Religion & Philosophy

Which religion is best?

I do not believe in God. Still, arguing against God, as Dawkins, Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens have done, is a mug’s game. Whether it’s Allah, or dead relatives, or the constellations, or stupid stuff from movies (the Force,) belief in an extrinsic, intercessionary force seems to be a basic human need.

And where there’s a consumer need, an industry will emerge, whether the product is ringtones or salvation. Religion is the business of god. We have had organized religion in every society and every geography at every time in history, and we always will. To quote myself, if we abolished every religion at midnight, we’d have a thousand more by sunrise.

These days we are absolutely drowning in spirituality and religions.  Old ones, new ones, big ones, small ones.  Indeed, many people now practice two or three religions at a time, like my Zen-Buddhist-Jew-friend Lenny, or my Christian-Buddhist-astrologist-yoga teacher, Beth.

The problem, as a recent comment thread on this site highlighted, is that some religions are demonstrably better than others. The example given was “social Christians” vs. “evangelical Christians.”  There is no Consumer Reports Best Buy for religion. Religions themselves aren’t very good at defining the metrics of “good” and “bad.” For the most part, followers of a religion define “good” as the one they belong to and “bad” as the one someone else belongs to.

It’s time to add a little science to this thing.  Let’s do a little thought experiment. Let’s score the religions.

We will start with the very generous assumption that religion in its pure form is a good thing. It provides community, comfort to those in emotional pain, and industrialized kindness in the form of philanthropy and the like.  It also provides a central organizing principle for people’s lives. We all need structure—somewhere to go, something to spend our time on, an affiliation, people to be with.  It surely makes just as much sense to dress up and go to church on Sunday as it does to put on face paint and go to a Raiders game in your silver-and-black 1985 Mercury.

Assuming that every religion starts with good intentions, then, let’s give each one hundred points. Then let’s deduct points for the bad things that particular religion does. I came up with seven possible deductions, but you may have more (or less.)

Deduction number 1: Proselytizing. Many religions believe it is their mission to convert non-believers to believers. This is annoying and downright offensive to the rest of us who believe what’s inside our head and heart is our own businesses. Of course, religions that proselytize believe it doesn’t matter if we like it or not. It’s good for us, like exercise.  Young religions (e.g., Islam) are much worse at this than old religions, like Judaism. You never see Jews going door to door handing out tracts. On this scale, the harder the religion proselytizes, the greater the deduction, up to a maximum of 10 for forced conversion.

Deduction number 2. Avarice.  All religions involve some sort of shake down. Sometimes it is a gentle and well-intended shakedown, like passing the collection plate and giving the money to the poor.  Sometimes it is a hard shake where the money goes to build a huge edifice like the Crystal Palace. Sometimes it goes from “give what you can” to “give more than you can and God will replace it” and becomes downright fraud and theft, like the “prosperity gospel.”  The greedier the religion, the more points deducted, again up to 10.

Deduction number 3. Anti-science. OK, I know this is tough for a lot of lefties, but science is good. No, I don’t like Frankenfoods or the disposal policies of the nuclear industry or big pharma, etc. But on balance science has done much more good than bad. The problem is science is competition for religion. If science explains an eclipse as a natural event, it sort of makes the priest sacrificing the virgin atop the pyramid look like the phony he is. So it’s no surprise that many religions attack science at every turn, even when they don’t need to. Climate science doesn’t really run counter to Christian belief, but it’s science, and they’re agin’ it.

Deduction number 4. Politicization. When politicians see organized religion, they see opportunity.  It is no coincidence that Harry Reid converted to Mormonism, Nikki Haley became a devout Christian, and Bobby Jindal Catholic when they went into politics. It’s also no coincidence that those are the dominant religions in the states where they live. The whole “blind faith” thing means religions lend themselves to being corrupted, and politicians know it, and jump to capitalize on it. And when religions see politics, they see opportunity as well, e.g., Iran. State religions/religious states like Saudi Arabia and Israel get the highest deductions here.

Deduction number 5. Violence. Most religions have tenets against violence, but that doesn’t seem to stop their adherents from participating in it, and often the religions themselves are very slow to condemn it—from Islam to Judaism to Hinduism to Christianity.

