Religion, a net positive?

A few days ago, in response to a post about my aunt, who had been swindled by a member of her church in Wisconsin, a reader by the name of Mr. X left the following comment.

Has religion given us more good than bad, historically speaking? I’d like to say that it was a positive force for many years, as mankind made the transition to civil society, and that makes all the shit since then worth it, but I’m beginning to think that it’s shifting toward a net negative. I mean, the golden rule was awesome, and revolutionary, but does that counterbalance the religious wars, the stoning of rape victims, the pedophilia of priests, the greed and cruelty of the mega-church crowd who would rather see the poor starve in the streets than pay more in taxes, the historic theft of the Catholic church, the denying of birth control to people who can’t feed the children that they already have, and all the rest?

A reader calling himself Mr. Y then responded with the following, which, I felt as though I had to move up here to the front page. Here’s hoping that you find it as thought provoking as I did.

It’s a question well worth asking, but the term “religion” is so broad to be meaningless. It’s like asking has “science” or “technology” given us more good than bad. The wheel was pretty cool. So were sharp tools and fire. But then came tanks, swords and nuclear bombs. So is science good or bad?

Of course, you can’t easily escape that your very question is grounded on religious notions of good and bad, as defined by our dominant religious history. Some religions are based on caste, rulers as unquestionable deity, raping children to attain purity and so on…

So, no, religion is not a pure good (i.e., “good” as defined by Christian religion). But I think what you recoil against isn’t religion, but hypocrisy (as defined by Christian religion).

In pre-Christian Rome, raping kids wasn’t considered pedophilia (at least not in a bad way). It was more akin to getting a free cup of coffee on the way to work. The Romans, of course, were quite religious. They thought they were good. We don’t, since we’re in the lineage of their replacement religion that thought sexing most anything was bad.

I do think the past century has given us a glimpse at non-religious States moral aptitude. It’s also worth noting that the States that have made the most progress in a spectrum human rights still carry a loud echo of the golden rule in their collective unconsciousness. (I still think the Golden Rule is awesome.)

The Golden Rule (do unto others) does (on face value) stand in pretty starkly naive contrast to “survival of the fittest.” Which party platform would you vote for? Do unto others or survival of the fittest? (Fits nicely, eh?)

If I may get religious, Jesus used the term hypocrite more than once. I think he knew it’d be a useful term. It recognizes and anticipates the inevitability of fakes. Opportunist fakes are inevitable. Hypocrisy is not religion.

As an aside, since all your negative references to “religion” were of Christian hypocrisy, is it fair to ask that you’re real question was “is Christianity useful?”

My answer is to look around the world for the past century or so. Is there a place you can find where human dignity (with its slow moving imperfections) is as fully realized as in nation’s with a Christian lineage? What system (religious or otherwise) would you prefer raise your children in?

As right as it is to rail against hypocrisy, we need to give props to the source of our indignancy. The most irreligious among us, are, on the moral scale of defining “right” and “wrong,” deeply, deeply Christian.

If, in our current age of science, you even think in terms of right and wrong, you are hopelessly religious.

The rest of you read Ayn Rand.

Please feel free to pour yourself a dixie cup full of wine and join in the discussion.

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  1. Christopher Bitchin
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    “My answer is to look around the world for the past century or so. Is there a place you can find where human dignity (with its slow moving imperfections) is as fully realized as in nation’s with a Christian lineage? What system (religious or otherwise) would you prefer raise your children in?”

    Let’s see: how about some of those native (and long-lasting) cultures your Jesus freaks raped, burned, and basically exterminated?

  2. Mr. Y
    Posted January 25, 2012 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    Dear CB,

    I think your anger is well placed. Jesus freaks (aka “humans”) have done (and continue to do) a lot of damage. But, how much of that is done in the spirit of Jesus? Are those that rape followers or hypocrites?

