The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Is Religion a Force for Good or Evil in the World?

March 2008

Michael Shermer and Dinesh D’Souza go toe-to-toe on some of the greatest issues related to science and religion: is there evidence for God’s existence, what is the proper relationship between science and religion, and has religion been a force for good or evil in the world?

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57 Comments to “Is Religion a Force for Good or Evil in the World?”

  1. P K Narayanan (Dr) Says:

    The branch of knowledge or the branch of study that we call Science is based in the material plane of the physical world. Religion is an organized system of beliefs in and worship of god or gods. Religion and faith are subjective faculties of human brain and it is exclusive possession of humans alone, no animals, no plants do have any idea of god and religion. Faith and religion have no objective reality in the physical plane. Science has no exclusivity, it is applicable to all living and non-living organisms. Science cannot represent religion, science does not have any of the attributes of religion. Religion and Science have no relation. Science cannot, at any point of time, take over a position or rank of religion.

    God is a creation of human mind; creation that took place out of fear. Several independent studies are available on this subject: the studies were not to evaluate whether belief in god is good or bad, but to find out how the concept of god came into being.

    First it was confirmed that animals and other living organisms have no faculty of believing in any thing; their brain cells are not capable of this activity; they have therefore no belief or idea of god. However, some advanced animals like elephants, monkeys and even cows can be trained to bow and even to prostrate before deities. Here what has been working in an element or monkey or cow has been a conditioned reflex generated in the brain cells of the animal by repetition of the act of bowing or prostration forced upon the animal by animal trainers. This act of the animal bowing or prostrating before the deity cannot be taken for granted that animals do believe in god.

    Coming to the case of humans, long before homosapiens reached the stage of civil society, what the wandering prehistoric humans, wandering for food and shelter in the dangerous terrain on the surface of earth, feared the most was wild animals, thunder, lightning, rains and floods. They started believing that these calamitous agents are the creation of some unknown powers and that pleasing of the unknown supernatural powers would help them survive against the odds of the nature. Thus was the beginning of belief; belief born out of fear.

    It took thousands of years for the humans to reach the stage of societal advancement and civility. During the course of the advance, refinement also took place in the concept of supernatural powers; refining it to the glory of “god” and all the attributes of god and prayers. But the root cause of belief remains the same: fear! Fear of odds that retard survival, that retard growth and progress in every aspect of survival; fear of odds that may not entail heavenly abode after death.

    History shows that religion has been a force of destruction and religion continues to be the sole source of destruction.

  2. SezMe Says:

    Dinesh was excellent. I say that as an atheist. Micheal did not present his position well.

  3. Bobby Rhodes Says:

    Getting ready to watch the video. Man has worshipped “something” since He/She was able to communicate. Because God put a need in every mans heart. That need can only be filled by Him. IF God is non existent and powerless why is there such a long History and ever increasing passion by those that choose not to believe in Him to destroy the Hope and belief by those who Choose to believe in Him?

  4. Jamie Says:

    Jefferson wrote “our creator?” This is supposed to establish our government as a christian nation? No! This is only one example of the many ridiculous assertions by Dinesh D’Souza allowed without challenge.

    “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” Their Creator. Meaning each person is allowed their own creator. No particular religion or any religion need be expressed or implied. Read the words as they were written.

  5. JohnAtl Says:

    D’Souza did a great job. How can he be so intelligent and still believe in god?
    I’m sure that question is asked of thousands of other people too.

    @P K Narayanan I agree with you. God was invented because of fear of death, etc. The reason animals aren’t capable of faith or belief in god is because they have no concept of time. To believe something will happen in the future requires knowledge of time. Awareness of time depends on language. Animals don’t have a rich language, so they do not have a concept of time. Ref: Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks.

  6. Chris Says:

    Interesting but confusing debate, as Michael and Dinesh seemed to be arguing about entirely different things with very different agendas. In the end the debate or conclusions drawn had little to do with the ‘force for good or evil’ topic.

    I agree that Michael wasn’t as clear in expressing his views as I’ve seen before (then again he had to walk on egg shells with the audience), but I was even more turned off by Dinesh’s overzealous conviction that Christianity is the superior or “master” religion. This kind of hubris is the same non-inclusive attitude that polarizes the world, and frankly gets us into trouble.

    When Dinesh made the point about how there are no Bin Laden types among Christians I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. Didn’t much of the world accuse George Bush of being exactly this.?

    Finally, to the question “Who’s winning: Science or Religion?” Isn’t it abundantly clear that across recorded history science always wins. Religious beliefs are constantly revised to accommodate gained scientific understanding. Science can never win entirely and finally (to some questions we will never find answers), but across decades science is winning the small battles whereas religion is winning none – rather it is being forced into positions of moderation and compromise.

  7. BondGrrl Says:

    Shermer is far too polite. He needs a touch of Dawkins here to make his points fully.

    I’m so tired of these thinly-veiled “watchmaker” arguments and the rest. We’ve heard all of this before, over and over, and it never becomes more convincing.

    “Religious claims are given a scrutiny and a definition that is not applied in other areas”? D’Souza calls this a problem? I say: About time!

    And of course, there’s the old “Atheism is a faith” straw man. I wish Christians would stop saying that Atheism is a belief in something (particularly when the other participant in the debate has clearly stated that it is NOT) in a bad attempt to make their own faith seem less ridiculous and tenuous. Atheism is a LACK OF BELIEF in a supernatural thought-police father. Calling Atheism a belief or a faith is an attempt by the Christian to drag Atheists down to the Christian’s level of “I don’t care if what I believe is true or not.” Well, I DO care if what I believe is true.

    Just because science can’t explain Everything In The Universe, doesn’t automatically mean that the only other explanation for it is “god”.

