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July 17, 2007


Richard Dell

You may also be aware of Freeman Dyson's comment on Weinberg's remark:

'Weinberg's statement is true as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth. To make it the whole truth, we must add an additional clause: "And for bad people to do good things—that takes religion." The main point of Christianity is that it is a religion for sinners. Jesus made that very clear. When the Pharisees asked his disciples, "Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?" he said, "I come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance." Only a small fraction of sinners repent and do good things, but only a small fraction of good people are led by their religion to do bad things.'

So we have neither a sufficient sample to prove the assertion either way, nor a religion free society to take as a control. Of the Christians I have known in Britain, I would say that their faith has stimulated mainly good deeds and kindness, and that on balance Christianity in its present form in the West is a force for good. Of Islam, I am afraid I must argee with Winston Churchill: "No stronger retrograde force exists in the world.". The state of Christendom and the state of Islamia would seem to support such an assessment.


"...those who claim religion as a motivating factor in their good deeds would generally speaking be good people anyway."

I always have trouble with this line of thought. There really is no evidence in favor of it, and as you say elsewhere, "how could you get evidence?" Most people who say this are thinking of individuals in a generally Judeo-Christian-Hindu society.

Imagine a society that has no concept of a higher being before whom we are all brothers. If one slaps another, would anyone say, "you must turn the other cheek"? It doesn't seem that way to me.

The error is similar to the inoculation error: "I do not need an inoculation; I will not get sick anyway." Well, yes, but only if most other people do get inoculated. I don't need God, but I'm glad other people do.

Sometimes it seems to me that religion -- the part of it that explains creation -- is a complete superstition, but the other part of it -- the part that makes us children of a higher father -- is needed for civilization. (Well, okay, I'm thinking of certain religions.)


There are two problems I see in Grayling's approach to religion. The first is a possible implication in his argument. He sometimes gives the impression that religion is a uniquely evil force, and the history of the twentieth century certainly shows that dogmatic belief in secular ideologies (communism, fascism, etc.) can be just as bad. I don't think he'd disagree, but I can see how he might be misconstrued. The second is that he sometimes seems to think that religion should be actively suppressed. I couldn't find the essay online, but Grayling once wrote that secularists should be protected from religious proselytizers, presumably by the government, which would be an abridgement of free speech.

I agree with Norm that religious believers should not be gratuitously ridiculed or insulted, as there certainly are religious people that have been motivated by their beliefs to do good things. But the beliefs themselves, especially where the religious try to impose them on others (as they often do in Texas, where I live), are fair game.


The blatent obvious fact is that the modern liberal culture the west enjoys that allows people to think freely and criticise in the way Dawkins, et al do, was itself a product of an enlightened Judeo-Christian movement.

The basic religious premise of "do unto others as you would have them do to you" is the basis from which we progress to functional liberalism, i.e. a liberal culture that works, where this is enshrined in law and enforced by government.

The "God Delusion" may be a manic mode of thinking, but it got us from barbarism into modern liberalism.

The idea that liberal culture can spontaniously pop into existance is ludicrious, to not acknowledge that even the bloody past of Christianity was probably necessary in order to progress to a more enlightened society is ignoring historic fact, most of the founders of modern liberal thinking were also deeply religious.

I agree with Dom, people who criticise Christianity are actually grateful that it exists in the first place, and glad someone else practises it.


"Judeo-Christian movement": I don't think it was. Judaism seems to have played very little part in W European culture until after the Enlightenment, and Cromwell before that I suppose, made it possible for Jews to take part properly, and even then I'm not clear that Judaism itself mattered much. (Perhaps Iberia is an exception? But how much did it influence the places that mattered - Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Britain?) So unless the expression is meant just to remind everyone that Christianity had a Jewish origin - which seems pretty unnecessary - it's rather misleading I think. Perhaps it's really just serving as some sort of courtesy to Jews- c'm'n chaps, you're part of the club too now. But I'm open to correction.




"I suspect (without any evidence - how could you get evidence?) that those who claim religion as a motivating factor in their good deeds would generally speaking be good people anyway".

Well, in Mandy's time-honoured words, you would, wouldn't you?

So even when individuals specifically ascribe their altruistic acts to their religious beliefs and, more importantly, link a change away from selfishness and towards altruism to religion, they are talking through their hats? Because it doesn't suit your beliefs?

But when people act in what can only be described as an evil manner because of their self-proclaimed religious beliefs, then they should absolutely be taken at their word?

Having it and eating it should be the headline to this post.

Mick H

Ian - I don't doubt there's a lot of truth in your argument that Judeo-Christian - or Christian - culture laid the foundations for our modern liberal culture. Of course it did. That doesn't mean we should never question it. Astrology and alchemy laid the foundations for modern science, but we've come a long way since then.


Mick, but don't you see that the very idea of "questioning" instead of "submission" marks the major difference in Christianity (and to a much lesser extent in Judaism), right from the teachings of Jesus, which is why he had a beef with the ruling theocrats in the first place.

The age of enlightenment, from which we began in our quest for scientific knowledge, was because Christians questioned the current situation and re-evaluated the world, it wasn't some bunch of atheist God-worrier proto-Dawkins suddenly springing up and dumping religion wholesale.

The whole issue of questioning, from even great devoutely Christian scientists, was a part of it, but questioning came _from_ this modern view of Christianity, and, in my opinion, also _because_ of Christianity and the way Christianity is, because of its root teachings.

Yes, we've come a long way since, but it wasn't Zoroastrianism, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism that started it all, it was Chistianity, so dumping all religions together under a "God delusion" is rather evading the facts, that being able to question the religion in the first place has a certain uniqueness within only a select few of them.

I'm desperately trying not to big up Christianity here, but unfortunately its a historical fact. Criticising religion wholesale is easy, that's why Dawkins et al do it, and they do it in Christian societies where they wont get their heads chopped off for doing so, which kind of answers against their argument that all religions are the same (being evil and destructive, etc), don't you think ?

Mick H

Are you suggesting that Dawkins et al should cease their criticism of religion on the grounds that they should be grateful they don't get their heads chopped off?

Yes, yes, all this stuff about the role of Christianity in Western civilisation is all well and good, but we're here now, post-enlightenment, post-Darwin. If it is, as Dawkins says, finally intellectually possible to argue the case for atheism, if you don't actually believe in God, heaven, hell, the resurrection, the Holy Spirit, all the rest of it, what are you going to do? Keep quiet? No - you argue your case. And it is, of course, only recently that you could argue that case without ending up if not dead, at least ostracised.

And let's not kid ourselves that the history of Christianity is one long sunny morning, leading happily to our present shiny liberalism. It's been a struggle. Even if we restrict ourselves to relatively modern times, you only have to read, say, James Joyce to appreciate how countless young minds have been poisoned by visions of hellfire. To say nothing of the Pope's interesting ideas on contraception...

It's a debate. Why can't people write books criticising religions? No one's suggesting religions should be banned. After centuries of religious monopoly over education, it's good to see some robust alternatives.

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