The following is in response to a comment made by a UK atheist who thinks the central message of Christianity is good, full of pacifism and the basis for the Welfare state. I suspect that in the UK, Christianity is not quite the same beast as it is here in the States. Be that as it may, I think many people’s objections to atheists condemning religion is negative because they’ll say something like, “oh come on, not all believers are bad” and probably point to either anecdotal tales of friends, family members or neighbors or point to charity efforts or something people do that’s nice which is church inspired.
First of all, religion is an indulgence, an indulgence in faith. Faith is a dangerous and potential deadly indulgence, and like most indulgences is difficult to keep just to one’s self without imposing on others in some way. Even if someone can manage to not impose on others with their indulgence, their continued indulgence, especially in public, validates the indulgence to others. We are social creatures, and when we see others doing things, even if we think they’re wrong, that can change our perceptions of it. For instance, most people would agree that stealing is wrong yet will indulge in copying music files or software from others or take home office supplies from work because they see everyone else doing it, thus making it ok.
A culture of faith indulgence where faith is elevated to a virtue can have serious ramifications. We invaded Iraq based on faith. We may never know if our leaders calling for the invasion believed there were WMDs or were merely exploiting people’s faith (and prejudices) to support invasion, but such an invasion likely wouldn’t have been supported in an environment where demonstrable evidence is esteemed rather than faith. Other ills include the housing bubble burst in the US, anti-vaccinators, victims of email scams from alleged Nigerian princes in distress, and I see it in my field, a technical field no less, where people put faith in software tools rather than objectively looking at them to determine whether they actually can do what’s needed. Even in movies, the skeptic, the doubter always gets shown up by the faith indulgers who are eventually rewarded for their indulgence. None of that is directly motivated by religion, however as the largest and most visible manifestation of faith indulgence, it helps to make those things possible by fostering a culture of faith indulgence.
Now I’ve gotten a bit off track from the original point. As to that, one could easily cite the nasty parts of the Christian bible or merely refer to Euthyphro and point out that a moral code motivated by threats is no real moral code, but I’d like to take another path. When someone says that the core of Christianity is good, I think that’s based on their experience with Christians and not from any study of the religion as a whole and like I said earlier, I think your average Christian in the UK is far different than in the US. Be that as it may, those kind, gentle, giving people are not, I charge, that way due to their religion but rather in spite of it. They may attend churches which promote such things but again, that’s not necessarily from their bibles as much as from society as a whole.
It’s societal morality which drives religious morality, not the other way around. For instance, Christians like to point to their religion being the driving force behind ending slavery, but that’s not technically true. Their bible’s wholeheartedly support slavery, complete with specific rules for it and instructions for slaves so the impetus to ignore those sections comes from society. That’s where we get the so-called “liberal” interpretations.
Now that’s a good example, but here’s a negative one. Since the commentor mentioned the Welfare state, here in the US the Tea Party and their ilk routinely cite their bibles for why Welfare is wrong. Most hang on the idea that it violates free will and that Christian charity can’t be compelled. The objection to equal rights for gays and lesbians can be supported by a passage in Leviticus, but really it’s the social bias towards gays and lesbians in certain areas of the US which fuels their interpretations of their bibles. There are plenty of nasty and silly things in Leviticus and other sections, yet this they’ll hang their hats on while ignoring the rest. Oh they’ll offer justifications for that, but so too will the Christians who are for equal rights for everyone who disregard those anti-gay passages.
In short, I think people bring more to the religious table then they take away. What they want, fueled by society as a whole and their immediate environment, colors their interpretations of their bibles. Their bibles then become a source to hunt and find a passage or two to support whatever they want which isn’t hard since their bibles are a plethora of books written by many different people at many different times. It’s a grab bag of different and many times contradictory statements, so finding what you want to hear isn’t that hard. The challenge is cooking up reasons for ignoring the other stuff, but with faith as your guide, that’s not hard at all.