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More on Religion and Harm

Russell Powell has recently written here about the ‘New Atheism’ debate, the controversy over the scathing attack that Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other atheists have recently launched against religious belief. I want to add a few remarks of my own about one of the most controversial claims that is associated with these ‘new atheists’, the claim that religion is harmful or dangerous in some deep way—and in particular the accusation that it is the source of much conflict and violence in the world. 

Defenders of religion have been especially incensed by this accusation. Now if the claim is simply that all religious belief, of whatever kind, will inevitably cause harm in all imaginable contexts, then it’s clearly a silly claim. Once we set this exaggerated claim aside, I think we’ll discover there is a lot less disagreement between the ‘new atheists’ and many of their opponents. These defenders of religion don’t deny the plain fact that there exist many religious believers who engage in violent acts which they try to justify in religious terms. But they complain that this is hardly the only form that religious belief can take. They typically point out to their own, more enlightened and liberal understanding of religion. They argue that it’s only religious belief can lead to conflict only when it is held fanatically.

No doubt there will be further disagreement about what would count as an enlightened form of religious belief, and just how wide spread it is. But both sides would agree that there are plenty of believers out there who are not enlightened in this way. What are we to do about such believers? This is a hard question. One objection often made against the new atheists is that their approach is counterproductive. Their unqualified attack on religion in all forms would push people further towards fundamentalism, and obscure the possibility of a more enlightened faith. This criticism may well be right, though it is ultimately an empirical question. For all we know, vigorous criticism of religion might undermine fundamentalism in the long term. Or it might make no difference at all. We don’t really know.

But some defenders of religion want to go further. They want to deny that it’s religious that is harmful even in these cases. They admit that these individuals are religious, but insist that what motivates their violence are really various other motives and beliefs: political agendas and grievances, self-interest, and so forth. Some of these people appeal to their religious beliefs to justify their violent acts, but these are just post hoc excuses. Religion is just a cover, not the cause. 

How do they know that these violent acts are not genuinely motivated by religious belief? Sometimes these defenders of religion seem to argue that religious belief couldn’t be the real cause, because the religious justifications offered for these violent acts are distortions of religion. True religion, it is said, can’t justify such violence, therefore such violence cannot be blamed on religion. This is a bad argument. We are asking now whether people’s religious beliefs play an important causal role in generating some violent acts. We’re not asking whether these beliefs are true (or even: good enough interpretations of some religious text or doctrine). The claim in question isn’t that true religious beliefs are harmful (the new atheists don’t think any religious beliefs are true!) but that religious beliefs are. 
Better grounds for this suggestion would start from point that religious violence is the product of particular political and cultural contexts which provide a range of further (and at least partly independent) political and other motivations for the violence. This point is no doubt often true, but it is not sufficient. A violent act can have more than a single cause, and this background is compatible with the thought that these political motivations wouldn’t have been sufficient on their own to lead to the violence, or to violence of such intensity. 

What the defenders of religion need to show is that religious belief plays no interesting role in generating the violence—that it is purely epiphenomenal. This would be hard to do. But perhaps, on second thought, defenders of religion really shouldn’t want this to be the case. After all, another common complaint they have against the new atheists is that they overlook the many positive benefits that are due to religious belief, that they focus only on religion’s dark side. But it seems utterly unlikely that whenever religious belief seems to be associated with some negative consequence, it is really merely epiphenomenal, whereas whenever it seems to be associated with some positive consequence, it is the real driving force. So in the end this argument risks showing the religious belief isn’t dangerous or harmful simply because religious belief is generally inert—because it makes no real difference to people’s lives, for either better or worse. Not a conclusion that defenders of religion are likely to welcome—not even to score points off Richard Dawkins.
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