About four years after I first started considering the topic, my peer-reviewed article on the relation between religious involvement and charitable contributions has finally been published in the Social Science Journal, under the title, “Does Religion Foster Generosity?

Right now it’s online-only, and you can only read it if you have access to scholarly databases such as ScienceDirect. At some point it will be assigned to a physical issue of the journal, and then I will have preprints, and then I’ll be able to share PDFs with people.

Let me go back to the very basic question that everyone skips. We hear that people been trying to find out whether being religious is likely to make you more generous. Why have they been trying to find that out? Why do they imagine that being religious might make people more generous? Where did that idea even come from?

No one studies the question of whether playing blackjack is likely to make you more generous. No one wonders whether surfing, or hunting, or delivering the mail, or DJing is likely to make you more generous. No one studies whether being a scientist, an actor, a chef, a police officer, or a cheerleader is likely to make you more generous. No one has ever suggested that any of those activities might have that marvelous effect. Where does the idea come from that religion might do it?

The claim comes from religion itself. One of the central tenets of almost every religion is that you can’t be a really good person unless you become a member. For about five thousand years, people who want us to be religious – and this mostly means people who make their living from religion – those people have been telling us that religion makes people good. And why do they make this claim? Is it because there they have seen overwhelming evidence for it? That cannot be the reason. We know it cannot be the reason because religions claim such moral benefits as soon as they are created, long before the claim could have been tested.

The reason they say that religion makes people more generous is that they are selling a product, and they want us to believe that the product does great things. We want to be happy, so they say religion makes you happy. We’re afraid of death, so they say religion can prevent it. And we want to be good, so they say religion makes you good. That’s how they sell the product: by telling us that it will assuage our needs – no matter what those needs are. There has never been a reason to take such claims seriously.

Here’s a famous question about religion and atheism, as expressed in an anonymous letter to the National Review.

Let’s see, we have scores of Baptist Hospitals, Method [sic] Hospitals, Jewish Hospitals, Catholic Hospitals, etc., etc. Each of these have ‘outreach’ programs both here and in the most dismal places on earth, staffed with dedicated medical doctors and nurses. Where oh where are the Atheist’s hospitals, or soup kitchens?

One answer to this question is to ask, as Doug Ittner of American Atheists does: In what way are “religious” hospitals religious? Do they, for example, offer all their treatments for free, as Jesus would have done?

In America, as of 1999, 13% of all hospitals were religious (totaling 18% of all hospital beds); that’s 604 out of 4,573 hospitals…. Despite the religious label, these so-called religious hospitals are more public than public hospitals. Religious hospitals get 36% of all their revenue from Medicare; … they get 12% … from Medicaid. Of the remaining 44% of funding, 31% comes from county appropriations, 30% comes from investments, and only 5% comes from charitable contributions (not necessarily religious). The percentage of Church funding for Church-run hospitals comes to a grand total of 0.0015 percent.

Secondly, consider this. Do Baptist hospitals use Baptist medicine? Not if they want their customers to survive. There is no magical religious medicine that religious hospitals can use, so in terms of medical knowledge, technology and practice, a hospital cannot be better just because it is “religious.” But it can be worse! Ittner again:

Despite being publicly funded … many Catholic hospitals refuse to provide infertility treatments, birth control, abortion, and emergency contraception to rape victims…. Catholic hospitals have … policies preventing euthanasia (whereby a terminally ill patient must be kept on life support despite the patient’s demands to end treatment)…. Mormon hospitals will refuse sterilization to women who have had less than five children or are younger than 40 years of age. Southern Baptist hospitals won’t provide abortion services.

So, there’s nothing particularly religious about religious hospitals, except for the fact that they’ll sometimes refuse to help you. Especially if you’re female.

Ittner concludes that

The answer to the question “How many American hospitals have atheists built?” is “All of them.”

There is a third way to see how misleading this question about “atheist hospitals” is. The following was contributed by an anonymous poster at Positive Atheism:

Churches asking where are the non-theists’ charities? This is a meaningless question, a semantic trick, a red herring, a blind alley we should not be drawn into. There are various musicians’ association charities; why no Non-Musicians’ Charity? There are many black charities; why no Non-Black Charity? There’s a Gardener’s Scholarship Fund; why no Non-Gardeners’ Fund? … Non-theists, along with non-musicians, non-blacks, non-gardeners, contribute as individuals according to their interests, skills, and philosophies.

