The July 2007 issue of Scientific American (page 88-91) featured an article entitled “Should Science Speak to Faith.” This article is a conversation between Lawrence M. Krauss and Richard Dawkins.
On page 91 Krauss addresses the question of whether religion is inherently bad or not. While Krauss is not as hostile to religion as Dawkins, he does say “There is certainly ample evidence that religion has been responsible for many atrocities, and I have often said, as have you, that no one would fly planes into tall buildings on purpose if it were not for a belief that God was on their side.”
Krauss’ question is a very interesting one. As he notes, history contains a vast number of examples of atrocities committed by people professing to be religious and claiming to act from religious motives. However, due care must be exercised when making an inference from this information to conclusions about religion. The following concerns are well worth considering.
First, it is important to keep in mind that what people profess need not be their actual motivation. Just because people claim to be acting from religious motives does not entail that they are actually acting from such motives. People do, after all, tend to want to justify their deeds and misdeeds. So, it is hardly surprising that people doing very bad things often claim they are acting on religious grounds. Of course, it is almost certain that even when this is taken into account, there will still remain numerous atrocities committed by people who sincerely believed they were acting in accord with their religion.
Second, it is also important to keep in mind that when people sincerely claim to be acting in accord with their religion, they might be quite mistaken. For example, even though a person thinks he is acting in accord with Islam when he plants a bomb that will kill a bus load of children it does not follow that he is in fact acting in accord with the faith in question. When assessing history, this is something that needs to be taken into account. As any logician will say, the quality of a belief is not determined by what those who profess the belief do or do not do. For example, one cannot infer that conservative values are incorrect because several conservative figures have committed immoral actions. So, just because people who sincerely claim to be religious do bad things, it does not follow that religion is bad.
It might be replied that although these people might not be acting in accord with the actual religious teachings (then again, they might), they are still religious people and this shows that religion is bad.
This is an interesting point, but there seems to be a serious flaw in the logic. This view seems to rest on the following line of reasoning: religious people do bad things because they are religious. Hence, religion is bad. If this pattern of reasoning is acceptable, some interesting results follow.
Consider, for example, people who believed in eugenics during the time before and during World War II. These people claimed that eugenics was scientifically based and some of them did some very bad things because of this belief. Numerous other examples of bad actions can be found involving similar things, such as the science of race and the science of gender. In light of these results, it should be concluded that science is bad. It can also be pointed out that scientists have provided the world with implements of evil-weapons of mass destruction, torture devices, and all sorts of means of death and pain. So, science must be regarded as bad.
The same line of reasoning can be applied to politics and morality. Throughout history, people who are political and people who are moral have committed terrible misdeeds in accord with their politics and in accord with their morality. Sometimes these people are the same people. From this it follows that politics is bad and so too is morality.
This can be extended even further. For example, people have done bad things because of love. So, love must be bad as well. Naturally, this could be extended even further until true absurdity is reached.
It could be replied that religion is a special case. For example, while some people professing to be moral do bad things, moral people also do good things. And, it might be added, those who do evil things are not really moral. As another example, it might be said that the science that has been used to justify racism and sexism is not really science and the people that follow it are not “scientific.”
In reply, religion could be given the same defense. Religious people have done many wonderful and good things throughout history. Though many brutal and bloody atrocities can be laid at the door of the temple, a multitude of good deeds can also be placed there as well. Fore example, religious people have been active opposing slavery, opposing genocide, doing charitable works, supporting human rights and so on. It is patently unfair to see only the bad while ignoring the good. The reality of the situation is that religion is neither inherently good nor bad in this regard. Religious people do both good and evil and are often motivated by their religious beliefs to commit those deeds or misdeeds.
Continuing the reply, it could be argued that those who do terrible things in the name of religion are not truly religious and their beliefs are not true beliefs. After all, if those who endorsed eugenics can be dismissed as not following true science, the same out should be accorded to religion.
An obvious reply to this is that supporters of science will say that pseudo science is not really science and the distinction can be clearly made using established standards. In the case of religion, there is no distinction between religion and pseudo-religion. On the view typically regarded as scientific, all religions are false in their central metaphysical claims about the supernatural. This is because, of course, there is no supernatural reality.
Of course, the debate about the nature of reality is still unsettled. While some thinkers, such as Dawkins, regard the matter as settled, due consideration of the philosophical arguments presented throughout history will make it clear that this matter is far from settled.
Laying aside the metaphysical problem, the reply at hand can be countered in the following way: although there is science and pseudo science, those who follow pseudo-sciences still think of themselves as being scientific. Hence, if religion can be blamed for the misdeeds of all who act on religious grounds (which are alleged to all be false), then science can be blamed for the misdeeds of all who act on scientific grounds. After all, if what makes a person religious is belief in a religion, then what would make a person scientific in this context would be believing in a science (even a false one).
Thus, the reasonable conclusion is that religion is not inherently good or bad.