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Shem the Penman • 6 years ago
If your religion is what gives you a sense of meaning in life, then, you will surely bitterly resent anyone who seemingly wants to deny you that comfort.

And knowing that, we atheists goad and deride religious folks for believing "fairy tales," being "delusional," and "drinking the Kool-Aid." Then we turn around and act really surprised that there's still such a stigma to nonbelief in the USA.

I don't want to lose my Cold Rationalist Membership Card, but comfort is a good thing. We're not going to replace people's sense of meaning in life with descriptions of the causes of natural phenomena. When religion does go hand in hand with bigotry and violence, we should speak out against it. But let's admit that the bigotry and violence are the bad things.

Maine_Skeptic • 6 years ago

I can agree that religion is especially volatile as a cause of violence, but I'm not sure that any ideology wouldn't suffice to be nearly as volatile. How many people died because of the clash between capitalism and communism? After the fall of communism, capitalism has lurched toward libertarianism and the idea that an unrestrained market (i.e. unrestrained greed) is more trustworthy than human governments could ever be. If the right is continually successful at blocking any preventative action on climate change, libertarianism may result in more deaths and suffering than all the other ideologies combined.

I think it makes sense to focus on what religion offers people that is threatened when we challenge the validity of a religion. But I also think we need to keep in mind that theological philosophies are not the only ones with potential for civilization-ending destruction.

InDogITrust • 6 years ago

I'm still processing this article, but my immediate thought was that it's monotheistic religions that give rise to violence, because almost by definition a monotheistic religion has the one and only truth. On the other hand, polytheistic religions can co-exist because they recognise that other gods and thus other truths exist.

Where you have polytheistic believers clashing, it's generally over "real world" issues (such as power or land) and their religions are not the *cause* of the conflict, but are just part of their respective cultural identities.

Maine_Skeptic • 6 years ago

That isn't always the case, though, unless for some reason you're excluding hindus from the polytheist category. There has been a lot of anti-Muslim violence from hindus in India recently. You could say that they were provoked by the Muslims, but it's kind of hard to sort out who started any religious war.

Some would also argue that a lot of religious violence is actually political violence, although I think there are plenty of times when it's just plain religious hatred.

InDogITrust • 6 years ago

I could be dead wrong of course, but from my vast and extensive [coff-coff!] knowledge of Indian history, it looks to me like the Hindu/Muslim fighting there is largely the latter type of conflict, at least from the Hindu side: that is, they are fighting because they are a group that identifies as Hindu, not because Hinduism calls for Hindus to compete against other religions as religions. Unlike Islam and Christianity, which call for their believers to spread the "truth."

So if the Hindus started it, it would have been your basic clash over resources, land, power, some stupid little thing that escalated out of control, whatever people have fought about for millennia.

If the Muslims started it, it could have been a clash over resources, or it could have been inspired by Islam itself by its calls for its followers to spread the truth and/or kill non believers.

If religious group X does something because of X religion beliefs that threatens religious group Y because Ys are not X, it's a religious conflict.
If religious group X does something that threatens religious group Y because Ys have something X wants, it's not caused by religion even if the opponents are of different religions.

I suspect the Hindu/Muslim conflicts are like the Israel/Palestinian conflict, which isn't really *about* religion. It's about land, power, and resources, and each side happens to identify largely with one religion.

bdlaacmm • 6 years ago

"the qualities that make religion matter so much to people are the same ones that make it so dangerous"

Well... in a way, you're right. Just like "the qualities that make gasoline a good fuel also make it dangerous" or "the qualities that make a rocket a good means of getting to the moon also make it capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to an enemy state".

In other words, "So what?"

As C.S. Lewis himself said (Or something similar to this - I can't remember the exact quote.), "You don't make demons out of bad mice, but out of bad archangels." In order for religion to be capable of bringing out the worst in us, it must first embody the very best in us.

Keith Parsons • 6 years ago

Here's what: Your analogy with gasoline is perfect. It is the energy density and extreme volatility of gasoline that makes it so useful in your car's engine. It is also what makes it necessary to handle the stuff with extreme care. I notice that some gas stations even recommend that you shut off your cell phone while pumping gas lest a spark set off gas fumes. I read that gasoline yields more explosive energy than an equal amount of TNT.

Religion is the high-octane fuel of ideologies. It touches deep things, like personal and collective identity, fears and hopes, and a fundamental sense of worth and security. Carelessly or maliciously handled, religion can be explosive. A Bible or Koran in the wrong hands has done, and is doing, vast amounts of harm. I would recommend putting a warning label on every Bible sold: "Warning: Use with extreme caution. Do not take literally. Do not take with self-righteousness. Admits of very different interpretations. Misuse can result in symptoms including but not restricted to genocide, persecution, crusade, intolerance, obscurantism, sexism, homophobia, and racism."

Shem the Penman • 6 years ago
A Bible or Koran in the wrong hands has done, and is doing, vast amounts of harm.

Which is something you could never ever say about any of the products of scientific inquiry.

Keith Parsons • 6 years ago


Sure you could say that! In fact I am writing a book right now about the harm done by nuclear testing in the Pacific. We did some really, really rotten things there--and we're the "good guys!"

