Sunday, March 1, 2015

Religion as a Source of Good and Evil (with Addendum on Atheism as a Source of Evil)

 Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Satan does a convincing imitation of God, and has done some of his best acting in the synagogue, church and mosque.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all done much good, but each religion has also been the source of evil.  Today a virulent variation of Salafist Islam known as ISIS is using medieval atrocities to establish a caliphate in the name of God; but the ISIS jihadists are opposed by most Muslims who will ultimately define the nature of Islam.
            How do we determine when religions are the source of good or evil?

            Religions are a source of good when they accept religious diversity and promote belief systems that emphasize forgiveness, love and reconciliation with those of other faiths.  Good comes from religions that conform their concepts of divine truth and law as revealed in their ancient scriptures to advances in knowledge and reason, and that accept concepts of libertarian democracy and human rights as God’s will, even though they are not mentioned in their scriptures.          

            Religions are a source of evil when they use hate and violence to promote exclusivist belief systems that condemn other religions, and seek to impose their religious laws on others.  Evil comes from fundamentalist religions that base all truth and law on their ancient and immutable scriptures and deny any new knowledge and reason that conflicts with those sacred truths. 

            A religion’s standards of legitimacy are the norms of behavior for its believers, and when they seek to impose their religious standards as laws governing others they oppose libertarian democracy and the freedoms of religion and expression.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have fundamentalist forms, but radical Islam (e.g. ISIS and al Qaeda) is the greatest source of concern today because of its use of violence to enforce its radical standards of legitimacy.

            The libertarian ideals of the Enlightenment transformed religions in the West and stifled religious fundamentalism, but not in the East where fundamentalist Islam enforces Islamic laws that oppress women and religious minorities.  Religions that promote voluntary standards of legitimacy and love over law are compatible with libertarian democracy and human rights.  They are not a source of evil, and include most Jews, Christians and Muslims in the West. 

            Thomas Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment who promoted its libertarian political values in the formative years of the U.S.  As a slaveholder in the Antebellum South he was an unlikely proponent of individual liberty, but he authored the Declaration of Independence with its inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and was largely responsible for putting the freedoms of religion and speech first in the Bill of Rights.

            Jefferson understood that religion is a primary source of our standards of legitimacy.  He considered the teachings of Jesus to be “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man,” and put together his own selection of the teachings of Jesus in what has become known as the Jefferson Bible.  Jefferson also studied the Qur’an and Islamic law and used his knowledge of Islam as Secretary of State and later as President in confronting the first Islamic terrorist threat to the US: the Barbary Pirates in North Africa (see Notes below).
            Jefferson advocated the natural law principles of reason and libertarian democracy over religious revelations of divine law as essential to the freedoms of religion and speech, and they are as relevant today as they were 200 years ago.  While Jefferson admired the moral teachings of Jesus, he opposed the exclusivist doctrines of the Christian church.  That distinction can help people of all faiths understand how the teachings of Jesus on love over law can help integrate libertarian political ideals into religious doctrines, and why human rights require that religious standards of legitimacy be limited to voluntary standards of morality rather than coercive laws.

            Before the Enlightenment transformed Western culture and its religions, Christian regimes rivaled ISIS in their ruthless oppression of Jews and Muslims in the name of God.  By way of contrast, the Islamic caliphates of the Medieval period treated Jews and Christians better than Christian regimes treated Jews and Muslims.  Unfortunately, since the Enlightenment that trend has been reversed.

            The libertarian political theories of the Enlightenment that produced democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law can minimize the evils of religious hatred and violence today.  The great thinkers of the Enlightenment like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson revealed truths of natural law that have proven to be as relevant today as they were 250 years ago.  That is obvious when comparing the religions of libertarian democracies with those in authoritarian regimes that promote Islamist fundamentalism.  The good produced by religions in libertarian democracies far outweighs the evil of human decadence and depravity that will be present in any free society.

