People Are Good, But Stupid – A Maxim For Life

A while back, I ended up playing a game of Psychosis – a board game with questions loosely based around psychology studies, some of which are even still in-date. A more interactive element comes from group activities where Player A gets to answer a question in secret, while the others guess their answer. Usually, these take the format of “So tell me, __________, what is your favourite colour?” – but mostly a bit more interesting than that tepid example.

So I was asked, as you do in the game, “So tell me, ____________, do you think people are A) Mostly good, B) Mostly bad”. I think it may have been more of a scale, but I forget the precise details.

Do I think people are, generally speaking, good or bad?

That sparked off a bit of a debate, as these people know me quite well.

On the one hand, I display a huge amount of cynicism toward people. I generally believe the worst in them. I know the harm they cause, and my cynical reaction is to literally expect it at every turn. If someone is evil, I don’t seem to treat it as a mind-blowing exception to the pattern. On the other hand, came one argument, someone wouldn’t think such a thing if they didn’t fundamentally believe humans were, deep-down, good… but perhaps misguided. A social cynic would have to care about people, and care about their goodness, to rant and rave when they see it going awry.

And I suppose they got it right. I believe people are fundamentally good. I just also believe they’re too stupid to really know what that means.

Everyone wants to be “good”. The connotations of that term alone drive people toward it. It’s positive, it’s beneficial, it’s virtuous and admirable pretty much by definition. But even ignoring the definition, people try to act good – no-one truly wants to cause excessive harm and suffering, we all want to benefit the rest of the world. Even if all they have to go on is “to be good is to be like God”, they’ll instinctively drive toward the harm-reducing, well-being-maximising acts, and the Argumentum ad Dictionarium only comes out in the wash of post hoc rationalisation. We’re driven to be good, rather than bad, and broadly agree on what it means to act those ways even if we disagree when it comes to the tedious, academic unpacking of those terms.

The exceptions are usually driven either by a pragmatic need to break the vague Rules of Goodness (committing a theft because you need money) or a misunderstanding of what constitutes benefit to people (committing a theft because you believe it to be victimless or out of quasi-nihilistic self-interest). Even in the edge-cases of outright psychopathy, we attribute actions to a misfiring and a misinterpretation of morality rather than a drive to be evil.

Calling those exceptions “stupidity” may be an over-simplification – and I have something saved in my drafts folder about a better and more powerful definition of “stupid” to work with. Yet, “stupid” conveys the idea: we want to be good, we all agree that good means maximising well-being and reducing suffering… But we suck at the analytical component of figuring out what that all means in reality.

Mother Theresa thought she was doing good, and reducing suffering, and bringing dignity to people through bringing them, and herself, closer to God – yet those with a keen eye for detail may have seen suffering increase as she deprived the poor and sick of medical treatment while keeping them in squalor, and then spent her donation money on establishing convents. We can’t deny her intentions to do good, and her justifications that her acts were, ultimately, good. And I don’t think it’s a mere disagreement on the definition of good – she wanted to reduce harm and increase well-being, to bring dignity to people. She simply approached it in a… well, somewhat questionable way from the perspective of an outsider with identical motivations and values. Stupidity? Perhaps. Certainly a failure to objectively assess the situation and figure out exactly how to bring about more tangible well-being and happiness.

Look at, say, most racists, sexists or homophobes amongst others with an -ist or -phobe levelled at them. They probably don’t think that what they’re doing is bad. Even the hardened ones. They believe their opinions to be innocent and valid. They try to be good… at least, they don’t try to be evil. But do they understand the harm they cause? Is that because they’re stupid? Perhaps. “Stupid”, again, is not quite the right term – it’s the lack of a decent assessment of their actions.

This is perhaps where the social justice world fails to get through to them – by believing that a bigot is out to cause harm rather than simply misunderstanding whether they cause harm in the first place, they alienate rather than educate. If we approached them as having good intentions, we might be able to convince someone that their (erroneous) approach to implementing those intentions is where the harm comes from. People who say #AllLivesMatter just don’t understand the need to say #BlackLivesMatter, they don’t intend to say #BlackLivesDoNotMatter. Ignorance – not wilful ignorance, just plain, innocent, blameless ignorance – rather than malice is at work here.

