Talking About God (Or Not) Part 3

6 Feb

“Religion is unique in its power to make good people do bad things.”

This is, in my opinion, one of the sillier things said by more or less intelligent people on the subject of religion.

The reason I think it’s a silly thing to say (in spite of the many hideous things that have been done, apparently, in the name of religion) is because it seems to me that this apparently uncomplicated sentence takes a number of complex ideas and treats them as though they were very simple.

To begin with, what exactly do we mean by ‘good people’.

Most of us have met people that we think of as being ‘good’ and in general we tend to think that we would know a good person from a bad person when we meet one (or at least that we could make some kind of assessment once we’d been able to get to know them), but how would you define a ‘good person’?

Is a good person someone who is entirely free from any bad qualities? (Hopefully not, because then we’re going to be a bit short on people that we can call good).

It seems more plausible, then, to say that a good person is someone who, in spite of a few flaws and failings, is generally speaking more good than bad.

That being the case, even a good person will have some qualities or attributes that are not good, so it shouldn’t require too much explanation if, every now and then, they do something bad.

It’s also true to say that opinions differ as to who’s good and who’s bad. After all there are some people who see Osama Bin Laden as a virtuous and heroic figure. (Not a view I share, but it has to be noted that it is certainly a view held by some people).

When we’re talking about ‘bad things’, as in things that people do that are bad, there will be similar problems. Opinions differ as to which things are good or bad depending on your perspective, and opinions also change over time.

So we can say with certainty that William the Conqueror invaded England in the year currently designated as 1066 CE.

That is a matter of fact, and it always will be.

What’s more problematic is whether or not William himself was a good man and whether or not his invasion and subsequent reorganisation of England was a good or bad thing.

And as if that wasn’t enough, we then come to the idea that religion ‘makes’ people do things.

We can be absolutely certain that some people will claim that they are motivated by their religious faith. And to some extent, I suppose, faith must play some part in the motivation behind someone’s actions if religion is at all important to them. But the extent and nature of the role played by faith as a motivating factor can be hard to assess.

For example, Hernan Cortez was certainly a Roman Catholic in the sense that he was raised in that particular faith. My understanding is that he did have some genuine religious faith. I don’t think he was a complete hypocrite when it came to religion, so you could argue that religion played some part in his motivation when he invaded Mexico. (As I recall the Pope at the time was quite pleased with his efforts in delivering so many new souls to the faith).

On the other hand, we also know that ambition and greed also played their part in Cortez’ thinking.

(As did a fair amount of fear, I suspect. He was disobeying orders in launching his expedition and he was not well liked by all of his superiors so he could have expected pretty short shrift if he had returned with anything less than a dazzling success. His force was also vastly outnumbered and he could expect no mercy from the Aztecs, or even some of his allies if he’d been defeated).

Cortez may seem like a bad example, in a way, because religion never seemed to be his major motivation, but you could look at the leadership of the First Crusade and see a similar messy tangle of motives.

For example, there seems to be little doubt that Raymond of Toulouse was motivated very largely by his faith. He was a wealthy and important man in France and he sold up all his interests in order to go crusading with the clearly stated intention of never coming back to France.

Having said that, he also had more secular interests as well. (Other leaders of the Crusade, notably Bohemond, were clearly much more venal in their outlook, but even Bohemond probably wouldn’t have set off for Jerusalem without Urban II’s call for Holy War).

So to put it briefly, all sorts of people do things for all sorts of reasons and to say that religion ‘made’ them do something is naive to the point of stupidity.

One last point.

Even if we ignore all the complications that I’ve cited above, there is one final point that should be painfully obvious to anyone who’s paid the slightest attention to the history of the 20th Century.

Religion isn’t the only thing that ‘makes’ people who might generally seem to be good, do some hideously evil things.

Think about the Cold War for a moment.

Not only were our political leaders willing to blow the entire planet to hell over a difference of opinion regarding relatively transient socio/political and economic systems ( I’m not for a moment trying to understate the sheer horror of Stalin’s USSR, but think about it, the Soviet system was never going to last for more than a few decades, while global thermonuclear holocaust would have been about as permanent as anything I can think of), but both sides in the conflict played some really nasty little games in their Third World proxy wars.

(As a matter of fact, even though I would always agree that the West was preferable to the Soviet Union in terms of how people were treated on either side of  The Iron Curtain, when it comes to the reality of their policies in, and towards, developing countries, I’m really and truly not sure there was very much to choose between the two sides).

But then again, the Cold War was never really about a debate over political policy or economic theory.

It was just the same old same.

Young men killing to keep old men in power. Innocents dying in their millions of violence and contempt and the whole thing praised as ‘duty and service’ by a bunch of self-righteous clowns who are always willing to pay any price for the particular brand of exploitation that they call freedom. Just as long as it’s paid out in other people’s lives.

But the worst of it is that the footsoldiers on either side  of the Cold War (as in all wars) were not necessarily evil people.

Some of them probably were just bad people doing bad things because that’s what they wanted to do and Cold War politics just gave them an excuse for it. But many of them must have genuinely believed that what they were doing was justified (or at least necessary) in the context of the historical situation that they found themselves in.

So back to good people doing bad things. (Yet again). 

And this time it was all for truth, justice, freedom and the folks back home (wherever that home might have been) and religion, if it played a part at all, was really only a bit player.

So all I can really say in conclusion is that when you’re so right that it’s worth killing someone, then you’re wrong.

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