[This column is a part of the Theist vs. Atheist series debate between Stephen Hicks and John C. Wright. This is Hicks’s response to Wright’s column. Here are the links to other columns in the series.]
To evaluate religion’s track record we need to specify our evaluative benchmarks and identify whether we are evaluating religion generically or a particular religion.
A religion is a set of beliefs and practices, and my primary benchmark is this: Does it foster or hinder healthy and happy living in the natural world?
All of the many thousands of religions are false, but they are not all false in the same way or to the same degree — so the destructive effects of their falsity come in degrees.
Theme 1: Nature-friendly and Nature-hostile Religions
Immediately we have to divide the religious into those who accept that benchmark and those who reject it. Some religious people believe fundamentally in the goodness of human life in the world, but they make an intellectual error in believing that the supernatural helps with that project. Others fundamentally despise themselves or the world, and religion is used to rationalize that.
It’s the difference — to take one very particular example — between those who believe, as Benjamin Franklin did, that Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy — and those who believe that Alcohol is a demonic tool of Satan.
The one celebrates the natural world and its pleasures and believes in a benevolent god as a cause — while the other shuns the world out of weakness and guilt and invents a god to reinforce its negativity. Both mistakenly assert that a god exists, but the destructive effects of the more pessimistic religions is much greater.
Theme 2: The Three-way Philosophical Debate
But we can also speak of religion in general and contrast it to non-religious belief systems in general.
Religion is a type of philosophy, one of three basic types — naturalist, supernaturalist, and nihilist. All three types offer answers to the big questions: What is the nature of reality? What is knowledge? What is human nature? What is the good life, both individually and socially?
In broad strokes, the three philosophies answer this way:
The naturalist says, The meaning of life is to be found in the natural world. The nihilist says, The natural world is empty of meaning. The religious say, Meaning is to be found beyond the grave.
The naturalist says, Human beings are rational animals. The nihilist says, Humans are merely meat in motion. The religious say, Humans are meat plus a ghost.
The naturalist says, Ethics is about the objective requirements of natural living. The nihilist says, Ethics is merely about our subjective whims. The religious say, Ethics is about obeying the gods’ subjective whims.
The naturalist says, Knowledge is acquired by evidence and reason. The nihilist says, We’re all irrational. The religious say, Reason is limited or pointless so we should seek mystical revelations or believe on faith.
And so on.
These three characterizations define the extremes, and many thoughtful people attempt to blend their beliefs into more moderate packages. Whether that can be done successfully is an ongoing matter of debate.
But a key point is that it is always a mistake to characterize the debate as only two-way — e.g., as my debate colleague Mr. Wright does by regularly asking us to choose only between a religious-supernaturalist model that believes in something and an atheist-nihilist model that believes in nothing. That false alternative leaves out entirely the atheist-naturalist model.
In my judgment, it is more fruitful intellectually to put the naturalists on one side and both the nihilists and the supernaturalist religions on the other.
Nihilism and supernaturalist religion are intimately related. Both look at the natural world and see degradation, seething conflict, and emptiness. The religious person recoils from it — but wants to believe in something positive — and so wills himself into believing the supernatural as a refuge and corrective. Meanwhile the nihilist cannot make himself believe in religion’s fairy tales — and so accepts the negativity and meaninglessness.
Note that both are opposed fundamentally to the naturalists who affirm the positive value in the world and seek to understand and further it on its own terms.
Theme 3. Religion’s Role in Our becoming Conceptual and Principled
Religion does get credit for aiding in human cognitive development.
In the most primitive stages of human life, we live range-of-the-moment and often savagely. But we have developed a powerful capacity to be principled and long-range in our thinking and action, and many religions were early attempts to do so.
The development of medicine is an example. In early times humans would get sick, but they would not understand why and make no consistent attempt to do so. They would suffer and die as an animal suffers and dies.
Some humans then attempted to understand. They grasped the difference between health and disease. They came to believe that health and disease are effects of causes. They understood that effects can be changed by influencing their causes. Yes, they would often locate the key causation in a supernatural realm — the will of the gods, hopefully influenced by sacrifices and prayers — and while that is an error, religious medical theories are an advance over primitivism because they attempt to understand the world conceptually and in terms of causal principles.
But just as continued human progress required the rejection of the early false religious medical theories, it requires the continued development of naturalist theories in the other areas of investigation — psychology, ethics, cosmology, history, and everything else. Religion is a halfway house between primitivism and the fully-realized intellectual framework needed for full human living.
Theme 4. The Best Religion Ever
Contemporary civilization has already achieved much in the direction of realizing that intellectual framework. Our science and technology are impressive, as are our (genuinely) liberal politics, economics, and philosophy.
If the first philosophies were religious — as it seems actually to have developed in human history — then the religion that most made possible the development of the naturalistic philosophies deserves credit for having done so.