Deduction number 6. Misogynism. I have no idea why, but many, many religions have an anti-woman bias. It ranges from the mild (marriage vows that say “obey your husband”) to the moderate (no women clerics) to the severe (polygamy and forced marriage) to the extreme (stoning for adultery and honor killings.)

Deduction number 7. Sexual Predation. Every institution lends itself to sexual predation because of its hierarchical nature. It’s true for corporations, universities, and churches. Religion tends to be particularly susceptible because it attracts very vulnerable people, is by its nature secretive, and lacks any checks and balances.  Religions that have a built-in forgiveness button are the worst, because they allow predators to hit reset whenever they get caught. The scoring here is based on how common it appears to be and how aggressively the religion has dealt with it.

How do they stack up? What’s the world’s best religion? Worst? A few quick observations. No religion is perfect. Mainstream Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism score at the top, but even they have issues. Islam scores worst. But Evangelical Christianity is not very far behind. Now, obviously, this does not mean that there are not good deeds done in Islam by Muslims, etc.  But still, on balance, it’s just not a good religion.  If you were on the religious aisle in the supermarket, you’d be better off buying a six pack of Judaism or the super size of Buddhism.

Are these ratings perfect? Probably not. I know evangelical christianity very well, and perhaps I am excessively hard on that religion because I have seen its problems up close and personal. But are they close? Probably so.  The final scores certainly make intuitive sense.

Just for fun, I also tried to score atheism, but it’s not exactly possible using this methodology.  But to the extent I could approximate, it actually scored worse than every single religion. It doesn’t have many of the drawbacks of religion, but it doesn’t provide the benefits either—community, comfort, philanthropy or structure. Go figure.

What do you think? How would you score religions?

Roman
Catholic

Buddhism

Judaism
(reformed)

Mormonism

Christianity:
Mainstream

Christianity:
Evangelical

Islam

Prosletyzing

5

5

0

10

5

10

10

Avarice

5

1

0

5

2

5

5

Anti-Science

0

0

0

3

10

1

Politicization

5

5

10

10

3

10

10

Violence

2

1

5

0

0

1

10

Anti-Women

2

0

0

7

2

2

10

Sex Predation

10

0

0

2

0

1

0

Total Deductions

29

12

15

34

15

39

46

Net Score

71

88

85

66

85

61

54

36 replies »

  1. First, let me compliment you. This may be the damnedest sucker play in S&R history. It would take a freakin’ army of theologists just to unravel the assumptions section alone. Talk about a minefield. I wish I’d thought of it myself.

    I do want to tackle one item, though:

    Just for fun, I also tried to score atheism, but it’s not exactly possible using this methodology. But to the extent I could approximate, it actually scored worse than every single religion. It doesn’t have many of the drawbacks of religion, but it doesn’t provide the benefits either—community, comfort, philanthropy or structure. Go figure.

    This, of course, is the biggest sucker play in the whole post. Of COURSE atheism doesn’t compare well to religions. It ISN’T one and the two things cannot be compared logically.

    Religions are organizational and institutional constructs built up around ideological belief sets. Atheism is a philosophical statement of skepticism. It is not organizational. It is not institutional. One might further argue that it is not even ideological. It is rather the opposite – the denial of ideology. You could make the argument, I suppose, that it’s ideological, but in doing so you’d have to argue that things and not-things are the same. I see the invisible hand of the Great Pumpkin at work in the Iowa caucuses, that’s ideology. You look around don’t see it, that’s ideology. Every time you look at the world and don’t see God, that’s a statement of ideology.

    You don’t base community and institutions on negations. So asserting that an empty space on the window sill isn’t very good at being a cat is both accurate and completely meaningless.

  2. I’d give Buddhism a lower Prosletyzing score (maybe a 1 or 2) and a higher Anti-Woman score (a 2 or 3), particularly if you’re lumping all the various sects together. I’d say the final score is in the ballpark, though. I think you’re a little hard on Islam and a little easy on Evangelical Christianity overall. Interesting thought experiment.

  3. Looking more closely at your ratings, I have to agree with Sam – you’ve intentionally rated a few things too high and a few other things too low. Islam gets a 10 on a number of things, and you’ve given evangelical Christianity a pass on too much as well. Seriously here – evangelical Christianity is dramatically better on misogyny than LDS?

