Is Religion Primarily to Blame for This? April 4, 2011

Is Religion Primarily to Blame for This?

It’s always easy to blame religion for a lot of the conflicts you see in the world, but how often is that really the case?

Jerry Coyne is compiling a list of evils in which religion is to blame.

Sounds a little dubious since something like the Protestant/Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland sounds religious on the surface but actually has other causes that may play a larger role. So to separate those kinds of situations from the ones he’s looking for, Coyne asks this question:

Would those acts have still been committed had there been no religion?

And with that, he has a draft list. Here’s a sampling:

  • 9/11
  • The represssion of women according to Islamic law and custom
  • Deaths from AIDS because of Catholic importuning against birth control
  • The sexual molestation of children by Catholic priests
  • The horrible and often lifelong guilt instilled in children by Catholic priests who scare them with thoughts of hell and constant admonitions about sin
  • The deaths of children whose parents relied on faith healing
  • The persecution of gays on religious grounds, as occurs in both America and the Middle East
  • Blanket prohibitions on abortion even when the mother is raped or her life is at stake; the persecution of single mothers in countries like Ireland
  • Opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia

The full list is at his site.

What would you add to it? Remove?

(Obviously, religion may be to blame for items on the list, but Coyne correctly adds that “ultimate responsibility for those acts rests on the people who commit them.”)

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  • Have to disagree about “the troubles” in Northern Ireland. It’s very much about religion. I worked with a guy back in the ’70’s from Belfast and he said it was all about the Orange and the Green. Rome has a death grip on people of Northern Ireland and the main problem they have with English rule is that England is Protestant.

  • Steve

    It depends on how far back you want to go. The original reason is because the British settled in Northern Ireland in the first place. And that was purely political. Later it became a mix of politics and religion.

    Though I’d guess if both sides had the same religion, a peaceful solution to the conflict would have been found sooner.

    The Sunni/Shitte thing in Iraq is not too different really. The British just drew lines across the map after WWI and created countries that wouldn’t exist naturally, not caring about ethnic or religious boundaries. Then one side oppressed the other for decades and denied them political power.

  • Jeff

    The horrible and often lifelong guilt instilled in children by Catholic priests who scare them with thoughts of hell and constant admonitions about sin

    Why do the evangelicals get a pass?

  • Kristi

    Off his site

    “And, of course, the opposition to science instantiated in American creationism. Note that this is among the least harmful effects of faith. Nobody dies because they don’t learn evolution.”

    My personal opinion is that this is JUST as threatening as all the rest. It is emotionally destructive. Creationists are not just against evolution, but every tiny detail that surrounds it. This kind of delusional thinking causes medical breakthroughs to be delayed due to a mistrust in science (which has and will cause death), it causes people to be intellectually dishonest (which in turn could stop the next Einstein from coming around) and puts a serious halt to learning about the mixture of species and history of the planet. And most important, it teaches people deceive not only themselves, but everyone around them. Creationism is a flat out lie and the longer it is allowed to be “taught” the ore ludicrous it gets.

  • Sarah

    I would remove or at least edit the sexual molestation of children by Catholic priests. I don’t see what role religion plays in causing this crime. Perhaps there is a bit more opportunity as a Catholic priest, but it is not religion which creates the inclination and lack of morality. The lack of action the church takes against the rapists is something that should be on the list, however.

  • Earl

    “Religion” isn’t to blame for anything – people are to blame.

  • Candide

    Why do the evangelicals get a pass?

    Exactly. Teaching that people are inherently sinful and will go to hell if they don’t believe a particular set of doctrines or follow a specific set of rules is abuse, no matter if it’s a priest, a pastor, proselytizer, or parent. Abuse is abuse, no matter the source.

  • evil is evil

    Earl, are you so wrapped up in the total crap about “Western Civilization” that you are unable to think?

    There are what are called “aboriginal” societies today. They have incredibly complex religious systems. Western “Religion” is worse than a damned comic book. It simplifies and negates whatever the core value of the “religion” is.

    Simply sit down and get on your computer and research. Then plot the points of ongoing conflict and the religious balance.

    Almost all wars are by religion. Period. This is not something new or profound or stunning. Almost all wars are based on religion.

    You have a dried clean proof right now.

    Northern Mexico is bordering on Somalia level anarchy. Ten to forty thousand people murdered last year. This is not some remote threat, this is the flat damned truth that there is a real national security emergency in Mexico.

    No intervention by that believer in the White House.

    Oh, maybe we’ve been a little irritated by the dictator of Libya. Well, off with his Moslem head and steal the oil.

    Which way did the religions freaks go?

  • Joseph Reilly

    I’m sure some will disagree, however, I don’t believe that religion was THE cause of 9-11. Terrorism is a means to achieve political goals. I’m not saying that religion/islam hasn’t played any role whatsoever, but I am saying that it is incorrect to place the blame primarily on religion. The blame could be more correctly placed on achieving political goals while incidentally the perpetrators happen to be muslim.

  • Miles McCullough

    I would add the lack of interest in science encouraged by religion. The fewer scientists we have and the less willingness we have to fund science (as is apparent in the recent Republican budget cuts), the slower our technological progress. I would trade all the religious charities of the world for one Norman Borlaug.

    I would further add the authoritarian impulse. There is a reason corporations and religions are often on the same side, and human rights lose out every time.

  • cbc

    Let’s add: “mass mutilation of the genitals of male and female infants and children.”

  • Miles McCullough

    Earl, surely you agree that there are bad ideas? Fascism, racism, etc.