Wait...I think I detect sarcasm! You said that sarcastically because you think that I would say it seriously, right? Well, jeez, if that was your intention, it completely misfires. If you think I would say that science cannot be misused but religion can, you completely missed the point of my post and my above comments.

My whole point was that things, like religion, (or science) with great potential for good (or at least perceived good), also have, ipso facto, great potential for harm That's the yin and the yang of it, and that is what makes the problem of religious violence so intractable.

Something that is just bad, with no potential for good, so far as we can tell, like Ebola, presents us with a straightforward problem: How do we kill it? But when the potential for bad is complexly mixed with the potential for good, then we have a much knottier problem on our hands.

Atheists used to think that soon they would be driving the last nails into the coffin of religion. Hah! Dream on. The damned problem is that, realizing that religion will be around for the foreseeable future, what do we do to try to make it produce more Gandhis and fewer Bin Ladens?

Nuclear proliferation is really scary. So is religious proliferation. These are two big problems that will have to be seriously addressed in this century.

Shem the Penman • 6 years ago
In fact I am writing a book right now about the harm done by nuclear testing in the Pacific. We did some really, really rotten things there--and we're the "good guys!"

Nothing compared to the things we did after we got past the testing stage.

But that's just my point: when it comes to aiding and abetting slaughter and domination, science has a lot to answer for too. Yet no one ever goes on scaremongering campaigns to get rid of science, do they? I'm an atheist, but I wonder why we judge religion by the bad things it does, while we only judge science by the good things.

Keith Parsons • 6 years ago


Thanks for the clarification. As I say, we should not be beating the drum to get rid of religion anymore. For better or worse, we will never get rid of religion.I also hope that objective, independent science as a robust enterprise will survive in our society, though when I see big money and big ideologies supporting anti-science I worry. Can we unbelievers do anything to try to make the better elements of religion predominate over the awful ones?

L.Long • 6 years ago

People in general are violent. So there are many reasons for violence & no one I know says Oh beating your wife for burning the toast is justified!
But all the abrahamic religions PROMOTE violence as GOOD. This then makes it easy for people, who would generally not do violence, capable of doing so. You can also see this in hyper-patriotism and many dogmas. So rational skepticism is a major way to stop doing violence for these reason, as in dubya said gawd spoke to me and we need to attack the aholes that attacked us, just a slight amount of thinking clearly showed that the attackers were psychotically delusional & pissed at America but then so was dubya.

JohnH2 • 6 years ago

"rational skepticism"

Calling oneself a skeptic is not sufficient, and skepticism may or may not be rational itself.

It is right to be skeptical of claims, but one can easily fall into disconfirmation bias where one does not give fair hearing to claims and denies all contrary evidence. Skepticism for the sake of Skepticism is not rational, Skepticism for the sake of truth is; and there is the unfortunate truism that if one believes nothing than one will fall for anything. Examples of this abound, as do what can only really be called cults. These also can potentially lead to violence, and demonstrably do lead to the demonizing of the other (as in we are the elite rational skeptics and everyone else is delusional).

MNb • 6 years ago

"The ‘religion leads to violence’ idea is based on a profound confusion."
While I agree with this I don't think VR has done much to clear this confusion up. I think the main factor is the idea that you hold the absolute, eternal, unchangeable Truth. That applies to religious violence, but also to nazism and stalinism.

Victor_Reppert • 6 years ago

I take it you think the truth of atheism is absolute, eternal and unchangeable. If atheism is true, it is absolutely true that there is no God. It is also eternally true, and unchangeable, since if it is true, it isn't going to change and become false next year.

timuzhti • 6 years ago

Many Atheists take an evidence based approach, and are therefore considered Agnostic Atheists.

Matt • 6 years ago

The features (1)-(5) actually apply to almost any comprehensive view of life, whether religious or secular and is also true of many political ideologies.

So, if anything what this argument shows is that any philosophy which shape people's communal and national identity in a certain way and which answers important questions and gives people meaning to life, has a tendency to stir up violence and passion if challenged.

Its really just the trivial claim that when people define there personal and cultural identities in a certain way and passionately care about things they react badly when its challenged. The content of the views or there religious or secular nature has nothing to do with the reaction.

Keith Parsons • 6 years ago


Your comment puzzles me. My argument was precisely that ANY philosophy, religion, or worldview--religious or secular--that provides a "comprehensive view of life" can inspire deep passion in its devotees and deep resentment when challenged. Any all-encompassing view--one that defines who we are, the meaning or our lives, our purposes for being, the nature of the good life and the good society, our basic ontological commitments, etc.--will obviously be something that we care about. Indeed, worldview defines for each of us what Paul Tillich called "ultimate concern." Obviously, secular philosophies, like Marxism-Leninism or Ayn Rand's "objectivism" can be held with "religious" tenacity and a commitment that is as dogmatic and intolerant as that of any Grand Inquisitor of the 16th Century. So, your characterization of my argument is entirely accurate.

Your only critical comment is to say that this argument is "trivial." Now I could justifiably dismiss this as a petulant subjective reaction or a rhetorical flourish, but let's try to consider it as a serious claim. One meaning of "trivial" is "obvious," and I think that my above argument is--or should be obvious. However, when polemics become heated and polarized, important points, however obvious, often get lost.