    Anything you rated a 0 or a 10 looks to be derived from news coverage, rather than an attempt at serious analysis of the faith itself.

  4. In reverse order.

    Brian. Yeah, I know the arithmetic doesnt work, but I didnt want to manufacture three more deductions or give each deduction a max of 14.28. And the Roman Catholic thing is probably my ignorance of Roman Catholicism. To reprise an old joke from Louisiana, I’ve slept with a Catholic for 33 years, but haven’t learned a thing about the religion.

    Sam. Really, accuse me of trolling? I am shocked, shocked I say. More seriously: Nice, nice comment. You’re probably right, athiesm probably corresponds to god, not religion. But I do think there’s some validity to the point that religions do provide some benefits that those who do not adhere to religion are not privy to.

    • In my experience, most atheists are as “theistic” in their rejection of a deity (or many) as actual theists are in their acceptance of one.

      How about Hinduism? Confucianism? Shintoism? Wicca and other neo-pagan religions?

    • But I do think there’s some validity to the point that religions do provide some benefits that those who do not adhere to religion are not privy to.

      Maybe a few benefits, and a bunch of bad stuff, too. But that isn’t the point. If I’m an atheist, hypothetically, I need community, for instance. We all do. But I do not look to atheism for that community. I get my community through arts groups or civic organizations or the gang at the pub watching Chelsea play. The faulty assumption here is that community is somehow naturally and necessarily a function of religion. Well, in a religious society it works out that way because religion is all there is. But I suspect that folks who live in the secular atheist Babylon of the Northeast have as much community as do devout Baptists in Kansas.

  5. Brian–not intentional. Just ignorance. Would love to see some better scoring by people who know more about religion than I do. I was more interested in putting the concept out there than I was in getting the religions right. I just dont have the background to do a decent job of it.

  6. This is hilarious! An “atheist” judging everybody else for their self-righteousness! What irony! Hey–Otherwise: here are some metrics for you: list the hospitals started by atheists. You get one point for every “Atheist General Hospital” you can identify. Then, list the orphanages started by concerned humanists. You get one point for each “Secular Humanist Home for the Abandoned Children.” I’ll give you 25 bonus points if you can identify who codified in religious teaching “there is neither male nor female, but all are one . . .” effectively putting men and women on an equal religious footing. So, religion is anti-science? What idiocy! Newton, Pasteur, Lister, Kepler, etc. were all committed believers. As far as violence, well, atheists have been responsible for more murders in the 20th century than all wars fought in all the world prior to that century (see: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Che, Fidel, etc.). And we haven’t even tried to address the entire concept of truth. You have a right to your opinion. However, facts are stubborn things and you really should get acquainted with some facts about religion before you seek to pontificate (that’s a religion pun!) on the subject.

    • As far as violence, well, atheists have been responsible for more murders in the 20th century than all wars fought in all the world prior to that century (see: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Che, Fidel, etc.).

      This is an extraordinary claim, Chris, so how about some evidence for it?

      And did you not notice that many of Otherwise’s religions are just fine with science, and that only a few are actively or virulently against it? Or are you complaining because you’re a believer in one of the faiths that Otherwise identified as being anti-science?

      Read what Otherwise wrote again, please – he’s explicitly said that he’s not anti-religion. He did say, after all, in the first paragraph “Whether it’s Allah, or dead relatives, or the constellations, or stupid stuff from movies (the Force,) belief in an extrinsic, intercessionary force seems to be a basic human need.”

      • Oh, and Chris – I think that all of your examples were Catholics or “mainstream” Christians according to Otherwise’s pigeonholes, which are all relatively science-friendly compared to, for example, evangelical Christianity.

    • Chris: No surprise that you’re asking the wrong questions. The issue isn’t how many Atheist General Hospitals there are vs. religious hospitals. It’s how many religious hospitals there are vs. non-religious. I was born in a county hospital. Most places in America of any size at all have plenty of facilities run by non-religious organizations.

      So what you’re doing here is asking us to accept a clumsy rhetorical device as a logical question when it really isn’t. I guess you’d call it a fake question.

