Thursday, 8 January 2009

Religion makes you nicer...

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... or so says Theodore Dalrymple in the Jan/Feb issue of New Humanist. In an article likely to enrage many humanists and atheists Dalrymple (the nom de plume of retired prison doctor Anthony Daniels who is a prolific polemicist and frequent contributor to the Telegraph, Spectator, New Criterion and City Journal - yes, you guessed it, he is not a socialist) rebukes atheists for their "adolescent" attitude to religion and says religious people are "by far the best and nicest" people he has met.

What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment here. We should not let this go unanswered.


Travis Morgan said...

Nicer, I don't think so. I find the religious to be rather close-minded and intolerant to ideas that do not fit within their particular religion. They also happen to be over sensitive and defensive to any criticism of their said religion. Any belief or religion that is so fragile that it can't take some constructive criticism or questioning is a religion worth questioning. Another thing, if it even were true that the religious are the "best" and "nicest" people, so what? It is yet another appeal to consequence in attempt to sell and keep religion alive. They are only nice as long as you don't oppose their religious views. Otherwise they get rather nasty. The non-religious on the other hand have one less thing to discriminate. The pursuit and acknowledgement of truth, the use of logic and reason, does not have the curb appeal that religion does because it does not attempt to "comfort" people nor appeal to their "feelings."

I haven't met a non-religious person that I thought wasn't nice. And if they did have some character flaws, as everyone does, I could not attribute these flaws to being caused by not being religious.

Not to mention, this "best" and "nice" is relative to ones perception of how they think one "ought" to be. It has no objective justification.

Chris Hughes said...

Nicer? Matter of opinion -- and who cares anyway? 'Niceness' does nothing to establish the truth of religious mythology.

Joe Hayhurst said...

In that case the next step should be to find out which is the nicest religion.
Let them all argue over THAT! It would be very funny to stand back and observe... until the violence starts...

HumanistDad said...

Usually I find religious people to be pleasant; however, I also find almost everyone I meet to be pleasant - religious or not.

If I come across an avowed atheist, in general, they are somewhat cynical. It's almost as if their rejection of religion has made them untrustworthy of all authority, be it ministers, police, politicians, etc. Many, too, are susceptible to conspiracy theories.

I think that for de-converted atheists they are bitter about the lies they were told as children and now doubt 'the establishment'.

Skeptics, on the other hand, are usually very happy. Getting people to be atheists is only the first step. The next is to help them develop a critical, skeptical mind.

Your Name Here said...

In my thirty years of happily atheistic life I have found that religion - unless it has *entirely* consumed a person's life - or the lack thereof has minimal value as an indicator of someone's good character. To see adults argue over this is just embarrassing.

richard said...

I generally agree with HumanistDad; most of the people I've come across through a long life now, and practically everyone with whom I've chosen to associate, is, by and large, pleasant: i.e. generally kind, mostly thoughtful, inclined to tolerance. And those include both atheists and theists - more of the latter, since they are more numerous in society, but very many of the former, since I am an atheist and prefer to associate with those of like mind.

On the flip side, I'm met more than a few people who are not pleasant; there have been a few atheists in that group, but very few. By and large, the unpleasant people I've met are represented, out of all proportion, by the dogmatically religious.

So, both atheists and theists can be pleasant, and the number you know from either group depends largely on your own inclination, not only regarding the existence or probable non-existence of gods, but also on whether you tend to see the pleasant side of those you meet and welcome that, regardless of their other attachments.

But when it comes to the truly slimy and malevolent, theists, in my experience, beat atheists by a wide margin.

Mike said...

I'm all for free thought and free speech, but why is an article like this on The New Humanist blog?

AllenC said...

With all due respect, I question whether many of the commenters read the essay, which says much more than that religious people are nicer. Dalrymple is a life-long atheist but "no longer experience[s] any visceral dislike of" religion, and he believes the passionate hatred of religion by many of his fellow atheists "far outruns any possible factual or rational argument upon which it could be based".

As an atheist, it seems to me that the vast majority of religious people are perfectly harmless (certainly the Christian ones) and that most of my fellow atheists are not actually concerned by the behavior or politics of the religious but by their potential judgmentalism. In the past, fear of being judged motivated people to behave well. Today, it motivates them to demonize and discredit the judgmental.

