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Posted by on May 8, 2008 in demonizing religion, Romania | 21 comments

On demonizing religion

Following on from my post on Romania, I want to add that, as a matter of fact, I met only one Orthodox priest while I was there, and he was a lovely chap for whom I’ve the greatest respect.

We stopped off at an Orthodox Church which we spotted to take a look. There turned out to be a funeral in progress, with an open casket in the back of the hearse and the priest doing his thing. Straight after, he beckoned us over and was extremely welcoming, giving us a very informative tour of his church, of which he was rightly proud (it all had to be translated via our taxi driver and host).

So let me clarify – I am not attacking religious people per se, many of whom are wonderful. Nor am I really attacking the institution of religion much (though I do argue against religious belief on the grounds that it is false, and, in some forms, dangerous).

Fact is, religions aren’t all bad. Indeed, I wouldn’t like to say they are more bad than good (as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins do, for example).

True, I don’t like religious homophobes and other bigots. But the reason I don’t like them is that they are bigots, not that they are religious.

In fact I am as keen on defending people’s right to be religious as I am to defend their right to be atheist.

Yes I am very much a defender of freedom of thought and expression, which some religious folk restrict in various ways. But then so do some atheists (e.g. Stalin).

It’s really worth teasing out what we do and don’t object to, in case we slip into demonizing the religious, which I think would actually be highly counterproductive. And largely unjustified.


  1. Hello Stephen,After you left Romania I had an interesting conversation with professor Liviu Dragomirescu and he said something I agree with. The problem of whether God exists or not is a false one. Choosing God is a matter of heart. People who believe or think they need to believe in God do so because deep down inside they search for goodness, love and protection. It is a choice made by the heart. You compare heart with mind. Ancuta

  2. Objecting to religious belief need not, and should not, involve ‘demonizing’ believers, doubting their sincerity, or denying the historical and cultural role which religion has played in our heritage.But in this perilous day and age, no-one can afford to let their lives be guided by nonsensical beliefs which result in behaviour dsmaging not only to themselves, but to others who don’t share their faith.The problem with 21st century religion is literalism. Religion as myth and tradition is all very well – but when people believe without any tangible evidence that the Supernatural, and Deities, actually exist and control their lives, they are no better than brainwashed.

  3. Hi AncutaWell, I do agree that for many people, religious belief is not something they hold on rational grounds. They believe because it’s comforting, or exciting, or whatever.However,just because someone believes something for such “reasons of the heart” does not mean we can’t show their belief is false. If I believe in fairies simply because I find the idea exciting and comforting, that doesn’t mean others cannot show that what I believe is, in fact, false.

  4. @ Stephan & Anticant,I more or less do agree, but I think there might be considerable areas of impedance mismatch, I you allow a metaphor.What I and probably you consider to be legitimate critique of their (lack of) “philosophical” justification for belief, is by many of them perceived as doubting their sincerity and/or demonizing them as believers. I would think most of them have been subjected to varieties of Ibrahims “inundation” (not from faith schools, but from a plethorea of sources) and have de facto internalized an unjustified “regligious”framework. The inability to defend this “tacit knowledge” may lead to the aforementioned hurt feelings……..According to an anecdote, a president (Roosevelt?) was once very shocked when told that half the population had an intelligence score below the mean (and set out to do something about it). :-)With regards to usefulness of religions it is perhaps also pertinet to recall that a large proportion of the population does NOT inhabit the ivory tower? 🙂 Properly administered (and dosed) religion(s) COULD perhaps contribute to (Pseudo) justify important normative principles to larger parts of the population? I do however agree that the empirical success-stories are rather sparse. …Perhaps some buddhist varieties, -and jains?CassandersIn Cod we trust

  5. My concerns over religion:Politics: – When religious faith enters the political arena and people make decisions about social policy based upon little more than an interpretation of scripture. That scares the hell out of me. Seriously.Education: – This is another hands off area for me . I don’t object to children being taught Religious Studies which is a modern neutral approach to studying the different faiths. But ‘faith formation’ in a specific religion taught to the exclusion of all other faiths is a recipe for disaster in my book. If relgious folks will leave these two areas alone, I don’t really care what they do.

  6. I wouldn’t like to say they are more bad than good (as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins do, for example).As far as I know, that is not their main problem. It is that religious moderates, the ones that you would classify as “good” are the ones that are hiding the extremests.This goes by degrees, so you won’t see the liberal christian excusing and hiding the fundy, but the same liberal christian will be friends with a christian which is more fundamentalist, who is friends with a more fundamentalist etc until the batshit crazy fundy.It is this degree that allows the extremists to continue with their bigotry. As long as they have a social group that accepts them, they will never feel the pressure to change.I hope what I wrote is clear enough (only because I’ve never put my thoughts on it in writing)

  7. Stephen: If people believe in something, however irrational, because, as ancuta says, “deep down inside they search for goodness, love and protection”; or if you believe in fairies simply because you ” find the idea exciting and comforting”, it is extremely unlikely that logical or scientific demonstration that such beliefs are, in fact, false is going to shake such faith one little bit.Cassanders: My withers are unwrung by the prospect of peoples’ feelings being “hurt” because others consider that their sincerely held beliefs are nonsense, and say so. When people start claiming protection from “hurt feelings” as a “right”, and even seek legislation to silence and punish their critics, I would regard it as comical if it were not so dangerous in the increasingly lunatic world we are living in where more and more people are fearful of saying out loud what they honestly think, because they may be verbally, legally, and even physically attacked for doing so. If we are to safeguard our democracy, there needs to be a much more robust defence of free speech than is happening at present. I agree with Observer that dogmatic religion should be kept out of education and politics, but that is most unlikely to be achieved without a huge struggle, as it is in the nature of proselytizing religions to seek to enlarge their social and political influence – see Cardinal Cormack-Murphy’s latest pronouncements, reported in today’s press.