    In addition, as Shermer says, Atheists are under no obligation to prove the non-existence of a god. The burden of proof is ALWAYS with the person making the extraordinary claim: in this case, that a god exists. Telling an Atheist that they can’t prove there’s no magic man in the sky watching their every move like a despot is precisely the same as telling someone they can’t prove there aren’t flying, sparkly unicorns that speak Greek. The only reasonable response to an assertion like that is, “prove there are”. I wish Shermer had stressed this point a little stronger. If Hitchens were on that stage, D’Souza would be in a puddle on the floor over that. Hitchens would also knock over his argument about how “fine-tuned” the earth is for life, but Dawkins would do a better job by asking D’Souza to sleep naked outside in Siberia in February and see how fine-tuned the earth is to support human life.

    Further, D’Souza maintains that religious people are more prevalent in the charity fields than the non-religious. This argument is so ridiculous, I shake my head every time I hear it. If religious people outnumber Atheists in helping out in war zones or countries where starvation is the norm, that does not help explain why THEIR all-loving god hasn’t already fixed all that. It only means that more religious people are racing around trying to save the world because, for some reason, their god hasn’t done it yet! If their god is super-powerful but won’t cure AIDS or starvation, then he’s evil. If he wants to cure AIDS and end starvation, but can’t, then he’s not all-powerful. Either way, he’s lacking and making his followers pick up the slack. If prayer worked, we wouldn’t NEED World Vision.

    Just because millions of people believe in something, it doesn’t make it true. Nor does D’Souza simply asserting that Christianity is growing mean that it IS growing, or that it’s true in the first place. If millions of people in the Western world believe that there is a magic man in the sky policing their every thought and caring who they sleep with, that DOES NOT make it true. It just means millions of people believe something absurd. D’Souza’s use of the phrase, “This would seem to suggest” is not an explanation for anything. It’s simply another way of saying “God did it” with no proof.

    It was unnecessary for D’Souza to do an impersonation of Shermer’s delivery to try to strenghten his own weak arguments. That was a childish move.

    Finally, it’s no revelation for D’Souza to say that he doesn’t know whether there’s a god. Since not a single one of us, Christian or Atheist or anything else, knows the “truth” about the existence or non-existence of a god, there’s no reason to respect his lack of knowledge and thank him for “confess”ing it. Just because Western Society has been shaped by Christian culture, as D’Souza says, DOES NOT MAKE CHRISTIANITY TRUE.

    The moderator seems to have given over the debate to D’Souza without hearing a single word Shermer said the entire time. Her closing remarks simply acknowledge that god exists and Shermer was just a little blip in their rosy little day.. *sigh* again.

  8. Strangel Says:

    I have to agree that Dinesh did do a great job. I think this is the first time I’ve heard him speak and he actually made me smile. I’m sure some suicide bombers were charming people as well.Shermer makes a point of letting them all know that there are 60 million Americans without any faith who would love to keep the same standards of freedom and liberty as the American Christians (only without the dogma and superstition). The moderator, in all her Christian kindness, let’s Michael know that “from the marrow of our bones, we will continue to remember those 6 million atheists.”Un-freakin-believable… She already forgot the other 54 million. We’re screwed.I have to disagree with some of the preceding comments. What we call religion now almost certainly developed from the innate desire for us to explain the universe and it’s workings (science).I often imagine myself being an ancient man of about 50 or 60 years old, living 40,000 years ago, sitting around the campfire at night spinning tales of the sun and moon and earthly nature to my fellow tribesmen. This must have been a potent and emotional display of knowledge possibly coupled with a few “magical” displays to reinforce my shamanistic authority over my people. But how did I know all this? Why could I explain things that could not be seen or created by any others? Maybe I talked to the sun… If only I had a time machine like Bobby Rhodes up there must have…

  9. Marc Blackburn Says:

    A very frustrating debate to watch: D”Souza clearly wins with arguments that are groundless.

    In the first segment D’Souza makes the claim that “we tend to forget” that most of the values we cherish – equal rights for women, the abolition of slavery, compassion as a social virtue – come from Christianity. He goes on to “prove” this by comparing Western civilization with other cultures that don’t stack up as well. His next argument was to make a very strange assertion that Science is based on faith but because God explains the existence of the universe, Religion apparently doesn’t require that faith. D’Souza goes on to mitigate the crimes of Christianity and then to claim all the horrors of the worst totalitarian states of the 20th century were done in the name of atheism.

    How does Shermer respond? Does he point out that those values mentioned were hard fought for by secularists against opposition that came in no small part from Christian conservatives? Does he point out that that those cultures that don’t compare well with western society are also less secularly influenced? Does he point out that science continually checks itself for assumptions and that even though we don’t know why the universe exists it does not require faith to know that it does exist? Does he point out that none of the crimes perpetrated by totalitarian states was done in the name of atheism, but rather in the name of total control of political power? No. Shermer doesn’t counter a single point. He goes on to babble rather verbosely on ideas, at best, tangentially relevant to the question – What relevance at all is it how many atheists are in in United States? – only to come to the conclusion that believers and non-believers should find some common ground. Huh? Shermer’s response amounted to acquiescence and he doesn’t do much better as the debate goes on.

  10. BondGrrl Says:

    I agree with you, Marc. Sadly, though Shermer is a highly intelligent man, he seems always to politely pull his punches in forums like this. Perhaps he’s trying to differentiate himself from the Hitchens and Dawkins of the world by deferring to the opposition, but I wish he wouldn’t do that.

    There is a time and a place for in-yer-face Atheism and debates like this are exactly that time and place. Hitchens and Dawkins would never back down on crucial points the way Shermer has. Perhaps that makes Shermer a nicer guy, but niceness never wins this kind of debate. It only leaves the opposition looking like he’s made some new points, which he clearly has not. I mean, who pulls out the watchmater argument anymore??