Atheism as a Source of Evil
 Rudy Barnes, Jr., March 2, 2015

            In an article published in Salon yesterday Jeffrey Tayler raised the issue of whether atheism, or more precisely the new atheism or anti-theism, can have the same evil characteristics of the religions it condemns. (see

            We will use Tayler’s definition of atheism and anti-theism:  “Atheism denotes one thing and no more: the absence of belief in God or gods; and anti-theism, the rejection as undesirable of the existence of God or gods.”  Tayler could have added, “…or to the religions that promote a belief in God.”  Tayler argues vigorously that “Neither atheism, new or old, nor anti-theism, possesses a canon calling for violence against believers or in any way suborning it.”

            Anti-theism is based upon a belief system that elevates reason to the highest ontological levels and leaves no room for a supernatural power that is beyond reason.  New atheists like Tayler are zealous in their advocacy of reason as a supreme value, but have not yet resorted to violence to promote their anti-theist beliefs. 

            That may have changed with the killing of three Muslims in Chapel Hill on February 10, 2015.  The accused killer is Craig Stephen Hicks, a 46-year-old avowed anti-theist who claims to hate all religions, not just Islam.  There is no evidence that Hicks targeted his victims because they were Muslims.  Instead, a “preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.”

            Despite the lack of evidence, many have claimed that the murders were a hate crime directed against Muslims, even a terrorist act, and that has generated a lively exchange between new atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Tayler and religious believers like Stoker Bruenig.  She echos Reza Aslan in warning against what she calls an aggressive new atheism, distinguishing it from the benign old-fashioned variety of atheism.

            Tayler ends his article praising atheists for promoting the “lofty, laudable concepts” of reason, consensus and secularism, which are devoid of any belief in God.  Deists are not mentioned, but they were children of the Enlightenment like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson who promoted reason over revelation in their day.  They championed libertarian democracy and human rights and debunked oppressive religions, but they believed in God and knew that religions could be a source of both good and evil.  Unfortunately there seem to be no advocates for reason in religion today.  Where have all the Deists gone?  Maybe they have been reincarnated as Unitarians, or even Nones.

Notes and References to Resources:

For related blogs, see Religion and Reason, posted on December 8, 2104; Is Religion Good or Evil?, posted February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, posted February 22, 2015; and Religion as a Source of Good and Evil, posted on March 1, 2015.

On the religious and evil nature of ISIS, see Graeme Wood, What ISIS Really Wants, The Atlantic, March 2015, at  On how US policy should treat ISIS as a threat, see Fareed Zakaria, An ideological war America must watch, not fight, Washington Post, February 26, 2015, at

For references to Jefferson and his Bible see the Introductionto The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart ofLegitimacy at pages 10-11.  On the Enlightenment and religious fundamentalism, see pages 12-14 and 333-335 in the J&MBook.  

On Jefferson’s interest in and involvement with Islam, See Denise A. Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2013.  Jefferson was a Deist who emphasized reason over revelation.  In his notes on a 1777 legislative proposal Jefferson suggested that Jesus was a proponent of reason: "Jesus chose not to propagate [his teachings] by coercions...but to extend it by its influence by reason alone." (page 118).  On Jefferson’s involvement with Muslims engaged in North African piracy from 1784-1788, see chapter 4, and from 1801-1806 see pages 214-218.  Jefferson was critical of Islam (and other fundamentalist religions) for putting revelation over reason as the source of law (pages 230-233).

On Jefferson's views on religion and politics, see Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, Random House, NY, 2006, at pages 56-58, 72-77, 80-86-104, 105, 231, 232, 247-250, 263, 264, 389.

On Jefferson's religious beliefs and The Jefferson Bible, see Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power, Random House, NY, 2012, at pages 471-473.   

On Love over law, see blog posted on January 18, 2015; on Jewish and Islamic laws, see pages 469-651 in the Appendices of the J&M Book

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