For good people to do evil…

I always hear this constant phrase from atheists:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.      

– Steven Weinburg

I find it funny this is always parroted as some clever rhetorical proof and its no wonder its so often used given that the entire contemporary atheist movement is all sophistry and no substance. This is further exemplified in the large fanbase of individuals such as the late Christopher Hitchens, a man who often gave clever retorts to substantial arguments without actually providing any arguments of his own. His comments would receive loud applauses for their cleverness, but mistakingly were taken as actual responses.

In the same way, this quote is often hailed as some sort of “knock down” statement that never is justified by those who utilize it to cover for their own incompetencies in debate. If I may then, allow me to show why this is not only a stupid phrase made by a man who should not be speaking outside his field, but also leads us to a useful and irrefutable fact about religion and religious people.

The Argument

First, let us admit, for the sake of argument that religion helps to cause the greatest evils on the planet through its misuse and manipulation. I’m willing to accept that. Let us, however, also point out the obvious: That religion has also caused some of the greatest good, in fact, beyond that. Muhammad (saws), Jesus (saws), Moses (saws), Ghandi, Martin Luther King, etc. etc. the list could go on forever, were and still are the archetypes of morality and humanity. Every individual you can think of that was ever an example of how to act, who was a leader in activism that eventually changed the world for the better, have typically been believers in God and religion. These people were not merely good, they defined what it meant to be good.

Now, let me asks the atheists who typically use this quote: How many archetypes do you have compared (by ratio) to the religious? How many can you claim? Im sure the answer will not be satisfactory.

And of course, atheists can be good people and many actually are, but to go beyond the good, to be a force for good you need a conviction beyond yourself and the natural world and this is something atheists (especially the anti-religious types) don’t have. Therefore, their chances of going beyond the mere “good” are slim to none.

So yes, for good people to do evil it takes religion…but for good people to do better, it also takes religion.


22 thoughts on “For good people to do evil…

  1. Don’t think that quote was an argument to begin with. If it was I disagree with it,

    but I would say for good people to do evil things it takes *delusion*…and religion is probably the largest solicitor of delusion.

    As for your examples of the “greatest good”. c’mon, Jesus? Really? We don’t even know if the guy was real. Muhammed? what great good did he do for the world? And I’m sorry, religion does not get to just claim the civil rights movement, nor civil disobedience. Nor does it get to claim people in general.

    Those guys are the greatest* goods in history?? Really? What about EVERY medical breakthrough in modern history? How about the sciences? What about general charity? Know who the biggest doners on kiva are? Atheists. How about…moms…they’re awesome.

    And c’mon, I like to think I can be a force for good just as much as any religious person. I also have beliefs beyond myself. Why you gotta be so…prejudice?

    • “Muhammed? what great good did he do for the world?”

      Create a religious system and a new social structure never before seen in the world. He equalized the penalties that could be done for offenses, i.e. if you were a rich dude and a hobo were to suddenly punch you in the face, instead of torturing the hobo, as could be done in pre-Islamic times, all you could do was punch him back. He enfranchised women from the corrupt society that pre-Islamic Makkah had become, and paved the way for slaves to be freed. He gave religious freedom to people of other faiths, something didn’t occur in the pre-Islamic West. In pre-Islamic Arabia, disparate tribes settled the Peninsula. Later, they converted to Islam and swore alligence to Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ . After Muhammad died, the Muslim Shaykhs, the chiefs of each tribe, represented their communities in the ensuing elections (for someone to lead the Muslim community) called “shuras”. In other words, representative democracy. Compare this to the West which, at the time, was ruled by monarchs and the Pope. Representative democracy vs Theocracy/Monarchy, hmm. Muslims generations after Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ , as they expanded their empire(s) into new lands (Europe, Iran, India, etc.) gave Christians, Jews, and, later, Hindus and Zoroastrians religious freedom. Compare this to Europe, just hundreds of miles away, where Jews and non-Catholic Christians faced persecution. Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ gave the world the religion of Islam. Muhammad encouraged his followers to seek knowledge. Muslims a few hundred years later formed philosphical ideas and scientific theories (including evolution, hundreds of years before Darwin 😉 ) that eventually spread to Europe, forming the foundations of secularism which atheists and “free” thinkers like to pride themselves on. This, and much more, is what Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ gave to the world. Research before you speak, my friend.

