The Dumbest Statements About Religion

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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There's an interesting pattern emerging in responses to the pages I have dealing with religion. The believers mostly get upset that I don't allow any wiggle room with regard to evolution - if your religious beliefs conflict with evolution, then you need to change your religious beliefs, because they are wrong. But I actually get more static from non-believers. I get the impression that many nonbelievers are just fine about tolerating religious belief as long as they can do it condescendingly, blowing off rational statements by believers as quixotic or delusional. Challenge the underlying assumption that nonbelief is inherently more intellectually sound or scientific than belief, or show that many of the most common arguments by nonbelievers are on the same superficial level as arguments by Intelligent Designers and, well, the gloves come off and the veneer of civility evaporates.

There are a number of spoof sites on religion (and it's a measure of what's at the bottom of the barrel on the religious side that it can be hard to tell the spoofs from the real deal). There is, for example, The Society of Christians for the Restoration of Old Testament Morality (sorry if I blew your cover) or Landover Baptist Church (much easier to identify as a spoof, although I have no doubt there are people who miss it). Read their mail page. Read the religious believers praising them for their stance. Then read the nonbelievers flaming them. Then come back here and tell me with a straight face that nonbelievers are inherently more rational, better informed, and better at critical reasoning than believers. On the Internet Movie Database is a comment on the movie Bruce Almighty, with the reviewer complaining that if he'd wanted a ninety minute sermon he'd have gone to church. How dumb do you have to be to miss the point of a movie like Bruce Almighty - starring Jim Carrey, for Bruce' sake?

If you're going to advance the credentials of Bertrand Russell or Richard Dawkins against religious belief, you have to count those of Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal on the other side of the ledger. If you dismiss Descartes, Newton and Pascal as uncritically accepting a prevailing cultural prejudice, you are equally entitled to write off Russell and Dawkins on the same grounds.

"If I Were God..."

A famous argument for the existence of God is "Pascal's wager." Blaise Pascal argued that if you believed in God, and God did not exist, you lost nothing, whereas if you failed to believe, but God did exist, the consequences could be disastrous. In this early example of worst-case reasoning, he argued that it was clearly better to err on the side of belief.

One critic of Pascal noted, that if he were God, he would take great delight in damning someone who chose to believe on such cynical grounds. I recently heard a local atheist activist state that she would replace the commandment "Honor thy father and mother" with "Honor thy children."

Guess what? You're not God, nor are you likely to be for the foreseeable future. So who cares what you would do if you were God?

I Choose to Believe in a God of Love

Maybe there is a God, maybe not. If there is no God, believing in one is of no consequence. If there is a God, then God has certain attributes and not others. Either way, what possible difference can it make what you choose to believe?

I Don't Feel Any Need For a God ...

...To explain why there is order in the universe, to explain the existence of good and evil, to give meaning to life, to justify moral standards...

The atheist version of the "I choose ..." argument. Who but a post-modernist could think that his feelings or needs have any relevance to this issue? Either there is a God, or there is not. Either way, what you feel or need is of no relevance whatsoever.

It Doesn't Matter What You Believe, as Long as You're Sincere

A line from a famous Peanuts cartoon.

If you're not actively seeking to determine whether or not your beliefs are valid, you can't really claim to be sincere, can you? I have actually had (not overtly religious) people get angry with me when I say they have a moral obligation to check out the validity of their ideas. They literally think that the mere fact of believing passionately in something makes it right.

An office worker recently tried to demonstrate to his colleagues that the windows in their offices were unbreakable. He sincerely believed he could slam his body full force into the window on the 36th floor. He was so sincere he backed his belief up with an actual demonstration. He was wrong (and won a Darwin Award). You may sincerely believe global warming is a myth, but you'll still have to pay taxes to deal with coastal problems when sea level rises. Regardless of your sincerity, it does matter what you believe. Wrong ideas don't improve simply because someone believes them sincerely.

Religion and Politics Don't Mix

Religion is a source of values for many people, or perhaps we can say many people express their values through religion. Politics is the translation of values into policy. So this statement amounts to saying that people whose values are linked closely to religion should excuse themselves from participation in politics.