    But the more important question, for us all, is why we consider the rape, burning, and extermination of “enemies” immoral in the first place. Rape, at one time, was considered a constitutional right of the wealthy. Why do you, a couple thousand years later, think it’s wrong? Why is slavery wrong? Why should women be acknowledged as equal? Vote even? Why should Mitt Romney pay taxes? Where does all this nonsense come from?

    Obviously, I’m, again, suggesting your moral objections to Christianity are based in Christian morality. If they’re not, I’m very open to hearing where they come from. And, I’m not here to disparage other worldviews, but there’s more than one that would have little concern over the issues you raise.

    As a Christian (loosely defined), you sound a lot like a Christian. So does Mr. X. (Puritans even, no offense.)

    I have to add, what about those Jesus freaks standing up for the rights of, gasp, gays?. Damn Jesus freaks. Will their persecution never end? (Yes, sarcasm, speaking to who we selectively define as following Jesus.)

    I think there’s probably a lot of good answers to this question, but I’m curious where folks sense of morality (good vs. ungood) comes from. Why do you think good is good and bad is bad?

    I won’t comment anymore. I’ll listen and learn. Thanks CB, for extending the conversation.

  3. Posted January 25, 2012 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    You know, I can see your smirk through the internet when you say, “I’ll just listen and learn.”

  4. Louis
    Posted January 25, 2012 at 2:42 am | Permalink

    Christopher, you might not want to romanticize those native long lasting cultures. Europeans did not invent war. The East Indians for example were an old hand at that stuff. The English stepped into a ready made system. They cut off the top of the structure and repressed the people at the bottom who were already repressed by others. Same with Atahualpa. The history of all humanity is the oppression of one people or group by another. That is common to all humans.

  5. Thom Elliott
    Posted January 25, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Whatever the balance, the religious drive in the human being is the product of thousands of years of evolution, and will most likely exist long after the name Jesus Christ is all but forgotten, like so many other gods. As a finite being, we need a mechanism to speak about the infinite being we expirence in a way that is comprehensable to the finite intelligence, and human beings have done this for at least 30,000 years. We will always create gods because of the ontological difference, god (in my estimation) has always been a face put on Being, or the substrate making apperence possible, so that Being can be discussed as a set of charecterisitics and not the dimly comprehensable ultimate mystery it truely is.

  6. Thom Elliott
    Posted January 25, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    “Why do you think good is good and ungood is ungood?” Personally I turn to Immanuel Kant for the transcendental catagorical imperative, and certainly not eternal punishment for temporal transgressions. No human being is a means merely, but all human beings are an end in themselves, and any maxim by which you act should be extended universally so that any reasonable being confronted with the same problem would be justified in responding in kind. Not that Christ didn’t have beautiful things to say, but please read Kant’s “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals”.

  7. Dan
    Posted January 25, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Love the blog post. Mr Y makes some interesting comments.

    My personal beliefs fall in the category of “do unto others…” Why is something good or ungood? Pretty simple answer: Would you want the reciprocal to happen to you? Would you want to be raped? Beaten? Stolen from? Murdered? Hunted? Eaten? etc.

    You dont need religion to understand right and wrong. All you need is a conscience.

  8. Megan
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Dan. I was raised Episcopalian and then dropped all religion while getting a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies. I was like a kid in the candy store – i like this, i like this, i like this, i don’t like this, i don’t like this, i don’t like this, and every religion had a bit of both as far as I was concerned. I walked away an Atheist, with the thought of Do unto others, and some of the basic commandments – don’t kill, don’t steal, etc. Most of the commandments, however, got dropped.

    Beyond that, to each his own. And I feel I’m a pretty moral person and know the difference between what I consider right and wrong based on exactly what Dan said – how would I feel if it were done to me? Ie, the Golden Rule.

  9. EOS
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

  10. Edward
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Something you don’t see every day.

    Christians acting like Christians.

  11. Edward
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    And did you actually watch that video you linked to, EOS? If so, what did you think of his comments about Republican hypocrisy?

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