Which, incidentally, is all of us.

Caspar Melville said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Caspar Melville said...

Good question Mike, which, since I was the one who commissioned it I should answer.

As AllenC has already spotted the article isn't really about how religious people are nicer then non-believers – I pulled that aspect out just as a way to draw people's attention (I did want them to actually read the article) –but about how we view the history and legacy of religion and religious belief. Is it legitimate to say that religion is a virus (Dawkins) or that it poisons everything (Hitchens).

The fact that Dalrymple himself is not a believer – ie he is in a sense 'one of us' – adds weight, potentially, to his argument. Our editorial policy does not require that we agree with everything we publish, or that it toes some kind of humanist line – we stand against dogma and against boredom – merely that the arguments we present are well expressed, logical and thought-provoking.

It seems to me that Dalrymple's argument fulfills these criteria admirably, and I believe it raises the bar, in a productive way, for those of us who want to argue that religion is on balance a negative force in society.

AT said...

Its great to see the new humanist run an article like this. Rationalism is represented at its best by the willingness to entertain ideas - to earnestly engage with an idea on its own merits. It is that willingness and that curiosity that usually ends up toppling ideas that stand on dogmatism and tradition instead of on reason.

As to the article itself, I think 'religious' is a bad blanket term, period.

Anonymous said...

It's good to see such an essay from one of today's great minds, Theodore Dalrymple. Many thanks for publishing it. Here are some thoughts from another great mind:

"Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be 'tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine,' (Eph. 4:14) seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."

-Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Mass Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice, Vatican Basilica, 4-18-05

"The real opposition that characterizes today's world is not that between various religious cultures, but that between the radical emancipation of man from God, from the roots of life, on one hand, and from the great religious cultures on the other."

-Benedict XVI

"Moral strength has not grown in tandem with the development of science; on the contrary, it has diminished, because the technological mentality confines morality to the subjective sphere. Our need, however, is for a public morality, a morality capable of responding to the threats that impose such a burden on the existence of us all. The true and gravest danger of the present moment is precisely this imbalance between technological possibilities and moral energy."

-Benedict XVI

"When the existence of God is denied, freedom is, not enhanced, but deprived of its basis and thus distorted."

-Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Truth and Tolerance

"Peace, justice, and the conservation of creation - this trio of values have nowadays emerged as a substitute for a lost concept of God ..."

- Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, "Church on the Threshold of the Third Millennium," Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith

"The loss of transcendence evokes the flight to utopia. I am convinced that the destruction of transcendence is the actual amputation of human beings from which all other sicknesses flow. Robbed of their real greatness they can only find escape in illusory hopes."

-Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures

"Wherever God is not, hell comes into existence: it consists simply in his absence. That may also come about in subtle forms and almost always does so under cover of the idea of something beneficial for people."

- Joseph Ratzinger, "Church on the Threshold of the Third Millennium," Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, p. 285

"The defect of the ecological movements: They crusade with an understandable and also legitimate passion against the pollution of the environment, whereas man's self-pollution of his soul continues to be treated as one of the rights of his freedom....Instead of making it possible to breathe humanly again, we defend with a totally false conception of freedom everything that man's arbitrary desire produces. As long as we retain this caricature of freedom, namely, of the freedom of inner spiritual self-destruction, its outward effects will continue unchanged."

-Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Salt of the Earth

"To the extent that man seeks in new ways to build for himself the world as a whole, thereby ever more perceptibly endangering its foundations, he also loses his vision of the order of creation with regard to his own life. He considers he can define himself as he pleases by virtue of an inane freedom."

-Benedict XVI, Address to the Second Group of German Bishops on their "Ad Limina" Visit, 11-18-06

"Political correctness seeks to establish the domain of a single way of thinking and speaking. Its relativism creates the illusion that it has reached greater heights than the loftiest philosophical achievements of the past. It prescribes itself as the only way to think and speak - if, that is, one wishes to stay in fashion. Being faithful
to traditional values and the knowledge that upholds them is labeled intolerance, and relativism becomes the required norm. I think it is vital that we oppose this imposition of a new pseudo-enlightenment, which threatens freedom of thought as well as freedom of religion. In
Sweden, a preacher who had presented the Biblical teachings on the question of homosexuality received a prison sentence. This is just one sign of the gains that have been made by relativism as a kind of new 'denomination' that places restrictions on religious convictions and seeks to subordinate all religions to the super-dogma of relativism."

