We’ve been debating agnosticism and atheism here for the last couple of weeks. One of the sub-arguments that has pronounced itself has come from my general proposition that religion is harmful.
My friend CarlM has repeatedly argued against this. His argument seems to be that religion is not the actual cause of any danger, but rather one of several means or instruments that can be used to commit evil–just like guns. He has challenged me to substitute the word “guns” in any argument I make about the danger of religion, as he thinks they are both simply means, and thus interchangeable.
So I will try here and now to concisely argue why religion is in fact more dangerous than handguns.
When we talk of harm being caused by humans to other humans, and we seek to understand why it happens in order to stop it, it is important to identify the variables involved. It’s also important to differentiate between active and passive participants.
So if I, for example, I am angry at my neighbor’s car exhaust kit, and I pick up a stone in the yard and hurl it at my neighbor’s head–causing a wound–it is fairly difficult for me to blame the stone. In this case, as most will agree, the stone was completely passive, and the real problem here was that I threw it at someone’s head.
One could make the argument, however, that there were simply too many stones in the yard, and that this made it too easy for me to throw one at someone. This is a silly argument because stones are plentiful in nature and are not much more dangerous than many other things found in the natural world. So I won’t be setting this up as a strawman argument on behalf of Carl.
So, to blame the stone in that case is completely illogical, and if that were Carl’s argument then I would have already won. But it isn’t. The strength of Carl’s argument comes with the creation of efficient killing machines–e.g. handguns.
Let us imagine that there are certain variables to the causation of harm between humans, and the total is a product of these variables. Let’s try to list them:
The belief it’s either ok, OR the inability to control anger that would be unacceptable to the human in less emotional circumstances. We’ll call this WILLINGNESS.
Ease of access to a weapon that will satisfy the feeling of aggression. We’ll call this ACCESS.
The lethality of the weapon. LETHALITY
These combine via multiplication to produce a product, so if any of the three are zero we have no harm caused. Let’s say all have a range of 1-10, so we have a maximum of a 1000 harm score.
WILLINGNESS x ACCESS x LETHALITY = HARM
Let’s test this with model with my rock. The willingness–in this case coming from anger and not an actual justification that I would have were I not mad– was high, and the access was high, but the lethality was very low. So let’s say:
7 x 7 x 2 = 98
Yes, the numbers are arbitrary, but I promise to try to be fair.
To Carl’s argument, let’s decrease the access level some and increase the lethality:
7 x 5 x 5 = 175
So, almost double. I agree with this being bad, so on that point I do not object.
But with religion I think we need to add an entirely new variable–namely CONTAGIOUSNESS. This variable will indicate how likely others are to increase their own WILLINGNESS to cause harm–in this case from a belief in justification rather than an inability to control temporary anger.
Let’s modify the formula to include it.
WILLINGNESS x CONTAGIOUSNESS X ACCESS X LETHALITY = HARM (total now 10,000)
And let’s recalculate my score with the stone:
7 x 2 x 7 x 2 = 196 out of 10,000 (pretty low)
And now with a handgun:
7 x 2 x 5 x 5 = 350/10,000 (still pretty low, but much higher)
So this is where my argument about religion comes in. Religion can raise the WILLINGNESS and CONTAGIOUSNESS values, whereas weapons cannot. Weapons can only raise the ACCESS and LETHALITY values, which I am arguing are far less significant.
For example: I believe a large percentage of the American public, if told by President Bush, that the best method for dealing with the Iraq or Iran or Afghanistan, which are mostly Muslim (and therefore against God), was to level the place and start over–would go along with it.
They’d basically say:
Well, this is unfortunate, and I don’t like it, but you have to do what you have to. They hate Jesus and want to hurt us. They want to make my little angel into a Muslim and marry her off at 9!
And so when it comes time to man the Crusade, they’ll happily send Billy off to kill bad guys abroad. Let’s do the calculation for this:
8 x 8 x 7 x 7 = 3136
The key here is that there is another actor that has entered the mix. It’s not the Christian who wants to hurt the Muslim, and it’s not the Muslim. It’s God. God becomes an EXTREMELY powerful force for raising the WILLINGNESS and CONTAGIOUSNESS in our harm equation.
In short, God telling someone that person x is against them is a CAUSE of WILLINGNESS. The CONTAGIOUSNESS is contained within the Bible and all the Churches across the country fostering the belief that this WILLINGNESS to harm others is justified. And this is religion doing this, not the M16 or the cluster bombs that will be used to actually do the harm (LETHALITY).
So here’s the knight’s move:
- WILLINGNESS is the variable we should seek to control the most, as in the years to come it will continue to get easier to gain ACCESS and LETHALITY, and the only long-term solution is to limit our WILLINGNESS to cause harm to others.
- Therefore, anything that raises WILLINGNESS is the cause of the most harm, and this includes most notably doctrines or religions that, through Biblical texts and/or churches, teach that the creator of the entire universe is being offended by x, y, or z.
- This why religion is much more dangerous than handguns: it serves both as a justification for inflicting said harm, and as means of spreading this willingness to others.