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Ch. 13: Does Religion Make People Behave Better? 
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Post Ch. 13: Does Religion Make People Behave Better?
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Ch. 13: Does Religion Make People Behave Better?

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Mon Mar 02, 2009 6:00 pm
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Hitchens' main point in this chapter seems to be that religion has a tendancy to make people behave worse, and that people who show compassion for their fellow man do so in spite of, or at least independently of, religion, instead of because of it.

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How did [the man who tried to repair the damage caused by the LRA in Uganda] know, I asked him, which of them was the truest believer? Any secular or state-run outfit could be doing what he was doing - fitting prosthetic limbs and providing shelter and "counseling" - but in order to be Joseph Kony one had to have real faith.


My response to this is that religion and compassion are not mutually exclusive. While it is true that complete and utter devotion to religion has led people to do some horrible things (the situation in Uganda being a prime example), there are millions of true believers all over the world who would never consider genocide to be an acceptable path. Anything can corrupt people (or be corrupted by them), but that doesn't make that thing inherently evil.



Fri Apr 03, 2009 12:21 pm
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I don't think being religious makes you any worse a person than anyone else, but nor does it confer any benefits in moral issues.

All people make decisions based on their own analysis of the situation they are in. Sometimes a religious person will ask me, How do i know what is wrong and right? The answer is, the exact same way you do. Based on my experience and the society i belong to.

I think you will find prescious few people who refer to the bible when confronted with any day to day moral decision. Instead, people make their own decisions and then rationalize their decisions retroactivly to conform with a religious text, if they even bother to make the comparison.

So religion is not the final say in their decision making process. Reading the bible you would see several examples of supposedly moral acts that are flat-out repugnant. Religious people often look at these passages and say that they are not meant to be literal, or that they were allegorical or some such. That refusal to believe, or follow what is put forth in the bible is a moral decision made in contradiction of the bible.

Just because other positions whcih we would all hold valuable can be found in the bible (such as do not kill) does not mean we behave that way in accordance to scripture, but rather that it was so obvious a choice that to not include it in a code of moral laws would have been negligent. On the other hand you can see other examples of "evil" espoused in the bible because they were acceptable practices in the bronze age (slaves should behave).

This is a reflection of the time the book was written, not an ultimate moral code. So if we are not really using this book as arbiter of what is right and wrong, why do we go through the trouble to pretend that it is? consider how people use their supposed holy insight to instigate war, genocide, hatred, or intolerance backed with absolute holy authority.

Witches were burned at the stake and people lit the torch feeling like they were purging evil.

So no, just being religious does not make someone a bad person, but life without religious background is just as moral, and without the pit-falls of god-appointed hatred and strife.



Fri Apr 03, 2009 1:04 pm
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After sharing the news about my unborn son last year, I had quite a few people scowling and asking why I wasn't married and that he's a bastard child. My girlfriend's grandma spews dissent amongst her family for not rigorously following religious protocol. My mother espouses an absolutist philosophy that retains it's absolutism because of her religious belief. My grandfather was insulted on his deathbed by claiming to have beliefs that weren't his own. I can't talk openly about evolution or science at work or I'll be considered an outcast.

There is less of the blatant evil in today's society, but there is still much idiocy and dissent caused by religion. I personally am fed up with how frustrating and difficult it's influences have made parts of my life.



Fri Apr 03, 2009 2:25 pm
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With over 60% of religious people in this country actively denying civil rights to gays I would have to say NO, religion does not make people behave better.

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Fri Apr 03, 2009 6:48 pm
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With his two main examples, M. L. King and Mahatma Ghandi, Hitchens suggests that the stronger the adherence to relgious doctrine or principle, the less the person will be likely to choose what is really the better, more humane, path; the more likely he or she will be to uphold faith for its own sake. King, Hitchens tells us, did not buy the vindictiveness of Jesus' references to eternal punishment in the New Testament. He was therefore really not so much a Christian, Hitchens says. King accomplished great things by turning his own will toward the advancement of humanity. It was not his Christianity that enabled him.

Ghandi, by having too strong a faith, cared mostly for that and was unable to see the true, best solution to the Hindu/Muslim problem.

Hitchens' interpretation of the two figures could be open to dispute, and two examples don't necessarily seal it. But I think in gereral it would be true that acting in order to prove "faithfulness" would be less productive, humane, and compassionate than acting from broader, non-exclusive principles of humanity.

I don't think, though, that Hitchens has much basis for strongly implying that King was not in fact a Christian. It puzzles me to hear people who dislike fundamentalism in religion, seem to insist that a believer needs to subscribe to all of what's on paper, as far as doctrine is concerned. Why can't believers pick and choose? It seems very likely to me that King, in some way that we aren't privileged to see, did find in Christian sources support for his crusade for equality.