  • Vanessa

    I’d like to change “The sexual molestation of children by Catholic priests” to “The sexual molestation of children by priests/pastors”
    I know Catholic priests get a bad rap for it, but really, it’s a problem present in all churches. The molestation rate really isn’t much higher for Catholics than other denominations.

  • Miles McCullough

    The biggest foul with the whole Catholic priest molestation scandal is that the Church moved priests around and hid the abuse. The Catholics are unique in this aspect and that makes it harder to trust official figures since they got help getting away with it.

  • Richard P.

    I don’t think any of these are caused by religion. People caused these and I think we need to never forget that.
    The excuse they used to justify their actions is religion. Which is why we need stand against it. This is a core problem with society, we seem to have forgotten what personal responsibility is. Religion is the primary tool used to teach us to relinquish them. Lets not mistake the excuse for the cause.

  • Chas

    9/11 may have had religious justification, but also secular causes at it’s root. In the early 1990s, Bin Laden emphasized his desire to secure the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops from Saudi Arabia and voiced his opposition to U.S. support for Israel.

    Most “religious” wars also have economic or territorial reasons. Part of the reason the whole “who killed more, religion or atheists” is nonsense. Atheist/communist regimes killed people to maintain power, not to spread Atheism, and “holy” wars often have secular motives

  • The Vicar

    I don’t think this is a fair question in the first place.

    To answer this question would require a superhuman and probably impossible insight into motivations. It is a question of motivation, and in most cases people have more than one motivation for most actions.

    We can take the know-nothing stance which Jerry Coyne seems to be seeking, and list only events which were given their precise form because of the existence of a specific religion, but this is intellectually dishonest because it ignores many instances in which religion was one of several factors in the creation or prolonging of some event. (The pro-slavery and anti-integration movements in the U.S., for example, both cited the New Testament as part of their justification.)

    On the other hand, it is not humanly possible to take an event which had multiple causes and say “religion did this”. To take the same example again: slavery certainly existed long before Christianity, so you can’t claim that slavery was the fault of Christianity — and it is impossible to prove that the people who cited the Bible in defense of slavery genuinely believed what they were saying.

    Complicating this further is the inevitable flaw of all alternate histories: an alternate history by definition differs from this one, and quite possibly would be impossible for us to imagine. What if religion had ceased to exist in 500 BCE? What would the world be like today? What if it ceased in 500 CE, or 1492, or 1900? And how was religion eliminated — a sudden worldwide moment of clarity? Enforced from the top down somehow? Time-travelling objectivists from a dystopian future? Each possible answer to these questions implies a totally different worldview.

    And it is not impossible that something evil which we associate particularly with religion might come about by secular means. Take, for example, ritual genital mutilation. That’s a terrible thing — but from about 1850 through 1970, there were lots of dubious surgical practices which had plausible-sounding (if you did not have the benefit of modern understanding) justifications. Victorian doctors blamed practically any female health problems on sexuality and/or the mere existence of the uterus, and performed a great deal of mutilation. As I recall (but cannot find verification offhand), Dr. Joseph Bell (who was the model for the character of Sherlock Holmes) was a proponent of the removal of a portion of the digestive system — a dangerous and totally unnecessary surgery, justified only by Victorian assumptions about feces. And don’t get me started on lobotomies, which were entirely a 20th-century phenomenon and were certainly responsible for more harm than good. If medical science could champion all those ideas, it certainly could manage to come up with genital mutilation as well if religion had not suggested it already.

  • Mark

    I don’t think many of the above listed can be solely laid at the feet of religion. The Catholic church simply provided a crop of targets and cover for paedos, It didn’t invent it.

    Faith healing is just one variety of crank medicine. The people who are gullible enough to fall for it are gullible enough to fall for the others.

    The persecution of gays certainly can’t be. A number of officially atheist socialist regimes did so. The problem there is associating morality with normality.

    There are a lot of non-religious grounds to oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia. None of them are convincing but they are there.

    I tend to think Religion is a result of irrationality more than a cause. But ultimately I think it is a chicken and egg question (I’m using it as a common idiom so nobody needs to get pedantic here.) whose answer is lost to history.

  • Nele

    Sarah said yesterday:

    I would remove or at least edit the sexual molestation of children by Catholic priests. I don’t see what role religion plays in causing this crime.

    I see to, perhaps, indirect links: first, the ideological antisexuality of the catholic church can be highly attractive to people with a pathological sexuality because the celebicy of nuns and priests offerst them an idealized an socially accepted way not to face their problems.

    Second, it has always been the prime objective of the catholic church to protect itself by all means. Ideologically, the church is the vehicle to save the eternal soul – and Christianity has never been really concerned with the living human being, the soul in afterlife is considered much more important. Save the priests, not the victims – the souls of the raped children are, after all, not in danger, but they need the priests to do the good on earth. :>

  • I disagree that Northern Ireland is a political conflict.

    The fear of the northern protestants was always of Rome rule. At this point in time it would be stupid to claim this (with the deputy prime minister an avowed atheist) – but in the early 20th century it was genuine. And with the abuses that happened with the Catholic church in Ireland over the 20th century, it’s hard to claim that it was a groundless fear.

    Of course, that would never have been an issue if the protestant led rebellion of 1798 had been a success. Pity the Catholic church stood so firmly against it – but then they were well paid.

  • Brian

    The siege of Beziers, in a totally religious crusade by the catlicks, which gave us the immortal: “Kill them all. God will know his own.”