-Joseph Ratzinger, Without Roots: The West, Relativism,Christianity,
Islam, p. 128.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article that well describes what I've come to feel more and more -- a loathing for militant atheism. I USED to be a militant atheist at 14. I grew out of it. Now I'm just an atheist.

Those who, past their teens, make strident atheism center and core to their moral and intellectual concerns are aptly described as being in a perpetually adolescent mindset.

Most seem unaware of the irony that THEY are the type of strident atheist Dalrymple has in mind when they respond with signature militancy to his columns. You almost get the sense that they want the excommunication of this traitor atheist.

Anonymous said...

Travis Morgan said... "I haven't met a non-religious person that I thought wasn't nice."

I guess Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot were a little too old for you to have met. They were all blessedly (if you'll excuse the term) free of religiosity.

Travis Morgan said..."They are only nice as long as you don't oppose their religious views."

How does one "oppose" religious views? I have some seriously practicing Muslims living across the street from me. I do not share their views but they are perfectly nice to me. Ditto for the evangelical Xstians down the street and the orthodox jew I work with.

Travis Morgan said.."Not to mention, this "best" and "nice" is relative to ones perception of how they think one "ought" to be. It has no objective justification."

Oh yes, everything is relative. Feed a man a fish or strangle him. No objective difference except in the imagination of the overly suggestive.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the article, but Dalrymple's claim that religious people are nicer is mildly insulting to me, as a non-religious person.

I grew up in Catholic Ireland in the 70's, and commonly witnessed the devout being as unpleasant as the next guy. Isn't it more likely, as common sense suggests, that the range of human flaws are evenly distributed, even between theists and atheists?

As a side note, on the subject of disliking "militant atheism". If it is defined as those who stridently oppose religious influence in public policy areas; stem cell research, contraception, euthanasia, education, gay marriage, single parent families - such militant atheists are absolutely necessary, and I applaud them.

Avital Pilpel said...

My defition of a "militant" atheist is:

atheist: "There is (probably) no God".

Militant atheist: "I am a superior person because I believe there is no God. So are others who believe there is no God".

I am an atheist, but not a militant atheist. Militant atheism is rather cultic and off-putting, with its us-against-them, persecuted-superior-minority worldview.

Tom Rees said...

Well, here is a topic that we can apply evidence to, rather than just coffee-shop debating. There are scientific studies on the effect of religion, and in general the best ones (the ones that measure actions rather than intentions, and that 'blind' the participants to the true purpose of the study) show that there is no difference between people who have religious beliefs and those who don't. There may be some effect of exposing people to religious messaging - but the effect of secular messaging seems to be just as strong.

There have been a number of scientific studies and reviews recently. Perhaps the most significant was published late last year. I summarized it on my blog, if anyone is interested in such things! Religious situations, but not beliefs, help foster trust

Avital Pilpel said...

I thinkm Mr. Rees, that this is just Dalrymple's point: he is not interested in the religious person's BELIEFS, but in the fact that those who grow up in religious COMMUNITIES, at least in the west, tend to be more generous, caring, etc.

Nobbin said...

I've just like to add that I also think this is a fascinating and thought-provoking article! I like to read stuff that makes me question my current ideas, and this definitely has.

Mr. Dalrymple /nearly/ lost me on the child abuse argument, but on further reading I discovered he was arguing against something slightly different from my position (of course we should teach *comparative* religion - but then, if anything that is likely to promote atheism). I still see childhood indoctrination as harmful to young minds though.

I'm less "militant" than I used to be (I really hate that term), but I agree with other comments in that that I think religion is on balance a negative thing in our society. Whether religious people appear nice or not is not an argument I make.

Finally, in my experience, the door knockers are normally very nice... until you politely say you are not interested. The only other particularly religious person I know is a YEC, who is very nice, but a bit... umm... (yeah) said...

I believe it was Schopenhauer, no religious fundamentalist, who pointed out that popular religion is a sort of allegorical "folk-metaphysics" for the people, and that it was a great mistake to take this folk-metaphysics in a literalist sense instead of an allegorical-ethical. In many cases the mentality of certain people needs this type of folk-metaphysics to prevent moral suicide.

