The root of diverse evil

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Steven Weinberg

It wasn’t very long ago that I was rather enamored with the New Atheist movement, of which the most prominent proponent was Richard Dawkins. I remember having marathon debates with a religious roommate of mine in graduate school about religion as the “root of all evil”, as the producers of a documentary by Dawkins called it. Dawkins and his colleagues made the point that no belief system in human history is as all-pervasive in its ability to cause harm as religion.

My attitude toward religion started changing when I realized that what the New Atheists were criticizing wasn’t religion but a caricature of religion that was all about faith. Calling religion the “root of all evil” was also a bad public relations strategy since it opened up the New Atheists to obvious criticism – surely not all evil in history has been caused by religion? But the real criticism of the movement goes deeper. Just like the word ‘God’, the word ‘religion’ is a very broad term, and people who subscribe to various religions do so with different degrees of belief and fervor. For most moderately religious people, faith is a small part of their belonging to a religion; rather, it’s about community and friendship and music and literature and what we can broadly call culture. Many American Jews and American Hindus for instance call themselves cultural Jews or cultural Hindus.

My friend Freeman Dyson made this point especially well, and he strongly disagreed with Dawkins. One of Freeman’s arguments, with which I still agree, was that people like Dawkins set up an antagonistic relationship between science and religion that makes it seem like the two are completely incompatible. Now, irrespective of whether the two are intellectually compatible or not, it’s simply a fact that they aren’t so in practice, as evidenced by scores of scientists throughout history like Newton, Kepler and Faraday who were both undoubtedly great scientists and devoutly religious. These scientists satisfied one of the popular definitions of intelligence – the ability to simultaneously hold two opposing thoughts in one’s mind.

Dyson thought that Dawkins would make it hard for a young religious person to consider a career in science, which would be a loss to the field. My feeling about religion as an atheist are still largely the same: most religion is harmless if it’s practiced privately and moderately, most religious people aren’t out to convert or coerce others and most of the times science and religion can be kept apart, except when they tread into each other’s territory (in that case, as in the case of young earth creationism, scientists should fight back as vociferously as they can).

But recently my feelings toward religion have soured again. A reference point for this change is a particularly memorable quote by Steven Weinberg who said, “Without religion good people will do good things and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things, that takes religion.” Weinberg got a lot of flak for this quote, and I think it’s because of a single word in it that causes confusion. That word is “good”. If we replace that word by “normal” or “regular” his quote makes a lot of sense. “For normal people to do evil or harm, that takes religion.” What Weinberg is saying that people who are otherwise reasonable and uncontroversial and boring in their lives will do something exceptionally bad because of religion. This discrepancy is not limited to religious ideology – the Nazis at Auschwitz were also otherwise “normal” people who had families and pets and hobbies – but religious ideology, because of its unreason and reliance on blind faith, seems to pose a particularly all-pervading example. Religion may not be the root of all evil, but it certainly may be the root of the most diverse evil.

I was reminded of Weinberg’s quote when I read about the shocking attack on Salman Rushdie a few weeks ago. Rushdie famously had to go into hiding for a long time and abandon any pretense of a normal life because of an unconscionable death sentence or fatwa to kill him issued by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. Rushdie’s attacker is a 24-year-old man named Hadi Matar who was born in the United States but was radicalized after a trip to Lebanon to see his father. By many accounts, Matar was a loner but otherwise a normal person. The single enabling philosophy that motivated him to attack and almost kill Rushdie was religious. As Weinberg would say, without religion, he would have just been another disgruntled guy, but it was religion that gave him a hook to hang his toxic hat on. Even now Matar says he is “surprised” that Rushdie survived. He also says that he hasn’t even read the controversial ‘Satanic Verses’ which led to the edict, which just goes to show how intellectually vacuous, mindless sheep the religiously motivated can be.

I had the same feelings, even more strongly felt, when I looked up the stories of the Boston marathon bomber brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. By any account theirs should have been the quintessential American success story: both were brought to this country from war-torn Chechnya, placed in one of the most enlightened and progressive cities in the United States (Cambridge, MA) and given access to great educational resources. What, if not religious ideology, would lead them to commit such mindless, horrific acts against innocent people? Both Matar and the marathon bombers are a perfect example of Weinberg’s adage – it was religion that led them down a dark path and made the crucial difference.