Fri Apr 03, 2009 9:59 pm
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Quote:
DWill
I don't think, though, that Hitchens has much basis for strongly implying that King was not in fact a Christian.


From what little I know of MLK he defiantly was a Christian… but to say that he would not have been motivated to work for equal civil rights for blacks without a Christian background is just plain ridiculous.

I do realize no one here is making such a claim, but I thought I would mention it preemptively.

And I agree with you DWill people can and do pick and choose parts of their doctrine to follow and some to leave out… It is the people who choose the wrong parts to justify bad behavior and the ones that follow too blindly that really concern me.

Although the other moderates still seem to push their “superior” beliefs on us heathens regularly… but is it far more subtle and less violent than in the past.

It’s still annoying and frustrating though…

Later


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Fri Apr 03, 2009 10:51 pm
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From what little I know of MLK he defiantly was a Christian… but to say that he would not have been motivated to work for equal civil rights for blacks without a Christian background is just plain ridiculous.


I think a lot of this comes back to a point Hitchens returned to time and time again - Ockham's razor. One can be a good person and be religious, but as he often repeated, it works without it. Whether or not a person is kind and benevolent seems in most cases to be independent of whether or not a person is religious.



Sat Apr 04, 2009 12:15 am
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Morals don't depend on religion, contrary to what most religious advocates would have you believe.

On a side note, Ockham's Razor is often times over used. It's meant as a principle in selecting scientific theories, commonly known as parsimony. Where it applies is between theories where all other factors are even, the one that is less complex should be used. A problem is that parsimony isn't a rule, it's only a guide. Everything considered, a more complex theory might actually turn out to be the one that withstands experimentation.



Sat Apr 04, 2009 1:51 am
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This might be as good a place as any to bring up a reputed effect of religion on children. In the literature on child development and what is called "prevention," it is frequently mentioned that participation in "spiritual activities" is protective; that is, according to research, children whose parents have them take part in such groups tend to have fewer problems with adjustment, such as anti-social behavior and drug abuse. I’ve seen the statement made several times, and now I wonder whether research really supports the conclusion. If it does, then I’d need to know what it is about these activities that provides such protection. It’s not a given that the “spiritual” element is the effective part. Something I mean to look into.



Sat Apr 04, 2009 1:01 pm
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I remember reading such reports as well. I suspect that the tendency toward "anti-social" behaviour is far more complex than such research suggests. For example, a particular behaviour can be read as either social or anti-social depending on the context. I think much of what such studies are measuring is really related to an index of meaning, that is, does the child feel meaningful - does he or she behave as if his or her life has meaning. Since the perception of meaning is something human and not at all limited to religious interpretation, one way of studying the development of a sense of belonging or meaning is through the study of suicide.

There is a wikipedia article on Suicide by Emile Durkheim
and a ppt at [url]isis.ku.dk/kurser/blob.aspx?feltid=202965[/url]

Here is a summary statement from the article: "Durkheim believed that the social bond is composed of two factors, which are social integration (attachment to other individuals within society) and social regulation (attachment to society's norms). He believed that suicide rates may increase when extremities in these factors occur." - which suggests that an over-regulated social group would tend to increase the number of suicides, especially if there is no other way out.

One thing I remember from reading around Durkheim was that kids from wealthier classes were more likely to commit suicide than those from poorer classes. Religion really only plays a part as the particular type of faith constructs a sense of belonging and provides a valued place to its young. Of course providing such things is something society does regardless of whether it is religious or not. Some aspects of our society have just been trained to see it as religious, just as some have been trained to see the red leaves in fall as a spirit's art work, instead of as an effect of the break down of green chlorophyll and the presence of anthocyanins.


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Sat Apr 04, 2009 2:55 pm
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DWill wrote:
This might be as good a place as any to bring up a reputed effect of religion on children. In the literature on child development and what is called "prevention," it is frequently mentioned that participation in "spiritual activities" is protective; that is, according to research, children whose parents have them take part in such groups tend to have fewer problems with adjustment, such as anti-social behavior and drug abuse. I’ve seen the statement made several times, and now I wonder whether research really supports the conclusion. If it does, then I’d need to know what it is about these activities that provides such protection. It’s not a given that the “spiritual” element is the effective part. Something I mean to look into.
Bill, this intuitive suggestion cuts against the argument from Messrs Dawkins and Hitchens that religion is a form of child abuse.

The point is that belonging to a group with a sense of shared identity creates a sense of meaning and direction in life, with opportunities for networking, meeting good role models and mentors, and learning lessons. The absence of such group identity, in the solipsistic atomism of the modern world, produces an anomie and isolated detachment where values can easily become arbitrary, delinquent and distorted. It gets back to an idea in Confucius that when ritual and ceremony are in order then society is in order.

