It bothers me that this writeup has existed for three years without a rebuttal, because in all likelihood, at least one person has read it and believed that what was contained within it was fact. It's not. It's an attack on religion, rife with fallacies of logic, factual inaccuracies, and outright lies, using as a major source a person who, despite his work in logic and reason, made no effort to apply logic or reason to his musings on religion. This essay serves first and foremost to point out everything that is wrong with the original write-up, and second, to argue that religion is, in fact, very much benign.
As a disclaimer, I should disclose that I am a non-practicing member of the Roman Catholic Church, the world's largest church, and although I am not active in the Church, and disagree with a lot of its teachings, it bothers me when people make statements about it which are misleading or untrue. For the remainder of this essay, the Roman Catholic Church will be referred to as the RCC or simply "the Church". Bible passages will be taken from the King James Version. And for the record, the Church is not a fundamentalist Christian organization, and does not believe in a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible (two statements which are implied in the essay).
Religion - What Exactly Are We Talking About?
To be blunt, the "Judeo-Christian faith" does not exist any more than "American food" does. One can discuss American food, but that discussion will be a wide, sweeping one and statements made about some Americans will not apply to other Americans. Likewise when talking about this "Judeo-Christian faith", it's very difficult to make any sort of concrete statement, because Judeo-Christianity consists of such diverse beliefs as to make any summary judgment impossible. To wit, the "Judeo-Christian faith" would include:
It's In The Bible, That's What We Believe
The author posits a scenario, whereby a group of conservative Christians lobby the state legislature to outlaw same-sex marriages, and when they succeed, rejoice in the positive effect of religion. This is done, presumably, because they have Leviticus 18:22 in mind, which states:
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
Is this passage the reason they are lobbying against same sex marriages? Because it is an abomination against God? If so, they should lobby against allowing women to wear men's clothing, which, according to Deuteronomy 22:5, is also an abomination as well:
The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.
And would those same people be so adamant about lobbying the state legislature to change the punishment for rape to that recommended by Deuteronomy 22:28-29?
If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.
The reason why these hypothetical Christians do not lobby the legislature with regards to these issues is because the Bible really has nothing to do with the social change they are trying to enact. Oh, they might say that homosexuality is a sin because it's in the Bible, but that's not the real reason for their actions. They're lobbying for one of two reasons. One: they've put some thought into it, and they've decided that there's some aspect of homosexuality that they don't like. This is somewhat likely, but what's even more likely is the second reason: they've been told that homosexuality is wrong by someone they consider to be an authority, and haven't really put a whole lot of thought into it.
Here's some more food for thought. There is a short story by Ursula K. LeGuin entitled, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas". To summarize the story, there exists a city, Omelas, which is essentially paradise. However, in order for this paradise to exist, one small child lives in misery underneath the city, and everyone must know about it. Every so often, says LeGuin, the plight of this child causes someone to walk away from Omelas, and though "the place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness .... they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."
It's a morality tale. The citizens of Omelas know all about the plight of the child, yet they do not feel guilt. For most, the morality of this fictional world is entirely different than our own, and we're meant to sympathize with those who leave Omelas, presumably because their moral code is more in line with our own.
The question I'm leaning towards is this: even if religion guides the morality of a person or persons, who are you to claim that they are morally corrupt? While you and I and people like us may believe that homosexuals deserve the same rights in marriage as heterosexuals, morality is entirely subjective. Just because you or I find something morally reprehensible doesn't mean that everyone else does, so when this fictional group of conservative Christians celebrate the positive effect of religion, the fact that we disagree with their moral stand doesn't mean that their moral stand is invalid.
Religion And Sex
Not only is this argument wrong, but Bertrand Russell was either ignorant of Christianity or purposefully misrepresented it to make his point. Either way, he comes off sounding like an ass.
The Church has never been against sex. In fact, quite the opposite. Genesis 1:28 says "And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply". The Church wants you to have sex, as often as possible. But there's a catch. In the Church's eyes, the purpose of sex is twofold: unitive and procreative. It serves to spiritually unite a married man and woman, and to bring forth children onto the Earth. This is also why the Church argues against pre-marital/extra-marital sex and contraception. Sex outside of the marital union is, by definition, non-unitive. And sex while using contraception, is again, by definition, non-procreative. It should be fairly clear the reasons why the RCC has a negative opinion of things like masturbation, homosexual sex, and pornography.
Before addressing Russell's asinine statements, there are two passages that warrant mentioning:
"Homosexual persons are encompassed by the searching love of Christ. The church must turn from its fear and hatred to move toward the homosexual community in love and to welcome homosexual inquirers to its congregations. It should free them to be candid about their identity and convictions, and it should also share honestly and humbly with them in seeking the vision of God's intention for the sexual dimensions of their lives"
"The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition."
