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

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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!

– Dave

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is

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About Danielle Muscato

Danielle Muscato is a civil rights activist, writer, and public speaker. She has appeared on or been quoted in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard Magazine, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, "The Real Story" with Gretchen Carlson, The O'Reilly Factor, Huffington Post Live, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Raw Story, CNN, CBS, and Howard Stern Danielle is the former Director of Public Relations for American Atheists. She is also a board member of MU SASHA (University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists & Agnostics). Her website is Follow her on Google+ Follow her on Twitter @daniellemuscato Subscribe to her on YouTube at

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

  1. Jared Cowan
    February 19, 2012

    I just thought I’d chime in with a question as concerns the area of religious studies. As a religious studies major who is not really religious, except perhaps in the sense of habits performed over time in a secular context, being an Aspie, do you think that there is a tendency to not take people who study religion and yet don’t believe in it as serious scholars in any sense?

    It seems like every time I say I study religion, it’s always presumed that I’m interested in the ministry, which is a painfully myopic perspective on what is a field of study that started with sociologists, iirc. Ironically, that’s how I got into religious studies as a major was through a more analytical approach to it, which I still have in categorizing and specifying philosophical divisions within them (Trinitarian, Binitarian, Unitarian and Modalist, for a few examples of theology proper within Xianity)

    Is it possible that scientists can find some significant common ground with those who study something that they both agree is rubbish, but that they don’t hold as integral to their own beliefs so much in the case of religious studies majors. For example, a scientist holds to the scientific method and principles derived from it, to pose an initial ascertainment. A religious studies scholar doesn’t so much hold religion as the basis for their study, unless they’re actually a theologian, in which case, it’s far more difficult to separate the belief in the theology as true from the study and analysis of it. I can study any religious text and analyze it from a philosophical perspective, so, if anything, my basis for studying religion is philosophical inquiry. Why do people believe this and what are the arguments for, against and the specific enumerations of the belief systems?

    The scientific analysis and basis from which the discipline emerged are still there in my categorical and analytical mindset in listing off religions and such from memory, but not so much how I explicitly approach it in my studies and reading, leisurely as they are.

    Basic point is that it’s fairly difficult to feel completely accepted in some sense amongst many scientific atheists with those sorts of backgrounds, though we do admittedly have examples of theologians becoming atheists, such as the man who thought of situational ethics in the context of his then Christian vocation, Joseph Fletcher. He eventually became an atheist for reasons I’m not certain of and ironically reflects that sort of thought process that likely made him change his mind after being a minister.

    I’m rambling, so I’ll cut off my thoughts here

  2. rocket kirchner
    February 19, 2012

    Dave , good points made. my son sent me that video recently . its great. it really sums up the frustration that those of who are Christians face….namely being called relgiuos .
    i always like to hearken back to Rabbi Aberaham Heschel , ”Religion is man’s attempt to reach God , instead of God in search of man ”.
    if Theists and Atheists can come together in dialogue ”Tabula Rasa ” , there would not only be more clarity , but also more humanitariansm working side by side . Words like ”religion ” , and ”Science” are such hot buttons that they really get in the way of that.

  3. unklee
    February 24, 2012

    Excellent article Dave – I agree with almost all of it (except that theism has pisspoor answers).

    But the big question is: when you go to atheist conferences these days, do you get to play worship music??? : )

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This entry was posted on February 18, 2012 by in Author: Dave Muscato, Web Links & Videos and tagged , , , .
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