  • As much as I believe that religion is a truly awful thing I really don’t want to hold it up as an excuse that some people might use to justify the cruel things that they do and have done. If a priest molests a child then their religion and religious restrictions aren’t to blame. They are to blame. If a tradition exists that says you cut off the foreskins of boys then the parents and “surgeon” are to blame for following this.

    We’d be better off without the excuse of religion entirely.

  • Claudia

    I think the issue is that since religion is a human created phenomenon, a large proportion of the things based on religion have at least as much to do with pre-existing human impulses. Thus wars do mix in religion, but also the natural violent tendencies of humans. Having said that I do think that there are some things that would be much harder to imagine happening in the absence of religion. Tentatively I’d personally classify:

    Almost certainly would not happen without religion (or would be much less common):

    – 9/11 (and the many many other suicide bombings around the world people tend to forget happened and continue to happen).
    – The opposition to science instantiated in American creationism.
    – The mutilation by acid of Afghani girls who dare attend school
    – The deaths of children whose parents relied on faith healing
    – The persecution of gays on religious grounds, as occurs in both America and the Middle East
    – Deaths from AIDS because of Catholic importuning against birth control

    Are hugely assisted by religion, but could reasonably expected to happen under other justifications in unenlightened societies:

    – The horrible and often lifelong guilt instilled in children by Catholic priests who scare them with thoughts of hell and constant admonitions about sin *
    – Ditto for Islam, which threatens apostates and doubters with eternal hellfire *
    *By definition, without a religion there is no hell, but guilt and fear are not the exclusive domains of religion and expectations about “decency” and the fear of shunning of those that are different are aspects of human behavior that exist with and without religion.

    – Blanket prohibitions on abortion even when the mother is raped or her life is at stake; the persecution of single mothers in countries like Ireland
    – The represssion of women according to Islamic law and custom
    The repression of women and female sexuality has gotten a big assist from religion it’s true, but I think it’s absurd to suppose that without religion this shit would just fade away. Visit any thread on any atheist site where women state they have issues with treatment from male atheists and you will witness that you don’t have to believe in god to have unenlightened attitudes about women.

    Things that would likely happen in some form or another without religion:

    – The sexual molestation of children by Catholic priests Pedophiles exist regardless, and even though repressing your sexuality probably makes it worse, abusers will always exist and will always seek out positions of trust with children (be it priest, camp counselor or teacher) to facilitate their abuse. Let’s also not forget that the vast majority of sexual child abuse happens within the inmediate domestic sphere of a child.
    – The deaths and injuries due to Sunni/Shiite conflict: arguments about who are Mohammed’s true successors. It has religious elements of course, but in the end it’s about power and a centuries long war between two sides who would likely hate each other just as much tomorrow, even if they suddenly stopped believing in god. Even if this particular feud ended, it’s perfectly feasible to have unending hate-filled conflict without religion.
    – Opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia Plenty of nonreligious people have issues with this that have nothing to do with god.
    – The fleecing of the innocent by Scientology Yes, because homeopathy, crystal healing, and casinos show that you can’t separate gullible/ignorant people from their money without god.

  • I think we need to define what is meant by religion here, because any weird thought or belief (e.g. faith healing, death cults) could be lumped in under religion, thereby making the term almost meaningless. If you use the term “religion” to mean a large unifying movement brought together under some sort of supernatural doctrine, then you have to be careful to understand how this might be different to a movement that has no supernatural elements whatsoever: whether that be a political, national or military movement. I think Northern Ireland is a more political issue than it ever was religious. I am also inclined to include misogyny here.

    Essentially then you are left with doctrines that define that movement, that can harm, kill, or deprive people of liberty in order to protect the integrity of that doctrine. And you know, it’s kind of hard to do. Certainly there might be things like 9/11 which might not have happened if were it not for religion. The Indian caste system might be included in this. Riots at Mecca. Creationism too.

    But, in between, there is this huge gray area. The tyrannies of the 20th century were not religious, and yet they were violent, deeply abusive, homophobic, misogynistic, antagonistic against other religions and totally illiberal. Do we call them religious movements to make the differences more pronounced? I’m not sure we can.

    I’m inclined to think that the supernatural element of religion is certainly a factor, but not as big a factor as a lack of critical thinking in society. Where people are persuaded to commit acts because of fear, love or because they know they will get away with it, that’s often where the problem lies.

  • Greg

    Not got time to read the other comments here, so it may have been said by someone else, but the first thing I’d do is reinsert the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’. Whilst you can claim it went back to even before the British conquered Ireland (the North of Ireland was largely settled by Scots and and the Northern English even before any kind of invasion) and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of overt religious influence there, what you have to understand is the ‘troubles’ simply could not have kept going without religion.

    The Catholics and the Protestants completely switched their positions in the social spectrum from the starting of hostilities to the present day, and if not for the ‘us v them’ mentality of religion, it is hard to see them being able to maintain the separation of their groups, and prevent intermingling with the ‘others’. If you look back over the history of Northern Ireland, and Ireland as a whole, you will continuously see separation along not political grounds, but rather religious ones – even if there were political reasons involved in the grievances, it was not by them, but rather by their religion they identified. Religion, as we all know, is something that gets indoctrinated in to the children at an early age.

    As someone who lived a time in Southern Ireland, it is remarkable how the first question I was asked (as a child!) was whether I was a Protestant or a Catholic. And that’s just Southern Ireland. Up in Northern Ireland, whole areas are designated Catholic or Protestant areas. If you’re a Catholic, then you sure don’t go anywhere near a Protestant pub, or school, etc. and vice versa. (Or at least you didn’t 10 years ago, haven’t been back since.)

