Does Religion “Do” Anything?
A friend recently sent me this piece from the Wall Street Journal. In it Alan Jacobs takes on atheists of the Hitchens/Dawkins variety for their unfounded assumption that a world without religion would be better. He argues that “the dark forces in all human lives” move under the guise of many different commitments, religion only being one among them. Thus, it is not right, as Hitchens/Dawkins would have it, to link religion to motives for evil. But, as Jacobs is a Christian, I wondered if this implied the correlating thesis that religion ought to be linked to motives for good.
It seems to me there are two possible readings. 1. A world without religion wouldn’t be any better or worse. This implies a strong skeptical reading, which assumes that religion doesn’t reliably motivate for good or bad. Making it, as Jacobs says, a “thin religious veneer” painted on action. 2. A world without religion would be no better, but it would be worse. This is less skeptical, suggesting that religion motivates the good but not the bad.
The second option seems presumptive on the part of the religious person. Also, given the difficulties in linking religiosity to behavior and sorting out our ethical motivations more generally, which Jacobs brings out well, it seems difficult to argue for or against religion on the grounds of its moral value. Thus, I guess I lean toward the first, stronger reading. But, I’m not exactly comfortable with that. I would like religion to “do” something, but maybe that’s just the pragmatist in me.