How to Stop Sucking at Non-Belief (Part 1)

Because this sort of thing bugs the fuck out of me, I’m going to start a guide to not being an absolute tool (i.e., idiot) in the name of Glorious Atheism. Now, this absolutely positively doesn’t mean “don’t go onto Facebook pages and mouth off” and “be respectful and leave people alone”. Far from it. Ideas need to earn respect, and ones that involve stamping on the rights of innocent people need challenged. Did anyone seriously expect that sort of thing from me?

No? Good.

This is just how to go about it without being an idiot.

As there was a bit too much to really ram into one post, here is Part 1. Each part will present a particular trope I keep seeing, and why you – yes, you – should either stop it or take people to task for using it.

So, on with Part 1, in which we see how an overly-simplistic “is or isn’t” actually gets us nowhere.

Religion is the worst thing in the world ever

People saying that “religion is bad, mmmm’kay?” is a pain in the arse. And yet it crops up constantly.

But the Crusades!

Why is this argument, that religion is entirely and unequivocally harmful, a bad argument? Because it immediately just devolves a conversation into a back-and-forth about which “side” has done less damage in history. It’s like a point of pride that people who think a little bit like you have murdered the least in all of history. It’s like standing up and proclaiming that you have some saintly nature because “hey, that guy gang-raped her three times, I only did it twice!” Horrible analogy? Yes. Yes it is. But it’s exactly what’s going on.

Why else is it bad? Because if you’re going to argue the truth value of something, then its desirability is irrelevant. After all, gravity is very true but falls kill countless people. It would be highly desirable to not have gravity. Conservation of energy is ultimately what kills people every day when they get shot. That’s awful, but it isn’t going to change the universe any time soon. It would also be highly desirable to not have biology, which is fundamentally responsible for 100% of all fatalities ever. In short, who has and hasn’t gone and killed a bunch of people in the past has absolutely no bearing on the subject at all.

Even if you just wanted to argue the sociological aspects of the situations, then it’s simply naive to think religion is 100% responsible for atrocities, and that the lack of it would fix everything. After all, consider the number of deaths attributed to Stalin. “But but but!!” I hear shouted, “But Stalin was an atheist, but didn’t kill in the name of atheism!!” – yes, indeed. That’s my fucking point.

Religions are bad. This is good. Therefore it is not a religion.

The above is just one level, though. What the “religion is bad” trope further assumes is a completely fucked-up worldview, that then leads to malformed questions that gets us zero progress. Specifically, it says: “all religions are bad; so what counts as a religion?” And this particular red-herring leads us down more dark and endless alleys of bullshit that the tit-for-tat described above ever can.

Asking “what counts as a religion” is a completely an arse-first way to go about things because it’s predicated on religion having a nature that is harmful (or, if you’re arguing for it, a nature that is inherently good – both approaches suck). This assumption is tedious bullshit at best. What about Zen Buddhism, is that terribly objectionable? No it isn’t (you can take that one up with Douglas Hofstadter). What about people putting “Jedi” on their census forms? Nope, that neither (even though it is religion). These people aren’t causing harm due to their religion or attachment to something labelled religion. How do you explain this if religion is inherently bad for society?

You see, there are many examples of religion where it a) isn’t harmful or b) is, in fact, helpful. But even that observation is totally beside the point – because it leads us down yet more endless oh-yes-it-is-oh-no-it-isn’t cycles.

The point is actually more about the fact that there’s no real coherent definition of “religion” that people are using when they pull this “religion is bad, mmm’kay?” argument out of their Bucket O’ Zingers. There’s little that objectively separates what you might call “religion” from things like superstition, i.e., being scared of walking under ladders or black cats. There’s even less that separates it from most of politics where you believe, in a fairly unfalsifiable way, that one particular way of life is better than another. Alternatively, if you go by style of behaviour rather than style of belief, then, under a purely resemblance-based analysis, there’s a lot more in common between “religion” and sports fans, or between religion and D&D nerds. Certainly, there’s more in common there than between mainstream organised religion and superstitions, or mainstream organised religions and casual, vague, “something-ism” beliefs in higher powers or spirituality. After all, the latter rarely (if ever) preaches, rarely (if ever) goes to church, and pretty much by definition isn’t associated with a group of murdering psychopaths because they’re not really associated with a group.

And that should give everyone a hint about what the real question that needs to be asked. It shouldn’t be “what is a religion?”, it should be “what aspects of human interaction and grouping is constructive, and what is destructive?” Because that’s what we’re actually looking for. That’s what actually causes the harm. We can see that putting Jedi down on the census doesn’t really cause harm. We can see that ostracising others does cause harm.

Does the group show any signs of: prejudice against out groups? Demanding unquestioning obedience? Pandering to the leadership? Quashing dissent?

Sure, a lot of religion ticks a lot of those boxes. But certainly not every religion or instance of religious-esque woo does, and you’ll quickly note that far more things that aren’t found inside the commonly accepted definition of “religion” also tick those boxes. Once you get that into your head, it becomes clear that “all religion is all bad” is, at the very most, totally misleading and meaningless as a concept.

So fucking well stop with that one already. If you think only “religion” is harmful, and that not being “religious” stops you from causing harm, then you’re pretty much setting yourself up to be suckered into being the next persecuting elite.

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