    There is no way I can conceive that the fighting could have gone on without something that kept the identities of these two groups completely separate. (Possibly the only thing that even threatens to do that as well as religion is sport! ;))

    So, yes, the Northern Ireland situation is one that could not have happened without religion – or rather, one that could not have been so prolonged.

  • cat

    @Greg, religion serves as an ethnic marker. The Scotts were given land stolen from the Irish and set up a system so brutal that it is the origin of the word “plantation”. Millions starved. A certain portion of the Irish still have lower blood temperatures because so many years of starvation have hardwired their bodies to try and slow the process. This was an extremel brutal system that was intentionally genocidal at many points (consider, for example, that during the potato famine, the region was a net exporter of food). Radical northern Irish Catholics also have a tendancy to lapse from Catholocism if they emmigrate, but keep many of the other nationalist sentiments. My grandfather’s sister, who lived right outside of Belfast during the troubles, was nominally Catholic at best, but obsessively politically involved in the issue. When she said she was Catholic, she meant less that she practiced the religion and more that she was not Scott, that her mother spoke Gaelic, her political position, etc. Religion exacerbates the problem, but the root of the troubles was issues of ethnicity and colonialism. Which I think is a core issue in this discussion. Some things can be more directly attributed to religion as a primary cause (homophobia, for example), but for millions of other things, religion feeds and amplifies the problem. It encourages tribalism and discourages rational discussions and progressive solutions. It gives excuses for things which could not be otherwise rationalized.

  • Alex

    I don’t think I really considered ethics or what footprint I’m leaving on this earth until I dropped religion and started thinking for myself.

  • Douglas Kirk

    The best way to explain this I’m pulling from Sastra, a commenter on WEIT. When you say religion isn’t to blame for these things; that religion is a neutral force that some people turn to evil and some turn to good; you are saying exactly this:

    “Religion is neutral like absolute dictatorships are neutral. You can have a benign, fair, reasonable dictator who cares deeply about the welfare of all his people — or you can have the other sort.

    But there is no inherent problem with absolute dictatorships as such. You have to evaluate each despot individually, to see if he has imposed good, or evil.”

  • LeAnne

    what about all the people who could be/could have been helped by stem cells?

  • Erik T

    Sounds similar to Tim Farley’s

  • Josh

    – The persecution of gays on religious grounds, as occurs in both America and the Middle East

    Does anybody persecute gays for a non-religious reason? Because I can’t think of any.

  • Matt

    In all honesty, I think people will act like arseholes for about as long as there are people still in existence. However, religion does tend to provide a convenient excuse. That’s not to say that religion on its own hasn’t given motive for some pretty horrible things, but as far as I can see it’s often simply reaffirming a prejudice.

  • L.Long

    All of the list would happen even if there was no religion involved. But that is too simple, as trying to separate religion and culture and politics is often impossible. Example is the burka, is it culture or religion. I think we can agree that there are repressive and repressed people out there that let their own self-hate affect everything they do and religion/culture helps to promote it and makes it easier to convince ‘good people’ to do bad things and it also helps ‘bad people’ get away with doing even worse things. Religion sucks in any case.

  • Hugh

    I’d like to think Cat for the well-informed comment, and I have to say some of the other commenters here are full of shit. There are a lot of people (including Coyne, it seems) who know nothing about Ireland but have a knee-jerk reaction whenever it is mentioned, and start going on and on about holy war, the inquisition etc. etc. The reality is that religion was always a weapon used by the London government to divide and conquer in Ireland, and to rile up the working-class Protestants (the descendants of planters from Scotland and Northern England) against the Catholics (the indigenous Irish) who would otherwise be their natural allies to combine and rise up against aristocratic rule by the southern English – this did in fact happen a few times in the 1800’s, but not successfully.

    To those who say that the Irish are genetically bigoted and bloodthirsty, look at the Republic of Ireland – it also has a mix of Catholics and Protestants, but has been at peace ever since independence. Growing up in Dublin in the 60’s, I had plenty of Protestant friends. Granted, they went to different schools and churches, and everyone knew who were the Catholic or the Protestant families in any given neighborhood. But there was never any tension between us, no calls for one side or the other to be kicked out, no suggestions that Protestants weren’t “true Irish” – apart from the occasional relic of empire (usually a landed aristocrat) who made a point of flying the union jack at his house, celebrating the queeen of England’s birthday etc. etc. Protestants are a minority in the Republic of Ireland but have had a very high profile and influence in politics, business and the arts, and most Irish people are very grateful for their contributions.

    It’s quite a different story in Britian, which is still in principle a theocracy where there is an established church whose head is also the head of state. Britain has always tended to see Catholicism less as a religion than as a political power that is for some reason obsessed with destroying the English monarchy. For centuries the official position was that if you are Catholic, you are by definition a disloyal subject and a traitor. Though this feeling has mostly died down in Britain, it’s never far below the surface when a Catholic is appointed to some sensitive or high-profile position in the British government. But this attitude still reigns supreme among the Protestants in Northern Ireland, especially among the odious Ian Paisley and his followers, having been carefully cultivated by the British – look up Randolph Churchill and the “orange card”.

    However, the situation is not symmetric – the IRA was never a Catholic organization, it was a Marxist one, and most Northern Ireland Catholics didn’t give a damn about religious differences. What they cared about was that they were being denied basic civil and human rights right up to the late 1980’s. They started a civil rights movement in the 1960’s, inspired by the black civil rights movement in the US, and some of the leaders of the movement were Protestants. But the British responded to peaceful demands for civil rights with martial law and brutality, culminating in the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, which led to the formation of the Provisional IRA and the long period known as the Troubles.

