Saturday, January 30, 2010

More sloppy thinking -- that's what we need! Uh, waitaminute...

So I'm driving around, searching in vain for a kitchen drawer divider that isn't made in China, and I hear Daniel Dennett on NPR talking about how religion can encourage people to commit acts of violence.

Religion can encourage people to...? What kind of statement is that? Watching television can encourage people toward violence. Listening to politicians can encourage people toward violence. Certain kinds of pathogens can encourage people toward violence. So can depression and discouragement, alcohol, rugby, misinformation, etc.

The word "can" was inserted so they wouldn't be accused of being anti-religious, but I'll say it anyway. The "logic" went like this: every society has religion. Every society has violence. Therefore the connection between religion and violence is just as strong as the connection between food and violence. (Every society has food, every society has violence, therefore....) Right.

(I'll observe here that Mao and Stalin and the mass murderers of the Khmer Rouge were actually anti-religious. These clowns -- only they weren't funny at all -- committed some of the worst atrocities in recorded history, so maybe Dennett could tell me again why religion is the root of all violence? Someone at NPR?)

Goodness gracious, can't they come up with anything better than that? OK, I'll do it for them: the fact that people sometimes say things like "I hate them with perfect hatred" (from Psalm 139:22) related to some violent acts, or that people sometimes shout "Allahu Akbar" (Arabic for "God is great!") when committing violent acts -- that may be some sort of indicator, don't you think?

Let me knock that one down, too, since I set it up. In every society there are more-violent (a shorthand for "more-likely-to-become-violent" or "more-easily-pushed-into-violence") people and less-violent people. Religious societies have them, societies that with anti-religious laws have them. If Psalm 139 is a well-known text in a society, then the less-violent people will tend to draw comfort from the image of God as a loving presence, and the more-violent people will tend to use the hostile parts of the text as an excuse for their violent acts. If the Qur'an is a well-read book in a society, then less-violent people will focus on the image of Allah as the compassionate and merciful but more-violent people will copy other violent people who shouted something in Arabic before starting to kill.

In other words, "religious people are violent" or "religion stirs up violence" is just a bald assertion without proof; "Look at ________"! is no proof (see Stalin, Mao, et al).

What is proven, and I'll grant this, is that just because a society follows one religion or another does not mean that violence and hatred will be entirely eradicated in that society. But as the honest athiest Haidt observes in this article,

Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood. Even if you excuse secular liberals from charity because they vote for government welfare programs, it is awfully hard to explain why secular liberals give so little blood. The bottom line, Brooks concludes, is that all forms of giving go together, and all are greatly increased by religious participation and slightly increased by conservative ideology (after controlling for religiosity).
By Jonathan Haidt
Oh, I see he quotes (and refutes) Dennett in that article. It's worth a read.

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