“Where’s the harm?” is, ultimately, what hides underneath all the usual defences of hatred and intolerance. At the thin end, someone might defend a racist joke because “it’s just a joke!”; they’re asking where is the harm in something they perceive as truly harmless because they literally don’t see any harm derived from it. And it goes all the way to the extremes of “yes, I might be herding these people into a gas chamber, but, it’s just following orders so I’m not really complicit, and, besides, it’s purifying our race so is obviously beneficial – if we don’t gas this menace we’ll just suffer in the long term”. Okay, maybe that last one requires a little more work to get around… but it’s work we’ll happily do in the name of being good.

We’ll always find a motive to justify ourselves. We’ll always find a reasoning to back up our acts. We wouldn’t do it if we weren’t, fundamentally, driven to be good – because otherwise we’d be happy to admit that, yes, our actions are harmful to others and we don’t care. We’d admit to wanting to cause harm, minimise well-being, and be evil. Yet this is largely not what we see.

We wouldn’t be happy with flawed reasoning if we had the self-awareness to fully analyse it and come to a better conclusion, and then re-address our actions appropriately.

Or, in a soundbite; we want to be good, but we’re too dumb to figure out how to do it properly.

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A Crisis of Identity

Allow me to go all special-snowflake and super-self-indulgent for a bit. Normal service will resume shortly.


I’ve had trouble recently figuring out exactly where I fit in the world.

I feel too weird for ‘normal’ society, but too normal for ‘weird’ society.

I mean, consider: My week isn’t spent counting down to Friday where I go out to get drunk in a packed club; my political opinions go beyond “They’re all crooks!”; I don’t work in an office where my surname has remarkably transformed into ‘from accounts’ or ‘from purchasing’; I can count on one hand the exact number of times I’ve given a shit about sport in the last twenty years; And my main sexual fetish isn’t “phwoar, tits!”.

Meanwhile, at the same time: I hate whimsy; I can’t stand poetry; I’ve committed the ultimate sin in thinking that Doctor Who is just a TV show and, really, just a wee-little-bit shit; I don’t have any ironic hobbies like knitting or collecting tea; I don’t have any mental illnesses or disorders, neither self- nor professionally-diagnosed; And I’m basically cishet scum through-and-through.

So I wonder why either group puts up with me.

I could become a conservative, but I think they’re the Evil Fucking Empire. I’m obviously a liberal, but the liberal-left’s innate talent for self-destruction through its purity culture makes me want to curl into a ball and cry. I could go the South Park route and become apathetic and develop a disdain for any thought that challenges me to care or develop or change but, at the end of the day, I just give too much of a shit about things for that nonsense.

Is my real place with the more-mainstream nerds, fighting for Comic-Con tickets and arguing about X-Box vs the PlayStation 19? Probably not, since I have no idea where I’d find the disposable income for all that bullshit, and I find the casual misogyny and the neckbeardiness that comes with the territory utterly repellent. Does that mean I should join in full-time with the Social Justice Enthusiasts, instead? I suppose so, but I find them to be mostly cloud-cuckoolanders who need to learn to live in reality as it is, first, before they have a hope in hell of changing it because, goat-dammit, guys, perfection is the enemy of good/better, here!

A religious group is a non-starter, obviously. Maybe I could get in with the hardened, out-and-proud Atheists? Well, to be honest, I’d rather join a religious cult that was happy to admit to it, and I like that when I use the word “logic” I mean some bollocks like “(∃x∈X|x=n)⇔n∉Y” and not “Feminism and Islam are the greatest threat to humanity because Logic”.