  11. Duke Says:

    D’Souza argued his position brilliantly. Shermer spent more time back-peddling and not arguing his position strongly. There were times, I think, where the question focused more on evolution as though evolution ‘implied’ atheism. This is a dichotomy that should have been avoided. A theist, as Shermer, pointed out, can also be an evolutionist (I am an example), and still be faithful to the scriptures.
    All in all, D’Souza blew Shermer away. Philosophic Materialism as expressed in Atheism is inadequate to answer the big questions in life. Shermer was out of his league with D’Souza. Enjoyed the debate.

  12. Chris Says:

    D’Souza did not totally blow Michael away. Perhaps by Hollywood standards yes, but not in content.

    A few messages ago, someone brought up the well used “the burden of proof rests on the shoulders of those making extraordinary claims.” I think this is an antagonisitc phrase – in that it displays anger for believers, demanding that they offer proof for their lack of intellectual astuteness. It’s elitest.

    In the context of today’s audience Michael was indeed softer in tone. His message was inclusiveness. Perhaps this is a good position. The right one to ensure a peaceful future.

    I do not think that the believers of the world are waging war against atheists, they are waging war against themselves. The atheists are the reasonable ones who need to mitigate the potential of deadly conflict. But we (us athesists) cannot boast our intelligence and still expect to facilitate mutual understanding and peace – to find a common ground. Believe me, I’m as conservative as Shermer (probably more so…), but arguing for argument’s sake is a fool’s folly indeed. The objective of discourse must be realistic and achievable, otherwise we are no better than the Hollywood blow-holes like D’Souza.

  13. Ted Says:

    I am more than ever impressed with the affable Dr. Shermer’s sensitivity to the character of particular audiences and the political wisdom he displays. A hall filled with devout Tennessee Christians was almost certainly not the appropriate venue for a frontal assault on any religion; it was most definitely not the place to attack Christianity. Better (as Dr. Shermer obviously understood) to accept the invitation to open the door to further calm dialogue and offer a plea for ideological tolerance. Reading Dr. Shermer’s writings, there is no doubt in my mind that he could easily have presented excellent answers to all of Mr. D’Souza’s assertions. However, his well-considered restraint was evident as he stuck to his message of tolerance. Well done!

  14. BondGrrl Says:

    I can agree that his message was certainly more tolerant and kindly than a lot of other debates on this issue.

    That was me who used the phrase “burden of proof”. I certainly didn’t intend to use it antagonistically. Not my intent at all. But anytime I hear “you can’t prove a god doesn’t exist”, my answer must, rationally be, “I don’t have to. I’m not claiming there isn’t one. I’m saying that there is insufficient evidence for me to believe in the existence of one.” In that sense, the burden of proof is NOT on me at all. In a debate setting, these kinds of “who has the burden of proof” questions must necessarily come up, or what’s the point?

  15. Kathy Berken Says:

    How frustrating to keep arguing whether “God/god” exists based on our own assumptions. Do we ever DEFINE God/god? Can we please start with that basic rule of debate? Let’s define our terms.

    We cannot assume that an atheist does not believe in the same God/god that a “believer” believes in.
    And, we cannot assume that a believer believes in the same God/god that an atheist does NOT believe in.

    Let each side of this debate describe, explain, define and show by example what/who this God/god is, as much as possible.

    THEN, go read Michael Shermer’s book, “How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science.” And come back to the debate floor.

    (Btw, Thank you, Michael, for your understanding.)

    Now, what kind of God/god do I believe in?
    This: One that is not human or not physical, but is ineffable mystery, which is impossible for me to picture or describe without saying simply this: I know it when I experience it.

    Try to describe the color red or the look in the eyes of your lover to a person who was blind from birth.

  16. Christine Brean Says:

    Three points: One, Jefferson was not a Christian–he was a deist. (2) There are Christian “BenLadens” around: Dr. Tiller was killed by one, another shot a guard at a museum. With research, many could be listed. And (3) there is no known despot who killed off populations of people in the name of Atheism. I wish Shermer had of countered more strongly.

  17. John Sherwood Says:

    I thought the moderator settled the debate very well for the benefit of the audience. Her final remarks went something like this, “We shall all stand before the same god to be judged for our choices in life.” Why do we need to hear the debate when we have a moderator who sums it all up in just a few words. What a crock. BTW, I thought Michael may have felt a little intimidated in front of an audience that was receptive to only one point of view. Actually, I think Michael is a genius.

  18. Marc Blackburn Says:

    Kathy Berken says: “We cannot assume that an atheist does not believe in the same God/god that a “believer” believes in.”

    That makes no sense to an atheist. The definition doesn’t matter because an atheist doesn’t believe in ANY god. Atheists don’t believe in an afterlife and without an afterlife no concept of god makes sense. It is also a pretty safe bet that everyone that considers themselves an atheist will also not believe in any entity that transcends all time and space, creator of the universe, and consequently the only possible reason for its own existence! I personally don’t believe that some ineffable thing that exists in your mind and not in mine is god. But if it makes you happy, fine, whatever gets you through the night – with one caveat.

    Did you notice that you start your post calling for the necessity to define God and end your post saying that it is impossible? I have no problem with any god as long as it can’t be defined. It’s the characterization of God written down as scripture along with His edicts of worship and behaviour that gives me a pain. You know, like stoning to death non-virgin brides and unbelieving sons to name a couple of the worst. If believers have to learn to be morally superior to religious texts “handed down by God” it’s best not to know God’s mind in the first place. To define God is to set up a situation that begs confrontation, if not with your immediate neighbours, then with future generations. So let’s not define God, tear down those ancient and barbaric definitions that some people are still taught to believe, and accept that God can’t be known in any but a personal way.

    Religion is not a force for good in the world.

  19. Kamal Gupta Says:

    Isn’t the question well settled by now – it is humans that created god, not the other way round.