      And this (“atheists have been responsible for more murders in the 20th century than all wars fought in all the world prior to that century”) is silliness of the highest order.

  7. Chris

    That’s why I gave religions 100 points to start. I agree, religions are very good at industrialized philanthropy (like hospitals) etc. Yep, they do some good stuff. And that’s why I scored athiesm lower, because it has no mechanism to do some of those good things. So some of your argument is right, although the part that is correct actually the part I already made in the post.

    But it’s silly to argue that not believing in god leads to bad behavior. Although I still give huge amounts to charity and have never murdered anyone, so it’s clearly foolish to argue that belief in god in the only thing that keeps us all from becoming Tony Montana. Societal norms and basic compassion also play a role.

    As for facts, I’d be careful with that “athiests are responsible for more deaths” argument, for several reasons. One, it takes two to tango. Yes, Ho Chi Minh might have been a communist, but the only reason we jumped into Viet Nam is that Diem and Dulles were devout Christians.

  8. some religions are demonstrably better than others

    I would re-phrase that: Some religions are less worse than others.

    Great piece — deserves to be read far and wide.

  9. And think of the potential extensions to your list and approach, right off to sports teams, politics, or perhaps even social groups, like Elks or Rotarians. We could start scoring football teams (Penn State), taking away for hysteric proselyting (or fan mania), certainly avarice, absolutely sexual predation, not supportive of women (in helmets!?), probably not big on defending science (just listen to athletes talk about anything but sports, aside from Tim Tebow!), with the highest scores for violence (well, boxing and football for sure).

    Political parties are game, too, especially re violence, women, avarice, sex predation, ummm, did I say politicalization yet? You get the point. In short, what works (or doesn’t for me) on religion could apply to all sorts of human organizations, groupings, tribes, etc.

    By the way, many Jewish groups discourage conversion, in part because the beliefs are so much about family and tradition, involving learning “the history of the Jews,” but who knows if there isn’t some residual notion of “you’re born into your tribe” and it’s not exactly a conscious choice. Who knows, and this from someone Jewish of sorts, maybe there’s residual distortions about being “chosen.”

    Also, Roman Catholicism isn’t anti-science today as much as the past, when it jailed people (Galileo) for oppositional thoughts, even heresies, though he was never not catholic. The issue over women’s rights is historic and organized religions tend to be the slowest to change, even actively backward like born-agains, of any social institutions. Women’s rights came after racial civil rights so it’s just newer. Some religious folks of course lead the advance guard, as on slavery and civil rights, but they are the exception.

  10. Precisely the reason I stay clear of all of them. In my personal opinion real spirituality (energy) is more closely related to science then to religion. Religion is manmade and serves no real purpose except to control the minds, hearts, bodies, souls and money of people. I for one have learned how to separate spirituality from religion and I am free from all of the fear, guilt and trauma of religion.

  11. Anybody who gives LDS only a 2 on sexual predation needs to do more research. The cops in Utah turn incest (child) complaints over to the church, who then ‘consuls’ the victim. I had a friend who lived in Utah, reported an incest (child) case to the police, and the church knocked on HIS door to consul HIM. He quit the church, fled to Cali, and they asked his family where he went, and started knocking on his door. Child molestation gets covered up in Utah.

