• Is Weinberg’s remark false?

    By now, most atheists may know this remark by Steven Weinberg: “[W]ith or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion“.

    I do think it is a great remark, but philosopher Timothy Rowe over at Quillette argues against it:

    There is just one small, nagging problem: what Weinberg said is strikingly false. How do we know? Because history tells us it is.

    The end of the Second World War saw millions of women in Europe end up the victims of rape by Russian soldiers. As pointed out by University of London historian Antony Beevor in Berlin: The Downfall 1945, the attacks were particularly bad in Berlin, the heart of Nazism in Europe, where girls as young as 8 and women as old as 80 were raped by drunken soldiers, sometimes by gangs of them, and sometimes to death.

    It is far too much to believe that the perpetrators of these crimes were all intrinsically bad or “evil” people acting in accordance with their static moral characters. A far more plausible explanation is that a variety of causal factors culminated to produce this historical tragedy, including the lack of control that officers exerted, the large quantities of alcohol the soldiers consumed, and the desire felt by many on the Russian side to inflict revenge on the Germans for four years of grueling horror on the Eastern front. What you won’t find mentioned in the list of relevant causal factors, however, is religion.

    If history isn’t your favorite subject, field-defining research in social psychology reveals exactly the same truth. We know from experiments by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, for example, that pressure to obey authority led around two-thirds of test subjects who believed they were helping with a memory experiment to apply severe electric shocks to another person who kept failing word association questions. In fact, they applied the shocks so diligently that they continued even after the person in the other room had collapsed unconscious, and did so all the way to the maximum setting on the shock machine. Why would anyone ever do that, you ask? Because a lab technician standing next to them insisted that for the purposes of the experiment not answering was the same as answering incorrectly, and therefore required the shock. A mere technicality, in other words.

    The point here is that what Weinberg said isn’t simply exaggerated, it’s wrong. Religion, though entirely capable of bringing otherwise good people to do morally evil things, is not in any sense required for that.

    I beg to differ. I don’t think Weinberg was wrong, but inaccurate — anyone can do evil with the defining elements of religion. This has been noted as well by Jerry Coyne.

    Let’s take Rowe’s examples. First, the rape of German women by Russian soldiers. Just like Rowe said, this historical tragedy could have a variety of causal factors. For instance, self-righteousness —believing they were the good guys and their goal was an absolute good, hence anything was justified—, guilt by association, having a blurred state of conciousness, a brotherhood-ish feeling —a feel that they belong to the army community— and misogyny.

    Religion can be related to all of those. Rowe is right to point out that it doesn’t stand to reason to atribute these atrocities to religion itself, but it does stand to reason to point out that the causal factors for the rape of German women obeyed to the same psychological tools religions use to manipulate people and have them do evil things.

    And what about the Milgram experiments? Like Rowe said, “they applied the shocks so diligently because a lab technician standing next to them insisted”. In this case, the lab technician is a figure of authority and the people applying the shocks were told they could trust this authority.

    This isn’t “a mere technicality”, like Rowe said; this is a classical scenario for the banality of evil. And you know where else we have seen this so-called ‘technicality’? In religion: people often don’t question the word of god, not even when it’s atrocities are so heinous they go against the core values of the believers. Selling your daughters as slaves? Killing someone because they wear mixed fabrics? Genocide?

    No sane person would ever try to defend those actions, nevertheless, they keep on believing (and obeying) a blood-thirsty god that’s more than happy to commit them.

    So yeah, maybe Weinberg wasn’t as accurate as he could have been, but his statement remains true to a certain degree. Some times evil is done without invoking a god; but it is always done with the psychological set of tools that characterizes religion.

    I like to take Weinberg’s remark that way, so I have to disagree with Rowe when he says it is strikingly false. It is so, if you define religion only as the belief in a god (or more), but when you take religions broadly construed, what Weinberg said remains truthful.

    (image: Day Donaldson)

    Category: AtheismPhilosophySkepticism and Science


    Article by: Ðavid A. Osorio S

    Skeptic | Blogger | Fact-checker
    • im-skeptical

      Ideologies motivate people to do all kinds of things. It doesn’t have to be a religious ideology. It could be political or nationalist, or any cause that people are dedicated to, and willing to commit their efforts. Religion certainly fits the bill.

    • Locke Flaherty

      I think that the major argument against the remark is just the absence of several key words. The proper remark, to be held try in all respects, would be “[W]ith or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion OR ALCOHOL.”

    • Jeff Pinner

      Frankly, the Russian rape example is poor, as rape has been a spoil of war (and a weapon thereof) for the entire history of organized warfare. It could be a simple result of any population being at the “mercy” of an all male force pumped up on adrenaline, testosterone and victory. Also, we should take into account that Stalinist Communism has always been presented in semi-religious garb, giving it the same potential to justify atrocities.

      Weinberg, even at face value, isn’t wrong, although he may have overstated the case a bit. The problem with his remark isn’t that it might have been more precise, it is that had it been so, it wouldn’t be quotable.

    • J. A. Kraulis

      What Weinberg said is just a remark, possibly made offhandedly or even impatiently, and arguably given too much weight simply because Weinberg is one of the most brilliant thinkers on the planet. Certainly it needs some elaboration, specifically regarding what is meant by “religion” and by “good people” vs “bad people”. All persons can be good at some times and bad at others, but when people commit evil when think they are doing good (and thereby let’s say by definition are good), that can only happen when they are acting in mindless obeisance to some authoritarian doctrine which they fail to question. So if you include along with religion such totalitarian ideologies as Nazism and Communism, it’s a point well-made.