  2. Once again Hugh you don’t pay attention to particular wording. You made the same error when you tried to critique my video in that you thought I was saying “All contemporary atheists” when in fact I said “most” and “many”. No where did I say that atheists cannot be good. I stated very clearly that they can be. The potential to surpass that good is only inherent within religion, however. You limit your capacity by limiting your perspective.

    Most medical breakthroughs are merely ONE thing among many. Even then we have to assess the intentions of those that helped to create them. We also have to assess the overall contributions of these individuals. We also have to assess whether or not they are really atheists etc. etc.

    I don’t think atheists can easily find as many moral archetypes and nor will they.

  3. You don’t have to say all atheists are wretched people to be prejudice. Saying we can’t or won’t find moral archetypes and we don’t have the potential to surpass mere goodness, (whatever that actually means) or that we limit our perspective and our capacity and can’t see past ourselves is prejudice PLENTY.

    And I see, you can make general statements about historically ambiguous characters being the best people in the history of time but when I suggest that medicine might have had a positive impact, “sources sources sources!”. C’mon, really? Double standard, Ali.

    If we want to assess, I mean really assess and not speculate, let’s look at the numbers of (let’s just say) Bill Gates’ contributions through charity and research and overall effective wellness and compare that to Jesus: someone who’s very existence we have to speculate.

    Just admit you took a catch phrase idiots like to misuse to generalize all religious people as immoral and used it to generalize all non-religious people as immoral in longer, less catchy words. If you’re gonna be a prejudice ass, you can at least be catchy about it.

    A rhetorical eye for a rhetorical eye leaves everybody rhetorically blind, buddy. You don’t need to fight idiot bigots with idiocy and bigotry. Take the high road. Look I’ll do it for you:

    Some people like to use this quote: “for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”, to suggest that all religion is evil and religious people are immoral. Well that’s an incorrect and cruel generalization, and I disagree with it…

    (etc, etc, End. Do not go on to generalize all non religious people as hopelessly less moral or destined to mediocre virtues. Do not assume these people deserve a formal argument. Do not stoop to lame level)

    • To take the phrase “for good people to do evil things, that takes religion” to imply all religious people are evil is a vast misinterpretation of the statement. It is an accusation against religion, not the religious.

  4. I think you’re being overly sensitive to be honest. There is no prejudice in my statement. I am not saying that atheists are immoral. I clearly state the contrary. To go beyond that, however, requires more than many atheists are allowed to attempt given their own worldview. You will find few like Bill Gates, I agree, but you will find more rarely types like Jesus, Muhammad, etc. who defined generations, empires, knowledge bases, cultures, etc. The sort of assessment I would have to attempt to truly bring this notion to fore would require more time than I’m allowed at the moment, however, I can assure you from the overall contributions that the religious tend to have the more moral archetypes.

    This does not mean that atheists are necessarily incapable, but they restrict themselves and the ability to have the conviction to go beyond what is understood as good. They are just as capable as everyone else if they would abandon atheism (in all its forms).

    While we’re at it, allow me to correct you on another thing. In your video you claim Im generalizing (when in fact I said most contemporary atheists and not all) regarding epistemology and then claim this is equivalent to the generalizations made against Muslims. This is completely wrong, however. There is a vast difference between claiming that “most Muslims are terrorists” vs. “most atheists follow Scientism”. They are very different moral implications. I, for instance, have no problem saying that “most Muslims believe Revelation is a genuine form of knowledge” and this would be more equivalent to the prior claim, but the other is not.