I sometimes hear religious apologists dismiss the charge that religion leads to violence by arguing that the cases of supposed "religious" violence are ones where the actual instigating factors are economic, political, or ethnic. In cases like this it is good to remind people of the obvious point that, no, religion is often one of the toxic ingredients in the witch's brew that underlies endemic violence and fanaticism. I take it that all human actions are complexly motivated, just as cancer can be complexly caused. However, just as exposure to environmental carcinogens can be a causal factor affecting the incidence of cancer, so religion can be a causal factor in the occurrence of violence. So, yes, my point is obvious, and I only wish it could be made more so.

In addition, however, I would like to note that not all worldviews are equally prone to the incitement of the deep and dark passions that can lead to violence. Some worldviews inculcate a strong dichotomy of "us" versus "them" and some do not. That is, some worldviews strongly distinguish between the "saved" versus the "damned," "believers" versus the "infidels," or "socialists" versus "imperialists," etc. Those worldviews that take such a "Manichaean" position on rigid and mutually exclusive categories tend to be more intolerant and persecuting than those that do not. Also, the soteriological aspect of religion often makes it especially prone to the incitement of deep passion. If eternal destiny--heaven or hell--depends upon making the "right" commitment, then, those who make the "wrong" choice, must not only be in error, but evil. The burning of heretics is waiting in the wings.

noahsociety • 6 years ago

ie the Concept of God brings comfort and should remain untarnished

Steven Carr • 6 years ago

CS Lewis thinks Christians are totally justified in killing people if the believe they are evil (You don't need facts or evidence, for this, just belief)

'If we did—if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather—surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did?'

Of course, Lewis as spokesman for all Christians, didn't know there really are Christians who do believe in child witches. (Hey, if Lewis didn't believe it, then no Christian did. Lewis had great problems telling himself apart from God's Spokesman on Earth')

And so Lewis had no idea he was giving them the green light to kill children.

But Lewis simply repeated what many Christians claim. If you believe somebody is evil, you should kill them. Hence the murder of witches, murders which even take place in London.

Lewis goes on to compare killing people you believe are evil with killing vermin 'You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.”'

The sheer callousness of the way Lewis compares killing people to killing vermin, and the care he takes to make sure that you can't call somebody 'humane', just because he refuses to kill evil people ,is astonishing for somebody who claims to follow the Prince of Peace.

Matt • 6 years ago
CS Lewis thinks Christians are totally justified in killing people if the believe they are evil (You don't need facts or evidence, for this, just belief)\\

"'If we did—if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather—surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did?'

Actually all Lewis needs here is the much more restrained belief that, premediated malicious killing of others is a crime that warrants the death penalty. This was of course accepted in English law in the time Lewis wrote, as it was in most European countries at that time. It’s also accepted in most countries today including the US and is still debated seriously in ethics texts today.

Seeing Lewis wrote articles defending retributive theories of punishment and offering moral/philosophical arguments for it at the time there was debate in england about the death penalty, its also pretty clear he was not committed to holding that the question of the death penalty was just a matter of belief.

Of course, Lewis as spokesman for all Christians, didn't know there really are Christians who do believe in child witches. (Hey, if Lewis didn't believe it, then no Christian did. Lewis had great problems telling himself apart from God's Spokesman on Earth') And so Lewis had no idea he was giving them the green light to kill children

Actually Lewis would have been sensible enough to see this kind of example is disanalogos given children lack culpability for their actions that adults don’t. Of course any reader of Lewis who knew English law on homicide would have known that when adults deliberately kill their neighbours it was a capital crime where as minors who do so don’t get executed because they are minors. This would have been taken for granted.

In otherwords Lewis knew his readers had commonsense. He didnt expect them to make ridiculous inferences such as "if its acceptable to punish adults with X for Y, it must be ok for children to do that" perhaps you make inferences like that Steven, but that's your problem not Lewis's

Steven Carr • 6 years ago

Could we correlate the murder rate per 1000 of the population with the percentage of the population that goes to church/mosque/synagogue/temple?

Would that show a negative or positive correlation?

Bradley Bowen • 6 years ago

This info is from 1999, so it is a bit old...

"The United States is the most religious of all the industrialized nations. Forty-four percent of Americans attend church once a week, compared with 27 percent in Britain, 21 percent in France, 16 percent in Australia, and 4 percent in Sweden. Yet violent crime is not less common in the United States--it's more common. The murder rate here is six times higher than the rate in Britain, seven times higher than in France, five times higher than in Australia, and five times higher than in Sweden. Japan, where Christianity has almost no adherents, has less violent crime than almost any country. There are a few advanced nations that have high rates of church attendance and low rates of violent crime--Ireland, Italy, and Belgium--but they're the exceptions."

"Within the 50 states, there is no evidence that a God-fearing populace equals a law-abiding populace. The Bible Belt has more than its share of both praying and killing. Louisiana has the highest churchgoing rate in the country, but its murder rate is more than twice the national average. The same pattern generally holds in the rest of the South. Tom DeLay's Bible-toting state of Texas has a murder rate triple that of Massachusetts, which is "ungodly" enough to have elected two openly gay members of Congress. New York, the very symbol of godless depravity, is perfectly average when it comes to extralegal slaughter. In Washington state, where Sunday morning slugabeds are more common than anywhere else in America, murder is 38 percent less common."

