Audience Participation

by wjw on January 30, 2008

Still working. And so, clearly, the only way to keep us both amused is to make you talk.

Here’s a quote from Steven Weinberg.

“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.”


Kelly January 31, 2008 at 12:57 am

Hm. Not necessarily. Good people can do evil things out of self interest or self preservation, as well as mental illness, fear, jealousy, rage (the list goes on). They can do evil because they think the ends justify the means.

Good people can also do evil things on the basis of mis-information. Religion isn’t the only mis-information out there.

araken January 31, 2008 at 3:00 am

I agree with Kelly that there are plenty of ideologies and conditions that make good people do evil things. Religious hatred has certainly done a good deal of harm throughout history, but then, so have secular movements like communism and fascism.

It’s not belief in the divine that’s the problem: it’s the doctrine that it’s OK to make the world a hell now for the sake of a paradise later. Whether that promised paradise is earthly or heavenly doesn’t matter–the results are the same.

Kat January 31, 2008 at 2:40 pm

Yeah, and unfortunately the twentieth century has provided us with enough evidence (the Holocast, the Cold War, Guantanamo Bay) that people are quite capable of being swept up in something by science*, nationalism, or any number of other non-religious movements and doing things which are at the very best morally questionable, at the worst obscene.

I think the problem is less religion than the mindset of certainty. Religion is one way to achieve certainty — a way that’s being brought into sharp relief right now — but others are just as damaging. Because once you have something you’re certain of, whether it’s God, global warming, or “my country right or wrong”, it’s difficult to let go. For some people, it’s impossible.

And frankly I don’t think we’ll ever be rid of that.

* Of course, it was BAD science, but one could argue that religious excesses were all from BAD religion.

Pat January 31, 2008 at 3:04 pm

Weinberg ignores the one other huge factor that makes good people do evil things – the State. You will find many people doing things in the interest of their nation they would hesitate to do on their own behalf.

Larry Lennhoff January 31, 2008 at 3:32 pm

In fact, I think good people can do evil things anytime they perceive themselves to be in the service of something greater than themselves. Corporations are a classic example – people do things because ‘the purpose of a corporation is to make money for its shareholders’ that they would never consider doing in their personal lives.

Kathleen January 31, 2008 at 5:09 pm

Depends on what the definitions of “good” and “evil” are, and so often in our society, they are defined by religion, so that religion can then say that what they are doing is “good” and what other people are doing is “evil.”

Before the advent of monotheism, ethics and religion were separate. Pleasing the gods did not necessarily have “good” or “evil” connotations, except that if you offended the gods and they decided to make your crops fail or your country lose a battle, it had bad consequences for you and your cohorts.

We human beings make up our own gods, and we also make our concepts of Good and Evil. Fundamentalists (in almost any religion) want to pretend that Good and Evil are universal absolutes; whereas they are just relative terms set by people and societies.


Phy January 31, 2008 at 8:02 pm

Seems to me that religion is about evil people learning to do good things. 😉

dubjay January 31, 2008 at 10:32 pm

Yeah, my take is that Weinberg is an optimist.

Even if you assume communism and fascism are essentially religious in nature (in that they depend on non-verifiable, or plain unscientific, axioms, and thus require a strong dose of faith on behalf of their adherents— I think of them as “religions with heroes, but no gods.”), religion can hardly be blamed for =all= the bad stuff out there.

Genghis Khan and Alexander didn’t each conquer half the world for religious motives, after all. Julius Caesar didn’t kill one million Gauls, and enslave another couple million, in the name of Jupiter.

Why do people follow bad guys? That is perhaps the more interesting question.

Kelly January 31, 2008 at 11:29 pm

(Phy — Hah!!)

Why do people follow bad guys?

People as a group love a leader. As individuals we hate leaders (so bossy!), but when we act as a group we’re so damn grateful when someone is willing to take charge that we will often follow him/her anywhere.

(I know I’m grateful whenever anyone takes charge of a meeting here at work.)

Also, it’s toilet training. Someone’s more powerful than us? We’re trained from infancy to toe the line.

Laurie Mann February 1, 2008 at 4:57 pm

Definitely somewhat try. The evil that people do in the name of religion has always been astonishing. And yet, it is we atheists who are often blamed for it!

