Is All religion bad? An Ethical Dissection

What are Ethics?

People disagree on ethics — and for very good reasons. To clear up the disagreement, the wrong move is to try and figure out the “right” ethical theory — arguing endlessly about the truth of your system and the foibles of others. Instead, understanding how our minds work may reveal far more useful information.

Every Ethics 101 course classifies the majority of ethical systems into:

    • Deontological Ethics: methods matter
    • Consequentialism Ethics: consequences matter
    • Virtual Ethics: attitudes matter

Our brains seem to contain all three of these behavior calculators (and more). Depending on situations (triggers), the brain uses one calculator, at the exclusion of others, or uses two or three but weighs them each differently. We are complex creatures. We are not what we think we are. It is this phenomena that leads us to all our wheel spinning when discussing ethics.

Is All-Religion-is-Bad?

Another wheel-spinner is the debate of whether “all-religion-is-bad” or not.  Massimo Pigliucci discusses this issue on his post criticizing a 3-Quark daily post (remember, the site where I was banned — it is safer to criticize them from your own blog.)

Massimo criticizes the pro-religion go-free-card position often promoted by 3QD authors, but also lambasts many blogging atheist who loudly exaggerate that “all religion is bad”. Massimo interestingly points out that typically those atheists’ arguments are based on an ironic illogical jumping between contrary ethical platforms to rationalize their claim — a fault of theists too he emphasizes.

The hyper-pseudo rationalist atheist will claim that:

False beliefs always (eventually) lead to bad consequences.

Did you catch that? They just told us that “false beliefs” [a method or attitude, depending how you view beliefs] should not be used. That is the Deontological or the Virtue Ethical calculator going off. But when you read posts by these anti-religion atheists, their judgement that bad beliefs are always bad is based on the consequences of those bad beliefs — they tell us all the horrible things religion do.  That is their Consequentialism calculator weighing in.

The 3QD article pejoratively creates the phrase “undergraduate atheists“, which Massimo concedes may be appropriate since such atheists have:

“… simplistic, scientistic, anti-intellectual streak of self-professed “rational” thinking that too many atheists quickly and shamelessly engage in.”

And he broadens the criticism saying:

“We talk a lot about supporting critical thinking in the skeptic/atheist community(es), but we aren’t necessarily that good at cleaning up our own sloppy reasoning.”

I love Massimo because he is clear writer, very bright and does not pull punches. So if you disagree with him, it is easy to figure out where you disagree!

I won’t go into all the subtle nuances of this argument about “Is ALL religion bad” — please don’t clutter the thread with those rants because that is not the purpose of this post and would ironically indulge in the very error of thinking I am trying to illustrate here. Namely, that we [theists, atheists: all of us] are often deceived about how our minds work, and that this confusion then causes us the spend millennium in useless debates.

Blending Confusion: ethical delusions & the myth of religion

As a final caveat, in such conversations, what adds insult to injury of our foolishness is, as I have written often, the illusion that we know what “religion” is. Further, people continually forget the nature of language and that “religion” is a created word used in many different ways. Religion is not something out there waiting to be discovered — anathema to Plato fans. Thus, we don’t understand our own ethical declarations, nor our own use of language, so how can we even begin to adress the question of this post intelligently.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

9 responses to “Is All religion bad? An Ethical Dissection

  1. Rally ’round the flag is our most destructive game, but we seem predisposed to play it.

  2. Most false beliefs seem to be comforters. A friend of my wife’s aunt died last week of cancer. She now believes that woman is in a sort of celestial hospital being treated and nursed back to health before venturing onto heaven.

  3. @john zande
    Assuming you believe in what you say; you stared that, “Most false beliefs seem to be comforters.”; does that belief comfort you? 🙂
    As for your wife’s Aunt’s friend, Maybe she is, maybe she is not?

  4. @Keithnoback: Indeed

    @john zande: I’d agree that most false beliefs serve some purpose — comfort, status/membership signaling, ….

  5. Interestingly, the word “religion” (whose definition I’m still searching, remember?) did not exist in Classical Greece. This is something I discovered recently. There was no reason for Greeks to say they had a religion. Whatever they believed in, they thought to be part of their society. It was *obviously* true. This raises the question: when did we become aware that we had a religion? When did this word come into use? (Not as a word in English, but as a concept, in any language.)

    Now, regarding your first proposition, on “false beliefs…”, I would put emphasis on the word “belief.” Clearly, whoever said this, did not use the word belief in the same way a Christian uses it. Or maybe he/she did; in which case, it is obviously flawed. I wish I could define the word “belief”. But it’s not simple. We have one word (or two…) to express many concepts, perhaps a continuum of concepts…

  6. “False beliefs always (eventually) lead to bad consequences.”
    As a Christian i don’t really have a problem with this statement but I’m interested to hear about it from an atheists position – because isn’t one of the principal atheist explanations for the existence and ubiquity of religion that it was extremely useful (essential?) to the development of human society, demonstrated by its almost universal existence in various cultures throughout geography and time?

  7. @ clapham,
    Welcome back from the holidays.
    Are you asking that question of me?
    If so, my writings make clear two important points:
    (a) The category “religion” is an artificial, relatively recent invention. Generalizing about it always results in huge mistakes.
    (b) But even speaking about “religion” in a sloppy way, I am one of those atheists that does not think “all false beliefs have bad consequences” and thus feel not all aspects of religion have bad consequences. Thus, I would never say “all religion is bad” as indeed some atheists may be more likely to say. I don’t know the percentages though.

    Was that your question.
    BTW, point (a) is subtle but very important. I have written much on this and plan to write more.

  8. @Sabio
    Good points.
    When my children ask me for advice about what decision to make, I always remind them that there are always good or bad consequences to every decision we make, whether it be a good decision or a bad one. If that doesn’t work, I say, “Shit happens, to the worst of us and to the best of us.”

  9. Good vs bad. Ah, the curse of dualism (dvaita)!

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