    Granted, the Catholic Church did a lot to keep the pot boiling over, especially by adamantly opposing secular and integrated education. So it is a complicated situation – but you can’t just look at religious differences in a vacuum and ignore the power differentials, Britain’s colonial agenda, etc. etc. The bottom line is that Britain played the religion card and it blew up in their faces. I see something similar happening with Israeli hawks playing the Christian fundamentalist extreme-right in the US, guaranteeing themselves a never-ending deluge of gifts in cash and weapons from the US taxpayer but also guaranteeing an insurmountable legacy of hatred and bitterness as they treat the Palestinians worse than animals. Yes, religion is dangerous, but it is at its most dangerous when it is used as a weapon by those with an agenda!

  • I toyed with this a few years ago. But I was trying to find atrocities that could NOT be blamed on religion. I wasn’t able to find many over a span of centuries, but one that stuck out for me was a protest in Washington after WWI. Soldiers and their families were camping out in front of the Capitol trying to get the government to pay them the “bonus” pay they had been offered for their assistance in the war, but the government didn’t want to pay up.

    The army (which included the likes of Patton, et al,) charged the soldiers and their families to get them to disperse, using tear gas as well as bayonets. Some died, many were injured, a pregnant woman miscarried, I think.

    No religion required there.

  • SWare

    Heaven’s gaiters, Jonestown massacre, Waco,……do these things not fall into the aforementioned category? They may not have been as widely recognized and adhered to as say Catholicism but these religions are just as made up as the more widespread variety. Also, many suicide bombers/ terrorists are lead to believe by the extremist part of their religion that they are doing their deity’s wishes in hopes of some grand afterlife reward. How many virgins were to be awarded to 9/11 hijackers? If one firmly believes and has faith in such things, why can’t it be argued that those beliefs are to blame? How else do you get someone to willingly fly a plane into a building knowing it is going to kill you with all the passengers?

    Haven’t seen abortion clinic attacks/ murders so thought I’d add it to the list.

  • Greg

    Cat – I’m not entirely sure whether you are disagreeing with me or agreeing with me. Whilst I suspect we may disagree as to how much the religions remain religious as opposed to political, I agree with quite a lot you said – in fact, I think that might be our only disagreement really. I would however question your claim that the region was a net exporter of food during the famine – as someone who was made to study it in mind numbing detail at both primary and secondary school, I certainly don’t remember that – do you mean Ireland as a whole, or part of Ireland? I am of course open to being wrong about that, I don’t have any of my books any more on the subject. Although that is rather irrelevant to the topic, anyway, I guess.

    You say that religion exacerbates the problem but the roots of the trouble are ethnicity etc. and to an extent I agree – however, my point was that religion is the one thing that currently keeps those barriers up. If all the Catholics and Protestants in NI were suddenly to lose their religion – the thing that keeps them in their current groups – most of them wouldn’t be able to tell each other apart.

    Religion didn’t cause the problem, it just made it worse, and I’m not contending that, it’s just it’s got to the point where without religion it would all fall away.

    As for Hugh’s post. Wow. All I can say is that as I don’t have any of my books on the subject any more, I’m not going to get into a prolonged argument about the history in it, but if anyone is tempted to believe what he said, please make sure you fact check it first. Some of it may be true, but then there are other (large… very large) bits – like the claim that the IRA were Marxist that are just frankly bizarre.

    Also, as far as I can tell, no-one is saying that the Irish are genetically bigoted and bloodthirsty.

    I can however attest – as someone who grew up in an IRA hotbed in the very south of Ireland (near Cork – I’ll leave it as vague as that) – that a lot of what you said in the rest of the paragraph I am referring to is simply not true. I have friends who married each other and had problems because it was a ‘mixed marriage’. There was a school teacher in a town near me that used to protest regularly to get everyone who didn’t have a pure Irish lineage until back before the plantations kicked out of the country. I know protestants that wanted to play GAA sports, but because of the issues there, couldn’t. These things happened.

    Now some of this was actually simple racism (or rather something related to it), I’m afraid to say, growing up where I did just a decade or two ago, there was not one single non-white Caucasian around, and there was a lot of bigotry when Blacks first started to move in, seeking safety from their war torn countries, and even students over to learn English in summer schools for a few years used to get attacked quite regularly. So I’m aware much of the issue may have been exacerbated further by insularity, at least in Éire.

    However, and I want to make this clear, this was not everybody, and it was not the case everywhere by any means. Like I said earlier, I had the misfortune of living in an IRA hotbed, where numerous hidden bombs and weapons caches were discovered over the years (and if you remember the bank raid a few years back, my next door neighbour was arrested for that(!!)), but if you go elsewhere in the country things are completely different. In fact, the closer you get to Dublin, I’d say from my experience, then the less likely you are to see anything like that.

    The reason for this is probably easy enough to see if you look at the population densities of the country. Dublin has over a million inhabitants according to the last survey, the second largest city in the Republic – Cork – has less than 200k. I’d wager that the more multicultural the area in Ireland, the less people tend to have issues with differences in colour or creed.

    Ugh – it’s absurd that I should feel like I have to write a couple of paragraphs to make it absolutely clear I am not making generalisations here, and I’m not saying that all Irish are this way or that, and only that some are, so I’m going to stop there.

