After choosing to believe in God for personal reasons, I had interesting conversations with people who passionately oppose religion and faith. Their main argument is, of course, the lack of evidence for God which I’m going to address separately. The other argument which is hard to dismiss is that religion causes harm because it makes humans love their illusions more than their fellow humans. They quote the passage from the Bible where Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac as an epitome of depravity and blind obedience to an immoral authority which is praised as an exemplary behavior of a believer in Abrahamic religions. I might admit that this passage raises eyebrows at first. I don’t think that this passage has an unequivocal interpretation, just as the other passages from the Bible. It raises questions about authority, obedience, faith, and how we balance self-interest with what we perceive as our duty. And, I believe, raising these questions is the purpose of this passage.
The argument goes on to present the history of religious wars, inquisition, witch-burning, hindering scientific progress (Galileo, Jordano Bruno), antisemitism (ultimately leading to Holocaust), child neglect and abuse, terrorism, persecution of homosexuals, honor killings, oppression of women, condoning slavery… Did I forget anything? The “evidence” seems overwhelming and reading about all this stuff can get nauseating. It seems like a very powerful argument. But its power is not based on reason. This argument seems powerful because it is loaded with graphical images of violence causing intense emotional response in people which leads to a huge confirmation bias. The evidence that this violence may not have been caused by religion is simply ignored or dismissed.
The first reaction of a believer presented with these historic facts is to say that these atrocities were not committed by “true” Christians, Muslims, etc. because these religions promote peace and quiet. That, of course is a “No True Scotsman” fallacy. I’m not going to indulge in it here. The second impulse is to bring examples of violence caused by secular atheistic regimes. This is dismissed by the notion that secular violence is not caused by atheism. OK. Great. Why then religious violence must be caused by religion? “Because the very people committing these acts of violence quote their religion as the reason.” Yes. But isn’t it a bit naive to trust what people say to justify their actions?
So, how do we determine whether religious beliefs cause harm? This calls to examine what constitutes a cause-effect relationship. Research of causality can lead us into the deep jungle of metaphysics. I would limit my humble analysis to a couple passages from David Hume.
The idea of cause and effect is derived from experience, which presenting us with certain objects constantly conjoined with each other, produces such a habit of surveying them in that relation, that we cannot without a sensible violence survey them in any other. — David Hume “A Treatise of Human Nature”
So, cause and effect is just a special kind of connection between events. According to Hume, it is characterized by 8 attributes:
Since therefore it is possible for all objects to become causes or effects to each other, it may be proper to fix some general rules, by which we may know when they really are so.
(1) The cause and effect must be contiguous in space and time.
(2) The cause must be prior to the effect.
These two items are easy to understand. Events must be close in space and time to be called “cause” and “effect”, and we can never say that an event which happened later in time caused an event that happened earlier.
(3) There must be a constant union betwixt the cause and effect. It is chiefly this quality, that constitutes the relation.
(4) The same cause always produces the same effect, and the same effect never arises but from the same cause. This principle we derive from experience, and is the source of most of our philosophical reasonings. For when by any clear experiment we have discovered the causes or effects of any phaenomenon, we immediately extend our observation to every phenomenon of the same kind, without waiting for that constant repetition, from which the first idea of this relation is derived.
This is where the apparent cause-effect relationship between religion and harm starts to fall apart. According to (3), religious beliefs must always cause harm to be called a “cause” of the harm. It’s fairly clear that not all believers are genocidal. According to (4), if genocide and other atrocities are caused by religion, we would not have any examples of genocide in the absence of religious beliefs. This, is also not the case because there are plenty of examples of atrocities caused by secular governments and atheists. I think, this is the key point which breaks the cause-effect relationship between religion and atrocities associated with it.
(5) There is another principle, which hangs upon this, viz. that where several different objects produce the same effect, it must be by means of some quality, which we discover to be common amongst them. For as like effects imply like causes, we must always ascribe the causation to the circumstance, wherein we discover the resemblance.
This principle implies that if genocide and other atrocities are produced by both, religious and secular beliefs, there must be some common quality between these beliefs that leads to atrocities. Religion, as a whole, is more than just belief in a deity. It contains so many beliefs and ideas that it would take volumes to describe them. There are ideas regarding ethics, authority, suffering, obedience, love, punishment, sin, heaven, hell. Saying that all of them cause harm is as silly as saying that atheism caused Stalin’s repressions. I don’t understand why people who call themselves rational would throw all religious beliefs and even all religions into one mental bucket and proceed to stereotyping all believers. That’s an epitome of the lack of analytic reasoning ability.
(6) The following principle is founded on the same reason. The difference in the effects of two resembling objects must proceed from that particular, in which they differ. For as like causes always produce like effects, when in any instance we find our expectation to be disappointed, we must conclude that this irregularity proceeds from some difference in the causes.
(6) implies that when religion leads to atrocities in some cases and acts of selfless altruism in other cases, there must be some difference in religious beliefs between these cases.
(7) When any object encreases or diminishes with the encrease or diminution of its cause, it is to be regarded as a compounded effect, derived from the union of the several different effects, which arise from the several different parts of the cause. The absence or presence of one part of the cause is here supposed to be always attended with the absence or presence of a proportionable part of the effect. This constant conjunction sufficiently proves, that the one part is the cause of the other. We must, however, beware not to draw such a conclusion from a few experiments. A certain degree of heat gives pleasure; if you diminish that heat, the pleasure diminishes; but it does not follow, that if you augment it beyond a certain degree, the pleasure will likewise augment; for we find that it degenerates into pain.
(7) does not seem to be relevant here because I can’t think how we can measure the magnitude of atrocities or the “amount” of religious belief.
(8) The eighth and last rule I shall take notice of is, that an object, which exists for any time in its full perfection without any effect, is not the sole cause of that effect, but requires to be assisted by some other principle, which may forward its influence and operation. For as like effects necessarily follow from like causes, and in a contiguous time and place, their separation for a moment shews, that these causes are not compleat ones.
For example, we know that heat is needed to produce fire. But heat alone is not sufficient. We also need fuel and oxygen. This implies that causes can be complex. We might need to consider a combination of religious and non-religious beliefs to arrive at the cause of atrocities.