Six Arguments Against Religion V: Regulating Virtue and Selling Salvation

When people lose their sense of awe, they turn to organized religion. When they no longer trust themselves, they turn to authority. — Tao Te Ching 72 (Stephen Mitchell’s modern Zen-influenced translation)

God’s Cops

Like any laws, the rules of religion tell you how to behave, and specify punishment for lawbreakers.

Sir, we caught you red-handedly not loving your neighbor as yourself. Uh-oh! You’re headed downtown, buddy. The sentence: eternal damnation. No bail.

But regulating virtue is nonsense. If I tell you to be virtuous — not just act virtuously, but be virtuous — and threaten you with punishment if you fail, and then you act virtuously, have you magically become virtuous? Even Jesus said that adultery committed in the heart is still adultery. The whole point of virtue is that it’s something you choose to be, of your own free will. Otherwise you’re play-acting. And omniscient Gods can tell the difference.

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Six Arguments Against Religion IV: We’re Not Like Those ‘People’

Suppose you belong to a religion that says you’re either in or you’re out — like (to pick an example at random on Easter Sunday) Christianity. Suppose you believe that if you don’t accept Jesus as your Personal Savior (TM), you’re going to hell. And you’ve got your badge, so you’re all set. And then you walk around town, and you see someone wearing a different badge.


This may well bother you. It might be something like seeing someone with a horrible disease — one which you happen to be carrying the antidote to. Or — if this person is proud of their badge — like seeing someone carrying a Nazi flag or something.

I’ve never been in this situation (except as someone not wearing such a badge), so I’m not sure how it feels; and obviously it will bother some people more than others.

But the point is that it can be socially awkward. Being around people who don’t share your fundamental belief system can be stressful. It is difficult to be reminded again and again that your friends don’t share your religion. (Alternatively, maybe it wouldn’t bother you at all — but in that case, how strong is your own personal belief, really?)

When I was growing up Zen in the Bible belt, some people would react with disbelief when they found out I wasn’t Christian. Don’t you go to church? They seemed to think I was literally insane. And you can pity an insane person, but you can’t build a strong personal connection with them.

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Six Arguments Against Religion III: Think For Yourself

The Master is content to serve as an example, not impose her will. Sharp but not cutting, pointed but not piercing, straightforward but flexible, brilliant but not blinding. Tao Te Ching 58

In the previous two parts of this series, I’ve tackled two arguments against religion — that it gives a poor return on investment, and that it encourages hypocrisy. In this part I look at another argument: that religion encourages too much reliance on doctrine, rather than experimentation or thinking for yourself.

If you’re depending on clergy, or any Wisdom Handed Down From On High, to save your soul, I have to agree:  this is actually a huge, huge problem. Too many people simply believe what they’re told — by people who have a vested interest in controlling them, in maintaining positions of power, in keeping people ignorant of the real facts and subservient. They want mindless obedience; they deliberately sow confusion; they undermine your belief in your ability to think independently. They don’t want you to question the beliefs you grew up with, or the decisions of those in power, the marching orders you’re given.

Wait, are we still just talking about religion?

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Six Arguments Against Religion II: Hypocrisy

Last week, I laid out the first of six arguments about religion — arguments that I have found interesting and worth exploring in depth. The first argument was that if you chose the wrong religion, you’d waste years of your life. The second argument is that religious beliefs are frequently inconsistent.


Christianity, for example, has a huge body of scripture written over the course of 3,000 years, and things don’t always square up. The Old Testament says “An eye for an eye,” and the New Testament says “turn the other cheek”; Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers” and “I bring not peace but a sword” (is the Son of God himself not blessed? Or can some warmakers be blessed too? Or did Jesus mean something else entirely?); etc. There are various ways in which these conflicts can be resolved, but sometimes the logic gets quite pretzeled.

One of the nastiest puzzles of this sort in Christianity is the problem of evil. How can evil exist when God is omnipotent and good? Why doesn’t God just wipe out the evil? A few years ago, when I was teetering on the edge of atheism and agnosticism, I dove deep into the Catholic Encyclopedia online to figure out the answer to this one. Here was the answer, as far as I could make out:

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Six Arguments Against Religion I: A Poor Return on Investment

After my “Evil Christianity” post a few weeks back, I’ve continued to think about issues of religion and belief. While my own ideas haven’t changed much, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss matters online and offline with a number of friends, both pro- and anti-religion. These six arguments against religion are ones I’ve personally found the most intriguing and compelling.

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