    So I’ll leave by savouring a few odd things Hugh said, and laugh a little to myself at them. For example, the ridiculous claim that Britain is a theocracy. Hugh – may I suggest you double check what a theocracy actually is.

    Not to mention the even more hilarious claim that the British have a problem with Catholics being appointed in the government. (Tony Blair (heard of him?) made the switch from Protestantism to Catholicism as did the odious Tory MP Ann Widdecombe). Sure there are a few nutjobs who have a problem with it, but the fact that so many British people aren’t religious at all will suggest to you just how few people those nutjobs are.

    Again – please… anyone who considers taking anything Hugh has said seriously, please do your own independent fact checking. Wow, just wow.

    (For that matter, fact check anything I said too, my memory is a little rusty and I don’t claim to be as well versed as some other people out there.)

    Unless it returns to the actual subject of the OP, I think I’ll bow out of the thread here, actually, I really don’t feel like a prolonged flame war of the type posts like Hugh’s post usually start (and I just half fell for.)

  • Miko

    Most of these are written so as to be tautologically true. E.g., would we have “The represssion of women according to Islamic law and custom” without Islam? Obviously not: instead we’d have the repression of women according to other laws and customs. Would we have “Deaths from AIDS because of Catholic importuning against birth control” without Catholicism? Again, obviously not: instead we’d just have death from AIDS (possibly in somewhat smaller numbers, possibly not).

  • Earl

    @ evil is evil – What in the world are you talking about??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

    All I said was that individuals are rsponsible for their own actions – both the religious leaders and their followers. I have no clue what you’re ranting about….

  • Kaylya

    It’s worth noting that Tony Blair did not formally become Catholic until after he stepped down as PM, although he had long attended mass with his Catholic wife. Some of the issues of Catholicism in Britain and with respect to Blair in particular are covered in this article, written 5 days prior to the official end of Blair’s term in office. It appears that he did not complete the conversion process until several months after he left office.

  • Secular Stu

    “Religion” isn’t to blame for anything – people are to blame.

    Kerosene wasn’t to blame for the fire, it was the match.

  • Earl

    Stu – No, it was the idiot who threw the lit match into the kerosene.

  • Lion IRC

    Leave em in………

    The horrible and often lifelong guilt instilled by thoughts of hell and constant admonitions about sin.
    Leave this one in. Sure, it’s a bit overblown but basically true. Sin and the afterlife are realities that monotheist religion wont try to avoid owning up to even if some dislike the idea or don’t want it to be true. And I’m sure there’s a list somewhere of all the horrible things done by people who thought they could avoid being caught and any negative consequences as a result. When people like Mr Hitchens say we don’t need an invisible “Sky Daddy” to keep the bad from misbehaving I assume they have no idea why police use unmarked vehicles and under cover officers and speed infringement cameras.

    The deaths of children whose parents relied on faith healing?
    Leave that in. Following good advice or following bad advice is never completely risk free. I suppose its like when a parent gets conflicting medical advice from “scientists” about whether vaccination causes autism, whether thalidomide causes birth defects, whether you can get AIDS from blood transfusions, whether male circumcision reduces the risk of sexually transmitted disease, etc. Yep – some faith healers are fakers out to make a buck. Does the atheist bible have a law against bad science? Are scientists morally responsible for the consequences when their inventions are used unethically?

    The persecution of gays on religious grounds, as occurs in both America and the Middle East.
    Better leave this one in. Monotheistic religion can’t disavow the biblical admonitions against same-sex attraction. But Darwinian evolution can’t either. Procreation in sexually reproductive species depends on heterosexuality and the word “gay” is practically irrelevant everywhere else. If the bible is against homosexuality, and that is deemed “persecution” that pales into insignificance compared to the natural selection persecution suffered by people whose “genes” are so unattractive to the opposite sex they will never be selected as a mate choice. Darwinian “evolution” has given us certain anatomical jigsaw pieces which fit a certain way. It’s natures way of saying that some sexual preferences are all in the mind and that same-sex attraction is an invention that doesnt work – non-adaptive.

    Abortion bans?
    Leave that in. That’s a benefit to the person in the womb waiting to be born. (The little human embryo which is observed responding to external stimuli as early as 4 weeks.) That’s a benefit to the adoptive parent unable to get pregnant. That’s a benefit to the woman who, instead of having an abortion can give birth to a potential Mozart, Dawkins, Obama…. It might be a problem for societies which force woman to have abortions.

    Opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia?
    Leave those in. Why on earth would anyone – atheist or theist advocate the legal right to commit suicide? If you support that, you must equally support the right of a person to sell the body parts which will become available after they have committed suicide. And if they have that right, then they must surely have the right, while still living, to sell their kidney or cornea or arm or uterus to the highest bidder. Yuck factor anyone? Mr Singer? Ka Ching $$$$

  • Nordog

    I have no clue what you’re ranting about…

    Thanks you Earl. Now I don’t feel alone.

  • Lion IRC


    Take em out…………

    Remove 9/11 and don’t put it back until each of these muslim leaders formally accept that 9/11 had a religious justification under the religion of Islam.

    Dr. Yahia Abdur-Rahman, from the Islamic Shurah Council of Southern California (ISCSC)
    Dr. Maher Hathout, from the the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and The Islamic Center of Southern California (ICSC
    Dr. Ahmad Sakr, from the Islamic Education Center (IEC),
    Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, former president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA),
    Dr Muhammad Naseem, chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque
    Dr Anwar Ghani, President Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand Inc.
    Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi head of al-Azhar in Cairo, a leading Sunni religious authority
    (…this list could go on for page after page)

    Remove this one –
    The represssion of women according to Islamic law and custom.