Perhaps the accuracy of the beliefs underpinning ritual is a secondary consideration to its value in establishing community solidarity. We see this in the weekly sermon which generally contains a useful moral lesson which helps people to think about how they could live better. It has been a point of sadness to me that I have not been able to get my children to attend church, (partly also because my own attitudes are so idiosyncratic).

It is fine for the brilliant brights of the world such as Richard Dawkins and CH to find a sense of meaning in the abstract ideas of science, but that is simply not possible for the general population who lack their opportunities, and need to be part of their local community. RD and CH make the best the enemy of the good by setting the social value of religion so far below its epistemic accuracy.

Again, the issue here is to reform religion to make it compatible with a modern world view, retaining the value of social cohesion and making it available to those who cannot hack the baggage of outdated supernatural error.


RT



Last edited by Robert Tulip on Sun Apr 05, 2009 1:02 am, edited 2 times in total.



Sat Apr 04, 2009 4:20 pm
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Dr. King was an ordained minsiter, working pastor and Doctor of Systematic Theology within the Christian faith tradition...hardly side issues or minor interests in his life...he was a founding and leading member of the Southern Leadership Christian Conference- the integral organizational movement behind his Civil Rights efforts...he was profoundly influenced by Ghandi's satyagraha practice of non-violent civil disobedience (the spiritual notion of 'love-force' or 'soul-force')...his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was written as one disciple of Christ and ordained minister to those many others who disagreed with his Civil Rights efforts- and in that text he offers theological, scriptural and moral reasoning for his efforts that, as he argues, reflect how a child of God must act to injustice...his most influential speeches were full of scriptural reference and metaphor, biblical analogy, moral reasoning and theological reflections...he performed hundreds of sermons in hundreds of churches all across the southern states and many prominent northern locations as well- in these oratorical performances he linked current civil rights efforts to the liberation of Israel out of Egypt, as well as the resurrected Jesus following the cross of imperial Rome...he wrote thousands of letters where he explains his theological reasoning and biblical understanding of his personal mission, the meaning of the civil rights movement for the USA and the world and the destiny of humanity......



Sat Apr 04, 2009 5:43 pm
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Dissident Heart: of course MLK's religion was not a side issue for him. The question is whether he would have been a good person if he had been raised in some other context. Just speculation of course, but I suspect that if he had been raised in a Buddhist household he would have still gotten up against social injustice but his speeches would have used different metaphors and phrasing.

Do you disagree?


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Sat Apr 04, 2009 9:44 pm
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Robert Tulip wrote:
Bill, this intuitive suggestion cuts against the argument from Messrs Dawkins and Hitchens that religion is a form of child abuse. The point is that belonging to a group with a sense of shared identity creates a sense of meaning and direction in life, with opportunities for networking, meeting good role models and mentors, and learning lessons. The absence of such group identity, in the solipsistic atomism of the modern world, produces an anomie and isolated detachment where values can easily become arbitrary, delinquent and distorted.

I think CH answers his question by saying, in effect, that religion can be child abuse. I would agree that his examples are apt. We get to the problem again, though, of whether CH is blanketing religion with this judgment. I don't think he is. I don't think he'd say that my bringing my children to a Presbyterian Sunday school 15 years ago constituted child abuse. But if he did, I'd have to disagree, and I think not just out of defensiveness. That was quite a mild indoctrination they received. Today, one daughter stills goes to church occasionally and seems to have some feeling toward religion. I am certainly not disappointed in this. The younger daughter never became a church member and says she doesn't believe. I am not disappointed in her, either.

It's as obvious to me as it is to you, Robert, that in this era of "Bowling Alone" (the book by Robert Putnam), any means that may increase our social connectedness are not to be slighted. One natural advantage religion has is its ability to bind people into a community (this is perhaps identical to one of its dangers as well). When Barack Obama arrived in Chicago as a community organizer, virtually the only handle he could get on the community was through the neighborhood churches. The point is often made that it is not religion per se that is responsible for the benefits provided by churches. Secular organizations can produce the same social and individual benefits. True, but if religion is an attractor, that is not a bad thing.

One thing I believe strongly regarding children: you can't just subtract religion due to its problematic aspects and expect children to get what they need "naturally." You certainly can't look to the culture to teach the children. That could be disastrous. If religion is far less than perfect, the culture at large is worse still.
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RD and CH make the best the enemy of the good by setting the social value of religion so far below its epistemic accuracy.

I don't see them saying this directly, but this is probably a fair inference. It would be a good point to raise with the author (CH).



Sat Apr 04, 2009 9:45 pm
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