Thai McGreivy February 1, 2008 at 10:29 pm

Neither religion nor atheism nor the state…

Physicists, evolutionary biologists, information scientists and evolutionary psychologists have a pretty good handle on it: seems to have a lot to do with the conservation of energy in the universe, our mind’s inability to understand the complexities of frame of reference, and the problem of The Black Swan, which is basically: in order to make information useable, we make it wrong.

Basically our brain sees ‘good’ and ‘evil’ thru a mental moral template which itself arose for reasons of evolutionary selection/advantage. We see things contrary to this tempate as ‘evil’ from our own frame of reference

this last point is critical to understanding the issue and is why academics can suggest that Hitler or suicide bombers believe they act morally from their own frame of reference, even though the rest of us strongly disagree…

Any of you remember Schrodinger’s cat?

A few links of interest:
1. An ‘academic view’ of morality
2. The Moral Instinct

Have you ever analyzed your own good/evil moral template?. Geneticists will probably even be linking our moral templates with particular genes/early life experiences soon.

Thai McGreivy February 1, 2008 at 11:18 pm

PS– this is a pedantic way of agreeing with the rest of you 😉

S.M. Stirling February 2, 2008 at 4:25 am

Substitute “ideology”, of which religion is a subset.

The worst mass atrocities of the 20th century were done because of thoroughly secular ideologies like Marxism and its bastard offspring, fascism, both of which claimed to be “scientific”.

Mere cruelty and greed are (by comparison) harmless next to mistaken beliefs.

Furthermore, human beings are inherently tribalistic and violently competitive.

Look at the results of recent forensic anthropology.

In most hunter-gatherer or pre-state Neolithic cultures, somewhere between a third and a half of males die by violence, and a smaller but significant percentage of females.

The same is true of most contemporary HG/neolithic cultures we’ve been able to study before they got taken under effective control by the local nation-state.

(This was hidden for a long time because of ‘observer bias’, but it’s now indisputable.)

In this humans are like chimps, or (more closely in view of our ‘natural’ ecological niche) wolves.

In both cases, the primary cause of death is other members of the same species.

Even if you were born in Germany or Russia in time to be an adult throughout 1914-1945, you were in less danger of being killed by other human beings than if you were born into a highland village in New Guinea in the same period, or into most of the uncontacted Amazonian tribes.

This is just the way we are. There’s no use getting upset about it.

State-level organization reduces overall violence by concentrating it; we have big, very destructive wars at long intervals, but our ancestors had a continuous round of raids, ambushes, beatings, stabbings, fights of all descriptions, and also very high murder rates.

The important thing is to maintain the State’s monopoly of political violence.

This is why guerilla warfare and terrorism are so ‘bad’; they threaten to return us to the state of nature, which is hellish.

Anonymous February 2, 2008 at 3:40 pm

Steve, I’m going to take your proposition and go one farther.

Governments are like the gods. People invent them.

Once we recognize who is in the driver’s seat, we can then control the direction we go.

I agree with you, Steve, that governments are necessary to maintain a certain amount of social order. However, it is We the People who decide (or should be deciding) what that social order is, not the government who should be deciding and imposing it on us.

There are people in our society who are trying to use the government to enforce “God’s rules.” (Particularly in areas of sex and reproduction, but I’m also thinking about teaching evolution in the schools.)

But once people recognize that both “God’s rules” and governmental rules are invented by people, you can say, “Wait a minute! Let’s stand back and figure out what’s best for people, and then have the government do that.”

Once you unhook government from religion, suddenly it becomes possible to do all sorts of useful and helpful things with your government because you’re using it as a TOOL and not as a religiously-ordained set of rules you have to follow.

The Roman Empire switched from polytheism to Christianity when they thought that Christianity was a better way to control people. There’s a reason that the political structure of the Roman Catholic Church looks very much like the political structure of the Roman Empire. When you walk around Rome and see monuments that call ancient Emperors and Renaissance popes “Pontifex Maximus,” the connection comes home to you.

The United States government was invented in the wake of a series of very destructive wars in Europe, bred by religious differences. (That is, the wars of the 1600s and 1700s were about money and power and territory, but religious differences were used as the excuse for the wars.)

So the founders of the United States tried to establish a non-religious government. There was to be no king, ordained by god, to run the country. The country was deliberately NOT set up to run by Biblical rules. (Come to think of it, it followed rules of the ancient, pre-Christian, Roman Empire.)

But now, there are people who want to alter the government so it does run along religious rules. These people are also claiming that this is exactly what the founding fathers wanted.

