Qualifiers Are Important, Aren’t They? or, My Response To, “What’s So Bad About Religion?”

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I was recently debating with the chaplain about the importance of qualifiers in logic and debate, when she decided to bring up some old stuff. About a year ago, I made my first visit to the chaplain's blog, pointed there from another blogger who suggested that I read chaplain's essay titled, What's So Bad About Religion?

So what's so bad about religion? Of course, different people are certainly going to answer this question differently, and any attempts to create hard-and-fast rules seem counterproductive to say the least. At any rate, let's take an in-depth look at some of the chaplain's answers to this question.

She begins by providing a link to the tragic story of Blair Donnelly, a would-be Pentecostal pastor who was allegedly haunted by demons and one day heard a voice telling him to kill his wife and daughter. For some reason, Donnelly acted passively and attributed this voice to God, then following through by killing his 16-year-old daughter. While my heart truly goes out to the victims in this tragedy, and there are several, I think that for chaplain to cite the case at all is essentially a cheap shot.

If I were going to write an essay titled, What's So Bad About Evolution, the last thing I would do is begin by providing a link to the Jokela High School massacre, in which the shooter felt justified to murder other students on behalf of Darwin's ideas concerning natural selection. As another example, if I were going to write an essay titled, What's So Bad About Atheism, the last thing I would do is begin by providing a link to Stalin's atrocities, or Mao's, or those of any other atheist regime. The reason I would not do these is because in each of these cases, the blame rightfully lays on the person(s) who committed the crimes. Although blaming religion for the crimes of the religious is very en vogue and Dawkins-esque these days, fallacious reasoning can falsely incriminate ideas of any stripe.

Incidentally, if I heard a voice telling me to kill my family, my first thought would be to reject the idea immediately. Stories like Donnelly's serve to illustrate the danger of mental passivity, which is particularly encouraged by religious movements like Pentecostalism. IMO, many Pentecostal teachings encourage mental passivity, and unless we're sleeping, such can almost never have positive results. There are several scriptures warning us against mental passivity, and for good reason. I personally don't buy all this slaying-in-the-spirit, Benny Hinn-style Trinity Broadcasting Network nonsense. And speaking of Trinity, we'll get to her later…

The chaplain's second paragraph begins,

The first problem that I have with religious beliefs is that acting on the basis of false beliefs can lead to ill-conceived, even harmful, behavior and decisions.

Well, whoop-dee-doo! Nearly anything can lead to ill-conceived, harmful behaviors and decisions. Did anyone catch the loaded statement? Even more frustrating is that chaplain addresses religious beliefs in her premise, and false beliefs in her antecedent, entailing quite a significant category error. False beliefs are not inherently religious, and religious beliefs are not inherently false. Now, chaplain knows this, and I'm left to wonder if her error here was more in the imprecision of language than misunderstanding of logic. 

Her third paragraph shifts the focus back to Blair Donnelly, and I agree that Pentecostal teachings can be and often are certainly dangerous, to those who hold them and to others, as Donnelly's case aptly demonstrates. And I agree with chaplain that Donnelly's church community was also in error. The person haunted by demons is not blessed, but accursed, if you ask me. Notice Jesus didn't say, "Blessed are the demonically afflicted…" during the Sermon on the Mount.

As if aware of the inherently fallacious reasoning, chaplain prefaces her fourth paragraph with:

I can already hear several of the faithful protesting that I’m painting all believers with the same broad, tainted brush. Most believers are not deranged, most believers do not handle poisonous snakes as part of their worship rituals, and only a few believers eschew modern medicine… All of that is true, but it doesn’t change the underlying fact that theistic belief in any form is mistaken. (bold mine)

Huh?? How does that work? Note the qualifier, and now let me get this straight: A few examples of religious delusion somehow entail that all theistic belief is mistaken? No offense, but such is patently absurd, and by no means a fact. How might the errors of Blair Donnelly, random snake handlers or Jehovah's Witnesses support such an out-of-scope, over-generalized conclusion? If ever a conclusion didn't flow from the premise, this is it, and this one clearly fails the test of logic.

She continues,

Even if those mistaken beliefs don’t cause believers to make such egregious errors in judgment as those noted above, they can lead to other errors, such as susceptibility to swindling televangelists, or refusal to believe that one’s pastor is molesting Sunday school children, or the notion that abstinence-only sex education is sufficient, or the conviction that gays are evil…

Well certainly, but again, whoop-dee-doo! Mistaken beliefs of any stripe can lead to errors. Incidentally, what more allows for the blind acceptance of mistaken beliefs than mental passivity, which is just a politically correct euphemism for intellectual laziness? Mental passivity is the real culprit here, not religion.

