Thursday, February 13, 2014

Religion: The slippery-slope argument

A long-time UOJ reader sent this in:

I have noticed a trend in several atheistic books and documentaries, notably Root of all Evil and Religulous, where religion is portrayed as being dangerous because every practitioner of religion is part of the entire body that has at the extreme end a violent tendency. This is a slippery-slope argument, and I have come to be generally very skeptical of such arguments applied to other subject matters. Violent video games do not lead to violent behavior, gay marriage does not lead to the breakdown of the family, and universal health care does not lead to socialism. I would submit that religious behavior does not lead necessarily to violence.

There are many instances that can be cited where religious people performed violent acts in the name of religion. The crusades, witch hunts, 9/11, jihads, ethnic cleansing, etc. However, we could also point to the destructive behavior of Stalin, who was not religious, as an example where violence came from a non-religious source. When reviewed carefully, I think that the majority of violent acts can be traced to a non-religious source, but often have religion as a front. It is an easy way to cover bigoted behavior and backwards ideals. Racism, homophobia, and chauvinism can easily exist outside of religion, but if you say "gay people shouldn't marry because it makes me uncomfortable and scared," you have no argument. If you say "gay people shouldn't marry because my religion is against it," you are able to accomplish what you want.

I am contending that religion acts as a smokescreen for what people think, or perhaps as a capsule that allows a large number of ideas to be transmitted in a short period of time. I do not, however, think that religion is always bad. While many bad ideas are transmitted, I don't see how it is any different than patriotism or clannish ideas. There are many good aspects to religion. While there are awful acts that have happened in the name of god, there are also humanitarian acts that would not have happened if the believers had not believed. In many places, the church serves as a community center that allows people in an area to stay connected. In rural areas, the only source of entertainment is often the church. Activities like Vacation Bible School allow kids to use their imaginations and envision that they are in a far away place that they may never get to visit in reality.

To say that a person is enabling violence by being part of a religion that has fundamentalist extremists is small minded. This slippery-slope argument has no merit. Religion attracts a large number of people of varying levels of intelligence. If someone uses religion to cover for xenophobia or nationalism and bring a group together in a violent way, this does not equate to religion being the source of violence.

And to clarify, I am not a very religious person. I just don't think it is right for skeptical people to be advocating such a ridiculous argument. I wouldn't mind if religion disappeared, but I would like to be arguing from a reason that makes sense.

The Counter-Argument:

The argument is more like this-- if you believe that faith is the key to salvation, then you are willing to do anything that anyone can convince you god wants you to do in order to earn that salvation.

There is no way to tell a real god's directive from a fake one-- all religions think they have "the divine truth"--the infallible leader-- the right interpretation of the write text or teachings.

Atheism is just a lack of belief in gods. It is the same as a lack of belief in Scientology or a lack of belief in demons or reincarnation or astrology. People who lack these beliefs might have beliefs that influence them, but people are not driven by the myriad of superstitions they do not believe in.

Atheists cannot be made to do things they normally wouldn't do to "prove their faith" to a supposed "divine entity". Doing what you wouldn't normally do is truly the only way you can "prove" you have faith, right? They might be coerced into doing bad things -- but nothing motivates quite like the belief that your eternity depends on you doing so.

If religion was show to positively affect morality or to keep people from doing cruel things, then perhaps it would be "dangerous" not to have it -- but this has not been demonstrated to be the case... and secular democracies are repeatedly shown to be healthier and more functional than their religious counterparts.

Religion tends to encourage a kind of primitive magical thinking, where liars are seen as holders of "higher truths" and science is denigrated as not being privy to such due to "arrogance".

And if faith is good and the "key to salvation", then extreme faith is better -- an insurance policy! It's too bad that people don't agree on what god wants. Plus, to see faith as something good or a "gift", you must find fault with those who lack it -- even if you have to make stuff up to confirm your biases. The faithful must ever be spinning so that they don't realize that their faith is as questionable as all those other faiths they dismiss.

Either there are divine truths or there are not.

 Those who imagine themselves having them have quite the vested interest in keeping this delusion alive -- and it requires a society-wide deference towards faith. If all faiths were as private as they wished Scientologists to be, then I don't think anyone would care what magical things people believe in.