite another to exculpate the deity in whom you profess belief even with the most generous of readings. Take Deuteronomy 7:1-2 for example:

"When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jubusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show them no mercy."

Not even the most metaphorical interpretation of scripture can absolve the God of Abraham of his genocide and war crimes.

If you want a relatively consistent framework of immorality, look no further than the Old Testament.

Ben said...

I'll admit, you know philosophy much better than I do. But could you clarify a few things? I hope you understand that proselytizing you is not my goal, but I would like help seeing another point of view.

1) You said, "These acts are wrong because they are wrong." Although I don't disagree with your conclusion, I'm not sure how you got there.

2)"It is true that ethics is a complicated field and that many equally good and erudite scholars within it disagree. But not a one of them would deny the objectivity of morality nor would they accept as moral any doctrine which entailed that the aforementioned practices condoned and commanded by the Abrahamic God were moral." There are numerous moral philosophers that would deny objective morality... the Revisionists, for example. I, of course, could be misreading you here.

3) With regards to Deuteronomy 7:1-2t is only a liberal and generous interpretation that would take that passage literally. I say that because none of those nations were in that geographic area at the time of the Exodus. Given that the final version of Exodus was edited together towards 7th century BCE, either God told them to eradicate enemies who were not actually there, or they were symbolic of all the oppressors of the chosen people (because these were figures in Israels history by 7th century BCE). Either way, this particular verse cannot be read as a command to wipe out entire nations, because those nations just weren't there.

Scott said...

"'These acts are wrong because they are wrong.' Although I don't disagree with your conclusion, I'm not sure how you got there."

I got there, as any moral person does, first by intuition. I have always known that rape is wrong. To form or understand any theory of morality, that assumption must be granted. Indeed, to profess belief in a religious faith, its tenets must concur with one's basic intuitions about morality. As Socrates points out, the gods are pleased by good things because they are good; they are not good because the gods are pleased by them. The real dispute should be regarding the origin of morality and not its inherent value. In other words, regardless of whether human morality evolved as a survival mechanism or was placed in us by a deity, its legitimacy is not in question.

"'But not a one of them would deny the objectivity of morality nor would they accept as moral any doctrine which entailed that the aforementioned practices condoned and commanded by the Abrahamic God were moral.' There are numerous moral philosophers that would deny objective morality... the Revisionists, for example. I, of course, could be misreading you here."

What I mean by the objectivity of morality is the acknowledgment that things are right and wrong. Louise Anthony, editor and contributor to "Philosophers without Gods" affirms "Indeed, every writer in this volume adamantly affirms the objectivity of right and wrong." What revisionists are you referring to exactly? Do you mean ethical relativists? Nihilists?

"With regards to Deuteronomy 7:1-2t is only a liberal and generous interpretation that would take that passage literally. I say that because none of those nations were in that geographic area at the time of the Exodus. Given that the final version of Exodus was edited together towards 7th century BCE, either God told them to eradicate enemies who were not actually there, or they were symbolic of all the oppressors of the chosen people (because these were figures in Israels history by 7th century BCE). Either way, this particular verse cannot be read as a command to wipe out entire nations, because those nations just weren't there."

I find it imprudent on God's part that he doesn't make it clear that His words should be interpreted metaphorically, but I digress. Even if what you're saying is correct, there are a multitude of other examples that most definitely cannot be explained away; hence my affirmation that the Old Testament provides a framework of immorality. Two examples that come to mind are God's commanding of Abraham to kill Isaac and Joshua's massacre at Jericho. Give me a little more time and I'll give you a plethora of examples.