    And don’t put it back until you add up all the women who have been abused, beaten, raped, neglected, drugged, forced into economic dependency on prostitution and pornography, died during abortions, left to fend for themselves in a secular, women’s liberation, religion-free society. Then you can make a comparison. Sure, Islam is often associated with certain modes of dress for women but those women are not morons and despite what Jerry Coyne might think, many women freely choose those modes of dress over the mini-skirts and high heels worn in the USA. (Check out rape statistics per capita USA versus Islamic countries.)

    Remove this one –
    Deaths from AIDS because of Catholic importuning against birth control ?

    That’s as stupid as blaming heroin deaths on people who oppose “safe” injecting rooms. The Church which says Don’t Commit Adultery has prevented more AIDS deaths than the secular authority which says “sleep with whoever you want anytime you want wherever you want” just try to please remember if you can in the heat of the moment – to buy a condom in advance, carry a condom with you all the time, wear a condom – even when you’re drunk, stoned, stupid, lazy…

    Remove this one -The sexual molestation of children by Catholic priests.
    See? Here we go again! New Atheists, suddenly born-again campaigners against pedophilia – so long as the perpetrator can be linked to a church of course. All that outrage directed against pedophilia would carry a lot more moral integrity if it was equally apparent and directed with equal force at ALL child molesters. I find it disgusting that the child victims of pedophiles pretending to be priests get more attention than the equally deserving victims outside the RCC whose numbers are orders of magnitude greater. Forget about 50,000 cases in the RCC over 30 years. There are more than 150 MILLION cases of child sexual abuse in a ONE SINGLE YEAR directly within the remit of SECULAR agencies. Is it just a coincidence that a massive child pornography syndicate, recently discovered, was based in the (secular/atheist) Netherlands?

    How low does the anti-theism dialectic need to stoop that its polemic against religion rests on the dubious (and intellectually gutless) methods above?

    Religion = Oppressed women

    Religion = Child molestation

    Religion = 9/11

    Religion = AIDS

    If that’s the best New Atheism can do and you need to scrape the bottom of the barrel so soon, then I declare that it is finished. Nothing to offer as a replacement for religion. No 21st Century Big Ideas to offer hope or inspiration. No enlightenment. Just slagging off and cheap shots. It lacks atheology. It keeps on blathering about being akin to non-stamp collecting and claiming to be the default “true position” with zero burden of proof. But that does not win hearts OR minds. So its a failure intellectually as much as spiritually.

    As a “world” view it lacks depth. Atheism is not about the transcendent so whats left to talk about? As a competing world view, atheism simply does not know the potential consequences of eliminating religion from society. So, instead, it spends most of its time complaining about religion in the world and not enough time promoting the atheist utopia. Sure, by all means, take away religion as the notional justification for wars, greed, politics, racism, genocide, etc and then what? Nobody believes atheists in China and atheists in Russia and atheists in America would all live happily ever after in a brave new “survival of the fittest” world without religion. In fact, I would argue that such a scenario challenges/threatens the human psyche. Nietzsche would love it but I don’t know how nicely a global neighborhood of Nietzsche’s would get along.

    Despite the often heard claim that we are “all born atheists” (a head start) and despite the apparent advantage of offering people the chance to live like there’s no tomorrow, (yippee!) and despite the fact that you don’t actually need “science” on your side to reject theism, what is taking atheism SO LONG….?

    Lion (IRC)

  • Lion IRC

    Some readers might feel this topic is worthy of a wider discussion than what might be practical in this (most enjoyable and interesting) blog column. Thanks Mr Mehta!

    This site has a dedicated forum where many of the daily blog topics raised by Hemant Mehta can be explored and argued in more ongoing detail.

  • WayneD

    I would add to the list the stifling of the development of stem cell research which could be the next greatest medical achievement.

    I would change the bit about priests molesting children since their religious beliefs do not change there mental problem. What I would change is the fact that the Catholic Church, in an attempt to save themselves embarrassment, instead of removing these priests, tried to hide the situation by moving priests to other parishes where they continued to molest kids.

  • Hugh


    I stand by what I wrote, and welcome any fact check – saying “wow” over and over again doesn’t count. Perhaps you can get the ball rolling by telling me which of the following statements are untrue:

    – There is an established church in Britain, the Church of England.
    – The queen of England is its head.
    – She is also the head of state.

    And why do you think Tony Blair waited until well after he had left office before converting to Catholicism? Because it would have been political suicide otherwise. I remember hearing a lot of grumbling in the British media about his wife Cherie being Catholic. Now, I freely admit that anti-Catholic sentiment in Britain itself generally doesn’t rise much above the level of background grumbling among the older generation – but my point was that Britain was quite happy to nourish and exploit anti-Catholic bigotry in Northern Ireland. Again, look up Randolph Churchill and the “orange card” strategy.

    As for the IRA, of course there were various factions splitting off all the time but the “core” IRA is now called something like the Democratic Workers Socialist Party. I don’t think imposing “Rome Rule” is high on their agenda.

    At the end of the day, you can come up with as many anecdotes as you like to say that Irish Catholics are inherently backward religious fanatics, but the very different histories of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland since partition tell a different story. As I’ve said, Protestants have had influence on and contributed to the Republic in a way that would be unimaginable in NI. (The vast majority of Catholics couldn’t even vote in local elections in NI until the Stormont parliament – “A Protestant parliament for a Protestant people” – was dissolved in the 70’s.) There simply was no counterpart in the Republic to the official, systematic discrimination against Catholics in NI that lasted for most of the 20th century.