"House Republicans have also failed to notice that the school shootings have not occurred in hotbeds of secular humanism--say, Berkeley, Calif.; Cambridge, Mass; or New York City--but in towns that Norman Rockwell and James Dobson would be proud to call home. Pearl, Miss.; West Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Edinboro, Pa.; and Springfield, Ore., are not exactly Madalyn Murray O'Hair country. Littleton was fertile ground for evangelical churches.


Bradley Bowen • 6 years ago

I think the Bible Belt has higher rates of violent crime than other areas of the country. I will need to do some checking to confirm that. But even if so, there are other factors that could explain this, like poverty, unemployment, broken homes, quality of education, health and healthcare issues, etc.

Keith Parsons • 6 years ago


Bet you could. I would like to see some hard data on this.

Here is an anecdote, but a telling one: At my university a couple of years ago a young woman was a student here who had previously lived in Pakistan (a very religious society). She worked in a small shop She is a Christian and wore a small cross around her neck. A customer in the shop noticed and began to berate her furiously, accusing her of "insulting Islam." She quietly tried to indicate that it was a purely personal expression and did not denigrate anyone. The customer stormed out of the shop in a fury. Ten minutes later he came back and dumped a bucket of battery acid over the young woman's head. We don't seem to get stories like that from non-religious societies like Denmark, Sweden, or, the Netherlands--unless, as with the Dutch movie director who was murdered--the violence is committed by a fundamentalist immigrant.

Scott Scheule • 6 years ago

Anecdotes don't tell. That's the whole point of avoiding anecdotal evidence.

Keith Parsons • 6 years ago


Nah, I have to disagree. Sometimes a particular striking instance can be highly illustrative of truths that statistics report but do not really convey. Where anecdotes can mislead is when the vividness of the particular instance creates the impression that this is the usual case. An illustration of the gross misuse of anecdotal evidence was Ronald Reagan's infamous "welfare queen." This was supposedly someone who was living like royalty on the taxpayers' tab by welfare fraud. Actually, Reagan's statement itself was an exaggeration of an actual case, and, more importantly, statistics were quickly cited indicating that the actual rate of cheating on welfare is quite small. Anecdotes always have to be analyzed on the basis of our background knowledge. And the one I gave is definitely illustrative of general truths.

Scott Scheule • 6 years ago


You're wrong. Your defense is that "this anecdote illustrates general truths." Which is what every single person who uses anecdotes thinks about his particular anecdotes. If your anecdote actually does illustrate general truths, let's see the support for that. If such support exists, then the anecdote (which you so vividly described) is superfluous. If it doesn't, then you're misleading yourself and others.

Bradley at least adduced some data on the issue, although he wisely thinks there are condounding factors that would have to be dealt with before coming to conclusions.

Keith Parsons • 6 years ago


No, I think that there is room for rhetoric in rational debate. A well-placed anecdote serves a legitimate rhetorical purpose. It puts a human face on abstractions and generalities. "Rhetoric" has bad connotations, but, going back to Aristotle, it is just the art of presenting a case in a persuasive way. Rhetoric, of course, can be misused to give an incorrect or misleading impression, as with the Reagan "welfare queen" example I mentioned.

Is religious violence a problem in Pakistan as my anecdote indicated? "Blasphemy against the Prophet" carries the death penalty in Pakistan (true fact; I'm not making this up). This law is frequently used to intimidate religious minorities, such as Christians. Non-Muslims have to live in constant fear that a Muslim neighbor with a grudge will denounce them as blasphemers. My anecdote, about the young woman who suffered an acid attack because she was wearing a crucifix, is illustrative of the prejudice and potential violence religious minorities face in Pakistan.

Indeed, if your strictures against anecdotes were scrupulously followed, what would be in the news? What about the Afghan girl shot in the head by the Taliban because she advocates education for girls? Should this have been reported? What about the woman in the Sudan who was sentenced to death because she married a Christian and would not renounce her Christian belief? Should a news agency with true integrity have quashed this story as an inflammatory anecdote, perhaps unfair to the Sudanese? Should the evening news be nothing but a presentation of data and statistical analysis?

My take on anecdotes, then, is that they can be good or bad. Bad, if they obscure the truth; good, if they illustrate it.

Scott Scheule • 6 years ago


You told an anecdote right after saying you'd like to see some hard data. That's as close as substituting an anecdote for actual empirics that I can think of. Imagine someone had said, “We should be able to study whether or not airplanes are getting safer.” I reply:

I’d like to see some hard data on this. But here’s a telling anecdote. [I proceed to describe the recent Ukrainian crash in vivid detail.]

You would rightly point out, I hope, that this proves nothing. You might even say I’m using an anecdote much like Ronald Reagan did in his welfare queen speech. But that’s exactly what you did.

You seem to think people are watching the news nightly to answer questions, such as yours, "Does religion lead to violence?" But that’s nuts. People watch the news to be entertained--hence newsmen make their anecdotes vivid. We don't read the news to learn about the millions of people who lost the lottery yesterday--we read to learn about the outlier, the guy who won. If you or I pick up a paper, we don’t want to hear about the thousands of flights that made it to their destination on time and in one piece. We want to read about the crashes! And if they weren’t in the paper, we’d switch subscriptions. Humankind likes anecdotes better than a fair sampling of the data, and, again, that's the entire point of avoiding anecdotes when making judgments.

