Bad Argument — It takes religion to make good people do bad things

There is an oft-quoted argument from Steven Wienberg that, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.”  Now, I’m a secular Humanist, and do not believe in the existence of any god; but this argument is a bad argument.  It is simply not true.

We could quickly amend his statement to make it true: simply change “religion” to “extreme ideology”, and you will have a true statement.  Consider.  Good people have done bad things in the name of politics, in the name of nationalism, and so on.

Some people are going to disagree with me, so allow me to give a more concrete example.  The Cultural Revolution in China…when young high school and university students, inflamed with patriotic zeal to make their nation strong, enacted a massive purge of everyone who had the ‘wrong thoughts’.  This included children reporting and turning in their own parents and siblings for public shaming, beatings, and imprisonment.  Certainly, some of the people doing this were power-hungry sociopaths; but many of them were normal kids, who loved their parents and siblings…but who had been brainwashed to believe that the ‘best thing’ for them was to be ‘corrected’, so that the country could be made stronger.

Any ideology that seeks to teach that A) people should follow it unquestioningly, and B) depicts those who oppose it as the ‘enemy’, is fertile ground for creating ‘good people who do bad things’…for the simple reason that those good people believe, very sincerely, that what they are doing is actually good.  Yes, religion can be a potent force for such a thing, but it is hardly exclusively to blame, and there are numerous examples of non-religious ideologies that likewise have caused ‘good people’ to do ‘bad things’.

[The following section was added later, to emphasize a point raised by another member, arthwollipot]

Numerous psychological studies have also highlighted the fact that one need only apply the proper psychological pressure, and one can make ‘good people’ do ‘bad things’.  One way in which this can be accomplished was illustrated in the Milgram Experiments, where various volunteers were encouraged by an authority figure to give increasingly dangerous electrical shocks to another person, even when that person begged them to stop.  When the volunteers expressed reluctance, the authority figure would push them to continue, ensuring them that it was okay, and that they were required to continue.  In most cases, people did so.

Another way of accomplishing this is by segregating people into different groups, and specifying one as explicitly having more power and higher status than the other, as was demonstrated in the Stanford Prison Experiment.  In this case, students from Stanford University were divided into two groups in a make-shift prison.  Some students were designated as prisoners, others as guards.  In this case, without any provocation or direction from the people running the study, the guards engaged in regular escalation of abuses against their ‘prisoners’, to the point of threatening them, beating them, etc.

Neither of these studies had any connection whatsoever with religion.  The participants were a random sampling of volunteers, so it would be very difficult to try to claim that all the people who behaved in a way that we think (in retrospect) was morally wrong, were all bad people before the experiments.  And numerous other similar studies have demonstrated the same phenomenon, over and over and over again.

John Lombard
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John Lombard

I am Canadian, but have been living and working in China since 1993. I am experienced in business (started two successful companies), in education (have taught in some of China’s top universities), and in philanthropy (co-founded a non-profit organization to help one of China’s indigenous minority groups).

I am the founder of Wrest In Peace, arising from my passion to create a greater opportunity for people of different beliefs and backgrounds to better understand and communicate with each other.
John Lombard
Follow Me

About John Lombard

I am Canadian, but have been living and working in China since 1993. I am experienced in business (started two successful companies), in education (have taught in some of China’s top universities), and in philanthropy (co-founded a non-profit organization to help one of China’s indigenous minority groups).

I am the founder of Wrest In Peace, arising from my passion to create a greater opportunity for people of different beliefs and backgrounds to better understand and communicate with each other.

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