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I've noticed, both here on A|N and elsewhere, what I consider to be an error of thinking. It happens often enough that I feel it important to not only point out but correct. This error of thinking is confusing religion for religious persons.

This error is asserting that religion is violent or (not) peaceful. It is a rather odd claim, since religion is an idea, and violence is an action. Ideas can not act; ideas merely exist. It is true that ideas can lead an individual to certain action, including violence, but this is a quite different thing. One may even have violent thought that derives from the idea, but the idea itself can not be violent.

Language includes many short-cuts that enable people to express an idea in fewer words but still get the essential meaning across. It may be that in many such instances the claim that "Religion is violent" or "Religion is peaceful"  is such a short-cut (to wit: "Religious thought and practice encourages violence" and "Religious thought and practice encourages peacefulness"), but I think it more so a case of lazy thinking: the claim is what it is, means exactly what it states, and is not a short-cut.

My objection relates to agency and accountability. Religion, as an idea, can have no agency — can not act — and can not be held accountable. It is people who have agency and can be held accountable for the expression of that agency. By asserting that religion itself is violent or peaceful or whatever other quality one may assign one is not making a proper attribution. In a sense, it forgives religious people behaving badly because it is the religion itself that is the agent. But it is not. Religious people may well behave badly (or goodly) because of the ideas they have that inform their behaviour, but it is their behaviour nonetheless, and it is they who must be held to account.

By ascribing the agency to the idea, one is engaging in what is essentially superstitious thinking, as superstitious thinking ascribes agency to things that can have no agency.

Tags: agency, error, peace, religion, religious, religious people, superstition, thinking, thought, violence

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Definitions, definitions...

Religion is an umbrella term. In its most common acception (organized religion) it is more than an idea, it's also a set of practices, it's an organization involving real people, and in that sense it has agency. What's the fundamental difference between a 'religion' and a cult, by the way? Would you say that cults are mere ideas without agency?
Frank Zappa said that religions and cults differ only wrt the amount of real estate they own.
"What's the difference between a cult and a religion? About a hundred years." -Unknown
Valid point, Stephen. I think your point underlies why I generally have no beef with "good" believers because of their religious affiliation. To each his own - as long as we aren't infringing on one another or behaving violently.
This is also why banning religion wouldn't stop violence. Most likely people would find something else to be violent about, although religion, by never requiring any proof for its claims, enables delusion more than anything else.
LOL reminds me of a south park episode
I agree that there is an important distinction between religions and religious persons.

But I disagree on the implications of that distinction.

I'm one of those that considers guns dangerous, even if they are not currently being wielded dangerously by a person. Dynamite is dangerous too. So are computer viruses. So are land-mines. Technically a land-mine requires a person to step on it before it can do any direct harm, but it would be silly to blame the person stepping on the land-mine for injuring themselves. "Silly amputee, you should have watched where you were stepping!"

Religions, in the same way, are dangerous. Yes, indeed, some of them are 'violent' in the sense that they contain ideas that promote violence. It doesn't matter if nobody is currently reading the violent dogma, the point is that the dogma itself is a major (perhaps the main) influence of the violence it causes.

When a mother cuts off here child's hands because 'if your right hand offends you, cut it off', to say that the mother is solely responsible for the cutting off of hands, is to mistakenly ignore the *real* influence that her religion had in her decisions and actions.

Imagine if we destroyed any computer that happened to be running a computer virus. Clearly, that would be silly. The computer is not solely to blame for its behaviour, even though it is the one performing the virus-driven operations to spread the virus further.

Obviously, humans are not computers, but the analogy is useful in one regard: To point out that it is not only the person themself that is responsible for the particular decisions and actions that the person makes. Their beliefs and mistaken ideas are also strong influencers, and those beliefs do not always originate from the person themself.

Are corporations responsible for their actions? Is BP responsible for its mess? Or can we only try to find the particular decision makers that culminated in the current global disaster? What if there is not any one single person we can pinpoint? What if it is the overall structure of BP that most-significantly contributed to the series of many decisions and actions that resulted in disaster?

Corporations exist. Yes, they consist to a large degree of the people who are shareholders and employees. But they also have an existence that cannot be accounted for by the people alone. After all, probably no one of the original founders of IBM (or some older corporation) are still alive and active. Yet IBM still exists, and has existed continuously for many many years. It is partially made of people, but it is not *only* people. It is also a legal entity (bizarrely, we grant corporations the status of 'person'). It is also made of real-estate, buildings, machines, and other physical assets. It is also made of more 'virtual' things like contracts, bank accounts, money, etc.