That's not only discriminatory, it's stupid. Besides, they simply won't do it.

Religious Ideas are Untestable

Neither are many theories of global warming, ozone depletion or nuclear winter, short of allowing the events in question to happen. The problem here isn't testability, but the non-sequitur "Proposition X can't be tested, therefore we are justified in ignoring its consequences, or believing some contrary proposition." Being untestable does not make an idea false, nor does it excuse you from the consequences of making a wrong choice or even of deferring judgment. If I tell you someone is planning to kill you, and you defer judgment until better evidence comes in, you could end up dead.

Even in non-religious areas we may be forced to make a decision in the face of conflicting, incomplete, or even no data. The criticism that religious beliefs are untestable is therefore profoundly irrelevant. Something will happen when we die. We may cease to exist, enter into an afterlife, or be reincarnated, but the inability to communicate across the event horizon does not affect the fact that some outcome will happen and others will not.

Kurt Godel's famous Incompleteness Theorem demonstrated that even in mathematics, it is possible to make true statements that cannot be proven to be true. Some of them matter. For example, there is no known general procedure for testing whether an arbitrary computer program will run to completion except by actually running it, and no known general procedure for telling whether or not a given piece of computer code is a virus except by running it (if there were such a procedure, computer security would be simple)*.  So the criticism that an idea cannot be proven true or false is utterly irrelevant. Unproven is not the same as disproven. We may still have to make some choice based on our best judgment, and face the consequences if that judgment is wrong (like running a piece of code and discovering that it's a virus).

*For the benefit of math purists, these aren't true examples of what Godel was talking about in his proof, although the notion that there exist true ideas that cannot be proven certainly generalizes to other areas. I don't know any examples of undecidable propositions in Godel's sense that are intelligible to non-mathematicians.

Things Aren't That Simple

Who ever said theology would be simple? The writer C. S. Lewis noted "We can expect it to be at least as complicated as physics."

Ironically, it is modern thinkers who are simplistic. Ask a traditional theologian whether killing is wrong or whether it is just that someone should be poor, and his first response will be "what are the circumstances?" It's the modern thinker who makes blanket simplistic statements like "killing is wrong" or "poverty is wrong."

It's So Hard Being A ----------------

You can hear this from both atheists and religious fanatics. The atheist thinks he's a courageous lone rationalist in a world full of superstitious savages. The religious fanatic thinks he's the lone standard bearer of truth in a world full of unbelievers. Or he thinks of himself grimly trudging though life carrying his assigned yoke and resenting all the slackers around him who have it so easy.

So what do you want, a medal? If you're going to take a stance that runs counter to the rest of society, at least have the common sense to figure out you will encounter opposition, and have the courage and integrity to accept it.

I'm reminded of the Goths that shot up Columbine High School. Let's see here... you reject the values of society, you wear styles and adopt mannerisms that manifest your rejection of everyone else, then you're hurt, angry and offended when other people reject you?

Of course, if your beliefs really impose a crushing burden, you might even examine the possibility they could be wrong? Naahh.

I Can't Buy ----------- Because They're Such Hypocrites

Hypocrisy, self-deception, and intellectual dishonesty are all pretty much invisible to those infected with it. So there's a very good chance we all have some form of it that's as glaringly obvious to others as theirs is to us. So don't be so quick to assume your own record is so clean.

Anyway, ideas are true or false because of how they correspond to reality, not how their believers do. If you rate ideas because of the actions of believers, that indicates you're looking for a quick and dirty solution rather than taking the time to evaluate evidence critically. That makes you lazy, no improvement over hypocrisy. Or you may be looking for an excuse to dismiss the belief system, which makes you intellectually dishonest and cowardly, also no improvement over hypocrisy.

Everyone despises hypocrites, but when someone professes a meaningless value system and fails to live up to it, we merely think they're being silly. On the other hand,  anti-heroes (Clint Eastwood or Harrison Ford) elicit a certain amount of respect. It seems that nobody has a problem with a person who espouses a cynical belief system but rises to the challenge when things get tough. It's only when people profess high ideals but fail to live up to them that we have a problem. This all suggests that we really get upset about hypocrisy because we endorse the ideals (even though we refuse to admit it), and resent being held to them by people who do not do so themselves. Every accusation of hypocrisy is an implicit affirmation of the hypocrite's professed values.