Her fifth paragraph suffers from some serious difficulties, too:

The second problem I have with religious belief is that believers do not live in vacuums. Their religious beliefs are not always private and those beliefs do affect others, including me, in numerous ways… [W]hen creationists and Intelligent Design proponents advocate for the inclusion of their non-scientific theories in school science curricula, in addition to hurting their own children, they threaten to undermine my children’s education…

Okay, hold on just a second. Like most everything else in the essay so far, these weaknesses are not exclusive to religion. Nobody lives in a vacuum, very few (if any) beliefs are always private, and public beliefs affect all of us, whether those beliefs are religious, political, historical or scientific. For example, when my high school biology teacher told me, in a state-sponsored classroom, that the Miller experiment had proven that life can arise spontaneously, my liberty of conscience was violated, and that teacher perpetuated an idea that was as false and non-scientific then as the most deplorable creationist horse-puckey is now. As another example, when my high school biology book makes the false claim that the human appendix has no use in digestion, such is certainly an error that threatens to undermine my knowledge of physiology and nutrition. Last but not least, the safety of the entire nation was at stake when another school textbook, A Civic Biology, attempts to justify the claim that whites were superior to blacks by appeal to natural selection.

In fact, each of these three mistaken beliefs are actually far more dangerous to society than the ones we might hear in church or on the street, because the people who perpetuated these mistaken beliefs are government-approved authorities getting paid with public money to ostensibly teach the truth about science – not to indoctrinate students with premature conclusions masquerading as science, premature conclusions clearly based in the desire to establish the alleged superiority of one idea or race over another.

…the only way I can adopt a philosophy of “live and let live” is if religious believers will pledge to do the same.

That's a very good observation, chaplain, and again it works many ways. How might I adopt such a philosophy when the biased opinions of science teachers and science textbook writers spill their lies into the state classroom? Far more people force their children to go to school than church.

Lastly, I think the chaplain needs to either pay better attention to the qualifiers she uses in her writing, or review the difference between fact and opinion:

…religious beliefs are detrimental to believers and nonbelievers alike…

She calls this a fact, when in fact, it is not a fact. It's a subjective opinion masquerading as a fact. A factual statement would have been the following: "…false beliefs can be detrimental to believers and nonbelievers alike." Again, we get this strange equation where religious beliefs = false beliefs.

She continues,

…religion’s bad effects far outweigh its good ones…

Blah, blah, blah, I've heard this one far too many times. This is just another subjective opinion. Why should I value this subjective opinion over any other?

Nearing her conclusion, she writes,

Religious beliefs are simply one class of ideas among many that have the potential to do real damage to individuals, societies and nations… All ideas, religious and otherwise, should be scrutinized ruthlessly before one renders judgments regarding their soundness. Religious ideas are no more special than any others…

Bravo. I agree, and this closing paragraph echoes the bulk of my response. It also raises another question: If this is the case, that is, if chaplain really believes that other ideas are equally as dangerous as religious ideas, and that religious ideas are no more special than others, why does her essay criticize exclusively religious examples illustrating the danger of mistaken beliefs?

Although I don't know the answer to this question, bias certainly comes to mind as one potentially tenable answer.


Earlier I said,

And speaking of Trinity, we'll get to her later.

What I meant by that was this: When I originally critiqued this essay in the comment thread, I did so quite verbosely and annoyingly, and after a while chaplain accused me of being a troll. Still very new to blogging etiquette and terminology at that time, I wrote way too much in each comment, and didn't know what that term meant, so I looked it up, thinking it would have something to do with someone who writes too much in a thread. As it turns out, this is not the definition, and somebody on chaplain's blog was the real troll, posting behind a false Christian caricature with some pretty serious spelling and grammar problems in order to stir up flames. The hypocrisy of that single incident strongly influenced my opinion of the people involved. These people are supposed to be rational, intelligent and intellectually honest, yet they stooped to one of the lowest levels of intellectual integrity possible.

To this end, a man who was privy to this inside info emailed me in private to say he felt such was extremely childish, and that their actions made him want to distance himself from their scene altogether.

I applaud that man.


  1. mike


    If this is the case, that is, if chaplain really believes that other ideas are equally as dangerous as religious ideas, and that religious ideas are no more special than others, why does her essay criticize exclusively religious examples illustrating the danger of mistaken beliefs?

    I don’t have any comments on the rest of this post, and I can’t speak for her, but I can give my answer to this question. In many atheists’ experience, our society seems to view religious ideas as immune from criticism; and that criticism of religious ideas is equivalent to persecution or suppression. For that reason, it is reasonable to respond by focusing criticism exclusively on religious ideas.

    Although I don’t know the answer to this question, bias certainly comes to mind as one potentially tenable answer.

    It is not biased to criticize exclusively religious ideas if you’re giving the same scrutiny as you’d like all ideas to receive. What is biased is wanting religious ideas to be given a free pass. To be clear, I’m certainly not accusing you of this, but bringing it back to the justification I mentioned earlier.

  2. cl


    People who view tactful criticism of religious ideas as suppression or persecution are out of their minds with fear, in my opinion.

    It is not biased to criticize exclusively religious ideas if you’re giving the same scrutiny as you’d like all ideas to receive.

    I agree, and I left the question of whether chaplain’s focus stems from bias intentionally unanswered. I don’t know why she didn’t focus on any other examples, when clearly, as you can see from my experiences, many other examples of equally and more dangerous mistaken beliefs exist. On the other hand, bias is certainly one possible explanation, and that’s the extent of what I’m saying.

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