    Religious leaders have always been frightened of science – from Gallileo to Darwin to stem cell research to the large hadron collider. It reduces their power over the less-exposed people.

  20. Pablo Says:

    Michael’s performance was truly weak in this debate. Dinesh was parroting the same old arguments for which there are already many excellent rebuttals. Hitchens or Harris would have cleaned his clock. Michael didn’t.

    Who cares if religion is a force for good in the world. For all we know, shamanic rituals are also a force for good. The question should be: Is religion an INDISPENSABLE force for good in the world? and, perhaps more importantly, is there any true to the fantastic claims of religions?

    If there’s an evil side to religions and if religions are a dispensable force for good, we can certainly do without religions. Case closed. Next case.

  21. alex Says:

    Michael Shermer decided not to answer to questions that he has answered before in his books with intelligence and wit. He clearly decided not to confront the audience, perhaps wisely. He decided not to mention Spinoza and non-religious morality. D’Souza is quite an agile debater, but a tricky one. His “physics” is weak, listing electromagnetism and electroweak as two distinct forces.He first claims the universe is designed for our confort, but when Shermer explains this is not true he quickly switches the argument to say the miracle is that ït only exists here”. Michael should have mentioned that we have explored the occurance of life in a ridiculously small part of the universe. Dawkins may have caused a scandal with that kind of audience. I believe that one should emphasize the fighrt against dogmatic belief, whether religious or not. Explain Science as falsifiable, etc. D’Souza made the mistake to say that their little children of seven, already converted, were no match fot the atheist teachers. Dawkins has emphasized the abuse involved in implanting religious beliefs on innocent children. No 7-year-olds are republican, democratic or independent, and if they are something is clearly wrong! All in all I thing Shermer made a good job. In any case he will never unconvert the converted, since their “faith’ is irrational.

  22. Paul Says:

    So many thoughts come to mind, which means it was a worthwhile debate for me.

    I am not surprised considering the forum – But I think Dinesh managed to get the last word in each interchange. Also Dinesh had both the first word and last word, isn’t that unusual? That is a powerful position to have in a debate; ya know, being able to tie off all the lose ends, having the luxury to bend the topic back to your own perspective – Being able to call your opponent contradictory, inconsistent, or that his statements make no sense, and allowing no time for him to respond to the accusations.

    Meanwhile Dinesh simply dodged the significant challenges: burden of proof is on the one who has the claim, why God is an appropriate answer to why our universe is ‘orderly’, why invoking God into moral calculations is more useful than having a well thought out reason, and why do religions get a pass in their incredible beliefs? Definitely frustrating.

    Oh well – Michael was both strong and persuasive – I especially enjoyed his opening and closing statements. He was spot on in his discussion about reciprocal altruism. He was also spot on in his discussion about the problematic nature of group pride. Michael had a more thoughtful role in the debate providing interesting explanations and insight on our human condition while Dinesh kept falling back on God for why everything is the way it is.

    And I am happy to find out that I am not the only Conservative Agnostic. Oh, I was glad to catch you on the Michael Medved Show few weeks back, you were great; the two of you, Medved and yourself, should have an hour where you discuss fiscal and social issues. Keep up the great work!

  23. Paul Says:

    In my 2nd paragraph i need to clarify my statement: “Also Dinesh had both the first word and last word,”

    Meaning that the debate was both opened and closed with Dinesh. And I don’t recall seeing this before.. Usually they have one person open the debate and have the other close.

  24. SezMe Says:

    Ted, in #13, mentions the audience as an explanation (ok, partial explanation) for Shermer’s responses. I reject that. Obviously, the “audience” was not just those physically present at the debate as evidenced by the video being available on the innertubz. And Michael, being a savvy guy, had to know that the “audience” was much broader than the folks present at the debate.

  25. P K Narayanan (Dr) Says:

    I refer JohnAtl’s comments (no.5 dated, 24-06-2009): JohnAtl has brought here a very thrilling factual position in science.

    The truth remains that fear has been the basis of belief and belief lead to the creation of religion. Both belief and religion, as in the case of creation of every thing else, depend on concept of time. Time exists because matter exists in space. Therefore no matter, plants animals, humans, all living and non-living organisms including, can remain out of the embrace of time in space in matters relating to existence. However, language has an altogether different context: In the course of evolution only human brain could develop a “Second Signal System” that nerve connection of reflexes which is the basis of language but lower animals except humans remained with the capability of the “First Signal System” of signs and symbols which humans also possess.

    Yes, time and language determine, among other things, what type of a person a human would have to be: whether doomed in depths of subjectivism or upright in the objective physical plane. [Refer: Nobel laureate Dr. Ivan Petrovich Pavlov’s physiological works.]

  26. howie Says:

    When Dinesh made the point about how there are no Bin Laden types among Christians I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. Didn’t much of the world accuse George Bush of being exactly this.?

    Did Dinesh never hear about Torquemada?????

  27. Baloney Detective Says:

    You were way too nice to Dinesh there Mike. Your arguement about the ever expanding circle of the group should have been made when he brought up the starving third world masses. didn”t you read any Carl Sagan?

  28. Chris Howard Says:

    I think the question should have been “Are irrational, unethical and intolerant beliefs a force for “Good” or “Evil” in the world?” Certainly the atheist Soviet Union did it’s fair share of damage to political dissidents and religious folks. The United States, under colonialism committed genocide on hundreds of thousands of Africans and Native Americans, as well as attempted to obliterated any culture other than what it sanctified as the “American Way.”

    Religion, like any other belief, can be used for good or ill. The point is that in order for the “good” to “win out” one has to hold critical thinking, compassion and tolerance (more closely to Locke’s original definition) above other beliefs.

    An excellent work on the matter of religious inspired violence is Dr. Mark Jurgensmeyers “Terror In The Mind of God.” University of California Press 2003.