Now it may well be that religion leads to violence, but I would actually look at the data before making that conclusion. And even with the data, I would check to see if, as Bradley noted, they were best explained by the presence or absence of religion and not myriad other factors, like "poverty, unemployment, broken homes, quality of education, health and healthcare issues, etc." Now you did give reasons for why religion might lead to more violence—but those were just hypotheses without statistical support. I could just as easily give lots of reasons for why air travel might be getting less safe: people are greedy and only care about money, Russia is destabilizing Eastern Europe, Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise, yadda yadda yadda. But you’d rightly say, sure, those might lead to less safe flights, but what do the actual data say?

You can have the last word.

Keith Parsons • 6 years ago


Whether I committed a faux pas in my above comments or whether an alleged assumption of mine is "nuts" are not really points I would care to address. Also, clearly, you and I would agree that anecdotes are no substitute for scientifically validated facts. Where we differ is over the question of when anecdotes can serve a valid role in rational discourse. Your answer is "never" and mine is "sometimes."

To take a salient current example, consider the "second" surveillance camera video that shows Ray Rice slugging his wife-to-be and knocking her out cold. This is shocking, inflammatory stuff. It was released by TMZ--tabloid TV bottom-feeders--hardly campaigners for women's rights. The video could be criticized as merely anecdotal. Further, it could be charged that it unfairly perpetuates the stereotype that black males are violent and misogynistic.

Also, football has been unfairly associated with domestic violence in the past. I recall that some years back wide publicity was given to the "fact" that domestic violence spiked on Super Bowl Sunday. Testosterone-fueled men, worked to a lather by super-hyped glorification of violence, would take it out on their wives and girlfriends. It turned out, however, that this "fact" had as much going for it as the "fact" that more babies are born on the full moon.

However, in a context in which domestic violence is all too often still winked at, such shocking, "anecdotal" images of the brutal reality of such abuse serve a useful purpose. Both Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes showed the video. Should they have refrained, and merely offered their audiences numbers, charts, margins of error, and details of methodology? Should their programs be the TV equivalent of the peer-reviewed journal?

I don't think so. Hume was right that humans have to be understood as both rational and emotional beings. Emotion can interfere with rationality but it can also promote it. As Hume (and Aristotle) recognized, reason, by itself, has little motivational power. We have to care about something before we will do anything about it. It had been known for years that alcohol and gasoline do not mix, but until Mothers Against Drunk Driving started raising hell about it, and sharing their terrible testimonies, little was done. So, if at that time you wanted tougher laws against drunk driving, it would have been right--and rational--for you to provide the statistics, studies, and scientific data AND tell the terrible stories. The same applies to domestic violence, and the same applies to religious violence.

JohnH2 • 6 years ago

Is 10% supposed to be small or a lot?

Of course that is primarily fraud in receiving of a welfare program, which amounts to for the federal government more than the budget of NASA, there is also other welfare fraud in terms of circumventing what SNAP money is supposed to be used for, for example.

Keith • 6 years ago


In answer to your question, no, I don't consider 10% small. Just wondering, though, where did you get the 10% figure? I did a quick Google search, and it looks to me like even Dinesh D'Souza concedes that only 2-3% of welfare recipients defraud the system. Of course, he says that this still costs us billions. Could you tell me your source? Thanks.

JohnH2 • 6 years ago

http://federalsafetynet.com... 9.8% combined for all welfare programs sans Medicaid. (Which obviously links to its sources, for example https://paymentaccuracy.gov... )

I should also admit that number is inflated, it isn't all fraud, but it also doesn't capture everything that could be considered fraud (like coming up with ways to convert SNAP to cash, which on the small scale is really quite common (ie people exchanging food for cigarettes or video games)). Nor does it capture all the perverse incentives that welfare creates which well perfectly legal go against the intended purpose of the programs: like making rent to own becoming a legal moderately sound investment strategy (where as stashing cash in ones house is fraud and putting it in the bank is not an option, if one wants to stay on the programs).

Keith Parsons • 6 years ago


Thanks, although we may still be talking about apples and oranges. The site you give says:

"mproper welfare payments, including fraud, are estimated to be about 8.7% of all federal welfare payments made and exceeded $50 billion in fiscal year 2012. This estimate is based on reports from the Office of Budget and Management (OBM)[i], The General Accounting Office[ii], and other federal agencies. Improper payments were estimated from each of the 13 individual welfare programs (see Safety Net Page)"

The specific program I was talking about was the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program which was in effect at the time Reagan made the comment, and was the target of his anecdote. I think I recall at the time hearing that the rate of fraud for AFDC recipients was only about 1%. I'll check it out.

JohnH2 • 6 years ago

TANF has a error rate of 15% on that chart, and the more common negative income tax has a rate of 24% on the government website.

At the time of Reagan the way it was set up compared to welfare programs administered in similar fashion today suggests that 1-3% fraud rates was probably accurate. Negative income tax being dependent on self-reporting with little fear of audits makes it more prone to fraud, and also much more prone to unintentional errors in tax reporting. The error rate on the negative tax rate is apparently within acceptable bounds, same with SNAP; Not sure of the rationale of being much more concerned with SSI fraud than negative income tax or SNAP fraud; the fact that one can't really live on either negative income tax or SNAP alone and that the effectiveness of those two is actually quite high may have something to do with it.