    I’m not saying the Republic was or is perfect – like many countries, including Britain, it has had problems and is continuing to deal with them, but I feel it is overall moving in the right direction. The point I am trying to make is that religious difference in a vacuum is NOT the explanation for everything. Also, I get so tired of smug, uninformed people unfairly maligning my country as a medieval hellhole and proclaiming that the Irish are somehow fundamentally different and more backward than the rest of the human race. (Conversely, Britain is not the unique paragon of enlightenment that it is imagined to be – it has played a very sordid role in Ireland over the centuries, and bears a heavy share of the blame for the violence.)

  • Lion IRC

    You would think that truly religious wars, (as opposed to territorial imperatives and politics disguised as religion,) would involve people who actually had…. different opposing gods. My god versus yours.

    But protestants and catholics are both Christian. Shiite and Sunni both call God Allah and both revere Moses, Jesus, Abraham…

    And how often have we heard the War on Terror mantra with its explicit distinction about having nothing to do with religion (Christianity versus Islam)

    Anti-religionists and New Atheist polemicists are actually pretty lucky that religion is, and has been, so universal in human history.

    Otherwise, there would be little alternative for them, but to conclude that most wars throughout history, have been the result of that far less prevalent and seldom heard of obscurity known as…
    …human greed.

  • Gibbon

    Just one single comment.


    If all the Catholics and Protestants in NI were suddenly to lose their religion – the thing that keeps them in their current groups – most of them wouldn’t be able to tell each other apart.

    If that were to happen the violence and the bloodshed would only subside for as long no one had any way to identify who was who. All it would take is for one or both sides to establish a way for them to express their identity, for the fighting to resume. Once you know who your ally is and who is your enemy, it becomes much easier to target your enemy. It takes just the slightest visible difference to create a divide; even a slight difference in skin colour is enough.

  • Brian

    How about this? Religion isn’t evil; faith–anti-science, anti-female, anti-progress, anti-rational, anti-human–is EVIL.

    We need beliefs based on evidence, not the fantasies of bronze and iron age goathumpers.

  • Secular Stu

    “Religion” isn’t to blame for anything – people are to blame.

    Kerosene wasn’t to blame for the fire, it was the match.

    Stu – No, it was the idiot who threw the lit match into the kerosene.

    My point was that religion makes things worse. I thought “the person with the match is to blame, not the kerosene-and-match-salesman-that-actively-supports-and-promotes-the-unsafe-handling-of-flammable-material” would’ve been too wordy.

  • Billy Danner

    He’s right. Bad things happen because of religion, corrupt religion. If only people would follow my religion… See that’s my belief, that we should all just be perfect and we can live in an orgy of our perfection.

  • Freemage

    I hate lists like this because they’re so easy to pick apart based on the core premise. If we (meaning humanity) didn’t have religion, then some other false belief structure–authoritarian in nature, designed to take advantage of the same cognitive failures that religious fantaticism does–would be put in its place. History has demonstrated that fairly well.

    The Soviet Union, Maoist China and the current regime in North Korea were/are all just as oppressive as their religious counterparts. Is the opposition to stem-cells (definitely religious in origin) really all that different from the opposition to vaccinations (Jenny McCarthy is not exactly a religious icon)?

    The value in these lists is not in “proving the evils that religion causes”, it’s in “proving the evils that religion has been utterly powerless to prevent, or even resist being co-opted into”. If any of the major world religions were ‘true’, by their own claims, they would not be so readily drawn into these moral quagmires, since the Hand of God would prevent them from being so crassly manipulated. But time and again, they fail, proving that their leadership has no particular insight to whatever Divine Will might actually exist, if any.

    This utter impotence against evil should be damning enough to religious claims of moral authority; attempting to stretch the argument by finding evils that would ‘not exist in an alternate reality’, however, weakens the argument by allowing the opposition to quibble over points of disagreement that are as legitimate as they are irrelevant to the true issue.

  • Lion IRC

    The thing which bothers me is that all manner of “bad things” are labelled as having religion as their cause.

    But atheists wont accept that any “bad things” can be linked to atheism – the deliberate choice of non-religion.

    Therefore, when the atheist, agnostic, indifferent person does something “bad” we are unable to hold that up as a contrast.

    This leaves no datum against which we can scientifically compare the metric used to quantify – “bad stuff blamed on religion

    Wouldnt you think that “rational” empirically minded opponents of religion would accept this as the intellectually honest thing to do?

    Non-religious causes of evil – X%
    Evil blamed on religion – Y%
    = All evil – 100%

    How can we meaningfully consider “X” or “Y” in any way without perspective and without regard to the whole 100%?

    Likewise, I am really bothered that percentage “Y” is always asserted as existing in isolation and ignorance of the “good stuff” done by religion.

    In other words, the NETT result of religion is ignored.

    Suppose you did remove religion (along with its orphanages, soup kitchens, hospitals, etc.) in order to eliminate the quantum of value “bad stuff” (Y)

    By what logic and reason can we assume that the total quantum of “X” won’t increase? It, then, accounts for 100% of all “bad stuff”.

    Just as when you ADD water to a certain concentrated substance you dilute it, so too, if you remove “good stuff” from a system that affects the concentration.

  • Lion IRC, I’ve mentioned this many times in the past but religion has both good and bad elements. Like the Curate’s Egg the bad parts spoil the whole. Some parts may be excellent but you’ve still got a rotten egg.

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