The first passage is from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a Protestant denomination with 2.4 million members. The second passage is from the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, the document which outlines the Church's official doctrine. This paragraph, along with other passages in the Catechism, explains in quite pointed words, and in no uncertain terms, that the Church believes homosexuality to be sin, but that at the same time, the sinner is not the sin, and should be afforded the same respect afforded to all of God's creatures.
Bertrand Russell would have you believe differently. "Christians .... hold it good that sinners should be punished. They hold this so good that they are even willing that punishment should extend to the wives and children of sinners." Anyone who believes this has a fundamental misunderstanding of what Christians are taught to believe. It is not up to the individual to punish the sinner, for who among us knows God's will? One of the more famous "Bible stories", told in John 8, bears this out. Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives, where an adulterer is brought before him, and the Pharisees ask Jesus what to do with her. Jesus replies "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." What happens?
"And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst."
No... thinking it good that another man suffers, and not only another man, but his family as well... is not Christianity.
In addition to Bertrand's misguided thoughts on suffering, the inclusion of Psalm 51 into the argument is misguided as well.
"Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me."
Presumably the author is saying that the act of copulation is the sin in Psalm 51. It's not. Psalm 51 has nothing to do with sex being dirty and evil. Psalm 51 is about asking God for forgiveness for sins. The mother is not in sin while conceiving the child... the child is in sin when he is conceived, and that sin is the Original Sin that every man is born with. And Original Sin has nothing to do with sex, either. It's the sin passed on by Adam and Eve as punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge. There are several other places where the beliefs of Christians are twisted to serve the author's argument. These will be addressed in due time.
Religion Is Bad Because Of Tragedies & Holy Wars
The essayist makes a strong case against religion by citing the number of wars that have been fought in the name of God. Civil war between Catholics and Calvinists, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the Crusades! Because these atrocities happened in the name of God, religion is bad. The bizarre and tragic fates of the Branch Dividians and Heaven's Gate prove that religion is a terrible, awful, no good, very bad thing!
Religious sects are sociopolitical entities, just like governments and corporations. Some, like the Roman Catholic Church, the United States, and Coca-Cola, are large and powerful. Here is a newsflash: large and powerful sociopolitical entities sometimes engage in abhorrent behavior. In other news: the sky is blue, water is wet, and women have secrets. If one claims that religion is evil because the Church was behind the Crusades, one must also claim that the Bill of Rights is evil because the United States dropped two nukes on Japan, and that soft drinks are evil because Coke allegedly had plant workers assassinated in South America.
As a side note, using the Branch Dividians to argue against religion is like using the Shining Path to argue against Communism.
Religion And The Poor
The author argues that Jesus says nothing about eliminating poverty, then states that Jesus told his followers to sell their possessions because it is difficult for the rich to get into heaven, adding that there would always be poor people among us. He references Luke 12:3 and Mark 14:6 to make this argument. The passages are reproduced here:
"Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops"
"And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me."
It's more than a little insulting that one would write a research paper on such a polarizing topic as religion and not even cite the Bible correctly. There are similar passages to those alluded to, none of which even remotely suggest that one should give to the poor because it's harder for the rich to get into heaven. It's certainly arguable that the rich have a more difficult path to paradise... it is, in fact, the topic of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven". Those who are "sure all that glitters is gold" may believe that by giving to charity, they can buy a stairway to heaven. But giving money to the poor in order to increase your chances of getting into heaven is just another fallacy of faith, similar to Pascal's Wager. You can't choose to believe in God and live righteously in order to secure a spot in the afterlife. You secure a spot in the afterlife by believing in God and living righteously. Similarly, you can't help the poor because you want to get into heaven... you get into heaven because you want to help the poor!
Jesus does tells his disciples, in more than one Gospel account, that there will be poor among them always. This is not really a statement with regard to whether or not Christians should seek to eliminate poverty. The words were spoken at the Last Supper, as Jesus was explaining to his disciples that while there would be poor among them always, he would not be with them always.
Religion And The Oppressed
First off, by definition women are not, nor have they ever been, minorities. Are they (or were they) a group denied rights? Denied a voice? Absolutely. And no great heap of praise should be piled upon the Roman Catholic Church for anything they did to change it. But rather than make any sort of argument about the Church's history of oppressing women, the essayist supports his statement using two formal fallacies of logic. First, the argumentum ad verecundiam, or argument by authority, quoting Bertrand Russell to "prove" the assertion. Second, some sort of bizarre induction fallacy, involving the women's suffrage movement in the United States, namely that because the prominent women involved in the women's suffrage movement in the United States were all atheist or agnostic, religion has done nothing to elevate the status of women.
Here's the counter-argument, using the same fallacy of logic.
Kate Sheppard established the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union, a religious organization that was successful in petitioning for women's suffrage in that country. Nellie McClung, suffragist and member of Canada's Famous Five, was a Methodist. Therefore, religion was a major factor in achieving equal rights for women.