What happened to the even-mindedness of humanists? I view religion like Schopenhauer and the great atheist-humanist H.P. Lovecraft, as beautiful illusions whose mythological allegories elevate the common people's morality above their natural level. Religion should only be targeted when it becomes fundamentalistic and totalitarian; otherwise decent humanists and atheists should leave such this ethical uplifter of the herd strictly alone!

Corey Mondello said...

Ummm...lets see.

The Catholic Church allowed hundreds if not thousands of children to be molested for decades, if not centuries.

That in itself, creates a lot of anygry people.

That being said, religion on a whole, is more detrimental to human kind than any other organization, ideology, or creation of many-kind.

There is nothing else to say:

Religion = Hatred, Rape, Death, Prejudism, Anger, Rage, Biggotry, Intolerance, Murder...etc.

Corey Mondello
Boston, Massachusetts

Anonymous said...

And what about atheist-tyrants like Lenin's and Stalin's mass murders and atrocities? Picking out the exception and then generalizing ('all religionists are oppressors', 'all atheists are mass murderers') is highly unreasonable.

I find brightimperator's reference to Schopenhauer's theory of religion as allegorical "folk-metaphysics" intriguing. I have known prison psychologists who have explained the role of religious attitudes in reducing some of the bestial violence in the world. Your statements, however, showed neither depth nor originality but adolescent emotionality. The logically brutal equation of religion with ignorance in itself only reveals the brutality of an unbalanced mind. said...

Here is Schopenhauer's theory, in case any truly-minded atheists or humanists are interested:

"...Religious teachings are all the mythical garments of the truth which is inaccessible to the crude human intellect. Myth might be called in Kant's language a postulate of practical reason..." (World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1, Section 52)

"All that can be thought only generally and in the abstract is quite inaccessible to the great majority of people. Thus, in order to bring that great truth [of self-transcendence] into the sphere of practical application, a mythical vehicle for it was needed everywhere for this great majority, a receptacle, so to speak, without which it would be lost and dissipated. The truth everywhere had to borrow the garb of fable, and in addition, had to try always to connect itself in each with what is historically given, and is already known and revered. That which SENSU PROPRIO was and remained inaccessible to the great masses of all times and countries with their low mentality, their intellectual stupidity, and their general brutality, had to be brought home to them SENSU ALLEGORICO for practical purposes, in order to be their guiding star.

Thus Christianity, Brahmanism and Buddhism are to be regarded as sacred vessels in which the great truth, recognized and expressed for thousands of years, possibly indeed since the beginning of the human race, and yet remaining in itself an esoteric doctrine as regards the great mass of mankind, is made accessible to them according to their powers, and preserved and passed on through the centuries. Yet because everything that does not consistt hroughout of the indestructible material of pure truth is subject to destruction, whenever this fate befalls such a vessel through contact with a heterogeneous age, the sacred contents must be saved in one way by another vessel, and preserved for mankind. Philosophy has the task of presenting those contents, since they are identical with pure truth, pure and unalloyed, hence merely in abstract concepts, and consequently without that vehicle, for those who are capable of thinking, the number of whom is at all times extremely small. Philosophy is related to religions as a straight line is to several curves running near it; for it expresses SENSU PROPRIO and consequently reaches directly that which religions show under disguises, and reach in roundabout ways." (World as Will and Representation, Vol. 2, On the Doctrine of the Denial of the Will-to-Live).

Anonymous said...

Dalrymple does the usual Pecksniffian job here of making fatuous equations, tossing off egregious assertions, missing the boat entirely - how long did he take to write up this bilge -in between brandy snifters, maybe half an hour? How can anyone penetrate his autistic self-regard? Religion causes great damage in society, especially here in America, where it is part of a great irrational evasion of moral social responsibility. That means nothing to the haughty doctor? Sure, religion comforts poor widows and makes a conservative doctor feel all warm, but milquetoast intellectualism is just pure evasion. Please, I've read this anti-atheist kneejerk know-nothingism before many times when Dawkins first came out, and it demeans the New Humanist to publish it yet again, for the faint of heart and mind to gnaw on liek a stale chicken bone.
Martin White
Salem, NY