  8. Sorry, I meant Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor – I never can remember the old spud’s name correctly!

  9. @Anticant,Sorry that I didn’t manage to express my thoughts clear enough. My point was to suggest possible explanations for the expressed hurt feelings, not at all to claim that such feelings should be catered for. I do absolutely agree that “a right not to be offended” is an antithesis to freedom of thoughts and speech, and a stupid and even dangerous idea. CassandersIn cod we trust

  10. My feelings are always hurt when anyone [by definition of inferior intelligence] presumes to disagree with ME!I expect that if I were religious, I would be much more “hurt”, to the point of becoming verbally or even physically violent, by the wickedness of those who dared to doubt my “divinely inspired” beliefs.It’s about self-righteousness, really.

  11. Cassanders, just for the record, that wasn’t Roosevelt, it was Eisenhower!

  12. What I object to, I think, is the attempt to impose on me (on all of us). I object to being asked or urged or commanded to believe things that there’s no good reason to believe. There are times when it’s difficult to object to that publicly (as opposed to inside one’s own head) without appearing to ‘demonize religion.’ But it can’t be helped – I can be silent, if I must, but I can’t not object to attempts to impose on me. Even when really nice people tell me that God is watching me or whatever it is, I bristle, at least mentally.

  13. Is it ever OK to demonize anyone or anything? If it is OK then is it even a productive measure?I am a little suspicious of the “nice person” defence. Would being a really nice person in every other way excuse being (for example) a racist?

  14. What do you say to the charge that moderate religion and faith, and our atheist/ agnostic acceptance of it, is dangerous because it allows the more extremist or militant religion to also exist? For example, if we accept people believing things on faith, rather than reason, doesn’t this force us to accept any immoral things they do through that faith? Don’t we need to insist on reason in order to safeguard any reasonable morality?

  15. p.s. Hi anonymousI think your point is really interesting, but it seems to need clarifying a bit. I personally think that the judgement of being a nice person is firstly, too simplistic. However, I do think that we can judge people based on their intentions, and that someone who act poorly, for example because they have racist prejudices, might still be judged to have acted morally if they were trying to do what was best, though they were hopelessly misguided. Their immorla action might have been all those times they’d not challenged their beliefs when they knew it should have been questioned. But what do you mean exactly by excusing the person? Do you mean we still judge they are a nice person? Or we don’t condemn them for their racist actions? Or we don’t loose faith/ hope in them by forever judging them as “bad”? I think we should challenge (and condemn) the racism, but seek to understand and thereby still ‘love’ the person. We have to forgive people’s wrongs I think, from a somewhat deterministic perspective on free will.

  16. What is a “nice” person? Doesn’t everyone – even Hitler – act “for the best”, however irrationally and mistakenly? Their belief that they have acted “for the best” doesn’t excuse them from responsibility for the actual consequences of their actions.

  17. Could this issue be one for your political analogy? We seem to be so much better at distinguishing criticism from demonisation when talking politics rather than religion. I can criticise a party, point of view, or individual quite severely without being accused of demonising them. That individual may well be very upset, the criticism may affect deeply held opinions or even a total world-view. Never-the-less we are more likely to tell the target of the criticism to grow up rather than act against the critic. Where criticism does become demonisation we are quite confident in applying that term. We are also confident in identifying those points of view which can be criticised (Boris Johnson), those that require severe criticism (Donald Rumsfeld) and those that SHOULD be demonised (Burmese Generals).

  18. Hi Sally – well not all religious folk appeal to “faith”. Some have arguments. I think they are bad arguments, but at least they are appealing to reason. And in fact few religious types think their position is a matter of faith alone – they think it not unreasonable, at the very least. Of course I frown on appeals to blind faith as a way of avoiding criticism etc. But not all religious folk do that.

  19. Sally_bm, AnticantWhat is a nice person? Well I suppose this is highly subjective and rather debased term but one might include such qualities as politeness, good humour, charm etc. In short someone you’d be happy spending time with assuming of course the issue of their bigotry, criminality or whatever does not arise. I certainly didn’t mean to encompass the idea of anyone acting “with the best of intention”. My comment was motivated by thinking about Stephens favorable description of the Orthodox priest he met. His charm and manners do not change the fact of his being a member of the clergy. I also remembered an elderly relative who would have qualified as a sweet little old lady until you got her started on the topic of race relations. So back to the thought then. Is it OK to demonize a particular belief or practice whether it be political or otherwise (communism, Nazism, Black supremacy, slavery, eugenics etc). How about its practitioners? What about simple supporters? (“I haven’t got any slaves myself but theres nothing wrong with it…Lots of my friends have them.”) Is demonization of any sort just plain wrong?

  20. Demonisation of individuals or groups because of their beliefs is wrong. Intolerance of and active opposition to cruel, hypocritical, and dishonest behaviour is not.When discussing ideologies – religious, political or whatever – we should be relentless in exposing their intellectual fallacies and, even more importantly, in condemning the bad behaviour they induce in their followers. To do so is not demonisation. “By their fruits you shall know them.”

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