  12. I enjoyed your lively article which I came across through the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology and it reminded me of a time when I lived in a UK town called Milton Keynes- not far from where I am now. There were often lively letters to the local paper between the pagans and the Christian community and I was always struck by how rational the pagans were and how emotional and unclarified the Christian response was. (This is a shabby generalisation, of course, as it was only between a few people who are not representative of the whole). Being a Christian and a former analytical chemist, I have thought about this many times and have come to a conclusion that becoming part of a religious group seems to have an effect on people where they lose all vestiges of rational ability. I am wondering if this is, in part, to do with the complete lack of real understanding of the nature the underlying forces of the Divine in our lives and no coherent explanations being given by todays religions.
    It would seem to me that once religion is adopted then people stop asking questions, or ask the wrong ones, lose their sense of scientific analysis, if they had it in the first place and just adopt whatever is said because of some unfulifilled need within.
    There is also the spectre of group peer pressure I have seen at work in churches and single women like myself have to be bloody minded to keep going at times in spite of it all.
    When I read the Gospels it is clear to me that Jesus explained things to his disciples as clearly as he could, and gave reasons and analogies. He was forever frustrated by their ignorance and admitted he needed to tell stories to get his point over because people were more able to understand the truth in that format. The trouble, I feel, with biblical text interpretation and the list of issues you have highlighted, which stems from this, is the clarity of thought of those who interpret them. If one’s heart is muddy then the interpretation of certain texts is bound also to be covered with dirt. We have to rub this layer of dirt away to uncover the real truth and try as far as possible to see the beauty that lies at the heart of it all. From my own arduous and lengthy journey I can only say it is because of my singular viewpoint and independence from the nonsense I hear spouted at times- not always- there is a lot of good too, that I truly believe in God and have been able to test it out daily and find it working in ways that no one in church has ever explained to me.
    Or maybe I am just another Merlin.

    • Indeed. Although we now have a remarkable illustration of a problem I have long troubled over. In a nutshell, both Constantina and our friend John George upthread claim Christianity. If a term can be applied to two people so dramatically different, it essentially becomes meaningless, don’t you think? Seriously – Constantina has far more in common with most atheists I know than she does with people like JG.

  13. I think it may be profitable, at least from the point of view of analysis, to refer to ideology rather than religion. After all, I think what this exercise is after is not so much an analysis of the benefit (or lack thereof) of particular religious beliefs but the ways in which those beliefs are made manifest in particular social and political institutions. For example, take the idea of Christianity in general. In the realm of ideas, evangelical Protestantism is not so different from Roman Catholicism. Both schools of thought are trinitarian, believe in the dual nature of Christ, hold to the virgin birth, resurrection and ascension of Christ, believe in an earthly absolute authority in matters of faith and morals (whether that authority is the Pope or the Authorized Version makes little difference). Yet the the structures that have evolved to support those beliefs is pretty different between The Vatican and Savannah, Georgia.

    So what we want to analyze, I think, is not just the “core” beliefs but the whole of how those beliefs are formed, supported and institutionalized. I think that taking a step back and talking about ideology allows us to do that. Because then, not only can we talk about the beliefs that Evangelicals and Catholics hold but also about the way that those beliefs are translated into behavior through social and political mechanisms.

    Moreover, this also allows us to bring atheist ideologies into the picture. While some schools of atheism are sufficiently young to lack any real institutional behaviors, others are not. For example, judging the New Atheism of Dawkins and Pullman on its social impact is problematic. New Atheism hasn’t really developed any social and political institutions so far as I can tell. On the other hand, atheistic ideologies such as Marxist-Leninism and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism have developed social and political institutions and can easily be compared to theistic ideologies.

    • Hi Lee. With respect to the last part of your comment: On the other hand, atheistic ideologies such as Marxist-Leninism and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism have developed social and political institutions and can easily be compared to theistic ideologies.

      I think this gets close to the thing I was commenting on above in #1. Let me start by saying that there’s a difference, and a significant one, between Marx and Rand. Marx isn’t an “atheist ideology” in the way I’m afraid this comment will be taken. It’s a political economic ideology that has atheism as part of its overall character. Rand is closer to what you’re suggesting, since denial of gods is very much central to its existence.

      Further, I’d strongly reject the assertion that Dawkins’ work is ideological (unless, as I explain above, we’re using the word so broadly that it becomes meaningless). Dawkins is a scientist and he’s using the foundations of science to critique an ideology. If your answer is that science is ideology, I’d say that it is very ideological in many respects, although not the ones you’re talking about. And I’d say that also means that math is ideology, which means that a belief that 2+2=4 is ideological, and at this point the word no longer means anything.

      Ideology, properly understood, is an assumption set. It is the collection of givens one uses to order the world in the mind and in the collective. It is not “anything that one believes.” I believe in certain laws of physics, such as if I step off that ledge I’m going to fall at 32 ft/sec/sec to my death. That is in every way different from a belief that when I hit the ground I go to a place where everybody loves harp music and nobody thinks about sex.