  29. Zam Says:

    I was very disappointed in the performance of Shermer, to be frank he was useless. Us atheists deserve better.

  30. Chris Says:

    I think the question should be “is religion likely to be a force for good or evil in the future.” We can debate the pros and cons as they were recorded in the chapters of history, but isn’t the only useful debate about the danger (or not) of religion moving forward – in a global world where walls are coming down; where information moves across the internet in real-time; a world where the fundamental problem of “faith” becomes more deadly than a nuclear bomb. Because faith by definition cannot be tolerant – not really. If a person accepts that another’s faith may be right, he is admitting that his might be wrong; and this is incompatible with the very definition of faith.

    BTW – I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s comments. Really interesting and insighful. Tx.

  31. XaurreauX Says:

    “If Hitchens were on that stage, D’Souza would be in a puddle on the floor over that

    I was in the audience at a D’Souza/Hitchens debate at Kings College in NYC a couple of years ago. Unfortunately and surprisingly, Hitchens dropped the ball also, letting D’Souza get away with most of his sacro-inanity and false claims.

  32. Chris Howard Says:

    Hey Chris, (cool name BTW)
    I think you can tolerate an others POV with out believing it. In other words people often believe that the other person or people “… have every right to be wrong.” Case in point, I can tolerate my republican friends, and appreciate them as people but I am biased against their beliefs. More to the point I think that toleration is confused with appreciation and acceptance of others beliefs, I think that sometimes we have to be content (especially in an age of WMD’s) to simply be tolerant enough to “suffer fools” just so long as they are not perpetrating injustices against others. I view it like the age old question of civil rights i.e., my rights end where your rights begin, in other words, rights are not absolute. I think it may be more about zealotry, and, as you pointed out blind faith as opposed to reason. But I think one can be blinded by any belief (secular or sectarian). I think that most religious people do tolerate each other, and are law abiding citizens, but I will concede that “faith” is the anti-logic/reason and it does have a tendency to create an environment in which rationales for violence are rife.

    The one common denominator in the majority of religious “Hot-Spots” around the world is poverty and a lack of resources. I would be willing to wager that if the people in those areas had a stake in that society, and had hope, via a sense of future, that the pull factors of religion towards violence would stop, or at least be lessened.

    Did I read your post correctly, or did I totally miss the point?

  33. Chris Says:

    Hey Chris. You read me correctly, and your writing gives me pause to think that it is perhaps not religion that is the fundamental problem, but other forces in a society’s culture or circumstance that are to blame when religion goes wrong. Or individualistic drivers – hunger for power, prowess (sexual, monetary or otherwise). This is an important discussion, and often overlooked, in the secular vs. religion debate. Religious folks tend to shy away from this debate as it lowers religion’s “above all else” status.

    Also to your point, I am a staunch aethist, yet I have many close friends that are compliant Jews, Catholics, Protestants etc…. and they conversely like me back (I think).

    So, perhaps in a world free of strife religious people can live peacefully – interchanging faith as fluidly as commerce. But in the end, I would argue that such a world wouldn’t require much religion anyway, and it would thus dissolve over time. I’m not so sure that is what the religous power mongers want or would ever permit to happen.

    You raise a great point.

  34. Loughlin Tatem Says:

    Michael came through this debate with his “Affable Athiest” reputation intact.He knew he was a David in the stomping ground of a Goliath and so he behaved himself.

  35. Chris Howard Says:

    Agreed. Thanks for the discussion.

  36. Jamie Says:

    Stalin’s was not an atheistic dictatorship. He replaced a conventional religions cult of a fictitious deity with a cult of a fictitious personality. From the perspective of those repressed it’s no different from any other religion which requires blind faith of it’s followers.

  37. Chris Howard Says:

    My point exactly, but I believe the Soviet Union was officially an atheist/communist/socialist form of government, and did limit, if not outright oppressed its religious citizenry.
    But you are right, regardless of the ideology or belief the outcome of slavish, unthinking, acceptance is the same, disastrous.

  38. P K Narayanan (Dr) Says:

    Hi Chris,

    Think: think again: Are culture, circumstances (?), hunger, sex, monetary issues et al, the fundamental problem for religion and faith becoming force of destruction? Where the faithful holds the “words of god” as supreme and where words of god promise all the joys in “heaven” if the one who holds the “words of god” as supreme, selects the path of annihilation. Is it not what is happening today in the world?

  39. Chris Howard Says:

    Hello P K.
    Don’t get me wrong I do believe that religious extremests do pose a very real threat and some do real damage because of their beliefs, but I think most use religion as a rationale and that much of the “fire” would be taken if they (the majority of the perpetrators) had a stake in their community. the promise of Heaven looses some of it’s pull if you have reason(s) to safeguard the future. No future orientation, no hope. Religion offers people with no hope, just that (albeit a false hope in my opinion) but desperate people will cling to anything, no matter how ludicrise, as long as they feel a sense of dignity, purpose and hope and others in authority validate thier experiences, their history as “oppressed” by a cosmic “evil” and a struggle that manifests itself in this world, in which they can play a very important part.
    The “terriorists” that we in the U.S. are pitted against don’t see us as a religious foe, they view us a “satanic” secular force, one that will be conquered by good i.e., God.
    But again, we’ve seen this kind of binary thinking by secular thinkers and philosophers and politicians, so I still believe that what we’re looking at is sloppy thought coupled with a lack of tolerance and compassion.

    Did I totally misunderstand your point?

  40. Chris Says:

    (Other Chris speaking),

    Back from a nice weekend up North, and I was thinking about stuff on the long car ride home.

    Clearly in the Middle East the leaders use religion as a tool of leverage. I for one do not believe that the commanders of suicide bombers believe in matrydom. If they did they would be the first to blow themselves up. History shows that smart minds use religion as a tool to manipulate the mob. And it is very likely that will continue in the future.

