Taking the good with the bad

I tried to let this go, but it’s been gnawing at me all evening. Norm, in my opinion one of the clearest writers on the net, today linked in full agreement to the following paragraph:

So why can Professor Dawkins only see the bad in religion? Why is he incapable of making an objective, “scientific”, study of it, in all its diversity? Why is he unable to make distinctions between the many different forms of religious belief? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I do know this apostle of reason, when confronted with the word “faith”, suddenly becomes irrational, careless of truth, incapable of scholarly analysis. I really think it must be some sort of virus, and I wish my colleague a speedy recovery.

It’s from a theologian’s response to The Root of All Evil shows from the past couple of weeks. The rest of the article is your standard misunderstanding and illogical argument, and I think the above is, too. The above is the response I see most often, and it’s regularly put forward by people whose views I strongly agree with on other matters. I can’t help thinking that they’re missing the point, though.

It’s not that Dawkins sees only the bad in religion, it’s that the good is entirely indistinguishable from the bad. When religious texts are just as full of hate and barbarism as they are tolerance and peace, and the whole thing is on a foundation of no evidence, how are you going to tell some people that their behaviour is wrong, while simultaneously telling others that their behaviour is correct? Both good and bad come from the same doctrine, it’s just that the interpretations differ. That is the argument that religion overall is harmful.1 It’s not being blinded to the good parts and only taking notice of the extremists, it’s pointing to the logically inconsistent nature of the whole institution.

The next argument would be that those who simply believe in a deity without subscribing to any particular religion are doing no harm, and that’s where the argument about stifling rational thought comes in. I’ve covered that already, and there’s no need to repeat it.

I’m not simply following Richard Dawkins wherever he leads, it’s that I’ve yet to see anybody counter the above argument. I think it’s possible that the above is too idealist for the world we actually live in, and that’s what Norm etc. mean when they object. I’ve seen neither Dawkins nor anybody else make any serious proposals for actually solving the problem, but I see no issue with pointing out the logical inconsistency.

It seems morally decent to stand up for those religious folk who do good deeds, but I don’t think it’s logically consistent to accept and encourage them, while saying extremism is clearly wrong. The challenge is to extract the good from religion and put it forward as a way of living with a decent moral foundation, and not something that just relies on the word of nonexistent deities.

  1. edit: re-reading a day later, this isn’t quite what I meant []