  14. Good stuff. Of course, the rankings are somewhat open to interpretation but are close enough for the purpose of discussion. For example, Buddhism gets a 0 in the “anti-woman” category. Some might dispute that if we’re considering actual Buddhism and not the new-aged stuff most Americans get exposed to and/or follow. It is not possible for a woman to reach nirvana. Strictly speaking, they are a lower religious class and must first become a man in some future reincarnation before they can even get close to the goal of the religion.

    It’s because they have babies and are thus an intrinsic part of the circle of birth and death; escaping from which is the whole point of the religion. Still their daily hate for women is less than most of the Abrahamic faiths.

  15. I am a Hindu and have decided to give ourselves about a 95. 10 for Prosletyzing (there is no conversion in general in Hinduism), 5 for Avarice (it is all private giving, only a 5 because there isn’t enough emphasis on philanthropy), 10 for Anti-Science (believe in evolution, the Big Bg theory, whatever you like, enjoy!), 10 for Politicization (I am proud to say that there is not a single Hindu politician in America – we get told that we are going to Hell), 10 for Violence (thank you, Gandhi, you icon of non-violence, you! In that world-leader-but-will-hang-out-with-the-crowd), 10 for Anti-Women (Hindu women don’t even *read* the religious texts, dude. It is all ’bout feminism) and 10 for Sex Predation (because guess what? the priests marry and have all the sex they want in all the positions they want.)

  16. Funny and interesting. But “religion” is a concept that isn”t very accurate. This is a typical post colombian type of thinking : I have boxes for everything in the world, because I believe in a universal capacity of giving names ( my names) to everything. So I use the catholic word ( religion) to name others.
    Jaïnism is non theistic, so is Theravada buddhism. So why not add communism?
    And what about capitalism? Isn”t it based on trust?
    What about our justice? Isn”t it based on the assumption that we are responsible for our actions? And the laws, aren’t they based on the roman belief of magical efficiency of an Act and a decree?
    Even if you are an atheist. On what cosmological basis do you think you are free? Good? Bad? an individual? a part of something?… Everything in human mind can be reduced to belief!
    So what is a religion?

  17. Samuel:

    I pointed to Marxist-Leninsim rather than Marixsm. So, even if were you correct about Marx (which you’re not, read the London essays for example) your point would be a bit misplaced. Whether one is speaking of Marxism in its pure form (i.e. what Marx who famously said ‘Je ne suisse Marxiste’ actually wrote rather than what others have expanded his writings to mean) or Marxist-Leninism, it is predicated on dialectical materialism. I’d say that atheism is far more important to dialectical materialism than it is to Rand’s Objectivism. For Rand, atheism is an implication of her system. Her ideology is an atheistic one but it isn’t founded on atheism.

    I have trouble with your examinations of ideology. Math, properly speaking, isn’t ideological in nature. But the assertion that math tells us something about the way that the world really is certain is ideological in nature. The same is true of logic. Frege, Russel, and others did some fabulous work on logic that is entirely objective. But then once they started to claim that all truths can be resolved to logical truths, they started getting ideological and Wittgenstein and Quine dinged them on that. But science, especially the physical and biological sciences, are far more complex than math or logic in that they are necessarily connected somehow to the extramental world. Exactly how is something of a mystery and so far as I know there is no consensus among scientists or among philosophers of science as to just how that connection works. The solutions are quite varied: Quine’s replacement naturalism, Popper’s apophatic method of falsification, Cartwright’s denial that scientific models have anything to do with reality, Duhem’s indeterminacy, Feyerabend’s philosophical pluralism, Kuhn’s incommensurability. Most scientists that fall into the New Atheist category (i.e. Dawkins) tend to subscribe to a naive realism that is trivially falsifiable. So ideology comes into science at the point where the scientist (or the philosopher of science) moves from strictly speaking of models to saying “this is how the world is and it means that we should act in this fashion …”

    Even if you’re not convinced by Feyerabend concerning the ideological nature of any conceptual frame, including empiricism or by Van Fraasen on how materialism and empiricism are better defined as attitudes than anything else, Dawkins meets the pragmatic definition of subscribing to ideology with his blanket condemnation of the Harry Potter books (all books that encourage magical thinking are pernicious) and the allegation that calling a child a member of a particular religion is child abuse. Dawkins does have a vision of morality. He does want society to conform to that vision. That vision does not rest on science per se but on ideology.

