Science, For Goodness Sakes! (Part 2)
In the previous post, I attempted to show that Scientism is a self-defeating philosophy and should be regarded as insufficient as a worldview. I also tried to show that reason and theism (faith) are not mutually exclusive. In fact, theism may be the most reasonable option, given the evidence. In this post, I intend to demonstrate that historical data do not support the theses that religion is bad and non-religious societies are better off.
First let’s consider the statement “religion is bad”. In the formal study of logic, this is known as a “universal affirmative” proposition, or a type A statement. It generally looks like this: “All X is Y”. This is the strongest categorical statement that it is possible to make in human communication, followed by type “E” (No X is Y), type “I (Some X is Y) and type “O” (Some X is not Y). As you can see, the type “A” proposition is the most difficult to defend because only ONE instance of an “X” that is not a “Y” would necessarily change the statement to an “O” (Some X is not Y). Plug in the terms of this discussion and it looks like this: “All religion is bad.” A type “A” proposition. When we find one instance of religion being good, we must adjust the statement to reflect the data to read this way: “Some religion is not bad” (type “O”), or perhaps the contrapositive: “Some religion is bad” (type “I”). In either case, the New Atheists (NA) seem to be making a difficult argument to defend. Here are four positive impacts on society that come from religion:
Literacy: The Gutenburg press was the impetus for widespread literacy and influenced education, industry and the free marketplace of ideas like no other invention before the internet. Johannes Gutenburg was a devout Catholic and one of his first mass productions was the Bible. Today, Christian missionaries commonly teach the English language as an economic development tool for non-English speakers. (This is not exclusive to Christians, but Christian missionaries are very well represented in the field of English language teachers). This activity frequently serves as a relational bridge on which discipleship activities can be built. However, many missionaries in that setting aren’t able to move past an academic level for various reasons. In any case, serving people in whatever capacity is available is consistent with the ministry of Jesus, who clearly taught that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40)
Quality of Health: the contribution of missionaries in the field of medicine has been historically significant. In the past, missionaries such as Dr. David Livingstone and Hudson Taylor have practiced medicine of the body as well as the soul. In fact, the case can be made that the development of hospitals was a religiously driven activity. The same can be said in current times. Many third world settings are devoid of medical services, except for the existence of missionary clinics or hospitals. The Mercy Ships are perennially circling the globe, serving many developing nations with life-giving medical treatment. http://www.mercyships.org/
Democracy: Recent studies have demonstrated a very strong link between the presence of 19th century missionaries in colonies to current day democracy. Many factors indicating higher quality of life have been taken into account, including literacy rate, social stability, employment and women’s rights. All of these have present-day ramifications in countries where 19th century missionaries had a presence. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/january-february/world-missionaries-made.html?paging=off
Social Justice and Goodness: Literacy, Quality of Health and Democracy represent three areas which are relatively easy to quantify. What may be more difficult to nail down is the goodness of a society. Are religious societies morally better than secular ones? That is too broad of a question for this space. However, the effects of Christian revivals are notable. The 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings in Great Britain and the U.S. had widespread effects, including the movement to abolish slavery in the states, as well as general reduction in crime in cities that were impacted by revival. If we turn the lens to present-day church activities, we see frequent soup kitchens run from churches, homeless shelters and entire para-church Christian organizations dedicated to combating social injustices. These include anything from World Vision, dedicated to addressing hunger and health issues, to International Justice Mission, dedicated to combating sex-trafficking. Interestingly, a large percentage of the NGO’s whose sole purpose is addressing human-trafficking are affiliated with Christian churches.
It goes without saying that we may find historical (and contemporary) instances of religious individuals and movements which are responsible for reprehensible actions. Here is where the issue becomes clouded: what is the common denominator behind evil? Certainly it is not religion, because we find crimes against humanity carried out in secular-minded societies as well! Consider the French Revolution, which was fundamentally based on “Enlightenment” principles. By the time the dust settled, tens of thousands had been butchered at the guillotines in a witch-hunt styled political purge. More recently, the communist genocides of the 20th century have shown us perhaps the most widespread inhumane cruelty ever witnessed by mankind, under atheist regimes.
At this point the question must be asked: were the communists cruel because they were atheists? Is is possible that we are mistaking correlation for causation? Certainly. It would be also be a gross oversimplification (in logic, the informal fallacy of “hasty generalization”) to say that every murder and cruelty carried out under communist rule was driven by atheist ideology. By the same token, every cruelty executed by religious movements is not attributable to the religious ideology.
The pivotal question in this discussion is this: Are people who act badly under the auspices of an ideological movement (religious or otherwise) being consistent with their ideology? More specifically we might ask “Were the crusaders being consistent with scripture?” No, New Testament ethics would tell you to love your enemies and bless those who persecute you. On the other hand, communism views the political state as the ultimate authority. (Incidentally, if there is no God, the political state IS the ultimate authority, so atheists necessarily have the same presupposition by default). If the state is the ultimate authority and morality is dependent on what political state you are born into, the communist parties are free to “genocide-at-will” without any logical basis for accountability! As the old adage says, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The cruelty carried out under communists is not inconsistent with its own fundamentals because for communists the government is the ultimate moral authority, and the government legally administered the deaths of millions. Not only is genocide not inconsistent with communism, it is what we might expect from the first full-scale political movement with the fundamental belief that there is no higher power than the party. (Some atheists may claim that reason is the ultimate authority. This may be true for them in theory, but in practice someone has to be in charge.)
Is this true of atheism by extension? Is it fair to say that genocide is a consistent practical implication of atheism? That might be a tenuous argument since atheists that I know tend to dissociate themselves from organizations or movements that define themselves as atheist, especially communism. But since communism is one of the offspring of atheism, and genocide is not inconsistent with communism, it logically follows that genocide is not inconsistent with atheism. At any rate, please allow me a disclaimer: I am NOT saying that all atheists are bad and all Christians are good. The atheists that I know are generally good people, concerned with the well-being of their fellow man, and everyone knows someone who calls themselves a Christian but might burst into flames upon entry to a Church. What I AM saying is that where we see Christians who live consistently with New Testament scripture, a certain level of moral uprightness can be expected, whereas Christians who have misbehaved in the past demonstrate a clear disconnect between their fundamentals and their actions. Not all religion is bad. Let me rephrase that in a pure type “O” statement: Some religion is not bad.
The common denominator behind evil is not religion, but sin, which is universal. And, we see goodness in every culture and society (some more than others). This is the condition of man: broken, but redeemable. Are you asking hard questions about the religion in which you were raised? Don’t overlook history when you consider the claims of the New Atheists. Their own claims need to be subject to the same level of skepticism as everyone else’s.