    You seem to believe that I somehow “look down on you” for being an atheist or that I have some sort of negative attitude when in fact this is not the case at all. I am critiquing atheists moral capabilities based on their epistemological/ontological grounding. I don’t see how this is prejudice. I am not saying “You are bad because you are an atheist”. I never said any such thing.

    But you need to come to terms with how an atheist…especially the anti-religious types, can find something as strong beyond themselves than the religious, because I reckon, logically speaking, there is nothing beyond religious notions.

    • Perhaps I could be more precise when I mention “atheist” in that what I mean to imply are the anti-religious types that swarm current discourse on religion and God. Certainly I would believe that a Buddhist has the same ability to go “beyond” as does a monotheist. Perhaps it is possible that a anti-religious atheist can also “go beyond” by accidentally accepting a notion that runs contrary to their own views. That can certainly be the case.

      I would, for instance, consider a figure like Heidegger to have that potential, even if he would not admit it himself.

  5. I’ll take that criticism about the video. Islamophobia and making an epistemological mistake by generalizing all atheism as scientism aren’t really comparable (morally speaking) but even though islamophobia has MUCH more serious implications, they’re both the same discourteous fallacy. That’s all I was demonstrating.

    Though I will say, atheists are the least trusted minority in the united states, less trusted that muslims, so I too have a right to be sensitive when people like say things like we are incapable of being great because of our beliefs. I still disagree, that’s pretty prejudice. How does, “as long as you’re a muslim, you can’t be *really* great” sound to you? Ass-holeish? Sounds ass-holeish to me. I’m not calling you a bigoted dangerous maniac or something, (we can both agree prejudices against islam is dangerous and bigoted). I’m just calling you a jerk.

    I disagree with the idea that there’s some virtue out of reach when “confined” to atheism. Maybe that’s another discussion entirely but I think virtue, moral archetypes, champions of goodness, characteristics like being humble, serenity, duty, loyalty, compassion, are just as attainable if not MORE attainable through the lens of an accurate paradigm.

    If you’re interested I have a video that touches on this called “my spirituality as an atheist”. I like to think I’m capable of whatever virtue you’re capable of. I think other people like philhelenes carl sagan and neil degrasse tyson have touched on this too.

  6. @Hugh:

    Ali isn’t insulting atheists. In fact, he made it clear that anyone, whether theist or atheist, has the capacity to be moral. All he’s saying is that religion pushes theists to do even more good than they would have done had they not been theists. Do you understand? Here’s an analogy. Both you and I are good students. However, suppose I have a private tutor? Will I not then do better than I would have done without the tutor?

    • Right…I understand that’s what he’s saying. And THAT is offensive to atheists. We’re capable of “doing even more good”.

      • Oh please don’t tell me this is going to turn into a pissing contest of who can do more good. End of discussion.

  7. The comment thread has gone a bit dead on this topic, so I hope I’m not distracting you from responding to commenters on more recent posts. However, I feel compelled to offer my two cents (or pence perhaps, since I live in the UK).

    Despite the glibness of Weinberg’s statement (and I doubt he made it with the intention of it being adopted in the way it has), there is at least a kernel of truth in it. Freeman Dyson attempted to supplement it with the following addition: “And for bad people to do good things, that also takes religion”. Your addition is that “for people to go beyond mere good, that takes religion.”

    If we take the modified version of the statement in full, we get this:

    “With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. [In addition] for bad people to do good things, that also takes religion. But, for people to go beyond mere good, that takes religion.”

    In my opinion, the most important clauses in this modified version are the following: “for good people to do evil things, that takes religion” and “for people to go beyond mere good, that takes religion”. It is my contention that religion and/or an all-consuming philosophy are merely far more effective at motivating people to take action than a lack of these things, with no guarantee that those actions will be either good or bad. Sometimes these actions can be neither good nor bad, but merely pointless (annual pilgrimages to Ararat to uncover archaeological evidence for Noah’s Ark, or the compulsion to maintain “Eternal Flames” in various parts of the world spring to mind). In any case, a summary of the quote could simply be “religion is an intensifier of action”.