  18. What a fascinating argument. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I lack the academic background to engage fully. But I wont let ignorance hold me back. 🙂 A couple of points.

    First, I think there is a distinction between a system of beliefs and a religion, just as there is a difference between a country and a government. One is a concept, the other is the machinery that makes it work. I was not trying to engage on which belief system is best, but rather which institutional construct is best. My athiesm point was a throwaway line, that had I thought it through more carefully, I would not have included. I think you can compare athiesm to christianity as belief systems, but you certainly cannot compare them institutionally because as Sammy says, atheism has no institution. I am sorry I confused the two.

    Second, I think you’re also right that all of us, even us athiests, need an ideology. As the song says, “you who are on the road need a code that you can live by.” We all need some rules to help us make decisions, if for no other reason efficiency–we face thousands of decisions a day, we need some rules and shortcuts to help us wade through them. As an athiest, I scoff at people who belief in some invisible cosmic force, and I howl when our presidential candidates say god told them to run (coincidentally, that’s the answer they wanted.) But if I am to be fair about it, I believe in gravity, electro-magnetism, natural selection, supply and demand, efficient markets and all manner of invisible forces that shape my life. So at some point, the boundaries between beleif and non-belief get a little blurry.

    Does this make any sense at all?

  19. I like the distinction between country and government but I think it’s incomplete and the way that it is incomplete, I think draws out the way that there is a subtle double standard at work in a good deal of this analysis.

    Let’s use ‘country’ to refer to what Marx would call the material basis. This is the people, the resources, the totality of economic relations between individuals.

    Let’s use ‘government’ to refer to a particular subset of the material basis mentioned above that deals with political rule.

    Let’s use ‘nation’ to refer to the idea that an arbitrarily designated borders for some country (usually under the political rule of a single government, but not necessarily) is an entity with some sort of numerical unity or cohesiveness.

    The parallels to Christianity are obvious. The material basis consists of individual Christians. The political rule are the institutions formed by the particular Christian movements. The abstract idea that has numerical unity is the very idea of Christianity.

    But what about atheism? The material basis would be individual atheists. The abstract idea would be the very idea of atheism itself. But there is a claim that nothing corresponds to the political institutions the way that particular Christian movements do.

    My claim is that that the claim that atheism inherently lacks that political/institutional aspect is trivially disprovable by looking at the ways that various atheists have organized throughout history. The examples I named are Marxist-Leninism and Objectivism. But those certainly do not exhaust the various ways that atheists have formed social institutions throughout history.

    And, if we take a step back, and look at what’s going on at the level of abstraction, it brings a bit more clarity. The abstract term ‘Christianity’ is almost meaningless unless one holds to some sort of Platonism or Idealism where universal ideas have an existence more real than the individuals that embody them. The term `Christianity’ basically means a group of various movements throughout the last two thousand years that claim some sort of belief that Jesus of Nazareth was The Christ foretold by the Hebrew scriptures. That’s a pretty broad idea. It says nothing of practice, of organization, of politics. In a way, it’s an arbitrary descriptor. It’s a grouping of all of these different groups based on a common criterion, believe that Jesus of Nazareth was The Christ.

    Atheism is similar to that. There are quite a few different sorts of atheists. There are hard atheists and soft atheists. There are philosophical atheists, moral atheists, and what I would call natural atheists (people who just naturally do not believe in God). Moreover, there are cultural atheists, people raised by atheists that have never really given much thought to the questions of whether or not God exists. All of these different groups are arbitrarily put into the same category under the abstract idea of `atheism.’

    But, when we talk of Christianity, we are almost always talking of a particular form of Christianity, that is to say of the particular social, cultural, political, and economic institutions that are brought under the umbrella of the abstract descriptor `Christianity.’ We can’t really judge Christianity as a whole because the unity of the term is synthetic. In reality, there are a tremendous number of groups that fall under that abstract descriptor and quite often it is not obvious that there is any real resemblance. What does Christian Identity (the white supremacist and separatist Church of the Creator) have in common with Unitarian Universalism outside some sort of belief in Jesus of Nazareth as The Christ?