The other recent development that has made me feel depressed about the prospects for peace between religion and secularism is the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the United States Supreme Court. In doing so, the Supreme Court has overturned a precedent with which a significant majority (often cited to be at least 60%) of Americans agree. Whatever the legal merits of the court’s decision, there is little doubt that the buildup to this deeply regressive decision was driven primarily by a religious belief that considers life to begin at conception. It’s a belief without any basis in science; in fact, as Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan wrote many years, if you factored in science, then Roe v. Wade would seem to have drawn the line at the right point, when the fetus develops a nervous system and really distinguishes itself as a human. In fact one of the tragedies of overturning Roe v. Wade is that the verdict struck a good balance between respecting the wishes of religious moderates and taking rational science into account.

But Evangelical Christians in the United States, of which there has a been dwindling and therefore proportionately bitter and vociferous number in recent years, don’t care about such lowly details as nervous systems (although they do seem to care about heartbeats which ironically aren’t unique to humans). For them, all there is to know about when life begins has been written in a medieval book. Lest there be any doubt that this consequential decision by the court was religiously motivated, it’s worth reading a recent, detailed analysis by Laurence Tribe, a leading constitutional scholar. Lessig convincingly argues that the Catholic justices’ arguments were in fact rooted in the view that life begins at conception, a view on which the constitution is silent but religion has plenty to say.

The grim fact that we who care about things like due process and equality are dealing with here is that a minority of religious extremists continues to foist extremely regressive views on the majority of us who reject those views to different degrees. For a while it seemed that religiosity was declining in the United States. But now it appears that those of us who found this trend reassuring were too smug; it’s not the numbers of the religious that have mattered but the strength of their convictions, crucially applied over time like water dripping on a stone to wear the system down. And that’s exactly what they have wanted.

The third reason why I am feeling rather bitter about religion is a recent personal experience. I was invited to a religious event at an extremely devout friend’s place. I will not note the friend’s religion or denomination to keep the story general and to avoid bias; similar stories could be told about any religion. My friend is a smart, kind and intelligent man, and while I usually avoid religious events, I made an exception this time because I like him and also because I wanted to observe the event, much like an anthropologist would observe the customs of another tribe. What struck me from the beginning was the lack of inclusivity in the event. We were not supposed to go into certain rooms, touch certain objects or food, take photos of them or even point at them. We were supposed to speak in hushed tones. Most tellingly, we weren’t supposed to shake hands with my friend or touch him in any way because he was conducting the event in a kind of priestly capacity. What social or historical contexts in more than one society this behavior evokes I do not need to spell out.

Now, my friend is well-meaning and was otherwise very friendly and generous, but all these actions struck me as emblematic of the worst features of religion, features meant to draw boundaries and divide the world into “us” and “them”. And the experience was again emblematic of Weinberg’s quote – an otherwise intelligent, kind and honest person was practicing strange, exclusionary customs because his holy book told him to do so, customs that otherwise would have been regarded as odd and even offensive. For normal people to do strange things, that takes religion.

Fortunately, these depressing thoughts about religion have, as their counterpart, hopeful thoughts about science. Everything about science makes it a different system. Nobody will issue a fatwa in science because a scientist says something that others disagree with or even find offensive, because if the scientist is wrong, the facts will decide one way or another. Nobody will carry out a decades-long vendetta to overturn a rule or decision which the majority believes as shown by the data. And certainly nobody will try to exclude anyone from doing a scientific experiment or proposing a theory just because they don’t belong to their particular tribe. All this is true even if science has its own priesthoods and has historically practiced forms of exclusion at one time or another. Scientists have their own biases as much as any other human people – witness the right’s opposition to climate change and the left’s opposition to parts of genetics research – but the great thing about science is that slowly but surely, it’s the facts about the world that decide truths, not authority or majority or minority opinion. Science is the greatest self-correcting system discovered by human beings, while religion keeps on allowing errors to propagate for generations and centuries by invoking authority and faith.

Sadly, these recent developments have shown us that the destructive passions unleashed by religious faith continue to proliferate. Again and again, when those of us who value rationality and science think we have reached some kind of understanding with the religious or think that the most corrosive effects of religion are waning, along comes a Hadi Matar to try to end the life of a Salman Rushdie, and along comes a cohort of religious extremists to end the will of the majority. Religion may not be the root of all evil, but it’s the root of a lot of evil, and undoubtedly of the most diverse evil. That’s reason enough to oppose it with all our hearts and minds. It’s time to loudly sound the trumpets of rationalism and the scientific worldview again.