The best religion ever, accordingly, was the ancient Greek religion, which opened the cognitive space for natural philosophy and science. Why — of the thousands of cultures across the globe and tens of thousands of years of human living — did philosophy begin and flourish in Greek city-states around 600 BCE?
Part of the story involves the worldly Greek religion, with its many gods and goddesses with their humanistic strengths and weaknesses, goals and passions. The gods’ powers made intelligible the causal order of the natural world. Their limitations made it possible for mortals to question them and not to worship them uncritically. The gods’ wisdom, strengths, and beauty gave humans something realistic to aspire to. Much more can be said, but the one religion in history that clearly enabled philosophy and science deserves much credit.
Many other religions, by contrast, deserve blame for positing gods that are mysterious and unknowable and that demand only fear and cowering — and for consistently suppressing questioning and adding loads of undeserved guilt to the human psyche.
A few words about Christianity are relevant here, as it was in a Western Europe that was mostly Christian that modern civilization was born. One of two leading historical positions argues that, in contrast to all other religions, Christianity contains some elements that can support a modern free, scientific, and artistic culture, and that those elements generated the Renaissance and modernity.
A second position argues that Christianity’s role was mostly to retard the reintroduction of Greek and Roman ideas. Christianity’s leaders tried many times to squash early humanism, but humanism succeeded in earning a place in Western culture. Once established, humanism tamed the Christians, who have been fighting a rearguard battle ever since and engaging in after-the-fact accommodations of humanistic culture.
My view is that the second position is closer to the truth, but that there are element of the first position that are arguable. A standout feature of some versions of Christian theory, for example, is the unique and infinite value of each individual soul. So one could argue that that germ of individualism eventually sprouted in the early Renaissance and developed into the modern world’s robust respect for individuality.
At the same time, the belief in the infinite value of the individual’s immortal also supports St. Augustine’s influential doctrine of benevolent torture. If one’s eternal salvation depends on believing truly, then what matters a few days of bodily agony if being tortured can cause disbelievers to embrace the truth? The consistent use of officially-sanctioned torture across centuries is also part of Christianity’s legacy — and that absolutely militates against the respect for individualism embraced by the Renaissance and modernity.
So the best reading of history — with many sub-arguments yet needing to be addressed — is that Christianity did let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, but from its perspective that was unfortunate and the development of modern civilization was an unintended consequence.
Theme 5. The Track Record of Atheism
While religion’s record is mixed, perhaps it is better overall than the alternatives. My debate colleague, Mr. Wright, characterizes it this way: “The only openly atheist societies in history were socialist or national socialist, run by Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot and the other most atrocious monsters in history.”
Definitely they were monsters. But for both varieties of socialism, national and international, the history and philosophy are more complicated.
While the Communists were atheist, the Nazis were pro-Christianity. An affirmation of generic Christianity is in the National Socialists’ founding party platform (see its point 24). Goebbels identified the Bible and Jesus’s martyrdom as among his top moral influences. Hitler frequently said that he was doing the Lord’s work.
Yet when trying to explain the mass killings of the Communists and the Nazis, the important point is this: To do politics well many principles and practices must be gotten right. Believing in gods or not is only one issue. Believing that humans are by nature evil or good is another key issue. Believing that people are basically rational or irrational is another. And believing that humans are primarily individuals or members of collectives is yet another.
The Nazis and Communists were killers, but not primarily for religious or non-religious reasons. They were killers because they were collectivists, and collectivism can be religious or not. Political collectivism brings with it a willingness to use and sacrifice individuals for the good of the group. And if one believes that the collective is embodied in the State, then the State comes to be an object of worship and the collector of sacrifices.
Collectivist religions have killed many throughout history, while more individualist religions have been more likely to adopt live-and-let-live tolerance policies. The same holds for non-religious belief systems.
Theme 6: Looking Forward
The many religions’ track records of squashing artists, scientists, and other free-thinkers in economics, politics, and philosophy is terrible. All religions have great stains of immorality upon them, and human decency requires that their apologists acknowledge them.
Yet even now, in the twenty-first century: In the fight against AIDS, the Christian Pope tells Africans not to use condoms. Islamists destroy art and historic artifacts. Magical religionists continue to kill women for witchcraft. So we still have humanist work to do.
Meanwhile, advocates of the many religions continue to insist that their conflicting old texts are true and that their leadership is the best authority.
But if there really is a God, he could just show up and say, Look, guys, here I am. Here is what I meant, and here is why that is the best policy. He could even use social media to keep us abreast of the latest.
The silence of the gods means that religion is really about our hopes and fears and projecting a belief system that supports them. The silence also means that we are on our own — and that it is time that we take full responsibility, happily, for our own destinies. No crutches.
I say happily because if there are no gods, then that means we have lifted ourselves out of the caves. The achievements of civilization — in the arts and sciences, in technology and philosophy — it was human beings who did it and who get the credit.
We can be pretty awesome, we have much to build upon, and we have an open-ended future to explore and create.