And, crucially, a corporation partially exists as a particular kind of culture -- sometimes meticulously recorded, such as the manuals and other documents of franchise chains -- sometimes more as a word-of-mouth, socially enforced norms and behaviours. Ultimately, such cultures are held in the minds of the people who live them, but they are also transmitted from mind to mind, and so it is not 'magical thinking' to say that cultures really and truly do exist.

In the same way, we speak of genes existing, even though a 'gene' is really just a particular pattern of DNA in an organism. And we say that genes are 'for' something or that they 'do' something, even though the gene itself is just one part of a complex system that results in the overall effect of the gene.

But to say that DNA or genes cannot be 'good' or 'bad' (like a cancer-causing gene), because they don't do anything by themselves -- and really it's all the cells' faults for following the instructions in the DNA/gene --would crucially miss the point of how DNA/genes are actually responsible (yes, responsible) for nearly everything about an organism (not including the environment and transient conditions of the cells).

In the same way that DNA is largely responsible for cancer, that cultures are responsible for the good or bad functioning of the societies that embrace them, that corporations like BP are responsible for the disasters they cause, that laws can be responsible for ensuring or undermining justice, I say that yes, indeed, some religions (specifically the dogmas of those religions) are responsible for lots of violence, past and present.

Yes, it takes the additional ingredient of a person to enact the violence, but to *explain* and *understand* the particular kind of violence, the particular motivation for violence, the frequency, rate, and severity of the violence, you *need* to consider religion (among other influencers) as part of responsibility chain. If you do not -- if you ignore religion's influence *as* religion itself -- then you are at a loss to explain obvious patterns of specific violence and different rates of violence of particular kinds.

For example, you cannot explain 9/11 or the Salem Witch Trials if you completely erase religion out of the picture. You're left with a gaping blank space on the page, and your eraser is going to be worn down to a nub.

The important distinction *I* find between religion and its believers is that by acknowledging that the believers are getting their bad ideas from a particularly prolific source of bad ideas -- namely their religions -- I have much more compassion for the believers themselves. Often they are trapped in the dogma of their particular religions, and don't even realize it. I see part of my job as to help them find a way out of their dangerous beliefs. Sometimes all it takes is to persistently explain just how silly and dangerous those beliefs are.

I've heard many deconverts who say things like, "What a relief to give up those beliefs! I still have lingering fears of hell, but they are fading as I finally realize just how silly the idea is." How do you explain this if people are 100% perfectly responsible for what they believe? Why would anyone choose to believe something that causes them mental distress or, indeed, mental illness (such as anxiety, depression, or delusion)?

How do you explain that most people adopt the religion of their parents? They didn't come up with the ideas on their own, they got them from somewhere. That 'somewhere' is an actual, real, physical entity, made up of information and processes like holy books, dogmas, beliefs, conversations, and religious rituals and practices like sermons, prayer, church-going, religiously motivated political action (e.g. Prop 8 in California). That 'somewhere' is rightly called 'religion', an entity that exists and is just as real as a corporation, a computer virus, a 'dollar', a culture, or heck, even a government.

So, I consider religions responsible for the things they cause through their particular influences. They are *not* the only things responsible, and of course this doesn't give believers a free pass. But it does open up my compassion for believers, knowing that their religion is ultimately not really their fault, and if they could 'get out of it', they would probably find themselves better off and wondering why they believed those wacky ideas in the first place.
I take it a step back. It is not religion that kills. It's stupidity that kills. Religion just happens to be exceptional at harnessing the forces of natural stupidity. The confusion is excusable.
I must disagree with you. It seems as if I define religion differently than you do though. What I call spiritualism you are apparently calling religion. What I call religion is the organizations that form around specific dogmas. By my own definition religion is quite dangerous and harmful. Spiritualism is not necessarily deleterious but organizations which take advantage of the spiritual inclinations of the masses are. Our differences seem to come down to semantics.
"It's the way people use the statement in the larger context of what they are saying."

Do you *really* think that the people who say religion is responsible for 9/11 think that there was a "thing sitting in the cockpit of aeroplanes" called 'religion'? Clearly, they do not. If you have a better example, such as a specific quote from someone, I'd appreciate it.

"this thing out there, "Religion" itself, doing this stuff: Religion is a being with agency, doing things, rather than an idea and way of thinking that influences people to act in certain ways."

The 'thing out there' *is* the idea and way of thinking.

Simple question: Is BP, the corporation, a "being with agency, doing things"? If you answer yes, then I submit that religion is a being in the same category as a corporation. If you answer no, then I ask, "Why are we investigating BP? And why do we endow corporations with the legal status of 'person'? And why do we allow people to sue corporations?"

While in your OP you expressed that your concern "relates to agency and accountability". My point is that if you don't think it's possible to hold things like religions accountable, then we also can't hold corporations accountable. Clearly, we can and should hold corporations accountable. To fail to do so would be grossly negligent. Likewise, we cannot ignore the role of religion as a being/entity which can and should be held accountable. Religions have as much agency as things like governments and corporations. We don't consider them as like disembodied minds, but we do consider them as real entities that have influence in the real world.