    I should say that I normally avoid using the word “religion” in this way for two reasons: 1. since it can be legitimately used to refer to such a broad range of phenomena, it doesn’t have a practical and distinct meaning; and 2. since it is an abstract concept, it can’t actually “do” things – at best all it can “do” is act as a filter for human nature, attempting to suppress some elements, or promote others; sometimes succeeding, often failing.

    So rather than saying “for people to do good/evil things, that takes religion”, it is more interesting and useful to consider how humans relate to religious convictions when making moral decisions / evaluations.

    One day, out of macabre interest, I visited the Stormfront forums and typed “atheism” into the search tool to see what came out. Somewhat to my surprise there were a number of atheists espousing White Nationalism on the site, although they were in the distinct minority. What was interesting though was that I had never seen such chummy camaraderie between atheists and fundamentalist Christians in my life! Although the Christians had very elaborate religious views that “proved” that non-whites were inferior (the “curse of Ham”, pre-Adamite peoples etc), the fact that the atheists there didn’t believe a word of it didn’t seem to matter a jot to them – the primary motivating factor behind their philosophy was White Nationalism.

    Similarly, the atheists there had an explanation for their atheism that you have most probably never heard before. It goes like this: Jews are evil; Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism; therefore Christianity is contaminated with “Jew”, and cannot be espoused. In absence of any “white” religious alternative (aside from Paganism – and there are also a lot of Pagan White Nationalists), they go with no religion. Nevertheless, the fundamentalist Christians are their allies in White Nationalism, so they support one another.

    I think any fair and honest person would agree that the primary philosophical issue for the people on this forum is not atheism or Christianity, but White Nationalism, which could be said to be “a religion”, in the sense of getting “good people to do evil things” (I hesitate to call them “good” of course, but I hope you see what I mean).

    But let’s imagine some dystopian future where the White Nationalists have actually achieved their dream of a racially pure world. What significance would Christiansmembers of that society place on the religious convictions of the fundamentalist Christians who promoted White Nationalism? A lot, I imagine. Whereas we see Christian White Nationalists merely as filthy racists with a Christian facade, in this dystopian future world, they would be considered good Christians.

    My evidence for this hypothesis is the way religious views have been imputed as motivating factors behind the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King is a man I admire very much indeed, not only for his moral achievements, but also for the eloquence of his writings. For a truly edifying half and hour, I recommend you read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” if you haven’t already. It’s beautiful. I also quite like the fact that he had many faults, which reminds us that perfection is not a requirement for doing profound moral good in this world (it also gives me great pleasure to see White Nationalists pathetically resorting to calling him a philanderer – which he was – in an attempt to undermine the man).

    But what about A Philip Randolph? Although not as prominent a figure as King, he was nevertheless a tireless advocate of civil rights, and can be credited with energising the movement to almost the same degree as King. But any atheist who tried to claim that “it was because of his atheism” that he did this would be rightly characterised as shallow and opportunistic. The truth is that Randolph was motivated by a desire for equality; the same desire that motivated King, and a simple and easy enough concept to understand, once you recognise that egoism and tribalism have no logical defence in a pluralistic society (or in any society for that matter). No metaphysics needed. Yet, Martin Luther King’s advocacy was somehow “Christian”, allowing him to go “beyond mere good”, while Randolph is stuck with merely being “good”.

    There are two points that this illustrates:

    The first is that if someone has a strong moral conviction about any matter, and they also have a religious belief, they will inevitably filter that conviction through that religious belief – justifying it through it – even if the same moral conclusion can be reached without religious convictions. This applies to both good or bad actions.

    The second is that history tends to exaggerate the role that the religious conviction of an individual played in forming and motivating their moral actions, via a form of essentialism, in which the mere presence of a religious conviction in a person is invoked as proof that the religious belief was responsible for their positive actions, rather than a pragmatic moral vision.