Metalheads? Frankly, I’d rather be locked in a lift for 24 hours with a Trump fan than a Tool fan, and if I can’t stand the liberal purity culture I’ll last about half a second in the world of “METAAAAAALL!!!!!”. Besides, the broader ‘alternative’ crowd have always looked at me with suspicion for having zero interest in ever getting a piecing or tattoo ever.

So all those sub-cultures and movements are out, and I’ve never felt right nor welcome in any of them.

I’m not, and probably never will be, the great, perfect, stalwart LGBT ally people want me to be, but I’ll never go back to the “eugh, why does it always have to be about the gays!” crowd because fuck that. I know for a damn fact that privilege is very real, but I know there is literally fuck-all I can do about it – which I know because I once asked what I could do about it and had shit slung in my face for it. And, yes, quite, simply not talking about racism won’t make it magically go away but neither will only talking about it.

Or do I just bite the bullet and turn normal – Get a trendy haircut, support the local sports team (Go Sports Team!), share post-memes with Minions on them, comment on a Facebook post that already has 150,000 comments on it, roll back my self-awareness, and start regularly watching Eastenders? Or go full tits-to-the-wall odd – Shave one eyebrow because “that’s so random!”, take up body-painting, change my Facebook profile picture to the flag of whatever country is going through the shit this time, buy some goofy hats, take up barefoot running, and then invent my own sexual orientation because “there isn’t a word that describes me!”?

Or, is this just normal and expected. Are we all like this and all thinking the same thing?

The Wage Gap “Myth” – A Stock Response

The wage gap is a myth!

Women don’t earn less than men!

The 77-cents-on-the-dollar stat is bullshit!

Thus begin countless posts, articles, comments, editorials and even infographics (some of which are illustrated here for your vomit-inducing enjoyment) that talk about the wage gap – written by people I might start referring to as “Wage Gap Mythers”. I’ve literally lost count of the number of times I’ve read this sort of thing in the last few months. Seemingly endless pages are devoted to dispelling the idea that women earn less than men. Every time someone brings up the wage gap, the Mythers drop by. They’ve been shared across Facebook groups, wikis, websites and comment sections so frequently that I really just want to get a stock response written down to them – it saves time.

Basically: “women earn less because the bigger companies don’t employ them.” This is, of course, totally fine and not an issue nor evidence of a problem at all.

The grand irony of all these Myther posts, though, is that while their titles and thesis statements say things like “the wage gap is a myth”, what they then go on to do is to demonstrate the exact opposite. It’s almost creationist-like thinking: start with the conclusion, and shoehorn that conclusion into any and all facts you can find. Even if the facts outright contradict the conclusion or the logic developing those facts doesn’t support it. I’ll demonstrate how this works by breaking the “myth” argument down into a little step-by-step:

  1. State that women don’t earn less than men (or don’t earn 3/4 of their average earnings) – this is our generic Wage Gap Myther thesis statement
  2. State that this is because women do different jobs and have different commitments and so can’t earn as much as men and generally demonstrate numerous reasons why women actually earn less than men
  3. Absolutely ignore that Point 2 directly contradicts Point 1

If there’s time, the next point is to conclude that the real “wage gap” is only a few percent once you’ve taken all the reasons stated in Point 2 into account. Which is like saying “well, if you take into account the slant and the wobbliness, this floor is perfectly flat”. Or “once you’ve subtracted all the people living there, the population of London is actually zero”. Or “once you’ve taken into account all the people in indentured servitude against their will, slavery doesn’t exist”. You get the picture – “if you ignore the potential sources of sexism, sexism doesn’t exist!”, which I think is the most concise summary of the Myther position possible.

Well, given that a lot of men treat women like shit in the workplace and make assumptions that only the men have important jobs while women make the tea… then yes, yes they are paying to surround themselves with cock.