Here is an NPR piece on the original real welfare queen:

Daniel Wilcox • 6 years ago

You raise good points in the analysis of why people are drawn to religion.

And I do know religion incites violence. I lived in Palestine/Israel for a short time working there.

But it's also complicated.

Some of the strongest opponents of war in history have been devoutly religious people. (I won't trot out all the usual fame names as I am sure you know about many of them.)

Violence is incited by nationalism, ideology, and ethnicity too.

And I've had atheists argue with me, claiming that it is necessary to intentionally bomb unarmed civilians:-(

And when the first Gulf War came, only 2 teachers at our large California high school opposed the war, myself (at the time a Christian)
and an agnostic.

Both religious persons and atheists supported the war. Our high school cheerleaders led the whole high school in a victory chant, "We're #1," while thousands of Iraqis died.

Go figure.

Victor_Reppert • 6 years ago

I think you misunderstood my point. People can be tempted to kill for what they think is really important. If you are religious, this might be really important, though with Christianity you do have an argument against supporting religion with violence, originally made by Lactantius:

"Religion being a matter of the will, it cannot be forced on anyone; in this matter it is better to employ words than blows [verbis melius quam verberibus res agenda est]. Of what use is cruelty? What has the rack to do with piety? Surely there is no connection between truth and violence, between justice and cruelty . . . . It is true that nothing is so important as religion, and one must defend it at any cost [summa vi] . . . It is true that it must be protected, but by dying for it, not by killing others; by long-suffering, not by violence; by faith, not by crime. If you attempt to defend religion with bloodshed and torture, what you do is not defense, but desecration and insult. For nothing is so intrinsically a matter of free will as religion. (Divine Institutes V:20)"

Surely there has been plenty of religiously motivated violence, and Christians have, sadly, not always followed Lactantius' excellent advice. But you need something more than religion to justify violence. You need to accept the claim that force can and should be used to advance one's religion. It might lead you to violence if you think somehow you can promote religion by the use of political power. As I have argued, it's a lot harder for Muslims to reject this premise than for Christians, since Islam was founded through the use of political power.

But what about atheism? Could people really convinced that our society, if it to advance, needs to embrace atheism, be tempted to use political power, and ultimately violence, to achieve that goal? If you buy in on all the "mind virus" and "delusion" rhetoric that the New Atheists are fond of using, if you are convinced that raising a child as a Christian or a Jew is to abuse that child, etc. etc. etc., wouldn't there be a temptation to "use the ring" and force people to abandon their faith? Why not? Dawkins has already supported using the fear of ridicule to peer-pressure people out of their beliefs. Ever hear of the League of the Militant Godless in the former Soviet Union? Ever hear of the Cult of Reason during the French Revolution.



What I object to is the idea that somehow abandoning religious belief is going to eliminate violence, and that atheism somehow is going to leave us all with, as John Lennon put it, "nothing to kill or die for." As I see it, THAT view is delusional, and you have to smoke a lot of pot and drop a lot of acid believe that. My answer to Lennon comes for George Strait, as follows:


If we consider something important, then we can be tempted to decide that the end justifies the means. And that includes the end of faith.

Keith Parsons • 6 years ago


Thanks for the comments and clarification, but I think that you are still underplaying the particular potential of religion to incite violence. Of course, John Locke, in "A Letter Concerning Toleration" makes the same point as Lactantius: Force can only make people into hypocrites who say the right things to avoid harm while sill disbelieving. True religious commitment requires an unforced assent.

Fine, but I still have to wonder whether the "no coercion" policy is really grounded in principle or whether it is based on an empirical claim that, as a matter of fact, force does not work. As a matter of fact, it might. The most terrifying sentence in Orwell's 1984 is the final one: "He loved Big Brother." The point was that torture, systematically and "scientifically" applied could not only bring about external assent, but change perception. If you are tortured severely enough, Orwell implied, you may be able actually to think that 2 + 2 = 5. Suppose Orwell is right and it is discovered that belief can be coerced. What would the Christian response be?

So long as eternal destiny hinges upon a decision--the decision whether or not to accept Christian salvation--just how far can one go in good conscience to make sure that someone makes the "right" decision? If not outright violence, how about extreme persuasion, using all the tools of propaganda and manipulation so artfully developed by advertisers and politicians? We live in an environment where, whatever you do, you can hardly escape advertising. If in doubt, check the distracting and moronic ads running right now on this site. Why not 24/7 hard-sell proselytizing? I understand that there is something now called "The Good News Movement" that aims at evangelizing elementary-school children? Is this OK? Doesn't the logic of Christian theism imply that if one child is saved from eternal perdition, then hard-core propagandizing of kids is OK?

Victor_Reppert • 6 years ago

Well, atheists don't say that our eternal destiny hangs on our decision, but I do hear atheists say that everything depends on our abandoning religious beliefs. See the late Victor Stenger.

"When belief in ancient myths joins with other negative forces in our society, they hinder the world from advancing scientifically, economically, and socially at a time when a rapid advancement in these areas is absolutely essential for the survival of humanity. We now may be only about a generation or two away from the catastrophic problems predicted to result from global warming, pollution, and overpopulation. Our children and grandchildren could be faced with flooded coastal areas, severe climatic changes, epidemics caused by overcrowding, and increased starvation for much of humanity. Such disasters would generate worldwide conflict on a scale that is likely to exceed that of the great twentieth-century wars, possibly with nuclear weapons in the hands of unstable nations and terrorist groups."

