Irenic Thoughts

Irenic. The word means peaceful. This web log (or blog) exists to create an ongoing, and hopefully peaceful, series of comments on the life of King of Peace Episcopal Church. This is not a closed community. You are highly encouraged to comment on any post or to send your own posts.


Good People Doing Evil Things

King of Peace's stained glass of the Holy Spirit hovering in creation
“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.”

—Steven Weinberg, US physicist (1933 - )
quoted in The New York Times, April 20, 1999

The above quote was a Google quote of the day recently. Of course, I disagree. And yet, part of me, if I am really honest with myself, knows exactly what Weinberg means. If there wasn't the hope of an afterlife of redemption (with or without a plethora of virgins) would it be quite so easy to find a seemingly endless stream of young men (and now sometimes women) willing to blow his or herself up in the name of Allah? And can I point the finger at Islam without accounting for the great number of deaths that could be laid at the foot of the cross as those done in Jesus' Name?

The InquisitionThe Crusades and the Inquisition are just the start. Some Christians even provided justification for the Holocaust in their preaching and teaching even if they didn't take part in or directly condone the attrocities commited by the Nazi government. Organized religion does have much tragedy for which it can be called into account. So religion is a problem. I think on that I will have to agree with the physicist quoted above.

This was true in Jesus' own day as well. Jesus' harshest criticism was always for the religious leaders who praised God with their lips and denied him with their actions. The poor, the outcastm the forgotten ones are those that Jesus lifted up. The high and mighty and holier than thou are the ones he sought to bring down a peg or two. And the word religion comes across in the New Testament as something of a bad word.

“Thraiskos” was the New Testament word for religion and its origin came from the island of Thrace whose inhabitants were known for their excessive religiosity. The Thracians were fanatics and the Bible's word “religion” means that you are “like the people on Thrace.” That's why it is used as a bad word.

The Book of James uses the word to point toward a better way to be religious: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

For scripture then religion seems to be a problem and the way to know if one has the good kind of religion is if their faith bears good fruit. If you are taking care of those in need and not getting tied up in the chaos and confusion of the present age, then you have true religion rather than just religiosity. So good people doing evil things in the name of religion are ones who are using religion as an excuse for their wrong actions. But those actions themselves do not come from God, even if the person doing wrong claims “God made me do it.”

The Good SamaritanThis is the hard part to grasp for many people—even if all followers of Jesus get it wrong, it is possible for Jesus to still be right. He is not wrong just because we act wrongly while saying we are following him. In the ways we get it wrong, we give others an excuse to ignore the faith that is in us. But when we bear good fruit, we point others toward the rightness of our beliefs. Yes, Christians can be called into account for the Crusades, the Inquisition and much evil done in God's Name. But we also can claim the creation of hospitals and orphanages and much that is right in the world.

I know the Weinberg (quoted above) feels this good would have been done with or without religion. He may be right when it comes to religion. But I don't think this great good would have been done without the same Spirit working through those doing the actions that was blowing across the waters in creation and was present in Jesus' life and ministry. That is the creative and recreative Holy Spirit which has worked through flawed and failed humans to do much good in this fallen world.

That's my take. What do you think?

The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor

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  • At 2/18/2009 9:06 AM, Blogger Jimmy the Orange said…

    I couldn't agree more. It might suprise you to find an atheist posting on your blog, but I am far from anti-theist and certainly not anti-religion. As a scientist, however, I am devoted to evidence and there is a plethora of evidence showing good people doing evil things due to the influence of authority, not religion. Stanley Milgram's experiments in electric shock and Zimbardo's famous Stanford prison experiment both show how good people can do evil things without recourse to religion. Like you, I see where Weinberg is coming from, but as a sceintist he is neglecting evidence and furthermore fails to address the ability of religion to help 'evil people' (if such a thing exists), do good things. I don't blame Weinberg for his comment, people ought to be able to be flippant, but I loathe seeing atheists peddle this quotation as if it were fact, it is not, it is pure casuistry.

  • At 9/15/2009 8:08 AM, Anonymous Will said…

    Let's modify the quote to be "For good people to do bad things it takes authority which is often given by Religion."

    Religion and authority are closely related. Religion often gives people the authority to do bad things through its writings (Bible, Koran, etc) and the organizations that teach it, directly or indirectly over the years.

    Religion causes harm indirectly, by preventing the use of condoms in Africa millions of people die, preventing stem cell research, etc.

    Of course there are positive aspects to religion as well.

  • At 8/02/2010 10:16 PM, Anonymous Sophie Amrain said…

    Why is it that the believers always assume that the good things people do are God's responsability, whereas the bad things are their own fault?

    What can be misunderstood about the story of Abraham and Isaak? Why would one wish to serve such a God?

  • At 11/07/2011 2:45 PM, Anonymous Shelley KJ said…

    I believe whole-heartedly in what you share about religion vs religiosity however this "creative and recreative Holy Spirit which has worked through flawed and failed humans to do much good in this fallen world" is something I like to refer to as a humanistic spirit, a compassion unparalled because of our common chance to exist. Most people are too consumed with the present distractions to see beyond their immediate selfishness, an effort to get ahead and have the most, at whatever costs. Or some people find spirit through seeking answers in an antiquated law book from a historical culture, one oddly coupled with a story of a humanist.

    I find spirit in the gift of this life and see too many people squander it, so many in a god and an afterlife.


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