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Posted by on Jan 19, 2009 in Is religion dangerous | 9 comments

Matthew Parris on religion – false, but useful!

Matthew Parris’ piece, in which he suggest that, though he is an atheist, he thinks religion is a powerful tool for good in Africa, something he recommends we foster and encourage, has predictably provoked responses from atheists. See previous post.

My small contribution here is just to repeat and edited part of my earlier post Is Religion Dangerous. The moral I wish to draw is, obviously, that even if religion can be a highly powerful and useful tool, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to use it.

Many, including Keith Ward, recommend religion for social engineering purposes. They claim that (i) it helps build a sense of community, (ii) it makes people happier and healthier, and (iii) it makes them better behaved [more highly motivated to do good, etc.].

Suppose it does. Even if it were useful in these ways, it seems to me there are nevertheless special dangers attaching to the use of religion as a tool.

Religion is immensely powerful and can behave in unpredictable ways. Take the young earth creationists … now about 100 million Americans, including smart, college educated people.

[Who would have predicted that in just 50 years or so they would come to have such political influence in the US – to the point where even the last President appears to be a convert? Who would have predicted that 12% of British graduates would come to believe it by 2006]

We have here an illustration of the gobsmacking power of religion to get even very smart people to believe palpably stupid things…

Religion, it seems to me, is a bit like nuclear power. Immensely powerful and (arguably) useful. And, perhaps most of the time, it runs quite happily, doing not much harm [and perhaps even quite a bit of good].

But unless it is extremely carefully controlled and monitored, it can very quickly run out of control. Indeed, just as with nuclear power, you can predict the unpredicted. Somewhere along the line, something probably will go wrong, and when it does, you have a toxic situation on your hands. A religious Chernobyl.

Is nuclear power safe, or dangerous? Perhaps it can be used safely, but that’s not to deny that it is potentially hugely dangerous. The same, I’d suggest, is true of religion.

Keith Ward agreed with me, by the way.

Let’s also not forget that less than five of my lifetimes ago the Catholic Church was still garroting Europeans who failed to believe what the Pope told them. Yes, I know your local vicar seems like a nice chap, but we’d be wise to remember that our freedom from religious oppression and violence is a very recent development.


  1. Hi Stephen, I only found your site the other day. Great articles, and some really interesting debates too.BTW, I think you meant:”Indeed, just as with nuclear power, you **can’t** predict the unpredicted.”Look forward to reading more.

  2. Or is it more like coal power – overheating the whole planet – than nuclear power – benign almost all of the time.

  3. Reading Matthew Parris’s post and the ‘evangelical’ comments he solicited (whether intentional or not) reminded me that Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on charity or compassion or any of the really good and positive things we attribute to humanity (which Parris and his cheerleaders don’t seem to appreciate at all).Having said all that, religion is nothing if it’s not authentic, and poloticised religion is the antithesis of authenticity in my view.Generally, I don’t distinguish between religious or secular charities involved in overseas aid (I donate to both) but I don’t support any organisation that has insane policies on the use of condoms or, like the Bush administration, discriminates against organisations that provide advice on abortion.After hearing the Pope’s Christmas message against homosexuality, I realised that the Vatican has finally publicly declared that it is both morally and intellectually irrelevant. By the way, unlike Parris, I’m not an atheist.Regards, Paul.

  4. The Matthew Parris argument presumably boils down to this: “I personally don’t believe in religion but, for their own good, I think people should be taught that it is true”. In other words, he is proposing government based on what he considers a lie. That, I submit, is self-evidently deceitful and immoral, quite apart from whatever criticisms one might level against religion.

  5. Just not to confuse people: should be ‘insane policies forbidding the use of condoms’. And I’m unlike the Bush administration, who, in one of his first acts of office, stopped aid to any overseas institution that provided advice or aided women in acquiring an abortion, as reported by Scientific American, as soon as it transpired. In fact, it was the first criticism of Bush that I read in Scientific American – there were many more to follow.Regards, Paul.

  6. Thanks Andy – I am saying you can predict the unpredicted. E.g. I can predict that unexpected things will happen.Perhaps needs rephrasing though!

  7. “The Vatican has finally publicly declared that it is both morally and intellectually irrelevant.”Unfortunately it is all too relevant, because its pronouncements, dotty though they may be, still pull a lot of clout with millions of deluded people round the globe.

  8. Silver Tiger: I don’t think that is what Parris is saying. He is not trying to boil down an argument based on principle, but to relate and make some sense of his experience of the influence of religion in the places in Africa where he has spent some time. Paul Melling – he is also not saying that religion has any kind of monopoly on charity and compassion. What he is saying is that it does seem to have an ‘added ingredient’ in terms of its ability to support personal transformation. Also he is not comparing religious and secular charities but development projects and missions (i.e. churches). While I agree with Stephen that religion can be dangerous, I don’t think this argument is particularly helpful in making practical sense of what Parris describes – the many villages where the church is the best or only functioning institution and the individuals for whom religion has been a positive force for change and personal development. The questions which he raises are empirical not principle-based questions (I think Daniel Dennett looks at some of the evidence on this but I don’t have the book to hand…)i.e Is religion really effective at enabling personal development, responsibility, hope etc…as these anecdotes suggest? When do the dangers outweigh the benefits? Can rational, secular alternatives compete in terms of effectiveness, and ability to mobilize resources and support?

  9. Hi all – I have just put up a new post on this. Might be of interest to Maya…

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