    I ponder what just happened in Iran with the election. Do you think that their Iranian Playboy President really gives a shit about the Koran? Of course not, but it fits nicely into his toolbox of nonsense, and he gladly wields the promise of eternal salvation (i.e., hope) to those idiots who will believe.

    This is the danger of any belief system. So as aethisits, isn’t it most important that we preach our belief in inclusiveness. Otherwise we will become as guilty as those we condemn.

  41. Henk van der Gaast Says:

    Given the chance to prosletyse people will. I see if i had my chance the server would be full.

    There are more than two sides in a debate that is absolute. If you believe in things that is fine. Its your belief. Just leave the rest of the world to be run on concrete evidence.

    Really whats the problem? If god loves you, smoke and drive without a seatbelt. Have your kids drink and smoke and drive without a seatbelt… You’ll be happy being with god and we can use the fuel and food, shelter and use materials for weapons systems fo materials for society..

    Trust me, no believe me… smoking is good for us, as long its you who smokes.

  42. ChrisK Says:

    Just watched the first 25 minutes. Loved Dinesh’s brilliant comeback when Michael explained evolutionary psychology and morality. Shorter Dinesh: “I don’t think that’s right, so God did it.”

    Isn’t there a limit on the number of millennia that they can use “God of the Gaps” logic and smile smugly and think they’ve beaten the scientist?

  43. P K Narayanan (Dr) Says:

    Hello Chris,
    (Ref: comments of June 28, 12.20pm)

    No, you didn’t misunderstand my point; in fact, you have outlined other factors as well, that too contribute to the damage. But, as I view it, these generalizations would not constitute a viable answer to the question whether religion and faith are forces of destruction or otherwise.

    No doubt, majority of the followers of different religions are peace loving and rationale but then, how and through what mechanism, the perpetrators could have a stake in their community of rationality? How to infuse a stake in them?

    It is impossible: In the context of the penchant for power, penchant for authoritarian dictatorship, the perpetrators have chosen the fittest of the tools, that is religion and faith because the faithful followers of the particular religion uphold the tenet that the ones who do not follow their faith are enemies to be annihilated. In this process of destruction the faithful will remain silent spectators for they regard the process as ordained by their god. What has happened and what is happening in America (9/11) Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (26/11) and elsewhere at the hands of terrorists, is the result of engaging the ‘fittest tool’ that is religion. Any other set up whether secular or not is “satanic” for the religious fundamentalist terror conglomerate for its target for destruction.

    Fact remains: religion has been and continues to be a force of evil, source of destruction: From “holy crusades” to what is happening today around the world, one might see the darkest side of religion as force of evil.

  44. Chris Says:

    Point taken Henk, but it’s the secondary smoke that has me worried. Drinking and driving (without a seatbelt) might be the individual’s choice, but what about the innocent family who get wiped out in the accident?

    But I digress. The point I’m agreeing with is that conditions of strife tend to raise the potential for religious extremism (and kind of extremism for that matter). Why? tons of reasons, but I generally observe a three phase cycle:

    1. The need for an EXTERNAL deliverer of “hope” becomes paramount.
    2. Leaders/institutions leverage the “hope” Deliverer to maintain order and hold on to power.
    3. People don’t have enough to do, and thus can devote increased amounts of time to worship – which further entrenches the belief system (and further stagnates the society).

    Yes, it’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the model works for many cases throughout history.

  45. Murray Cook Says:

    Before any more posters come down on Michael for his performance in this debate, keep in mind that the structure of the debate favours an individual who can make unfounded statements without fear of bearing the burden of proof. One minute to rebut five (or more) minutes of unfounded claims is not sufficient. I’ve witnessed skilled debaters win debates while arguing a point opposite their own opinion but their arguments would never hold up if allowed proper time for scrutiny. I suspect that a give and take dialogue would have tipped the balance strongly in Michael’s favour. Dinesh had home field advantage, with his team picking the questions, the format, and the order of participation – all clearly in his favour. I would be interested to watch one of the other engagements referenced in the debate between these two . It’s curious (but commendable)that this is the one that was chosen to be presented on this site.

  46. Chris Says:

    Hi Murray, yes I agree “commendable” in the sense that Michael was debating in front of a Christian right audience, and then chose to broadcast via Internet that same performance.

    I think Michael’s debate with DiSouza proves a point which we has been true for millenia. That is, style usually wins over substance.

  47. ChrisK Says:

    I’m not sure why people posting here keep thinking Dinesh won this debate. Was there really something he said that stumped Michael? I’m open to admitting Dinesh was more glib. But this wasn’t a glib contest. In fact, might the person who comes to this debate with an open mind be repulsed by the glibness and mistrust anyone so glib?

  48. Chris Howard Says:

    Hey P K.
    Please excuse me I have a slew of learning disabilities and a cognitive disorder (NOS) so I’m a little slow on the uptake sometimes. Thanks for your patience.

    P. K. : “But, as I view it, these generalizations would not constitute a viable answer to the question whether religion and faith are forces of destruction or otherwise.”

    Can we exclude socioeconomic factors from the belief, more specifically the pull towards violence? I understand that religion i.e., faith is counter reason and logic and therefore makes it easier to believe outlandish things but does that necessarily make it “evil”?
    Is there a danger of “blaming” a thing for the actions of an individual or individuals? In other words, someone can say that (easy target) Nazism is the Truth, but ultimately the individual decides (regardless of means of knowledge acq.) what is or is not viable or true. So to blame an “ism” seems misplaced, no?
    Social Darwinism and the subsequent eugenics movement is a prime example of a secular trend towards sloppy thinking and misguided ethical practices.
    While I agree that religion(s), in general, foster, and indeed make a virtue of blind faith, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual has to “buy.” More to the point, one may have that very same “Blind Faith” in strictly secular ideals, organizations and institutions.

