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Posted by on Dec 3, 2007 in Is religion dangerous | 2 comments

Is Religion Dangerous (II)

William Hawthorne takes me to task on “Is religion dangerous?”

My responses below. William’s stuff is in italics.

[Y]our argument runs as follows:

(1) Religion has the power to get so many people to believe something so ridiculous so quickly.

(2) Religion is also unpredictable.

(3) If something x is unpredictable and has the power to get so many people to believe something so ridiculous so quickly, we should have safeguards in place against x.

(4) So we should have safeguards in place against religion.

I think this is a fair construal, given your comment above. Now, where are your supporting arguments for (1) and (2)?

All you did in your original entry is bring up examples of particular religious people who hold ridiculous beliefs. But, as I said earlier, it doesn’t follow from that that religion has the “power” to do thus and such. At the most, you could claim that some religious people have the power to assent to ridiculous beliefs. And certainly that’s true.

My response: Seems to me there are features of religious belief systems, in particular – widespread appeals to “faith” (e.g. in the literal truth of scripture, irrespective of whatever reason or empirical enquiry might happen to show) – that means religion is likely to have at least some power to make people believe ridiculous things. This is a characteristic feature of the belief system itself, note.

So: (i) the wacky belief came from religion itself.
and (ii) religion itself has characteristic features that give it at least some power to get people to accept wacky beliefs.

The question is, how much power does it have?

I provided an illustration of a palpably absurd religious/scientific belief spreading out into a hundred million people – in many cases smart, well-educated people – in barely more than a half century. This certainly wasn’t predicted, or easily predictable.

Pretty good evidence for (1) and (2) in your presentation of my argument, right?

Now you may say – “But Stephen, you’ve committed the post hoc fallacy. Just because these people are religious, and believe something absurd, doesn’t establish a causal connection. This may just be a coincidence.”

Highly unlikely, surely. Here’s an analogy. I know steam can be used to generate power, but I have no idea how much. Not much, I guess. You show me a steam engine pulling along a heavy train. I observe. Great evidence of considerable power, right?

If I were to say: “But this may just be a coincidence! You haven’t established that the steam is the cause. Perhaps something else moved the train!” You’d consider me a fool, right?

What does it even mean in the first place to assert that “religion has the power…”? This is surely translatable into talk of religious people having power, right? Like a football team, or the Navy, or the media, religion is composed of people who hold many different kinds of beliefs. It’s not an entity that exists over and above the set of people who compose it.

So if a subset of religious people have bizarre (or even dangerous) beliefs, it seems more sensible to say that we should safeguard against them, not “religion”. If you disagree, then are you prepared to suggest that we should safeguard against football, say, if we find that many of its players abuse steroids and hold irrational beliefs?

I have just explained that there are characteristic features of religion itself that generate this power. E.g. appeals to “faith”. It’s not a coincidence that these religious individuals happen to believe scripture irrespective of what reason or empirical inquiry might happen to reveal. They don’t just happen to have this tendency (in the way that, say, many football players may happen to follow astrology). They have it because they are religious.

You also provided no arguments for (3). If you think you did, then would you mind formulating them for me in your next comment? Anyway, (3) is subject to obvious counterexamples. Using your reasoning and terminology, one might say that the blogosphere has the power to get so many people to believe ridiculous things so quickly. Should we safeguard against the blogosphere?

Given belief is linked to action, if something has immense power to get people to believe ridiculous things, there is clearly a risk. A risk worth managing, if we can, I’d suggest. See below.

True, the blogosphere also has some power in this respect, of course (though not as much as religion, I’d argue). For that reason, I think this risk worth managing, too.

Manage in what way? I suggested fostering “a critical culture”. In the case of religion, I suggest making sure all children are raised to think and question, even about the religious beliefs they take with them, into the classroom. I don’t object to religious schools. I do object to the kind of school that clamps down on independent critical thought. Independent critical thought should be fostered, even about religion.

It’s the same safeguard we should have in place against the potentially corrupting power of the blogosphere. Let’s give young people an education in critical thinking, so they can spot bullshit and manipulation when they come across it. Including on the web.

It’s not a particularly oppressive safeguard, is it – training and encouraging people to think and question (it’s not like putting all religious people and bloggers in jail)? Do you object to my suggested safeguard?