How Can a Good God Permit Evil in the World?

An iceberg is a floating mountain of ice with most of its mass hidden below the surface. This question is more like a floating mountain of Styrofoam, with a tiny portion deep and hidden, and the vast majority on the surface and mostly made of air.

Lots of good, even great, books have been written on the deep and hidden aspects of this question. (One respondent asked me for references on this subject. The Library of Congress category for philosophy and theology is call letter B. The technical term for the question of good and evil is theodicy. I just searched it on Google and got 393,000 hits. Happy reading.) But if you are reading those books, you don't ask this question the way it is so often casually asked. Most people, when they ask this question, really mean something like:

Another response to this question is to ask what the critic of God is doing about evil in the world. If you're concerned about oppression, become a Navy SEAL or a Green Beret and then, as a military expert, go help people resist oppression.

Well, I don't believe in the military.

If you're concerned about poverty and economic injustice, study economics and finance, rise to the top of the financial world, and use the resources you command to do something about it.

But that would take the rest of my life.

If you're concerned about hunger, study genetics and develop crops that will feed the world. If you're concerned about AIDS, go into medicine and find a cure.

But I don't like science.

Gee, these answers all make perfect sense. I can certainly see why God would intervene supernaturally and suspend the normal operation of cause and effect to spare comfortable, superficial people the agony of having to re-evaluate their value systems, invest serious time and effort, or leave their comfort zone.

I know a retired doctor who spent his life battling cancer in children. He's entitled to ask why God would strike a child with cancer. But not armchair theologians.

One amusing aspect of this question is that many of the people who ask it will also say they believe human nature is inherently good. So evil in the world is enough to disprove the existence of a good God but not the existence of a good human nature.

Actually, the existence of this question is a good thing. Once upon a time, poverty and oppression were the norm. Life was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short. Religion didn't attempt to explain evil in the world, but offered hope that things wouldn't be evil forever. Meanwhile, now that a good part (though not yet a majority) of the world enjoys prosperity and freedom, theologians are still using arguments based on conditions a thousand years ago. Arguments that worked when surviving from one harvest to the next was iffy don't work very well in a world where mere humans have made huge strides in curing poverty, famine, and disease. If we fallible humans can exterminate smallpox, why couldn't an omnipotent God?

At the same time, at the opposite pole, many people have deluded themselves into thinking that freedom and prosperity are inevitable. They really think that people have an inherent right to have other people loan them money or perform valuable services without charge. They have an inherent right to a nice house, a high paying job, a flat screen TV, a new car, and an early and lucrative retirement. Having forgotten (history being the story of Dead White Males, and therefore something they can ignore) that there ever was a time that lacked freedom and prosperity, they wonder why God permits any parts of the world to lack them.

So the question of how God can permit evil in the world is jointly the fault of theologians sitting back and collecting paychecks for centuries without advancing their field a millimeter, and historically illiterate skeptics unaware that there ever was a time when the whole world was hungry and poor.

Even poorer parts of the world are seeing that freedom and prosperity are attainable. Some places are seeing that the price is abandoning ancient dysfunctional values, a price they are unwilling to pay.

Radical thought: if you really want to combat evil in the world, quit interfering with the people who are actively fighting it. Unless you know for a fact that an accused criminal is innocent don't defend him. If you think the Taliban were evil then stop attacking the war in Afghanistan.

Religion/Unbelief Has Been The Source Of Great Evil/good

To begin with, let's recall a dictum so old it's in Latin: abusus non tollit usum - the abuse does not take away the use. The fact that Christianity produced the Inquisition, Islam produced Al Qaeda and atheism produced Stalin are as relevant as the fact that chemistry produces nerve gas, mathematics and physics steer artillery shells, and the printing press can produce hate literature and pornography.

