Religious Toxicity

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Eric S. Raymond (The Cathedral and the Bazaar) bristles at the notion of comparing his militant atheism to militant Islam simply because both are anti-Christian. He has his own metrics for religious toxicity:

To understand how militant atheists think about religion, you first have to understand that modern atheism is not simply against religion. It is for something; it opposes religion from a set of principles and values. Those principles first found expression in the French Enlightenment of the 1750s and the writings of men like Voltaire and Diderot. In later centuries they were further developed by (among others) Robert Ingersoll and Bertrand Russell.

Modern ‘militant atheists’ (including me) see themselves as the heirs of Voltaire, the children of the Enlightenment. Our rejection of theism is motivated by specific features of theistic religions. Two, in particular, stand out: (a) religious anti-rationality, and (b) religious violence. Not all religions are afflicted by these in equal measure.

To an atheist, religion A is worse than religion B when religion A requires belief in more anti-rational things than religion B does. More miracles, more superstition, more craziness. Religion A can also be worse than religion B by having a stronger tendency to erupt in violence — pogroms, witch-burnings, religious wars, conversion by the sword.

These compound into a sort of religious threat potential, the estimated likelihood that in any given year the believers are going to boil over into an irrationally murderous mob intent on putting unbelievers to the sword.

Atheists tend to broadly agree about the relative threat potential of major religions. Among those that come in very low on the toxicity scale we can include, for example, the more austere Theravada varieties of Buddhism. These are essentially systems of prescriptive psychology with almost no component of belief in a supernatural, and have no history of warfare or conversion by the sword. Threat potential: near zero.

We class other religions as low in toxicity but suspicious because of their historical roots. A good example of this class is the Baha’i Faith, which is a rather nice inoffensive little religion if you ignore that streak of Shi’a Islam in its past. Some of the quieter and more mystical Christian denominations, like Quakers, fall in this category as well — indeed, many Quakers are barely theistic themselves. I know of several atheists who deliberately adopted Quaker ritual for their weddings and didn’t surprise their atheist friends even a bit by doing so. Threat potential: low.

One Christian subgroup also gives us an example of a religion that maxes out the doctrinal-craziness scale while seeming relatively harmless on the violence front. That would be the Mormons. I mean, really — Amerinds as the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel? God lives on the planet Kolob and you get your own world to rule when you die? How do these people even take themselves seriously? Oh well, at least they seem to plan on inheriting the Earth by out-reproducing unbelievers rather than killing them. That’s something, even though it could easily change in the future. Threat potential: low to middling.

There’s also pretty general agreement on which religions are the toxic worst. These would be the religions that combine particularly crazy superstitions with a blood-soaked historical record. We atheists think of these as deadly memetic plagues, occasionally found in relatively well-behaved quiescent phases but prone to bloom into full-fledged insane murderousness whenever the next charismatic nutcase wanders along to remind them what they’re really about.

And which two religions are at the very top of the threat-potential list? No prizes for guessing that they are Christianity and Islam, not necessarily in that order. Both have relatively tolerable minorities (Christianity’s Quakers and Unitarians, Islam’s Sufis) but have extremely dangerous and powerful fundamentalist groups that effectively dominate the discourse inside their communities.


  1. Erik says:

    He is right that “modern atheism is not simply against religion”; modern atheism is against Christianity. The fever-swamps of the left that he mentions dominate modern atheism far more than unnamed extremely powerful fundamentalist groups dominate the discourse inside Christianity.

  2. Bruce G Charlton says:

    I thought he might go on to mention what this set of principles and values might be — but apparently not.

    Vague gestures at that brief historical fad among a handful of intellectuals self-styled ‘the enlightenment’, and consisting of a gigantic wish-list, doesn’t really count as a set of principles and values any more than a beauty queen saying, “Why do people have to be so mean? Why can’t everyone be happy and healthy and kind and just get along, huh?”

  3. Red says:

    Odd how atheists never mention all the slaughter done by their fellow atheists. It’s almost like they are projecting onto religions what they themselves have done in such abundance in the last couple of centuries.

  4. My rejection of ESRism is motivated by specific features of ESRistic religion. Two, in particular, stand out: (a) past evangelizing of Perl, and (b) past use of Perl.

    ESR is the Tom Paine of the open source/free/libre software revolution. Like Paine he had one moment in the sun with his “Common Sense”/”American Crisis” in “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” and then jumped the shark.

    I’ve gotten to the point that I respect RMS more than ESR. Even though you don’t want to stand downwind from RMS, he at least has real achievements in the original GCC and assorted GNU utilities. I’d say more but ESR has convinced me that, though I’m wildly irrational in my beliefs, at least I’m not violent. I suspect ESR will only achieve coherence about the time Perl 6 ships in 2150.

  5. Isegoria says:

    I suspect that both sides of any such conflict see their own crazies as a tiny minority within an otherwise sane group and the other side’s crazies as the true core of a destructive movement that hides behind a mask of moderation and good intentions.

  6. Isegoria says:

    The principles he does explicitly set out are rationality and non-violence (in the libertarian sense of not initiating physical violence or threatening to do so to coerce others). Is that no better than whining, “Why do people have to be so mean?”

  7. Isegoria says:

    I know ESR is anti-Communist. I assume he doesn’t consider them part of his one true atheist tribe but rather an irrational and violent apostate splinter group.

  8. Baduin says:

    There must be something right with this methodology, because the results look sensible. I suspect this is the violence part — you need to be strong in order to be violent, and strong religions are certainly what he considers most dangerous.

    Belief in miracles is also a good way to distinguish between true religions and various deisms.

    Also, I wonder whether there will ever be a coalition between Amish, French monarchists, and militant rational atheists? There is something very appealing about all those groups, and when added together they could possibly achieve something — certainly something very strange.

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