I don’t know how best to summarise the problems with the Wage Gap Myth argument in a way that will get through to Mythers. Because if Mythers are united by one thing it’s the fact they’ve been tricked into thinking they’ve done something highly clever; they’ve delved into the data, they’ve reached their own conclusions, and everyone thinks that when you reveal something as a “myth” it must be a really skeptical, rational and intelligent thing to do… but they haven’t. No data that you can find actually dispels the notion that women, on average, earn less than men – often very significantly. About 20% less in the United Kingdom, about 23% in the United States (a place still stubbornly opposed to any sort of Equal Pay Act) and 16% across the European Union on average, with a massive variance across member states. The studies are there, the statistics are there, they’re not going away. The Myther thesis statement is just plain and simply wrong.

Women don’t do the higher paying jobs. Sexism? Yes. Yes it is. Women don’t do, aren’t allowed to do, are discouraged from, the higher paying jobs. This is the point. This is literally the point. This is not some hidden conspiracy, this is the actual point. You have got so close to the point yet have still managed to so spectacular miss it, it’s like you’ve made the Kessel Run in less than 0.001 parsecs.

So what does that leave you with if you’re a Myther and want to write something on the subject of a wage gap? Well, you can quibble that “on average” needs to be given context, because those statistics are over an entire population of men and women, and you can mention all the reasons that women earn less than men, and, well… that’s about it. Unless you’re a complete fucking idiot in which case you might say “well, this man earns less than this woman therefore…” but the less said about people who try that one the better.

So I’ll summarise why the Wage Gap Myth argument is bullshit, as best as possible in big letters and short words:

FINDING EXCUSES FOR SOMETHING IS NOT THE SAME AS PROVING IT DOESN’T EXIST

In fact, let’s just underscore the irony of these responses one more time: their premise is “the wage gap doesn’t exist” and “women don’t earn less than men” but because that’s a fact that simply is, these “myth” posts have to explicitly acknowledge the existence of a wage gap and then find excuses for it. The Myther argument is nothing but excuses: excuses that simply wouldn’t exist and wouldn’t need to be found if the wage gap was actually mythical.

Did I mention this is creationist-level logic, here? What part of “the wage gap is a myth” and “women don’t earn less than men” is supported by making excuses for the very existence of such a fact?

But anyway, let’s assume a hypothetical Myther accepts this, and they then accept that they are, in actual fact, just making excuses… sorry, finding reasons… for the gap. After all, women do, statistically speaking, do different jobs to men. They do, statistically speaking, take care of children more frequently. They do, really they do, take on more part-time and lower paid work. So yes, you’re right – whether you’re an MRA, a politician, some random blogger who thinks they’re smarter because they’ve stumbled upon this startling revelation – there are reasons women, on average, earn less than men.

We take a hard job that requires constant attention, dedication and a lot of training… and we pay more for the one that is traditionally male. A cynical interpretation? Yes. But unfortunately, the cynical interpretation sounds like it has a lot more explanatory value.

My laconic response to that? “Congratulations! Have a fucking prize!”

(Does the sarcasm come across in text, I’m never sure…)

Do you genuinely think this is news to people?

Do you really think that this somehow isn’t the point social progressives and feminists have been making for years?

Do you actually think that, somehow, this is an okay situation to be in?

Are you waiting for me to declare “Oh how wrong I’ve been! Women aren’t treated like shit in the world! They’re just… erm… treated like… shit! But that’s fine, there are Reasons!”

Let’s use the word “predicated” in a sentence: the Myther argument is predicated on a straw man interpretation that people complaining about the wage gap are under the impression that women get paid ~20% less for the exact same work. This isn’t true at all. Which you’d know if the average Myther had ever bothered reading anything written by a Social Justice Warrior Enthusiast any time in the last few decades. But I really don’t think the average Myther or MRAsshole or MGTOWer would ever be caught dead doing such a thing.

wage

Literally every article on the subject says “the wage gap is a myth” but then goes on to say “the wage gap is real it’s just… shutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutup!!” Sod it, this is worse than creationism.

The Reasons behind the wage gap really isn’t news to anyone. No one who has ploughed any thought into the existence of the wage gap needs to be informed of these reasons. Yes, women earn less because they work different hours at different pay rates because of various reasons. Thank you very much Captain Fucking Obvious. The difference between the progressive opinion and the “we more smarter than you because wage gap be myth” position is that we took it a little further – we asked one more “why?”