    But with atheism, we’ll gladly talk of individuals who are atheist and we’ll gladly talk of the abstract term `atheism’ but we generally do not talk much of the various social, cultural, political, and economic groups that fall under the umbrella of the abstract term. Instead we deny that these sorts of groups fall under the category of `atheist’ in the same way that various Christian movements fall under the category of `Christianity.’

    I think that if we’re going to be fair, we have to treat both types of groups the same. Either we say that groups like the Church of Rome, the Latter Day Saints, the Anglican Communion, et cetera are only incidentally Christian institutions in the same way that the Soviet era Communist Party and Objectivism are only incidentally atheistic OR we say that various social, cultural, political, and economics groups composed of atheists also fall under the abstract term ‘atheist’ in the same way that various concrete Christian movements fall under the abstract term `Christian.’

    So the bottom line is this. We can compare the abstract ideas to each other. We can compare atheism to Christianity. We can also compare the various institutions to each other. We can compare Objectivism to Eastern Orthodoxy and we can compare Marxist-Leninism to Catholicism. And we can even compare the individuals to each other. We can compare Marx to Mother Theresa and Ted Kaczynski to Vlad the Impaler. But what we can’t do is compare the abstract ideas to concrete institutions or compare the institutions to individuals or compare the individuals to the ideas.

  20. As far as ideology goes, I found this statement humorous, “As an athiest, I scoff at people who belief in some invisible cosmic force.”

    Kind of like gravity? ;D

    More seriously, would not morality (if it exists) be exactly that sort of invisible thing? If there is goodness and there is evil beyond what is evolutionarily useful, that would be an ideology.

    And when we get down to brass tacks, the idea of gravity isn’t ideology, or at least not ideology of the sort I’m talking about. It is true that there are conceptual schemas that posit the existence of gravity in some fashion. But what is more important to the discussion at hand is that that very positing is imbued with undisclosed premises about the way things are. If one is an empiricist, for example, the assertion that gravity is not merely part of a model of the way that the universe might work but is actually a real existent in the extramental universe is based on certain epistemological or metaphysical foundations. It is those foundations that I think are most relevant to the discussion.

    The empiricists claim is that there is something about the human mind such that through some sort of engagement with experience we can solve the problem raised by David Hume, that there is no LOGICAL reason to move from observations of constant conjunction (all observed A are Bs) to material implication (if X is an A, then X is necessarily a B).

    For a long time, it looked like Hume might have been worried over nothing. Then we discovered that Newton’s Laws don’t actually describe the way that the universe works. The shift from early modern science (classical thermodynamics, Newtonian physics, et cetera) to the science of the 20th century (statistical thermodynamics, relativistic physics, et cetera) brought Hume’s observation back with a vengeance. Take the case of Galileo. If Einstein is right then the earth-centric solar system is no less correct than the hello-centric model, the two models are just built around different frames of reference. But once we acknowledge that, the vaunted `Copernican Turn’ turns to straw. The jewel of the triumph of modern science over medieval metaphysics turns out to be dross.

    And things get even more interesting if Feyerabend is correct about Galileo. Feyerabend argues that the Catholic Church at the time was both morally and scientifically correct in its censure of Galileo. Admittedly, part of this is that Feyerabend is a philosophical pluralist and a dadaist who loves to butcher sacred cows wether they belong to the religious or the irreligious. He’s equally at home quoting VI Lenin on one page and Cardinal Bellermine on the next. But the other part is that if you look at the empirical data that Galileo claims that he was looking at, it’s pretty clear that he was just pulling stuff out of his butt. His primitive model of spherical orbits of planets around the sun didn’t correspond any better to the observable facts than the earth centric model.

    This is a big problem for strict empiricists. The paradigm shift that Galileo help bring about was based on theories that were empirically disproven by the empirical evidence at hand. If it was true that Galileo offered a genuine scientific advance, then one has to consider proceeding counter-inductively (ignoring the fact that the empirical evidence disproves one’s hypothesis) as part of the core of science. So one has to either toss out the great martyr of modern science as being a charlatan or reject empiricism as the foundation of science.

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