So, unless faith ends, the WORLD IS COMING TO AN END. Why should someone who believes this refrain from using force to end religion.

Religion matters to people, and so the "devil" can tempt us to use force to support it. But the devil can tempt unbelievers to use force to the end of religious belief by any means necessary. Atheists tend to get upset when atheism is called a religion. But it is a position concerning the great issues, and it profoundly affects how we live our lives. Atheists may not consign you to hell for not agreeing with them, but they will consign you to the kid's table, and for some people that is an even worse fate.

Keith Parsons • 6 years ago


I see your point. True Believers (in Eric Hoffer's sense) are dangerous whatever the ideological label. I think that Victor (the other Victor) hints at a crucial factor that needs expansion and elucidation. He mentions religion being combined with other "negative forces." It is the nature of the religion and the nature of those negative forces that need to be spelled out.

In the US today, what passes for conservatism has precious little to do with anything said by Edmund Burke. Even the late, great William F. Buckley would find it largely unrecognizable. "Conservatism" in its most visible form today is not a coherent philosophy, but a pastiche of religious fundamentalism, nativism, antiscience, American exceptionalism, white-male backlash, gun fetishism, and just plain nuttiness (e.g. birtherism, death panels, etc.). Right-wing politicians, to stay in office, have to give lip service to all those things, but their real allegiance is completely to serving the interests of wealthy individuals and corporations.

I think that the pernicious effect of big money is the worst of the "negative forces" mentioned by Stenger. Big money can fund its own "research" institutes and "think" tanks that have an ideological imperative to promote the agendas of the billionaires and big companies that support them. Big money simply owns Congress. Like a NASCAR vehicle, the Capitol Dome should be festooned with corporate logos. As Thomas Friedman said, "Congress today is a forum for legalized bribery." Or, as cartoonist Steven Pastis put it in his cartoon, "Pearls Before Swine," if you think that politicians do not provide quid pro quo for big donors, then let's all hop on our magic unicorns and fly off to Candyland!

The upshot is that the religion is just one element of he farrago of ideologies and practices that are endangering our future. Further, it is not all religion, but mostly the fundamentalist stripe that is causing the trouble. I think that Stenger was certainly right to call attention to the issues he mentions, but his mistake was to tar everything with the same brush. Not all religion is fundamentalism. I don't know if Victor actually ever said "faith must end." That is as big a pipe dream as the delusion of some right-wingers that we can go back to an America that never was--the land of hard-working, uncomplaining, church-going, clean-living white people who would be too proud to take a welfare check.

Some religion is good, and some is bad. Since we are never going to get rid of religion, shouldn't atheists instead be willing to work--with the practitioners of good religion--to fight the bad?

Victor_Reppert • 6 years ago

The point I wanted to make is that secularism can have the same motives for violence that religion has. If we say "religion leads to violence," i take it there's an implication that the end of religion will save us from violence.

Even if I didn't believe in God, I would certainly never believe in the secular paradise.

Shem the Penman • 6 years ago
[Victor Stenger:]"When belief in ancient myths joins with other negative forces in our society, they hinder the world from advancing scientifically, economically, and socially at a time when a rapid advancement in these areas is absolutely essential for the survival of humanity."

I assume Stenger (R.I.P.) would rather we believe the shiny new myths, like the one that says we're nothing more than bags of inert biochemicals, products of a vast process of evolution just like liver flukes and trypanosomes, and all human endeavor can be reduced to genetic algorithms and neurochemistry.

Think of the scientific and economic progress that will result when we just forget about what it means to be human and just be docile employees and obedient consumers. Let's put silly ideas like self-transcendence behind us, watch programs like Nova and Cosmos (presented by PBS thanks to contributions by the Koch Brothers, and sponsored by Samsung, FOX, and Chrysler), and enjoy our gadgetry!

PDH • 6 years ago

You seem to really dislike naturalism and I'm interested to know why that is. At least at first glance, your post seems pretty confused to me.

First of all, the suggestion that, if, as you put it, we're 'bags of inert biochemicals' or products of evolution, that this somehow diminishes us is implausible and unsupported. Why should I accept that?

What's so horrible about being made of particles? Particles, arranged in the right way, can laugh and love and live fulfilling lives. I could just as easily say, 'these religious people want me to believe that I'm just a bunch of ectoplasmic goo conjured into existence by an abstract concept and that all human endeavour can be reduced to a cosmic joke!'

Describing how something works, does not cause that thing to vanish, it just means that we know more about how it works.

You then seem to suggest that all of this has some dire implications for things like politics and economics, which is more than a little bit silly, to be frank. Could you explain how neurochemistry being able to describe some aspects of human behaviour implies that we should all be docile employees and consumers?

staircaseghost • 6 years ago

“The ‘religion leads to violence’ idea is based on a profound confusion."

Do you think people like Victor ever turn on the news to see the video of the man who was just beheaded, and realize they need to go into a corner somewhere and think good and hard about what they've said?