    P. K. : “No doubt, majority of the followers of different religions are peace loving and rationale but then, how and through what mechanism, the perpetrators could have a stake in their community of rationality? How to infuse a stake in them?”

    This is, in my mind, the million dollar question. Fear seems to be a great answer. Fear of no future, obliteration of ones culture and way of life. No economic prospects, and in Islam this is a killer, because young men with no economic prospects get no women, via marriage ergo no sex.
    Let us think about the demographic of extremist Islamic sects that perpetrate violence. Largely young males who’s “imams” are telling them that their reward for martyrdom will be ex-amount of virgins in the afterlife i.e., sexed up in heaven.
    These young men have no future within the context of their culture, because there are no jobs for them to support a family, so the pull factor of radical Islam is strong because it claims to fulfill that desire.
    A counter example would be Western Middle-Class Christianity. The followers of those sects of Christianity have a no less barbaric and war based ideology and yet are not as (currently) violent.
    I think that “middle-class” is the key. In other words, you don’t rock the boat when you have a stake (read property and/or the ability/resources to attain “The Good Life”) because the society you destroy isn’t “foreign” or the “other” it is in fact, legally, yours.
    It’s easier for a person to use the rationale of faith when they’re destroying someone else’s life, and to then obliterate they’re own (suicide attacks) when there is no reason for you to preserve the society that you feel is not yours and will never be.
    I used to work with gang members and they have the exact same conditioning with regard to society and they’re place in it. The fix, is giving them a place in the society and access to the means so that they may have a chance to succeed or fail, but all important is a sense of purpose, and agency.

    P.K.: “It is impossible: In the context of the penchant for power, penchant for authoritarian dictatorship, the perpetrators have chosen the fittest of the tools, that is religion and faith because the faithful followers of the particular religion uphold the tenet that the ones who do not follow their faith are enemies to be annihilated.”

    I agree to a point. It logically follows that if ones belief dictates that one must convert or destroy ones rivals then that’s what should occur, yet we don’t see that in “faithful” countries with large middle-class populations.

    P.K.: “In this process of destruction the faithful will remain silent spectators for they regard the process as ordained by their god. What has happened and what is happening in America (9/11) Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (26/11) and elsewhere at the hands of terrorists, is the result of engaging the ‘fittest tool’ that is religion. Any other set up whether secular or not is “satanic” for the religious fundamentalist terror conglomerate for its target for destruction.”

    To be honest, I must admit that your statement rings true. I think there (at least with regard to the Big Three) is an element of an “End-Times” that is preordained and that “Good” will win out over “Evil.” So there is an idea in the believers mind that the future is preordained and that the events are grand spectacles of a cosmic war, played out by participants in the here and now, and in the service of God. The belief gives the believe a sense of purpose, specialness, smugness-something that their societies probably don’t give them.
    How seductive is the pull of “Fighting the Good Fight”?

    Thank you for the conversation, I’m going to have to re-read your posts, I think (Read hope) that I’m getting the message, and thanks again for your patience.


  49. Julie Says:

    I was struck by the repeated use of a type of personal attack by the pro-religion participant: D’Souza claimed to speak for Shermer a number of times, presenting not just weakened (or false) claims but that extra little unfair dig each time. This coming after the moderator framed the debate with descriptions of ‘aggressive atheism,’ trying to bait Shermer into defending a more extreme position.

    So I was pleased to see Shermer not taking the bait, not responding with angry counter personal attacks. Yet, I could have hoped for more direct rebuttal of some points others have mentioned, such as the genocide in Cambodia being due to atheism. Just a few words might have stopped the ‘believing’ audience from taking those talking points home with them.

    D’Souza’s digs seemed especially gratuitous to me, seeing as how he already enjoyed home field advantage. But I imagined that they grew less common as the debate went on. Is it possible that the the example of tolerance from the atheist, positively influenced the christian?

    I can only imagine the strength it takes to stand up before a hostile audience and defend any position — thank you Michael Shermer for your public efforts on behalf of reasoned atheism, not to mention civility.

  50. pplr Says:

    “History shows that religion has been a force of destruction and religion continues to be the sole source of destruction.”

    As someone who had a focus on history in college (undergrad degree in it) I see this comment by P K Narayanan (Dr) as proof there is such a thing there is a misleading and aggressive atheist.

    Plenty of wars have been started (and are fought today) over reasons that don’t relate to religion. The latest civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which killed a great many people) has been fought over a combination of resources that can be exploited for profit and ethnic tensions.

    Looking back in history there have been plenty of times religious individuals killed others for being heretics, non-believers, and so on. Most of these killings were aimed at people who had different beliefs rather than none. However, atheists have been involved in murdering others. It is a fact that thousands upon thousands of people were killed under Stalin by the atheist (and communist) Russian government of the day. At the very least atheism has failed to protect people’s lives when in a position of power. And while many of the killings in Cambodia were done for a list of reasons that didn’t always include religion it is a fact that Buddhist monks were killed by atheists in Cambodia for being religious people.

    I have no hope that atheism will bring peace because people, atheist or not, have been willing to kill in the past and likely will in the future.

    While not frequently being a reason some atheist ideology (and atheism can and has been developing into an ideology) has been used to justify murder.

    I have a good friend who is an atheist. If you asked me if I expected her to murder others the answer would probably be no. But does that mean someone being an atheist magically makes it impossible for them to be rude (my friend has been on occasion-not usually but sometimes) or murderous? The answer is no.