And again, the key terms you employ in your argument seem either ambiguous or too vague. What does “safeguarding” against religion entail? (I’m not asking for necessary and sufficient conditions; a rough sketch would be nice.) And why should we safeguard against religion, rather than just particular religions? Do you want us to safeguard against theistic buddhism, hinduism, neoshamanism, bha’i, dianic wicca, christian wicca, santeria, progressive judaism, and all the other thousands of religions in the world? You might say something like, “No, only certain religions should be safeguarded against.” But if you say that, then O wonder why you wouldn’t just say, “Only certain religious people should be safeguarded against.”

As I say, my recommended safeguard is a critical culture (as I said in original article). I’d apply it to all religion (and not just religion). If you want more detail, see my book The War For Children’s Minds. Be interested in getting some feedback.


  1. I would agree that it is not ‘religion’ in and of itself that is dangerous, but the following combination (including and paraphrasing some of Stephen’s points). The first two conditions might apply to many situations, but it’s the third condition that’s the clincher for religion:1) People with an uncritical mind are extremely gullible and open to persuasion by charismatic unscrupulous, or merely misguided, people, or by weight of numbers, about some ‘truth’ X. 2) People of a critical mind are not completely immune from this persuasion, or may not be able to refute X, for many reasons: they are not as charismatic as some of the proponents; the arguments for X are so tortuous, or rely on fallacies that are difficult to put across to those without the training; the arguments are not even real arguments, but statements that can neither be proved or disproved; there is insufficient data, or the problem is too difficult to refute currently; etc.Conditions (1) and (2) allows for the propagation of X through whole communities, and it may continue and grow over a period of time. However, given enough effort and time it can be established that X is not a worthwhile ‘truth’ and can be discarded. Even then some people will continue to belive in X. Crazy ‘truths’ can sweep the blogosphere in this way.Condition (2) can result in ‘experts’ believing X for some time, but later finding flaws in the original reasoning that supported X. This is the case with the early adoption of nuclear energy, where the arguments for it failed to account for the true cost of decommissioning. The war in Iraq might also have been permitted as a consequence of condition (2). The solution to this problem is more critical reasoning and the promotion and teaching of critical reasoning, as Stephen has suggested.But, religion comes into its own with condition (3):3) Faith, and by inference the rejection of critical reasoning. Note that critical reasoning might be used, up to a point, but then only to the extent that it supports X. The main principle here is that if reasoning fails, then faith applies, but if reasoning can be used, no matter how invalid, if you can get away with it use it to bring some apparent credibility to X. One of the benefits of having faith in your arsenal is that it makes it very easy for those of a non-critical mind, or those struggling with a difficult argument, to simply accept X on faith, and particularly on the word of the leaders of the faith.4) Hysteria. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but it helps. If you can whip up your followers into a frenzy, then it becomes more difficult for followers to reject X. If you’ve been discarding all reason, chanting and throwing yourself about in the name of X, calling for the death of apostates and non-believers, can you suddenly see yourself turning round and saying “Oops! Sorry folks, I think I may have been mistaken there.” Such a sudden change of heart not going to happen is it? It rarely happens in policing, politics and business, so why should we expect it to be likely in religion.So, religion is dangerous because of the combination of all these conditions; and there may be more.

  2. Stephen,You’ll recall that I wanted some supporting arguments for the first two premises of your main argument. In response, you provided the following claim:Seems to me there are features of religious belief systems, in particular…that means religion is likely to have at least some power to make people believe ridiculous things. This is a characteristic feature of the belief system itself, note.The idea here seems to be that we can start by observing certain widespread features of particular religions (e.g. the tendency of particular religions to appeal to blind faith, etc.). From such observations, we can infer that, probably, religion itself has these features.The problem here is that the features of particular religions we’ve observed don’t provide any good inductive basis to claim that religion has such features. There are many particular religions that don’t have the relevant features. Consider e.g. religions in which blind faith plays no role whatever. (I don’t think you’ve committed a post hoc fallacy.)In any case, the safeguard you describe seems perfectly reasonable to me. I certainly wouldn’t want to argue against it. Think of the benefits that would arise from making ethics and elementary logic part of a standard high school education. I’d go so far as to say that theists should support your idea, since youthful minds equipped with the tools of reason might very well subject naturalism to critical evaluation, along with different religions. I plan on reading your book. Cheers, Will

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