The issue at hand is a very simple one and can be succinctly stated as: are religions, as institutions, and are religious people, as individuals, responsible for the immorality done in religion’s name?
This instantly evokes the question of how, as atheists, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett define morality and thus, how they then promulgate condemnations. But rather than getting sidetracked, let us grant their condemnations and see what they have to state on the issue at hand.
During his debate with Alister McGrath (entitled “Poison or Cure? Religious Belief in the Modern World,” reviewed here, audio here) Christopher Hitchens stated:
“And he can't take it a lá cart. If you claim or accept the one version, you have to accept the other. If it's true in general that religion does one thing and some people do good from it, then you have to accept all the wicked acts that are attributable to it as well. I think you'll find that those don't quite equal as at the margin, depressing though that conclusion would be.”
Daniel Dennett made likewise statements:
“Those who maintain religions, and take steps to make them more attractive, must be held similarly responsible for the harms produced by some of those whom they attract and provide with a cloak of respectability. Defenders of religion are quick to point out that terrorists typically have political, not religious agendas, which may well be true in many or most cases, or even in all cases but that is not the end of it. The political agendas of violent fanatics often lead them to adopt a religious guise, and to exploit the organizational infrastructure and tradition of unquestioning loyalty of whichever religion is handy. And it is true these fanatics are rarely if ever inspired by, or guided by, the deepest and best tenets in those religious traditions. So what? Al Queda and Hamas terrorism is still Islam’s responsibility, and the abortion-clinic bombing is still Christianity’s responsibility and the murderous activities of Hindu extremists are still Hinduism’s responsibility.”1
Let us review their statements.
Christopher Hitchens’ statement boils down to this: If you accept the do-gooder version of religion you also have to accept the wicked side. You have to do this because it will lead you to the convenient conclusion that upon balancing good and wicked the wicked far outweighs the good. Thus, viola, religion is to be done away with.
Daniel Dennett’s statement boils down to this: very much as the above, the do-gooders must be held similarly responsible for the wicked. Now follow the “argument” since for one, it is its own defeater and for two, it is coming from a professor of philosophy, mind you.
The wicked have non-religious agendas and merely use religion as a façade to carry out their non-religious agenda. In fact, “it is true these fanatics are rarely if ever inspired by, or guided by, the deepest and best tenets in those religious traditions.” Yes indeed. Therefore, a religion that has no theological/doctrinal dog in the wicked’s fight should not be held similarly responsible. No. Wait. The professor of philosophy’s own defeating of his own argument is countered by the erudite elucidation of stating, “So what?”
Sadly, professor of philosophy Daniel Dennett oft abandons his chosen field and jump ship into the waters of New Atheism’s erratic, irrational, emotive, argument form ignoring defeaters. Ergo, faced with an counterargument that so very clearly defeats you argument you can simply state, “So what?”
What does “accept” and “held similarly responsible” mean? Is it “Take responsibility for,” and or “Get stuck with,” and or “Accept fault for,” et al? Does it mean that if a Roman Catholic robs a bank while holding the gun to a consecrated Eucharist-host the Pope should be put into jail?
Ultimately, the reason that the arguments are non sequiturs is that all religions are not created equal. Sadly, it is a tactic of the New Atheists to undiscerninglly lump them all together in a congealed mass of gross generalization.
Let us imagine that religion “A” teaches that those who do not convert are to be murdered.
Let us imagine that religion “B” teaches that those who do not convert are to be shown love and respect.
If adherents of religion “A” murder those who do not convert then the fault is rightly laid directly at that religion’s feet.
However, if adherents of religion “B” murder those who do not convert then those who committed the murders are in clear and specific violation of the very tenets to which they are supposed to adhere and that religion itself is not at fault.
This is so self-evident that it should not have to be explained to anyone, much less a professor of philosophy.
1. Dennett Daniel, Breaking the Spell - Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), p. 299
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