The same argument can be applied to the civil rights movement in America. Rosa Parks was a lifelong member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a reverend in the Baptist Church. Malcolm X was a Sunni Muslim. These were three of the most prominent figures in the black civil rights movement. Therefore religion played a major part in blacks achieving equality in the eyes of the law.
Do you see the fallacy in this argument?
Religion And Death
If you are terminally ill, asks the author, would you rather know that you are terminally ill, so that you can live the rest of your life to the fullest and prepare for the end? Or would you rather be kept in the dark about it all? This argument assumes that we can ever know what happens after we die. We can't. An atheist can argue that all of the time a believer spends practicing religion is time wasted. A believer can argue that all of the time an athiest spends not practicing religion is time wasted. Both have equally valid points, and neither, in the course of living their lives, is wasting time. They are both happy in their pursuit. And, interestingly enough, they both have faith. The atheist has faith in his belief that there's no afterlife. The believer has faith that rewards await him after he has shed the mortal coil.
It's hard to see how this can be used as an argument for or against religion.
Secular Vs. Religious Charity
In an attempt to refute the good that the religious sects have done, the author makes reference to a number of organizations (World Council of Churches, Habitat for Humanity), and then dismisses them... IN SUCH A MANNER AS TO DESTROY THE WHOLE ARGUMENT HE WAS MAKING. The first, more logical point, is that in the absence of religion, similar charities with secular roots would have sprouted up. It's not really a point that can be argued either way, but the author does mention Oxfam as an example of a secular group to make the point. Here's where he destroys his own argument:
"But even if something is done in the name of religion, it does not necessarily follow that the work being done is a result of religion."
At the point this sentence was written, the essayist should have immediately realized that they had completely destroyed their own topic sentence. This will be returned to later, but first, a note regarding secular vs. religious charity.
Separate studies conducted by the National Institute for Drug Abuse and Northwestern University, comparing the treatment effectiveness in drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, revealed the following:
- 86.6% of religious program graduates after seven years remained drug and crime free. This is opposed to between 6 and 7 percent for secular programs
- 87.5% of religious program graduates did not need further drug treatment (90% considered themselves addicted to drugs upon entering the program)
- 92% of religious program graduates reported good to excellent health when surveyed, compared to 59% of secular graduates
I'm pointing this out not to claim that religious charities do a better job than secular charities do, because I'm sure with a little research, someone could claim exactly the opposite. What I'm saying is that to make the blanket statement that secular charities could or would easily replace religious charities is a poor statement to make.
Religion And Science
I'm going to spell this out for everyone, because people either don't understand it, or just ignore the truth because it's much more fun to believe otherwise:
The Roman Catholic Church has never been opposed to either the Theory of Evolution or the Big Bang Theory.
I really can't say it any more simply than that.
On The Danger Of Interpreting The Bible Literally
First, it should be pointed out that the Bible has been scrutinized and pored over for nearly two-thousand years, has been translated from Hebrew and Greek into whatever language you are currently reading it in, and that translation has literally dozens of different translations, many of which, if placed side-by-side, would be mistaken for completely different texts. Protestants and Catholics don't even agree on which books belong in the Bible. And yet the author of this essay has pointed to several passages in the Bible and has some, let's say, very unique interpretations of their meaning, and portrayed them as concrete.
But even worse, these passages in the Bible are pointed to as being the crux of religion's message. As though the tenets of Christian belief come from a literal interpretation of the Bible. While many groups do attempt to interpret the Bible literally (and simply omit what they don't agree with), I feel it is important to mention again that the Roman Catholic Church has never put forth the notion that the Bible should be interpreted literally.
My Point, And I Do Have One...
There are essentially three ways religion can swing: it can be good, it can be bad, or it can be neither. No Springs first makes the mistake of confusing religion (a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith) with church (a body or organization of religious believers), and as such attibutes the acts of a sociopolitical entity with the tenets that the individuals of that sociopolitical entity should uphold. To clarify by example, this is akin to claiming that freedom and democracy are evil, because these are tenets that Americans (supposedly) believe in, and the United States government engages in abhorrent behavior.
In the same essay where No Springs claims that religion is evil because of all of the evil acts done it its name, he also argues that religion shouldn't be considered good, because when acts are committed in the name of religion aren't necessarily the result of religion.
Well, which is it?
One can't claim that evil acts in the name of religion prove religion to be evil, and claim exactly the opposite of good acts. The argument is lost. The position is indefensible.
The real issue here is not religion. It's that some people are good, and some people are bad. Good people very rarely need an excuse or a justification for their actions. Bad people do. And it's a hard thing to take personal responsibility for ones actions, so much so that blaming others has become pandemic in society. Religion is just one scapegoat. But personal responsibility and thinking for oneself are not mutually exclusive with respect to religion. The search for religious truth is called theology, and the admission of responsibility is called penance.
Just because certain people use religion as a shield for their deeds doesn't mean that religion is good or bad. It is what we make it.