Why do women work these lower paid jobs? Could it be that society rail-roads us into particular careers? Could it be that men are told they should do one thing and women another?

Why do women disproportionately do more child-care than men? Surely, if we’re such an equal society that the wage gap is a “myth”, then this shouldn’t be an issue, right? Last I checked, it took two people to make a baby (this may be news to people with the emotional and intellectual maturity of the average Men’s Rights Activist, of course) and so why wouldn’t the responsibility be split nearly 50:50? Surely there should be nothing to take into account from this if there wasn’t a social discrepancy, right?

Or let’s take a more insidious twist on that first “why” – Why do we pay less for jobs that women do? Put another way: do we force women into lower paying jobs, or do we devalue jobs done by women? That dichotomy is the driving force that explains the existence of a wage gap – a fact that “Wage Gap Mythers” very explicitly admit to in their quest to find excuses – and neither option looks like it could let society off the hook.

The answers to those additional “why?” questions aren’t straightforward, nor are they easy to admit to, and certainly outside the scope of this post. But we try. We at least give it a shot, which is certainly an improvement on an argument that stops two logical steps previously and assumes the opposite conclusion.

And this is without getting into the research that demonstrates – in both controlled and real-world environments – that women tend to get offered lower starting salaries for identical qualifications (something replicated with ethnicity, and it gets worse there), get rejected at a higher rate and let’s not get started on the attitudes that they can and do face at work. None of that even comes close to supporting the Myther position.

In many respects, Mythers have their facts absolutely straight. They’ve thought about how society affects women and minorities, how it affects their eduction, their lifestyles, and leads to the fact they earn far less than their more privileged counterparts. It’s just fundamentally annoying that they’re so blinded by the presumed “myth” conclusion that they can’t see what these facts are outright screaming in their face.


You may now commence your incessant adolescent whining in the comments.

Sunday School Environmentalism

For the two-and-a-half people who care, I recently added an entry to the RationalWiki quasi-official blog on Sunday School Environmentalism. Having spent a not-insignificant part of my university eduction doing environmental chemistry and studying impact metrics (even this extensive blog scratches the surface of that topic) it’s something I’m quite involved in.

How to stop sucking at non-belief (Part 2)

The Problem with “Religion”

There’s a big problem with “religion”. No, this isn’t going to be a tirade against how “it” supposedly brainwashes people, or how “it” starts wars, or how “it” is a massive affront to reason. No, this is about the actual word, the label itself, and how it’s used – especially amongst the anti-theist and anti-religionist crowd of atheists, because holy fuck those people can be stupid when they want to be.

The problem with “religion”? “Religion” doesn’t exist.

See, people treat “religion”, like it’s a thing.

Religion_as_a_thingBut it’s not a thing. You can’t find it anywhere. Sure, we might imagine something like a hypothetical “generalised” religion, much like the “generalised mollusc” anatomy, but that doesn’t mean such a thing exists in reality. We’d have a hard time finding this “religion” anywhere. No one follows “religion”. No one is part of “religion”. And if I type “religion” once more I’m going to have a bad time.

No, “religion” is not a thing. It’s more like a bucket.

Religion_as_a_bucket

We put stuff into this bucket based on a few superficial similarities. Things like “believes in a creator deity”, or “provides a moral code”, or something more abstract. But those similarities are superficial and generic, they overlap and criss-cross and can be quite complicated. They’re not universal, they’re not essential, there isn’t even a single common thread uniting everything in the bucket. Not all religions believe in an almighty God. Not all religions propose supernatural processes. Not all religions fleece followers of money, and not all religions profess a love for peace.

