In a recent discussion about religion, someone told me that I had to be fair and consider all the good that religion does along with the bad, far from the first time I’ve heard this directive. It sounds innocent, and in fact, praiseworthy on the face of it, but it’s almost offensive in its nature; it all depends on the circumstances, and is a great example of the kind of manipulation that often takes place in such discussions.
If my doctor cures me of an illness, that’s good, right? If my auto mechanic fixes my car, that’s a point in his favor, correct? Well, yes and no – this is what they’re both supposed to do, and in fact, carefully certified and charging money to accomplish, so it’s not exactly a moral thing, but a contractual exchange, and an expression of competence in a chosen field. One must ask what a minimum standard is in such circumstances, and if someone should be considered noteworthy for simply meeting this.
But okay. Let’s say my doctor gives a great deal of money to charity, and donates a lot of her services to underdeveloped countries. That’s good, I think we can agree. But then it’s discovered that she has been dismembering orphans in her basement, without even a permit, and selling the bones for voodoo rituals. That’s… not so good. So if she is nominated for the Humanitarian of the Year award, it’s predictable that a lot of people are going to get upset. The distinctive difference, one that many people cannot grasp, is that actions can be beneficial or detrimental by themselves, but if we want to pass judgment on an individual, organization, or ideology, we consider the collected actions as a whole.
Now, ostensibly, this is exactly what I was asked to do – but again, the context comes into play, and the context was not for the objective evaluation of religion, but that religion was actually a beneficial thing, a force for good. If the Red Cross was found to be setting puppies on fire during each meeting, it would pretty much cease to exist; their donations would dry up overnight, even if the puppy ritual did not negatively impact their aid services in the slightest. People would reason that their donations were, even peripherally, lending some kind of support or approval to the barbecue, and that they could certainly find some method of providing aid that did not involve animal abuse. They see the value in supporting the beneficial actions, not the organization, recognizing that it is trivially easy to have the good stuff without any bad stuff.
Every country has laws, and to the best of my knowledge, not one has any form of law that requires considering how many good things a person does to determine whether a law was actually broken. When a drunk driver kills a child, the judge does not ask if the driver is a dog-lover, or used to be in the Peace Corps. Priests do not get one free murder. While it’s true that, on occasion, the sentence reflects some effort on the part of the convicted to offset their crime (e.g., community service or ‘good behavior,’) this is, by and large, an aspect of appropriate punishment, not an admission that what they did was not bad. In the true sense of the ‘scales of justice,’ the crime and the sentence are intended to balance out, leaving a neutral result. Anyone can argue that juries may be swayed by the good actions of the accused, and this is true – they’re also swayed by the bad actions such as criminal history, and typically use the information to determine not the nature of the crime, but the intent and/or social fitness of the accused. It is also worth noting that very few people think so much of our legal system that they actually consider former criminals to be ‘neutral’ after the sentence is completed; the laws regarding registered sex offenders make this starkly clear. Life sentences and the death penalty assume by their nature that there is no method that the accused can possibly balance back to neutral.
But even if one were to believe that religion should be judged on how the scales actually tip, we’re faced with the question of how, exactly, one should measure this. Let’s take a simple thing like the catholic church’s disinformation campaign against condoms, provoking an AIDS epidemic in several African countries. What is an effective offset to this, just to bring the scales back to zero (much less gain a positive weight)? Day care centers? Food drives? Couples counseling? Ignoring that all of these are often cheap ploys to preach to a captive and vulnerable audience, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that killing people in the name of arbitrary interpretations of scripture is going to require more than all of those combined.
Even this is misdirection, however. The direct answer to this whole fairness issue is, don’t fucking do the bad shit in the first place. It’s really that simple, and it’s incredible that I would have to point this out. The vast majority of nonprofit organizations devoted to providing assistance are hugely ahead of any religion because they follow this minor dictum, having nothing that needs to be offset in the first place. If you want to be fair.
And then there’s some of the considerations that spring up with just a little more objective examination. The bare fact that ideologies which routinely promote the ‘life is sacred’ concept have so frequently been found causing death is nothing short of enormous hypocrisy. It is well known that the Spanish Inquisitors tortured their victims with bludgeoning, crushing, and burning because they were forbidden to draw blood. Instead of guidance by the moral compass of the church, we see the avoidance of damnation with loopholes – god should have thought that one through better…
[It does not matter whether any proposed god accepts the dodge or not – religion is what people do in the name of god, its entire point of existence, and the priests themselves obviously weren’t too motivated towards charity and upstanding character.]