If your concern "relates to agency and accountability", then turning a blind eye to the agency and accountability of religion(s) would fail to address your main concerns. It would be similar to saying that the BP disaster was a natural disaster because there was no single person who can be held responsible, and so there's nothing we can or should do to try to sanction BP as a whole entity.
I think I probably misconstrued Stephen's OP in my last post, for which I apologise to him. There are different matters at issue here:

[1] Whether responsibility for anything can be imputed to religion, an abstract concept subject to widely differing interpretations. Stephen thinks not, and I agree with him that agency (and, consequently, responsibility) can't be attributed to an abstract concept. He observes that '[b]y ascribing the agency to the idea, one is engaging in what is essentially superstitious thinking, as superstitious thinking ascribes agency to things that can have no agency'. My view rather differs from his, though, because rather than seeing this fundamentally as a question of superstition, I would see it more saliently as a 'category error', since there are no obvious grounds on which the imputation of responsibility could be made to 'religion' anymore than it could to 'justice', 'freedom' or to other abstractions. One might well be able to show in a particular case that religion was conceptually among the causes of a specific effect, but to show cause and effect in a descriptive, explanatory or historical way is quite different from imputing responsibility in a moral or legal sense.

[2] Whether accountability or responsibility can be imputed to religious organisations. I quite agree with what I understand to be Wonderist's point that such an imputation both can be made and is made to legal corporate entities, but I disagree, for the reason given in [1], that 'religion is a being in the same category as a corporation'. It is, rather, a religious organisation that can be so categorised, not an abstract concept. Such organisations, like corporations, do indeed have socially assigned status functions (Searle 2010), and the nature of the assignments varies according to the social, judicial or political domain from the perspective of which they are viewed. For example, religious organisations are sometimes sued by employees for wrongful dismissal and, increasingly under public pressure, one sees acknowledgement of accountability by religious organisations themselves for illegal acts such as sexually abusing minors.

[3] The extent to which corporations, religious organisations with a corporate profile and institutional status functions, or religion itself, can be treated as 'persons' for any purpose. While such attribution seems to 'work' in terms of imputing responsibility and in holding organisations to account, one can point to clear dangers in supposing that this mode of reasoning is automatically applicable in other domains. For example, in the general context of wide international commitments to human rights and various forms of anti-discrimination, measures have been introduced by different UN member states which have the effect of 'personalising' religion through the distorting rationalisation that it needs legal protection as persons do, and that it can be 'defamed' or 'insulted' in the same manner that defamation or insult can be suffered by an individual (www.iheu.org/iheu-condemns-uk-ireland-and-pakistan-over-freedom-of-...). This represents a threat to freedom of expression which should be of critical interest to all atheists, agnostics, humanists and other non-religious people.


Searle, John. Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: OUP, 2010.
"Stephen thinks not, and I agree with him that agency (and, consequently, responsibility) can't be attributed to an abstract concept."

I would like to see an example of anyone -- *anyone* -- claiming that religion, as an *abstract concept*, has agency. That is a total straw man.

It is not the abstract concept we're talking about. It's the real, actual religion that pervades most of the human society, that actually influences people's actions, that we're talking about.

Stephen is drawing an artificial line between what he believes can and can't have 'agency'. Can: Individual humans. Can't: Religions. Why? He just claims they can't, and that's that. It's typical human exceptionalism and chauvinism along the lines of "animals can't be conscious because only humans are conscious."

I notice you reference Searle. The guy who claims that his Chinese box doesn't understand Chinese because not a single component on its own understands Chinese, even though, as a whole, the box functions perfectly well as a fluent Chinese speaker. By that standard, Searle himself doesn't speak English, because not a single one of his neurons understands English, even though he as a whole functions perfectly well as a fluent English speaker. It's totally ridiculous, and if that's where this conversation is going, count me out. Talk about superstitious thinking!

"It is, rather, a religious organisation that can be so categorised"

Where do you draw the line between religious organization and just plain old religion? It is not only official religious 'organizations' that can be categorized as having corporation-like agency. Religions themselves are organized, whether they adopt a bricks-and-mortar structure or not. That's why they have books and other dogma, to keep the believers believing the right things.

My case:
- Religions exist as more than just abstract ideas. They exist as written texts, beliefs derived from those texts, sermons, television broadcasts, and all manner of forms that are real and actual, and not abstract.
- Beliefs derived from religious sources have predictable influences on human behaviour.
- If your concern is agency and responsibility, then to ignore the influence of religion because religion 'can't have agency', is to stick your head in the sand.

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