Often, the differences are far more striking than the similarities.

spot_the_difference

When you step back and think about it, it does seem strange what does go into the bucket and what doesn’t. Pick any attribute ascribed to “religion”, and you’ll be able to find a good few exceptions; “religions” that don’t posses that attribute or “not-religions” that do.

what_goes_inAnd this is sort of where the problem is. Because nothing truly unites everything in the bucket, it’s difficult to use in a general sense. It’s almost pointless to try.

Few people ever reach into the bucket to examine its contents; they’re stuck with looking at the bucket and simply declaring universal truths about it as if it was a thing. By no means are these declarations universally negative in the way anti-religionists use them (“religion is against reason”, “religion is harmful”, “religion is child abuse”),  many of the positive assertions also do this in exactly the same way (“religion is necessary”, “religion answers the big questions”, “religion should be respected”).

contents_may_differThe bucket is just that, a bucket. It does nothing but hold stuff.

Sometimes this is quite convenient. It would be a pain in the ass to refer to tall wooded objects with leaves if it wasn’t for the concept of a “tree”. But this comes at the price of, on occasion, mistaking the bucket for a real thing and then making mass generalisations about what it holds. People assume animist religions are “bullshit” for the same reasons creationism is total and utter crock. They assume Hinduism is interchangeable with Islam – or that neither have the same kind of internal sub-divisions as Christianity does, completely blind to their own geographic biases. Is atheism a religion? Well, the answer to that is actually far more complicated than “is bald a hair colour?”

Getting rid of the buckets probably isn’t an option. The world is just too big and complicated to go without them. Even fuzzy buckets would just break peoples’ brains eventually. All the inclusions, exclusions, exceptions, partial truths and partial matches would be too much information for us to handle.

Instead, we simply need better, more useful, more appropriate buckets for the task.

good_shit_bad_shit

It’s a much better approach just to simply categorise things better. But it does require some effort, especially when language and society is already rigged for the inefficient and crap version, which splits the world in to “religion” and “not-religion” and says one is good and the other is bad. You need to look into things and pick out what’s bad and what’s good. Then separate it out, and deal with things specifically. The phrase “all religion is bad” is absolutely meaningless; but if the average non-believer admitted that, and tried to say “behaviour that ostracises and demonises the out-group is harmful”, they they’d run the risk of turning a critical eye on their own behaviour. That’s not a comfortable thought, and it’s no wonder people avoid it.

This is why anger at “religion” is misplaced – and why thinking that anger directed at specific components found in the religious bucket is anger at “religion” is a foul misinterpretation. There is a “bad shit” bucket out there, and it’s something worth getting angry about – in fact, it’s a better question to ask why people don’t feel that these things are worth getting angry about. At the same time, though, there’s a “good shit” bucket (or even a “meh bucket”) and lumping that all in with “stuff worth getting angry about”  is, at best, just wasted effort.

But always remember, the bucket itself can’t harm people; its contents do.

Accept with an open mind?

This is going to be thankfully short. Spotted in the comments section of the RationalWiki blog:

I challenge you to accept this criticism with an open mind.

This came at the end of an exceptionally non-specific derp-fest about how climatology is a pseudoscience. So non-specific, in fact, that it was one of those things that is pointless to refute. But this ending stood out for the following reasons.

An open mind is one that entertains an idea, assesses it, and then decides to accept or reject it. A closed mind either rejects the idea a priori, or accepts it blindly.

Because a period of assessment is involved in having an open mind, acceptance or rejection are equally possible (although not necessarily equally probable, unless you need to start with a uniform prior). No one can be dared to accept something “with an open mind”. That’s impossible. If the desired result is known in advance, if acceptance (or rejection) is demanded beforehand, then there can be no open-mindedness involved.

Open-mindedness demands only one simple thing; that you entertain both acceptance and rejection of an idea are possible before you start assessing it. That’s all. Your answer must stand up against the possibility of its opposite. Acceptance should be shown to be more worthy against rejection, or rejection needs to be shown to be more worthy next to acceptance. If you cannot do this, then what good is your actual answer? If it was impossible to come away from something thinking “no”, then did you really choose “yes” with a free and open mind?

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.