Guest • 6 years ago

Of course not. For people like Victor, other religions are not true, so the behavior of Islam does not reflect on Christianity (or vice versa, when applicable).

bdlaacmm • 6 years ago

Whereas there are hundreds of places in the Koran where the "good" Muslim is quite literally commanded to force conversion upon unbelievers, and to expel, enslave, tax into submission, or even to kill any who dare resist, there is ONE (count 'em, one) passage in the New Testament (Luke 14:23) that could conceivably be construed to favor forced conversion - and that one requires some pretty slick (and dubious) interpretation to arrive at that conclusion.

Guest • 6 years ago

Bible verse do not concern me very much (although I am quite a fan of studying scripture), instead I judge individuals and groups by their actions. And, no, I am afraid that history does not shed a better light on Christianity than on Islam.

Let us not forget how much blood was shed between Catholics and Protestants throughout Europe—for centuries—up to and including full-on war. Let us not forget the insidious treatment that Jews suffered at the hands of Christendom ... pretty much until WWII. Let's not forget Ireland. Then there are the indigenous peoples of the world who were treated quite inhumanely by missionaries and colonizers. This kind of behavior is not limited to previous generations, either: India, Lebanon, the Central African Republic and Uganda have all seen acts of terrorism by Christians against non-Christians. In places where they can still get away with it, Christians can be just as heinous as Muslims.

The only reason that Christianity stopped that type of behavior is because the people of the West formed secular governments (beginning with ours) that put an end to this. It's not as if Christians are innately better, or more well-behaved than Muslims. And even here, in the United States, you still have the occasional Christian extremists—whether groups such as Hutaree or the "Army of God" ... or individuals such as Scott Roeder.

Perhaps a better example would be Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame, who said in an interview THIS WEEK that, "I'm not giving up on [radical Muslims], but I'm just saying, either convert or kill them. One or the other."

So, yeah, there are still Christians—famous, outspoken Christians with a great deal of public support from some corners—who publicly call for forced conversion, regardless of what any verses in the Bible possibly say about the correctness of such action.

Now, radical Islam is obviously a greater threat to a larger number of people than radical Christians—at present. And I am absolutely disgusted whenever I hear anyone describe Islam as the "Religion of Peace" because, no, it's not and never has been, and Islam has always been very open about using the sword to spread their mythology. And, yeah, it bugs the shit out of me when my fellow atheists (or anyone else) calls me an Islamophobe because I don't like Islam—but they never have any issues at all with me taking Christianity to the mat. Islam is a FAR greater threat to global peace and the lives of innocents across the globe than Christianity is (right now). That doesn't mean that I'm going to forget how Christianity has always behaved when allowed. Murderers, bullies, thieves and thugs—from the time of the Theodosian Code, until secular governments put an end to it.

Ignoring the extreme violence and global domineering of Christianity's past is just as ignorant as claiming that Islam is somehow better because they were more enlightened toward different faiths in Spain one thousand years ago. The Muslims of Andalusia may have been more accommodating to Jews and Christians than Christians historically were toward Muslims or Jews, but that doesn't mean that I think modern Islam is sweet and cuddly. And, yeah, Christianity has (mostly) given up conversion through violence—but don't expect me to believe they will always be so civil. History proves otherwise.

Victor_Reppert • 6 years ago

Christians are free to form secular governments without denying the essence of Christianity. They have that option, since nothing in the Bible supports a unity of church and state. The people who formed those secular governments were mostly Christians.

Guest • 6 years ago

Certainly they were Christians (although many of the most important were Deist) but that means nothing. Of course people in the 18th Century were religious ... what option did they have?

It's like those people who constantly say things like, "Newton was a Christian." Well, of course he was—or at least appeared to be one. The Blasphemy Act of 1697 certainly put stopped ANYONE in his neck of the woods from claiming to be anything other than Christian, didn't it? For the bulk of the last 2,000 years people did not have a choice but to pretend to be religious, whether they were or not. During the best of times (like now) we face social rejection and the scorn of believers—but historically speaking those best times are rare—usually we have faced violence, theft of our property and death.

And that's my point. You seem to think as though the history of Christianity is kinder, gentler and less bloody than it is. Please stop. There is nothing special about Christianity. Sometimes Christians are decent people, sometimes they are monsters. Just like the followers of any other religion or none at all.

You can say that "nothing in the Bible supports a unity of church and state" but that does not change the fact that through most of the last 2,000 years, that is exactly what Christianity has sought, won and abused since Theodosius.

I don't believe in your scripture and I do not care what it says (beyond my interest in it as a historical piece of mythology with lots of connections to Western culture, a bit of good wisdom and some pretty poetry—kind of like the Iliad with less realistic characters). I care no more about the words of your scripture than I care about the words of Homer. And it is obvious (from the behavior of Christians since the days of Theodosius until at least the dawn of the 20th Century) that most Christians and Christian governments have never cared too much about it, either.

Instead, I care about what Christians do and have done and talk about doing right now. The rhetoric and ideology of the Christian Right at this very moment is very much ignorant of any such separation, and to act as though American Christians in general (or historical Christendom as a whole) support any kind of separation between Church and State is to be very dishonest, to say the least.

To act as those the good deeds of decent Christians in the past somehow erases the centuries of theocratic oppression, violence and theft is either very foolish or very ignorant of history.