    Incidentally, you resort to essentialism yourself when you say “These people were not merely good, they *defined* what it meant to be good”. Since “good” is an abstract concept, and human beings are physical objects, neither one can “define” the other – they can at best be merely associated with one another. The statement is basically meaningless.

    You ask: “Now, let me asks the atheists who typically use this quote: How many archetypes do you have compared (by ratio) to the religious? How many can you claim? Im sure the answer will not be satisfactory.”

    Not that it would prove anything, but I thought I would offer a few examples for what they are worth:

    Fred Hollows: Personally restored vision to thousands of blind and/or eye-infected children and adults in aboriginal Australian communities and in Africa. His eponymous foundation has restored the vision of millions more.

    Jonas Salk: developed and perfected the polio vaccine, and then refused to patent it for financial gain saying “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

    A Philip Randolph: already explained

    Bernard Kouchner: as far as I know has no religious convictions, and was in fact a member of the French Communist Party for a while. Founder of Médecins Sans Frontières

    Zackie Achmat: South African HIV/AIDS activist

    Andrei Sakharov: Soviet dissident and Human Rights Activist

    Saraswathi Gora: Campaigner against the Hindu caste system

    This list doesn’t prove anything except the very mundane point that people can be motivated to take action by strong moral convictions that have no metaphysics behind them. However, the fact that these actions are devoid of metaphysics seems to me to offer a clearer and less convoluted pathway to reducing human suffering than the religious filter.

    I know it’s presumptuous of me to ask you to read such a long post, so I’ll sign off with the following observation. Every year in the United States, on the first Thursday of May, the National Day of Prayer takes place. Hundreds of thousands of good people participate in this event by praying for what they view as being “the good of their country”. And every year on that date, a number of atheist organisations organise a blood drive so that, by sundown, the day has something to show for itself. Anyone can give blood of course, and many religious folk do, all the time. However, I will use this example to add my own clause to the rapidly-expanding pointless maxim that was the subject of your post:

    “For good people to do nothing, that takes religion”.

    • U.T.,

      I read the entire response and I have some objections to most of it, but one thing I immediately wanted to point out was your insistence that religion allows good people to “do nothing” on the basis of a “day of prayer” and atheists taking advantage of this day to grand stand how they’re superior in their morals compared to theists. Im sorry, but that’s how I see it.

      If you want a much better example of what religion makes good people do, perhaps you should compare the actions of Muslims in the Arab Spring fighting off dictatorships and tyranny against so-called enlightened, less-religious nations remaining impotent to the actions of their governments.

      • I did make the point of describing the maxim as “pointless” towards the end of my post, which it is. Pointless because, as I said, “religion” as a word can be used to refer to such a broad range of behaviours and phenomena that it has no distinct meaning. However, I took the National Day of Prayer as an example because in it we have two groups of people who are both engaging in an activity that they consider to be virtuous. Since prayer has no measurable effects, but blood donations do, it could reasonably be argued that good people are doing nothing in this case.

        Contrasting the National Day of Prayer with the Arab Spring is nothing more than a red herring. In any argument, an example offered by one party can be instantly contrasted with a completely unrelated example by the other party, and the result is a conversational dead end. There’s even an informal name for this kind of argument: “whataboutery”. I actually encounter whataboutery very regularly when arguing with anti-Muslim bigots, for whom the example of 9/11 is regarded as a universal rebuttal to any statement that’s lenient and fair towards Muslims, like this:

        Mr X – “Most Muslims live honourable lives without causing any harm to anyone or anything”

        Mr Y – “What about 9/11?”

        Do you think that Mr Y has made a valid point? I assume not, yet somehow you feel that it’s reasonable to respond to a specific point about religion causing inaction, by irrelevantly contrasting it with an unrelated event.

