It’s been a long process, but the scholarly article that I wrote to follow up on “The Myth of Christian Charity” has finally been published.
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.
“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.
People frequently profess beliefs about what God wants them to do or not to do. But then they don’t always follow God’s recommendations – which is pretty strange. Wouldn’t you figure that if a person really believes in God, and really believes that God wants them to do something, that they would absolutely do it (or die trying)?
Conceptually, let’s divide all the beliefs that people can have into two types. Type A beliefs have an observable effect on the believer’s behavior. Type B beliefs do not.
Now that type B is identified, if can immediately be ignored. If it doesn’t affect what you do, it’s not sociologically interesting. Type B beliefs might include, for example, the Catholic notion of the Trinity. Whether you believe that God is “One” or “Three” or “pi” is not going to make a detectable difference in anything you do (except for trivial cases such as what you’re likely to say when asked about the number of God). The vast majority of propositions about God fall into this category. What you believe about the nature of the deity will make little or no difference to the rest of us. In fact, this may be a misuse of the word “belief.” We don’t see you believing stuff so much as just saying stuff.
Type A beliefs are more interesting. They make a difference. For example, if you believe that God does not want you to eat pork, you probably won’t eat pork.
But it’s not as simple as that.
First, many of the beliefs that supposedly constitute religious participation are not followed. Catholics, by definition, “believe” that contraception is wrong. But most of them use it anyway; therefore, they don’t actually believe that it’s wrong. So this would be a type B belief – that is, not a belief at all.
Still, many people really don’t eat pork, for “religious reasons.” But what does this mean? If we ask that person why he doesn’t eat pork, he says (approximately) “Because I believe that God doesn’t want me to.” But it is well established that people can be wrong – sometimes very, very wrong – about their own reasons for doing things. So, let’s take a look at this person’s environment. He is surrounded by people who are telling him that God does not want him to eat pork. That is, eating pork is frowned on by his community. The people around him are telling him that it’s not OK to eat pork, and if he eats pork he is going to have to answer to them.
Which is more likely: that I don’t eat pork because I believe that it is deprecated by God, or that I don’t eat pork because I know full well that it is deprecated by my friends, neighbors, family, and local law enforcement? Which is more likely: that I worry about God punishing me in some unimaginable way, or that I worry about people punishing me, in ways I can imagine all too well?
So, the real reason that some people don’t eat pork is obvious: social pressure.
The idea that people have religious beliefs that dictate their behavior falls apart in at least three ways. First, some beliefs are too abstract to affect any practical decision anyone makes. Second, some rules do not affect people’s behavior because they are not followed. And my point today is that the behavior is probably caused by something other than the belief.
Even if some people say that they believe that God doesn’t want them to eat pork, and if those same people indeed do not eat pork, it still could be—in fact, it’s very likely—that this belief is not the reason that they don’t eat pork. Therefore, it’s a type B belief: the kind that doesn’t affect behavior. The kind that’s not really a belief at all.
So you’re traveling, and in your motel room you discover a hard-cover Bible, deposited there by the obnoxious “Gideons”. Presumably the Gideons don’t go room to room putting Bibles in drawers. I reckon they go to the motel manager and make him an offer he can’t refuse.
Anyway, what should a weary traveler do with that darned thing? You can’t just leave it there like a ticking bomb waiting to blow away innocent people’s rational minds. A couple times I did this: tear the covers off and throw it in the trash. But then I thought: Some poor cleaner is going to see this and have a heart attack.
Now I just put it in my suitcase. When I get home, it goes in the recycling bin. I’m all about saving the planet, you know.
In Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (2002), David Sloan Wilson presents a case for the utility of religion. He claims that religious beliefs and practices arose and are maintained in human societies because such beliefs and practices are adaptive.
Something as elaborate—as time-, energy-, and thought-consuming—as religion would not exist if it didn’t have secular utility. Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone. The mechanisms that enable religious groups to function as adaptive units include the very beliefs and practices that make religion appear enigmatic to so many people who stand outside them. (p. 159–160)
Wilson’s argument depends on a controversial version of Darwinian natural selection, operating at the level of groups. He calls it multilevel selection, and quotes Darwin himself to vouch for its applicability to human cultural practices.
It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.
Thus did Darwin speculate, in The Descent of Man (1871), that natural selection, which generally operates through the differential survival of individuals, could operate on the level of groups, with fitter groups out-competing the others. And in the same, widely quoted paragraph, he reckoned that one way for a group to boost its fitness is for its members to be good. Tribes with a “high standard of morality” will be “victorious” over other tribes and therefore “supplant” them. This implies that the proportion of moral to immoral tribes in the world will increase over time, because moral tribes have superior evolutionary fitness.
