Can religious belief make people worse?
Religious belief changes people’s behaviour – there seems little doubt about that. Regular Network Norfolk columnist James Knight asks the question “Can religious belief make people worse?”.
“Can religious belief make people worse?”...We need to first enquire as to whether it can make us better. I don’t think there is much doubt about that one – I think we can all conceive of a situation in which an acquired faith in God has transformed somebody’s life for the better, yielding a resurgence in moral goodness. In fact, becoming a Christian ought to mean that one makes life changes for the better, so it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that many are motivated to do good in the name of Christ. Most of us probably know people to whom the above situation applies.
But can religious belief make people behave worse? It’s an important question, because if religious belief can make people behave worse then sceptics might rightly assume that when it makes people better or worse it isn’t the religion that is doing this but the intrinsic characteristics of the individual. Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg had some pretty harsh things to say about how religion makes us worse; most notably, he said:
"Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion."
The main problem with his remark is that if what he calls ‘good people’ are doing bad things because of their religion, then on what grounds does Mr. Weinberg assert that they are ‘good’ people? For it is probably truer to say that if a man does bad things because of religion then he probably does not qualify as being a good person. I think Mr. Weinberg fails to see this simple logic.
When I look at some of the religious people in the world, I have no difficulty accepting that they do bad things in the name of their faith. But I don’t think that’s the same as saying it is the religion that has made them that way. Rather, if your psychological constitution is one that leads you to do bad things then religion can easily be used as a pretext for badness, because religious faith can elicit a feeling of certainty (some sort of feeling of divine-backing) that acts as a choke point on ordinary ethical sensibilities, and gives us license to make assertions on God’s behalf. But we probably should not blame the religion, any more than we should blame science for the development of thermonuclear weapons. A bad man may use religion to justify terrorism or bullying or sectarianism but only in a similar way to how a wicked man may use his knowledge of physics to bomb another country full of innocent civilians.
You may say that some religious texts are more conducive to extremist interpretations than others – and I would have no quarrel with you. However, I would say that if you think of the God you believe in as a God who supports your terrorism, your dictatorship, your cruelty or your prejudices, you probably would have those tendencies in another name or through another medium, were it not religious belief.
There is perhaps one further issue that needs addressing; if I say that badness could be badness with or without faith-based belief, then why can’t goodness be goodness without faith-based belief? The answer is, of course it can – goodness doesn’t need dressing up as piety in order to be meritorious. But if you only want to be good then you probably can get by with Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, Mill and Rawls.
Christianity is about trying one’s hardest to be good and kind and decent and charitable and loving, but it about something else too – it is about recognising that we fail, even to live up to our own standards, let alone Christ’s. That is why Christianity isn’t just about goodness – it is about grace – a free gift given to us because we couldn’t get there by ourselves. Faith can make the good people better or worse, or it can make the bad people better or worse. That is why, I think the only way to assess Christianity is not as a behavioural barometer measuring every psychological fluctuation that occurs with intensity in atmospheric conditions, but with Christ as the standard through which we accept the free gift of grace or accept goodness as an aspiration in and of itself. Of course, the great thing about Christianity is that we are encouraged to have both.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk