The Course of Reason

ReasonFest 2012 Panel Discussion: “Is religion a force for good?”

February 28, 2012

Dave Muscato from MU SASHA shares a transcript of his talk at ReasonFest 2012, along with a few closing thoughts on the question “Is religion a force for good?”

Several people now have asked me to post a transcript of what I said at the ReasonFest panel, so here you go:

Is religion a force for good?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question. What’s “religion”? It’s one of those things that’s easy to define until you try. What’s the difference between a religion and a cult? A culture and a religion? A philosophy and a religion? A delusion and a religion? To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, although he was talking about the definition of pornography, religion may be one of those things were we just know it when we see it.

What’s “force”? I don’t think we mean the energy field created by all living things that surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together. Do we just mean something that inspires or motivates people? Do we mean it causes good things in itself? Do we mean that the good it motivates outweighs the bad?

And what’s “good,” anyway? Entire philosophy careers have been made out of nailing that one down and we still haven’t gotten it. Is “good” the minimizing of suffering of conscious creatures, as Sam Harris suggests, and is there more than one way to get there? Is “good” culturally dependent and relative? Is it even attainable?

I was originally going to say something very different about this. I had a whole thing worked up about why religion is not a force for good. But the more I thought about it, the more my answer changed.

I think it’s important that we feel free to be critical of ourselves in here. The framing of this question sets it up as a dichotomy—religion IS or IS NOT a force for good—and it’s a premise with which I disagree overall. Here’s why.

Religion has inspired people to do all sorts of things they probably would not otherwise do. I’m not just talking about the Crusades and 9/11 and impeding stem-cell research and all the things we wish religion did not motivate people to do, but building the Parthenon and volunteering at soup kitchens and making a cappella music (a cappella is Italian for “in the style of the church”). Religion is responsible for inspiring and motivating art, music, architecture, literature, and charity. While I agree with Christopher Hitchens in that there’s nothing a religious person can do that a secular person can’t, I don’t think it’s fair to say that religion is not a force for good.

But we clearly can’t call religion “a force for good,” either. It has redeeming qualities, and these seem to be persuasive enough to the majority of people around the world, though to be fair many of them have little say in the matter. While not all religions are structurally violent, especially to LGBTQ people and women—some pagan religions are downright feminist & sex-positive—the three Abrahamic religions, taken as written, certainly are.  I’m not going to list all the atrocities religion has brought to human history, but I will summarize by saying that most religions, as practiced, can be terribly destructive to the welfare of conscious creatures on this Earth.

I think that the best answer to this question of whether religion is a force for good or not is that religion just IS. Religion is a human invention, a tool, a meme, an adaptation, or as Dan Dennett simply calls it, a natural phenomenon. Its function is twofold. On the one hand, religion helps social animals establish loyalty to their group and to certain moral principles, so their genes can better benefit from the protections and gains-from-trade never before possible in pre-religious societies. On the other, religion provides explanations (albeit piss-poor ones) about The Big Questions: where did our universe come from? What’s the meaning of life? How ought we to act? What happens after we die?

While philosophy and science have, especially in the last few hundred years, given us much better answers to those questions than any religion previously, I don’t think it’s ideal to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Before I became an atheist, I was a worship musician, and my favorite gig was always conferences, because I felt so connected to other people. I was so thrilled to learn about the existence of atheist conferences when I deconverted, because of the energy that comes from connecting with people this way. We are social animals and we thrive in these settings. Our health demonstrably suffers when we’re lonely. Our brains are adapted to flourish in these circumstances, and yes, religion can provide that.

Is religion a force for good? It CAN be. Take science as an example. We have used the tool of science to double human lifespans, decrease infant mortality 90%, and decrease maternal mortality by 99%—and that’s just since 1900. We can also use science for evil. There was a time, not so long ago, when it was simply technologically impossible to kill more than a few dozen people at a time, a few thousand with an army. In the first week of August, 1945, the United States killed 100,000 people in Japan, and tens of thousands more died from radiation over the next few months. But it was not science in itself that did this; it was people. And just like with religion, it is people who use it for good or bad. Religion, like science, just is.

We need to understand, and help others understand, that morality does not come from religion. In fact, morality predates religion and continues to shape and inform religion, whether religious people admit it or not ;)  It’s not good nor evil. Just like science, it ultimately depends on what we choose to do with it.

The panel included four participants: Aside from me, there was also KU computer-science PhD candidate Chris Redford (a.k.a. Evid3nc3 on YouTube), who happens to be one of my personal activism heros and whose YouTube videos have been an inspiration and motivation for me since long before I knew who he was. It was a huge honor for me to meet him for the first time, when I was invited last semester to give my “Is the New Testament Historically Reliable?” hour-long talk for SOMA at KU, and I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to be asked to appear on this panel with him.

The other two participants were KU law student Doug Coe, who identifies as a follower of Jesus, and who intends to be an activist against modern slavery after law school, and KU undergraduate religious-studies major & sociology minor Colton Tatham, who also identifies as a follower of Jesus. I think it’s an interesting trend, and I’ve heard this more and more lately, that people are no longer identifying as strongly as “Christians” but rather “followers of Jesus,” in the same vein as Jefferson Bethke:

It’s as though Christians are beginning to recognize, even if not admittedly, that the word “religious” has become pejorative. It seems that, more and more, there is a shift in thinking in our society, that the word “religion” brings to mind images of 9/11 and pedophile priests and megachurch pastors with $8.4 million private jets or megachurch pastors who have adulterous 3-year meth-fueled relationships with gay sex workers. I think this shift in thinking is a wonderful step in the right direction. My next article will explain why I think this is so. Until next time!

This post originally appeared on the MU SASHA blog



About the Author: Dave Muscato

Dave Muscato's photo

Dave Muscato is Vice President of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics (MU SASHA). He has appeared in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, and Entertainment Weekly, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, and Howard Stern. Muscato is a junior at the University of Missouri majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin. Muscato posts updates to the Official SASHA Blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is and he can be reached at


#1 johndbraungart on Tuesday February 28, 2012 at 9:42pm

If we know that morality doesn't come from religion, then why must we assume that creativity (music, art, etc.) comes from religion? Creativity is at least as inborn as morality, and there's quite a lot of evidence to show it predates any organized religion. The fact that religious people are creative, and even the fact that religious ideas have contributed to shaping great works of art, is not proof of any religious achievement. If anything, it's the other way around. Because people are creative, they make elaborate stories, explanations, and frameworks through which to view the world. Religious ideas are a byproduct of human creativity, not the cause of it. In fact, it's only when traditions and dogmas dominate creativity that art and culture become stagnant.

As far as the argument for religion building "loyalty to the group," one could say the same about even the worst forms of fascism. The reason our genes "benefit" and "flourish" in social settings is because that's how our genes developed due to natural selection. You may very well say that religion was "chosen" by natural selection, too; but you may not extend that metaphor to claim that religion is "natural" and therefore "beneficial" any more than you would claim that the rise of fascism is natural under certain conditions, and therefore beneficial.

#2 johndbraungart on Tuesday February 28, 2012 at 10:36pm

As far as the idea of people abandoning Christian dogmas in order to (better?) "follow Jesus," I think we must recognize this move as being a total non sequitur. It's no more to the point than someone deciding to abandon the dogma of Lord of the Rings in order to better "follow Frodo," and it's no less absurd a statement of purpose or intention. It merely begs the question, "Why Jesus?" (or, alternatively, "Why Frodo?") which necessarily leads back to the problem of corrupt texts and/or unreliable authorities.

Alternatively, I may freely accept or reject any idea, posed by anyone, which stands to reason, merely because it stands to reason, and irrespective of the personality to whom it may be attributed. That's the difference between an irrational cult of personality and a respect for reason.

Which brings me to the final point, namely that religion is always dubious at best, precisely because it celebrates unreason as if unreason were a respectable motivating force in one's life. While we certainly don't need to apply dogged intellectual rigors to all that we do; and even if certain aspects of life may be (arguably) better enjoyed when left untouched by reason's scrutiny; that's still a far cry from establishing the case that good results may be brought about by a deliberate policy of unreason.




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