It’s an appealing idea, but is this prediction true? Do the good guys tend to out-compete the bad guys? Has the average standard of morality in the world’s “tribes” risen over the long term? To test Darwin’s model we would have to understand, even quantify, what he intends by the word morality. On careful reading, the paragraph seems much too vague for this. It runs together altruism (giving aid to others) and self-sacrifice (“for the common good”), which are very different impulses. It seeks the source of these noble impulses in “patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy”: a motley collection of other noble impulses. (Are they all good? Which of them leads to which? Do we have any idea?) It speculates that the combination of those two (or seven) traits will cause the tribe to be “victorious” over other tribes. Is it really true that more “moral” communities tend to wipe out the less “moral” ones? Why? What is the mechanism? And what’s so moral about slaughtering your neighbors?
This all seems especially weak in the light of the theoretical work done a hundred years later by George C. Williams and John Maynard Smith, who showed mathematically that group selection can only work under implausibly constrained conditions.
Also note that Darwin’s account does not mention religion. Darwin himself was an atheist, and certainly did not take for granted the idea that religion is, in general, beneficial. By quoting this passage in the context of an argument for the utility of religion, Wilson is implicitly claiming that if we replaced Darwin’s phrase a high standard of morality with the word religion, the passage would still have the meaning that Darwin intended. Darwin’s model—actually, it’s just a thought experiment, not a model—predicts a positive role for religion, only if religion is responsible for the winning groups’ high standard of morality—that is, only if religion makes people good. To assume that it does is to assume what Wilson wants to convince us of. Thus, his argument is circular.
This isn’t the only problem with Wilson’s argument. There are lots more.
First. That a process is natural does not make it a good idea. Maybe religion does help some tribes wipe out other tribes. Is that good? Is that something we want? Only if we have an independent reason for preferring the religious tribes over the secular-humanist tribes. (I wonder what David Sloan Wilson’s independent reason is.)
Second. Even if communities with lots of morality (or religion or parochial altruism or whatever) tend to defeat communities with less of those things, this does not tell us whether the people in the winning communities are happy. It could be that when it comes to warfare the most effective organization is a totalitarian misery-state where only the people who are not in the army are happy, and only twelve guys are not in the army. There is a difference between a moral society and a happy society, especially if morality is taken to mean following the rules, as it is in so many places—especially the religious ones.
Third. In the most-religious communities in this world, one’s participation is not voluntary, it is required on penalty of expulsion or death. Wilson assumes a quasi-economic model where people are free to choose their affiliations, but religion is in direct conflict with such freedom. The more powerful the religion, the less choice its “adherents” have. If such conditions do not violate Wilson’s assumptions, do we even care whether his model is predictive?
Finally, the model does not distinguish between “religion” and any other kind of strongly normative social structure based on persuasive falsehoods. How does religion come into it? Where does the religion part of his hypothesis come from? I will tell you. First, through the assumption mentioned a moment ago: that people are free to choose; therefore, they choose the religion that most benefits them. (But when religion is in the picture, they are not free to choose.) Second, through the assumption that “belief in God” is probably, in general, a good thing; the assumption that religion fosters both social cohesion and positive morality. This is circular logic, assuming what was supposed to be proved.
The brutal fact, D.S. Wilson’s own “problem of evil” if you will, is that what we see in vivo is nothing like this. We don’t see religion bringing out the best in everyone, or drawing people together in joyful brotherhood. What we see is amoral, charismatic leaders who leverage specialized memes and raw violence to control large populations for selfish reasons. Such leaders benefit from religion; no one else does.
Seemingly unaware of religion’s well-known (and not yet ended!) history of violence and injustice, within groups as well as between them, David Sloan Wilson has carefully built a case for the idea that religion is a Good Thing; that it is Good because it brings folks together; and that it brings them together because it is Good. I’m sure his funders at the Templeton Foundation are delighted.
I just went through the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans and started counting, and guess what? A full 80 of the 400 live in California. That’s one out of every five billionaires in America, living right here in a state that can’t afford to educate its kids.
Then I took out my calculator and added up a long row of numbers and got a big one: The total net worth of the billionaires in California is $231.8 billion. Ten percent of that wipes out the budget deficit. And that doesn’t even count the folks worth $900 million or less; they didn’t make the list.
Folks: This is a very, very rich state. A very modest tax increase on a very tiny number of people could solve our budget problems not just today but into the foreseeable future.
I do not always agree with Russell Blackford but his new opinion piece on the site of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is spot-on. It begins like this:
Religious teachings promise us a deeper understanding of reality, more meaningful lives, morally superior conduct, and such benefits as rightness with a Supreme Being or liberation from earthly attachments. One way or another, the world’s religions offer spiritual salvation, or something very like it. If any of their teachings are rationally warranted, it would be good to know which ones.
At the same time, however, religious teachings can be onerous in their demands; if they can’t deliver on what they promise, it would be just as well to know that. I take it, then, that there’s a strong case for rational scrutiny of religious teachings. Even if reason can take us only so far, it would be good to explore just how far.
And it ends like this:
When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising and totally justifiable that atheists and sceptics question the source of this authority. If religious organisations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? And even if this being does exist, why, exactly, should its wishes be heeded, let alone translated into laws enforced by the state’s coercive power?
These questions are being asked more often, and so they should be. When they’re asked publicly, even with a touch of aggression, that’s an entirely healthy thing.