Tony Blair gets it wrong too

In his debate against Christopher Hitchens, Tony Blair incessantly, and rightly, points out that many people perform actions beneficial to society because they believe god commands it.  Many people find this to be a persuasive argument for the need to protect religious moderation, even if we acknowledge that the truth claims of religious moderation are false.  I do not find it persuasive.

To drive the point home, Blair keeps repeating a particular idea.

“The true message of religion is that of compassion and love.”

First, it should be made clear that we do not require religion in order to realize that compassion and love lead to a healthier world.  It also does not take religion (or very much brain power, for that matter) to comprehend that every individual, in the interest of their own happiness, has a personal investment in producing a healthier world.  What more motivation then do we need to be compassionate and loving?  It therefore does one no good to say that religion motivates people to be compassionate, since humans can get there all by ourselves.  However, it does make it particularly noteworthy to point out how poorly formed ideas like religion can twist the idea of compassion until the word itself becomes meaningless.

Secondly, I call shenanigans on the true ™ message of religion being compassion and love.  The message of religion is undeniably obvious: do what god commands.  Show me a religion where it’s not (and if you think you’ve found one, ask what the penalty is for disobeying god).  Often, as we’ve seen with the National Organization against for Marriage, whatever god commands is taken by definition to be a matter of love or compassion regardless of how offensive those edicts are to our inborn sense of empathy or equity.  After all, it cannot be sanely argued that condoms do not reduce the proliferation of aids.  So if the true message of Tony Blair’s Catholic Church is that of compassion and love, as Blair says, then how do we square that message with the spread of aids in regions decimated by poverty on account of his Church’s doctrine?  Simple: god commands it, and god’s commands are either compassionate by definition (regardless of how much suffering they cause) or they trump compassion entirely.  Frankly, I find the two to be indistinguishable.

Sure, the moderate may say that god wishes us to be genuinely compassionate and loving or that the bible doesn’t mean what is says in some parts.  But the fundamentalist is not wrong because the moderate is correct about the will of god.  They are both wrong, it’s just that the moderate’s conclusion about a host of moral questions happens to line up with conclusions achieved through sound reasoning.  Consider how often in Blair’s defense of religion he admits that religions have not always acted in the interest of good.  What is the standard for good that the church has failed to live up to?  I submit that the standard in question is simply how much happiness is produced or how much suffering is alleviated, and these are questions for which reason and evidence offer the best answers.  And those answers could not be more explicit: it is counter-productive to the alleviation of suffering to halt the use of condoms in sub-Saharan Africa, despite what the church says, and it is detrimental to human happiness to deny homosexuals equal rights, despite what the bible says.  The list could go on and on.

So why not simply hold people to being reasonable?  Why can’t we say to the people who use religion as a motivation to do harm that they are failing to be rational, rather than rebuke them for not abiding by a different theology?  For the same reason that the religious are very poor at policing their own: if reason is our standard then religious moderation will get lumped in with religious fanaticism.  To this, I ask who cares.  We don’t need bad ideas to be good.  Blair was right when he said that if religion were to disappear, the world’s problems would not be solved.  However, the world’s problems would go a long way towards being solved if irrationality were to disappear, and that entails the demise of religion.

  • JAFisher44

    If religion "caused" people to perform actions beneficial to society you would think that a significant portion of religious people would be out doing these things. I suspect that the religious people who perform actions beneficial to society because they believe god commands it would still be doing it even if they didn't believe in god. Only then they would be doing it because it's the right thing to do.

    I wonder if there is information on philanthropy in religious populations vs philanthropy in atheist populations.

  • Adam

    Funny you should ask that last question. I wrote about that in my blog today: "Sure, religious people do good things. Studies have even shown that more religious people (by %) help their communities than non-religious people. I think that is mostly because the infrastructure for service exist in religious circles and hasn’t yet been widely available to atheists. It’s easy to go to a church and sign up for some “good deed” program… but they mostly use those as a chance to “witness” to people and convince them to come to church. At least atheists help without ulterior motives. Also, another new study shows that only about 5% of the money that comes into churches goes out to helping people directly (more is spent advertising how much good they do then is spent on actually doing good). Yes, that’s still a load of money – more than the US government spends in foreign aid. But, it’s still a fraction of what could be spent if it weren’t for the ridiculous “country club” style churches that are built and the highly paid preachers who tend to the “flocks” (there are many pastors in America receiving $500,000 or more in yearly salaries – I’ve met one with a congregation of almost 7,000 that take over $350,000 a year). Think how much more good they could do with all that money that they waste on themselves."

    Here's the link to the mentioned article: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tobyyoung/10006…

  • Tim Nordloh

    My nephew had to do some community service, and it turned out that the Catholic soup kitchen had the best system for getting that community service time done. So he (along with a bunch of other people doing court-mandated community service) gave food and such to people who needed it. But we picked them because he could knock out 8 hours at a time, rather than piecemeal time for other community services for the government, or for Dumb Friends league etc.

    I wonder how much so-called Christian volunteers are actually doing their volunteering at a religious place out of a pragmatic desire to get through court-mandated community service in the most efficient way possible.