  51. Robyn Wells Says:

    On the question who would invent hell? I wanted so badly to hear the the answer that there has to be a place for wrong doers/unbelievers to go. A reward and punishment system. It makes us feel better to know that people are going to get their just due. It’s hard to do good simlply because it is the human thing to do. Denish said it was because of Christian values that we do good for people we don’t know but I belive Buddah said to do this before Jesus. Also I wish Michael Shermer had responded with in Christianity we are threatened with believe or go to hell not by our works. I wonder if Dinesh has read the old testament as I’m doing now? How does he account for the angry, violent and voltile God I’m reading about? What about the Jesus who tells us to take up our swords? I was a Christian for 45 years. I would still be one if I knew which was the right part of the bible or the right personality of God to believe. Dinesh also states that only 2000 were killed because of Christianity. What about the Cathars, the Crusades, people killed on both sides during the Protestant Reformation, the native people of North and South America as well as other less conventional Christians like the Quakers. In response to Denish’s comment on the 10 commandments first, there were many more than 10. Next get some stones ready because breaking many of the commandments requires stoning. Did it ever occur to him that they were written by peoople to establish order in their enviroment?

  52. Steve Says:

    Another poster mentioned the fact that D’Souza was offered the last word on nearly every question debated. If I remember correctly, I believe Shermer was given the last word on an issue just once. Doesn’t that seem incredibly biased for a “debate”?

    I would agree that D’Souza won this debate, but the format, audience and moderator where all very obviously in favor of Dinesh from the beginning. I’m not sure anyone could pull off as much as a draw when debating someone in front of a hostile audience, with a moderator agreeable to the opposition in a format that almost always allows your opponent the final word.

  53. Anna Says:

    God is used as an EXCUSE for evil behavior . . .
    and the REASON for good behavior.

    There is no God . . it’s just a convenient excuse.

  54. Brian Says:

    “If god did not exist, it would be necessary to create him” – Warrel Dane –

  55. Robert Says:

    This was an interesting debate, and both D’Souza and Shermer are formidable debaters, but D’Souza clearly had the upper hand. Sure, the home field advantage and bias of the moderator helped, but D’Souza really out debated Shermer. D’Souza quoted his opponent more often, used Shermer’s arguments against him, and generally presented as a better public speaker.

    I would have liked to see Shermer engage in a more traditional style of debate (not only impart support for your position, but point out the fallacies of your opponent’s arguments). For instance, when D’Souza was speaking about religion as wish fulfillment not having Hell, it would have been nice to hear the mention of “cosmic justice” in Shermer’s rebuttal. A debate, by its nature, will not be won only by explaining how you are right. You must also explain why your opponent is wrong. D’Souza did a better job of this, even if his arguments were flawed.

    I more or less agree with Shermer as to whether religion is good or evil, only instead of yes, my answer is no. Religion (just like many human constructs) is neither good nor evil, just as an ingot of steel is neither good nor evil. The ingot could be used to make a sword that kills children, or it could be fashioned as part of an irrigation system allowing fresh water for the impoverished. Either way, the ingot is neither good nor evil, it is only what humans do with the ingot that can be considered good, evil, moral, or immoral. Good and evil are themselves human constructs and do not exist outside the human social construct. Religion has been used as the rationalization for great wrong, and the inspiration for great altruism.

    My father is a more aggressive athiest, and hopes that some day religion will wither away under the weight of empirical and rational thought. Religion will never go away. The simple fact of the matter is that people are not only rational, but emotional and capable of great rationalization (in the logical sense). People believe not what is true, but what they choose to believe. This is true of all people. “I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.” (typically paraphrased: “God does not throw dice.”). This is a quote from Albert Einstein regarding quantum physics. Einstein chose not to believe the theory, even though he admitted that this was where the math lead him. It turns out that the theories that Einstein was referring to were correct.

    We all believe what we choose to believe. This is part of the human condition. We are hard wired to be tribal, we are hard wired to seek patterns, and we hate and fear not knowing something. This is what it is to be human, and as long as we are human, there will be religion.

    We would be the same without religion. Mother Teresa and Osama Bin Laden would still exist without religion, they just would have found other justifications for their actions. I was reading something about the new U.S. hate crime legislation and how many congressmen felt it would eliminate racism. I laughed. Racism is an expression of traits that are hard wired into humans, as are sexism, ageism, communism, egalitarianism, and, yes, religion. Passing a law will not stop humans from acting like humans. That doesn’t mean that the negative aspects of these traits should not be dealt with (they must for us to progress as a society), but let’s not kid ourselves. The only way for us to stamp out religion is to stamp out certain hard wired human traits, which will have its own set of negative consequences.

    Like it or not, religion is here, and it’s here to stay until our brains evolve significantly. The same argument can be made for science (remember, science is merely the process for finding the truth of the physical laws we are constrained by). It would be great if, as with any social group, the members could work with each other to benefit society as a whole.

  56. Carol Says:

    First, I’d like to know WHY it’s SO important to christians that non-believers….believe? And…what is the difference between a non-theist (deity) and an atheist) someone who doesn’t believe (like me) in the god word?
    As for “near-death” experiences, I believe that has everything to do with the brain gradually shutting down or the brain chemistry changing as the person gradually approaches death or even if they ‘cheat’ death. I don’t know that I believe in miracles. I prefer to call these “miracles” luck and nothing more. There’s no ‘man upstairs’, not unless you have something psychologicallly delusional going on. I like how people, those who say they’re christian, equate all things good that happen to them or problems that are solved, with religion. In the field of mental health, a schizophrenic says she/he ‘hears’ voices and that’s why they’re mentally ill, so if a christian says the same thing…I once heard a comic tell another comic that if she’s hearing her ‘god’ to her, she needs to get in touch with Bellevue.

  57. Carol Says:

    I’ve read…online and heard on t.v. that a non-believer, cannot prove the god-word exists. I’d like that person to PROVE that their god does exist. I can’t actually see the wind but I know it exists and it has something to do with currents and I see trees sway in the wind or feel it against me. I prefer PHYSICAL evidence of religion as opposed to being brainwashed or faith as something that people have, just because they don’t question what their church tells them.

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