Whether religion or unbelief have been sources of good or evil are absolutely irrelevant to anything. The only issue of any significance is whether a position is true. If it's also good, that's a side benefit. I would like nothing better than to find ways around the speed of light and the laws of thermodynamics, but they are still true even if I don't like how they affect things I'd like to do. If something is true but evil, then that's something we have to deal with. Is it at all possible that the Universe was not designed by Walt Disney? Is it possible that our current prejudices on issues like homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, or war may be more based on sentimentality than reason, and pretty much irrelevant to whether these things are truly right or wrong?

Religion Has Failed to Bring Peace

I heard this gem in an airport waiting area. Three hours hanging around O'Hare waiting for a delayed flight will make anyone a bit loopy, I guess.

Where could anyone get the notion that religions are intended to bring peace? Religions are intended to describe God and his relation to the world. You might as well complain that algebra or English grammar don't bring peace. And as soon as any religion (or any other field) says something that someone doesn't want to hear, it's guaranteed to bring division. Martin Luther King, Lech Walesa and Al Gore all won the Nobel Peace Prize but left a lot of turmoil in their wakes.

But religions preach peace, and it doesn't happen. And doctors preach eating in moderation but people still get obese, legislators preach moderate speeds but people still break speed limits, and teachers preach good writing but students still dont spel gud. (Aside: isn't it amazing that schools can preach the importance of good grammar, history and math for twelve years without making a dent in kids' attitudes, but a few lectures on sex or evolution will supposedly be enough to undo all the values they've been taught?) If religions preach peace, and we don't have peace, then obviously most people are not living up to the demands of their religions. Right?

But we can't go there. That would imply there's something wrong with human nature, when it's so much easier to put the blame on an externality like religion, circumcision, or Saturday morning cartoons.

Atheism/ethics/philosophy are not Religion

If a belief system fills the role in your life that religion fills for others, it's a religion. If it's a collection of beliefs about god or gods, even if those beliefs are about the nonexistence of god or gods, it's a religion.

No Sympathy Here

I have decided that one group of people for whom I feel no pity at all are the people who are "taken in" by hucksters like Benny Hinn. Those people have local churches that need support. There are Christian schools, hospitals, and colleges that need support. There's undoubtedly a food pantry or homeless shelter in their town that could use some help. And they have heirs, family, friends, and neighbors who need help. So why do they send so much to people like Hinn? Because he massages their egos. He makes them feel like participants in a great crusade. These people are enablers, in it for the ego trip. Or they're embittered at the world and sending money to a hate-filled televangelist makes them feel like they're striking back. Or they're in it because he offers hope for a miracle cure for their problems. But I have no sympathy for this stance, either. People with the tiniest shred of Biblical literacy ought to know that money has nothing to do with miracles. In fact, there's a word for trying to buy or sell miracles: simony. So when you have to move out of your home because you sent so much money to televangelists that you couldn't pay the rent, verily, you have your reward. I notice you didn't sell the television.

The Most Offensive Term in Religion

Prayer Warrior

I have 21 years service in the U.S. Army, active and Reserve. Can you possibly begin to comprehend what an insult this term is to anyone who has actually served in uniform, let alone the real warriors who have been shot at, maimed, captured, or killed? Or their families?

There's a secular equivalent here. James Joyce's Ulysses is based on the premise that getting through an ordinary day is a heroic achievement. No, getting through an ordinary day is getting through an ordinary day. A heroic achievement is landing a plane in the Hudson River and getting everyone out alive. A heroic achievement is quitting a job in the NFL and joining the Army (Pat Tillman's death by "friendly fire" doesn't diminish his own heroism). A heroic achievement is having the world at your command in professional baseball, like Roberto Clemente, and losing your life when the disaster relief flight you organized crashes. It's going off to Guyana, like Congressman Leo Ryan, because you've heard a cult is abusing people from your city, and getting killed when the cult decides to commit mass suicide. But getting through the petty frustrations of a typical day is heroic? Give me a @#$%& break.

But you pray, and you experience difficulties, so you're battling the forces of evil? No, doctors, firemen, policemen, soldiers and humanitarian aid workers battle evil. You are just battling life. Get over yourself.

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Created 11 March, 2002, Last Update 11 January, 2020

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