        Since you bring up the Arab Spring, I of course sympathise with the people of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia etc, and hope that their efforts will be rewarded with a better life. But I am compelled to remember history, which shows us time and again that revolutions and uprisings – however well-intentioned – often eventuate in regimes that are as draconian and unjust as the regimes they sought to replace. It is as though the energy required to topple a corrupt government maintains the movement’s momentum until it swings to the opposite end of the spectrum. Examples include the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Boxer Rebellion, the Spanish Revolution and the Iranian Revolution.

        So while hope and optimism are appropriate emotions to hold towards the uprisings in the Middle East, it won’t be until a couple of generations down the line before we can really evaluate the Arab Spring properly.

        I would be interested to know which “so-called enlightened, less-religious nations” are in need of revolutions of their own? Again, this seems like whataboutery to me. In the past year alone there have been major protests all over America and Europe in the form of the Occupy Movement, and of course there have been numerous very impassioned protests against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the last decade. Do you think these protests would have been more successful if the participants were more religious?

  8. @U.T. :

    Excellent points. However, I believe Islam has a solution to the problem you mentioned in the last paragraph:

    “…Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves….”- Qur’an 13:11

    Essentially what God means in this verse is that if you pray to God for help, God will not support you unless you make an effort. Otherwise help would be pointless. Simply asking God for favors and not exerting your own effort would therefore be against Islam. Also in Islam, we believe than both faith and good deeds are important, e.g. Zakat for the poor. For example, the Islamic Center of Tuscon organized a clinic in which Muslim doctors treated people for free.

  9. Salaam Alaykum, Ali.

    So…that video in your “featured” category…that was your last video? Goodbye to Dawahfilms?? 😦

  10. Religion is man’s attempt to put God in a box, and make man-made rules about what should or should not be done, but what about what God thinks? God din’t invent religion, man did.

  11. The reason why I am Muslim, because it’s compatible with the idea, that man is ‘good’ however, Islam forces the notion of justice in mankind, before mind kind had the chance to question it’s barbaric parallels, Muhammed (saw) came to set it straight. It’s only now the secular world has established fairness and equality of all people. Just because ‘Islamic’ Countries are barbaric, backward, unfair, and pretty much evil, when placing the Sharia, it doesn’t make the Sharia so. When analysing the Qur’an Sunnah and AHadith, none of the barbaric laws in these faux Islamic states is even matching to the true Sharia. All these muslim leaders want is power. Blame the people not Islam. In fact the idea of mankind being moral creatures? Sod that!

  12. Humans are prone to mistake, religious or not. Dumb people follow false religion, claim it to be right, and then kill people to prove themselves. Yes, even some Muslims. Who follow faux Islam. I just think it’s a shame on these faux Islamic leaders had be here today. If it weren’t for them, majority of people would be Muslims, or even be more tolerant of Muslims.

  13. Muhammad a good example?

    Sahih Muslim: volume 8, Book 82, Number 796:Narrated Anas:

    A group of people from ‘Ukl (tribe) came to the Prophet and they were living with the people of As-Suffa, but they became ill as the climate of Medina did not suit them, so they said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Provide us with milk.” The Prophet said, I see no other way for you than to use the camels of Allah’s Apostle.” So they went and drank the milk and urine of the camels, (as medicine) and became healthy and fat. Then they killed the shepherd and took the camels away. When a help-seeker came to Allah’s Apostle, he sent some men in their pursuit, and they were captured and brought before mid day. The Prophet ordered for some iron pieces to be made red hot, and their eyes were branded with them and their hands and feet were cut off and were not cauterized. Then they were put at a place called Al-Harra, and when they asked for water to drink they were not given till they died. (Abu Qilaba said, “Those people committed theft and murder and fought against Allah and His Apostle.”)

    He gouged their eyes out with hot iron, cut their hands and feet off leaving them to bleed, left to die in the sun begging for water… Hmm. I don’t think this can be put on the same level as Gandhi or Jesus nay?

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