As is usual in the field of religion, the solution to the problem is to notice that the question itself is badly constructed. We have to keep reminding ourselves that religion does this. It gets us asking the wrong questions. This is one of its defining features. It is designed to confuse.

If you are going to weigh in on a discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of a certain institution, and you are an employee or executive of that same institution, then you should first declare your interest. That is, should must disclose, to the people you are trying to persuade, that you have a personal stake in the outcome of the conversation. Unless you provide such notice, you risk distorting the argument with your biases, of which the rest of us (and you yourself) may be unaware.

More specifically, if you are a professional cleric, and the discussion has to do with the pros and cons of religion, you should say something like, “Of course I might be biased, since my livelihood depends on a favorable public perception of religion.”

In November of 2009, a group called Intelligence Squared held a debate on the proposition, “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” On the affirming team was John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja (Nigeria) for the Catholic Church. Mr. Onaiyekan never once mentioned that the institution whose essential goodness he had come to proclaim supplies his entire livelihood. He should have either recused himself from the debate, or alerted the public to his personal stake in its outcome. He did neither.

Peter Jensen, archbishop of Sydney for the Anglican Church, spoke at a more recent Intelligence Squared debate, on the proposition, “Atheists Are Wrong.” Like Mr. Onaiyekan, Mr. Jensen is a regional-level executive of a multi-national corporation. Each man is paid to represent his organization positively to the public and to attract more customers. Neither made any mention of his interests. Neither should be trusted until he comes clean.

It is astonishing how rarely conflict of interest is mentioned in books and articles on religion. You could read a thousand of them and never encounter it, even if five hundred were by atheists. Yet, the simple truth is that you cannot trust the officers of a corporation to tell the truth about the rationale behind their compensation or the mechanism of its delivery. In millions of conversations over thousands of years, religious spokesmen have demanded, “Why would I tell you these things, if they’re not true?” The obvious answer is, “Because that’s your job.”

“Islamophobia” is a deeply misleading term. The phenomenon it pretends to evoke has never existed. The word is deceptive in at least two ways.

The “-phobia” part is supposed to make us think of irrational fears like arachnophobia and agoraphobia. But fear of Islam is not irrational. Islam is a genuine threat to millions of individuals and to society as a whole. It has already done incalculable harm, and its representatives regularly promise to continue their harmful programs, and to increase the scope and scale of these programs if possible.

The “Islamo-” part is supposed to evoke racism: an irrational fear of a certain race. But Islam is not a race, it is a totalitarian political system. And Muslims are not a race — they are people who have been caught in the sphere of influence of the totalitarian political system that calls itself Islam.

I have nothing against Muslims — the people who have been caught in that sphere of influence.

I repeat. I have nothing against those people. They are human beings like me. I want only the best for them. I want them to be happy, and that’s why I am opposed to their oppression and abuse by the totalitarian political system that calls itself Islam.

If I were to remark that it is wise to be inoculated against polio, would you ask me why I despise people with polio? To call me “Islamophobic” when I talk about the dangers of Islam would be a similar mistake. No one is Islamophobic in that way. Just as I do not fear or hate people with polio, I do not fear or hate people who happen to live within the sphere of influence of Islam. I love people and want them to be happy. Therefore, I hate the harm that polio causes, and for the same reason, I hate the harm that Islam causes.

But Islam is itself a misleading word. There are two kinds of people in Islam (as there are in every other religion): the ones who make the rules, and the ones who have to follow the rules or be mercilessly punished. The ones who get paid, and the ones who pay. The powerful, comfortable, self-appointed “community leaders” — and the poor, suffering, permanently disenfranchised community. The former I call Islam, and recognize as a danger, a poison, a disease. The latter I call Muslims, and recognize as human beings in need of help.

Sensible people all over the world fear Islam. None of us have “Islamophobia”.

Update 14 May 2014: Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali on this topic.

Today’s Sacramento Bee has an article on a theological crisis that has affected several local churches. Because of a decision by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to allow homosexual ministers, seven of Sacramento’s congregations have decided to divorce themselves from that organization and join a smaller one, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).

But many local church members said they are unclear about where the EPC stands on several issues – from divorce to women serving in the church. They worry the group adheres to a narrow theology and say they don’t know enough about the denomination their faith leaders asked them to join.

The article itself answers at least some of these questions.