Let’s consider the argument that most of the actions to be weighed were undertaken with the belief that they were good in the first place – regardless of who was killed, tortured, beaten, robbed, banished, vanquished, persecuted, or otherwise disadvantaged. I’m silly; I tend to define ‘good’ as being beneficial to all involved, and not just a new way of describing self-importance and arrogance, so I’m not going to allow this defense in the slightest – ignorance of basic moral standards is no excuse from anyone, but especially not to specifically qualify religion as ‘good.’ It’s worth noting that every person who demanded that I consider the good with the bad had to have understood this perspective as well, otherwise the demand makes no sense, so using this argument to excuse those actions is self-contradictory.
Authority is not synonymous with good – there are millions of events throughout history that attest to this. This distinction is lost far too often, however, as people believe that following the strictures of their chosen authority is good, solely because not following them is bad – a peculiar binary approach ignorant of the idea that this is a minimum standard; if anyone was good for obeying traffic laws, that’s setting the bar rather low on judging value, isn’t it? It becomes even lower when someone chooses their own authority, not just from the religion they prefer to follow from among several to hundreds, but also in the selectivity of what scripture they have decided to embrace. While millions of people in this country crusade for adherence to god’s proclamations regarding homosexuality, campaigning for laws restricting marriage, they remain blissfully unconcerned about the proclamations against trimming hair, tattoos, coveting, and so on. What we see is not concern over actions of benefit, or even the bare recognition that laws are for protection and not discrimination, but just going with the flow; someone told them this was good and important, and away they are swept. The scripture serves only to justify it, not providing any real guidance. This is, in fact, the primary way that religion has been practiced throughout the vast majority of its recorded existence.
What results is the exact opposite of a moral compass, the abdication of any standard or even definition of ‘good’ in lieu of wielding divine authority, or just listening to the majority, which appears in abundance outside of religion as well. Unfortunately, the fact that western cultures no longer participate in witch hunts is probably not because we determined that witchcraft was never demonstrated; it is likely only because no religious authority has insisted recently that it needs to be done. The bombing of abortion clinics and the murder of doctors working therein does not come from any scriptural guidance, since the only relevant passages prohibit such actions (not to mention the underlying penance structure would make such actions pointless anyway.) People can easily be provoked towards extreme actions, however, when they abandon their own judgment in the belief that they shouldn’t be using it in the first place.
And finally, there’s the idea that without religion, we would all be horribly bad anyway. While this idea is promoted by religions the world over in such a modest and self-effacing way (imagine that,) it is incredibly naïve, bordering on the irredeemably ignorant. We hardly need religions to tell us what’s bad, any more than we need someone telling us not to eat decayed animals, or that we should take care of our babies. I have yet to come across any scriptural prohibitions against pouring acid in my eyes, so that’s okay, right? Seriously, how fucking stupid are humans assumed to be with this idea? But even without the conclusion that can be reached through twelve whole seconds of thought, we still have extensive studies in sociology, psychology, and even biology that show not only the inherent nature of our moral drive, they demonstrate that several other species possess their own versions of these, despite the fact that scripture has yet to be translated into chimpanzee or rat. You’ll pardon me if, every time someone tells me we can’t be good without religion, I strongly recommend that they be safely housed in a padded cell, solely on the basis of terminal gullibility. Naturally, their access to infomercials should be completely restricted…
I like to think that I make the effort to be fair. I don’t judge people as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ knowing that everyone is capable of both kinds of actions; by extension, this means that violence is far better linked to human nature than any one underlying cause. But religions are widely, repeatedly claimed to temper this – it is, in fact, the most prominent trait named for any of them, the biggest reason why everyone is supposed to hold faith in esteem. Yet the religious, by a vast margin, cannot recognize nor account for the countless reprehensible acts fostered solely by their faiths throughout history; I would have thought fairness would involve that as well, rather than perpetually trumpeting their piety to one and all.
But if religion really is a force for good, then there should be little, if anything, to weigh against this, much less a laundry list of persecution and murder. And if a supreme beneficent being really is the inspiration or guiding force, then bad acts just simply should not ever be able to happen, period. Any and every excuse wielded to try and explain why these still occur only serves to reinforce how little religion really is tied to any superior power, despite the vast philosophical efforts that have been expended to try and rescue this paradox. The most common answer to this is, “We can’t know the mind of god,” which logically means that no actions can or should be taken in service to such. No religious person ever manages to get that out of it, however. Isn’t that odd.
More to the point, it’s ridiculous to weigh good against bad to try and salvage a belief system, or to force it into a binary good/bad state – that’s doing a huge disservice to our intelligence in the first place. There is no reason to bring religion into it at all. Do good; don’t do bad. No other baggage is necessary. Anyone that is concerned about how their religion is viewed is trying to gain a ‘good’ status without actually bothering to do anything good… and what should we conclude from that?