If you look at what the founding fathers wrote and who they really were, they wanted a rule by people, not by rules handed down by gods.

I’m rattling on, and I’m not sure if I’m answering the original question about good and evil.


Tarl Neustaedter February 2, 2008 at 7:05 pm

Kathy writes: But once people recognize that both “God’s rules” and governmental rules are invented by people, you can say, “Wait a minute! Let’s stand back and figure out what’s best for people, and then have the government do that.”

That’s not the way it works. People stand back and figure out what’s best for me.

All attempts at social engineering have tended to fall apart on the conundrum of coming up with rules which work as opposed to rules someone wants. By and large, the cases which work have come about by accident, not deliberate design. They all have evolutionary bugs and warts which you can’t easily dispose of without risking the above conundrum.

I see it most dramatically in corrupt 3rd world societies; everyone is on the take, and governments barely work. Contrast that to modern industrial societies where official corruption is kept in check by moral stances, and you have to be very careful that in playing with morality rules you don’t break the restraints which make that society work so well.

He Who Walks On All Fours February 3, 2008 at 12:05 am

The problem is in the polar binary of good and evil as it is understood by Western culture in general. Life is far more complicated than that–one person’s evil is another’s good is another’s gray area.

That said, I feel that practically every religion forges a belief system in which its followers are absolutely right and non-followers are absolutely wrong, which is always a recipe for trouble.

halojones-fan February 3, 2008 at 6:22 am

Maybe Weinberg is trying to claim that without religion there would be no concept of “good” or “evil”, and therefore nobody could ever be “evil” because nobody would know what it meant.

Or maybe he’s just being a dick, like Dawkins, trying to start shit in the classic internet-troll style.


We follow bad guys because we’re monkeys, and monkey tribes always have a Biggest, Baddest, Scariest Monkey who gets the best fruit and the most sex. It’s like the guy said in Fight Club; he looks like we want to look, he fucks like we want to fuck, he is smart, he is capable, and–most importantly–he is free, in all the ways that we cannot allow ourselves to be.


“There are people in our society who are trying to use the government to enforce ‘God’s rules.'”

Ah-heh. There are many definitions of “God” that you could use, there. Substitute “environmentalism”, or “economic equality”, or “(minority of the week) rights”. All of these are religious causes, their zealots made all the more so by their firm belief that they arrived at their position through intellect rather than ideology.

Synova February 4, 2008 at 4:19 am

The first thing that came to my mind was…

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

That could be religion or it could be some other ideology.

The most abusive situation I’ve endured in my life was a teacher who made me her special project. To *help* me. Nearly 10 years later simply talking about her would reduce me to tears.

An evil person may have hurt me. This “good” person hurt me over and over and over. On purpose. She went out of her way to do it.

So that’s what the original quote makes me think of.

(And everyone recognized my quote was from C.S. Lewis? A religious person.)

Ralf the Dog February 11, 2008 at 5:28 pm

Is a person good or evil, or is it a person’s actions? Unless a person’s actions are so evil (or good) that they define that person, they are just people who do good or evil things.

Synova February 11, 2008 at 8:56 pm

ralf, I agree that we ought to separate motivation from consequences.

A good person with good motivations doesn’t necessarily do good things with good results. But if they do things with evil results, are they evil?

A bad person, or a selfish person, might have base motivations but that doesn’t mean that what they do will necessarily be bad for other people. They could do a whole lot of good.

Or they could well do good on purpose because they realize that in the long (or short) run, this will be better for them as well.

To pick and example… is Chavez evil? Does the fact that he seems to be destroying the economy of Venezuela really say anything at all about what he’s *trying* to do?

He might be all about personal power or he might really believe that dairy farmers will produce more milk if they get paid less. In the end, it won’t matter at all because not even genuinely wanting to help the downtrodden changes the laws of economics.

Ralf the Dog February 11, 2008 at 11:33 pm

I understand what you are saying, however, for most people, the label of good or bad is less than relevant. I was driving considerably beyond the speed limit today. I did this because it is fun. You might argue that driving 150 MPH through a school zone is evil. Does driving fast make a person evil?

I gave a bit of money to a charity today. I did it because I like the cause of stray animals. Did this donation make me a good person? Perhaps we need an equation.

G=(Dollars spent on charity)/20 – (MPH over the speed limit)

Everyone does good and bad things. Everyone does things for good and bad reasons. I think it is silly to label most people good or bad.

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