The EPC believes in the infallibility of the Bible, that homosexuals should not serve in ministry and that those who are divorced should meet with congregational leaders before serving in the church.

That sounds simple enough. There ya go – that’s what the new organization believes. But hold on. What does it mean to say that the church believes those things? The EPC is an organization. Organizations are not conscious agents. They don’t have thoughts, opinions, or beliefs.

But they can promulgate an official doctrine, and of course that’s what it means in this case. When the Bee says that the Evangelical Presbyterian Church believes a certain thing, all they mean is that the church says that thing. There is a message that the church promotes.

A church can’t have beliefs. What it has is slogans.

Looking over my book, I see a connection between two lines of reasoning that had been separate. They both have to do with situations where someone is professing both ignorance and knowledge about the same proposition. They want us to believe that they know, even though they confessedly don’t know.

The first line of reasoning has to do with the goodness of God. We are told, on the one hand, that no mere mortal knows the reason behind any act of God (he “works in mysterious ways”). On the other hand, we are told that God is perfectly good. But if you don’t know why God does things, then you don’t know that he does them for good reasons. You can’t be ignorant of his motivations, yet knowledgeable about his intentions. If you can’t explain why God does anything, how do you know he’s not perfectly evil, and trying to make us all miserable?

The second line of reasoning is about miracles. No one will claim to know how God performs the miracles he performs – yet many people claim to be certain that it was God who performed them. But if you don’t know how God did a certain thing, you don’t know that he did that thing.

Imagine that Alice goes to the police and accuses Bob of murdering Carol. They ask Alice, “How did he do it?” She replies, “I have no idea how he did it, but I’m certain that he did do it.” This would not (I hope) be regarded this as a promising lead.

(Note that to make this example more like a “miracle” story, we would have to stipulate that no one knows for sure that the putative victim, Carol, was even a real person.)

This unwarranted hop from “there’s no way to know” to “we know” is a special feature of religious “arguments.” It is unwarranted because “we don’t know P” does not imply “we know Q” for any P or Q. If you don’t know, then you don’t know.

An Islamic Sharia law court has been established in Antwerp, the second-largest city in Belgium.

The Sharia court is the initiative of a radical Muslim group called Sharia4Belgium. Leaders of the group say the purpose of the court is to create a parallel Islamic legal system in Belgium in order to challenge the state’s authority as enforcer of the civil law protections guaranteed by the Belgian constitution.

The Sharia court, which is located in Antwerp’s Borgerhout district, is “mediating” family law disputes for Muslim immigrants in Belgium.

The self-appointed Muslim judges running the court are applying Islamic law, rather than the secular Belgian Family Law system, to resolve disputes involving questions of marriage and divorce, child custody and child support, as well as all inheritance-related matters.

The tell-tale phrase here is self-appointed. In what kind of world should we care what self-appointed judges think is fair? Only when those self-appointed judges leave us no other choice.

People vary in their beliefs about God, Heaven, and so on. Why is this? Surely not because they have had different experiences with respect to God, Heaven, and so on.

Usually, different beliefs imply different experiences. Ava lives in Trenton and works in Manhattan; she believes that commuting to work is the worst lifestyle ever invented. Ben lives in Hilo, and bikes a couple miles to work; he believes that commuting to work is kind of fun. So these are beliefs based on experience. But if Ava tells us that God is the personification of kindness, while Ben describes him as terrifyingly judgmental, this cannot be because they have had differing experiences of God. Neither person has ever talked to God or seen God doing anything. So, what can be the reason for their different opinions? Only that they have been told different things about God. Their beliefs are based not on experience but only on rote learning. And this learning is of course not about God (since there’s no such thing), but only about what you’re supposed to say about God.

A belief about what you’re supposed to say about God is not the same thing as a belief about God. So the truth is that, although Ava and Ben offer us different verbal descriptions of God, they do not have different beliefs about God. They don’t have any beliefs about God; they’ve just learned to recite different slogans.

There are those who scoff at the schoolboy, calling him frivolous and shallow: Yet it was the schoolboy who said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Mark Twain

Adorable, but wrong. If you know a thing is not true, then you do not believe it. This is a fact about the usage of the word “belief.” It is not possible to believe something that you regard as false or unknowable. That’s not how the word is used in English.

It is certainly possible to say what you know ain’t so. But we don’t call this “faith,” or “belief” – we call it “lying.”

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