On the same religious argument on Feministing I commented on a few posts ago, several people have tried arguing that religion is not bad because it only provides excuses for actions people wanted to take before. The best example of that was provided by Vervain, who says,
The fact is, people cherry-pick their religious beliefs to coincide with attitudes they already hold–so if someone’s being an intolerant asshole, blame the asshole, not the religion s/he uses to justify their assholery. If you abolished all religion, they’d just find another excuse.
Further upthread, Vervain puts it more concretely:
It’s all selective–no one ever said, “I actually really like blacks/women/Jews/gay people, but my religion tells me I have to hate them, so I guess I gotta.” People take away from religion what they choose to take away from it [emphases in original].
This is both true and false. People have certain basal beliefs that they won’t let any abstract ideology detract from. A prime example of that is American Constitutionalism: an American who basally believes that censoring dissent is acceptable will not say, “I’d like to censor my opponents, but that would be unconstitutional,” but instead twist the Constitution’s meaning.
Bigotry and lack thereof tend to be more basal than religion. Religion is not even up to the level of liberalism or conservatism; it’s rarely something chosen freely among all the world’s possible religions, as opposed to something people believe as part of their cultural identities*. Someone who already accepts homosexuality will very rarely become a homophobe after reading the Bible.
On the other hand, Vervain’s overall point misses two complications. First, less basal beliefs – for instance, those involving science – are susceptible to the influence of religion. Creationists are creationists precisely because the Bible, or the Qur’an, or the Mahabharata tell them humans were divinely created. If anti-evolutionism were a basal desire, we’d see it everywhere, not just in regions where the dominant religions contradict evolution.
Scientific and other intellectual beliefs rarely influence day to day life. Whether I am a Gouldian or a Dawkinsian matters little to my daily habits and core values. Compare that to bigotry: I deal with people of most races almost every day, so whether I fear black people or think Asians try to take over the world matters a great deal. It’s telling that racism is only a basal feeling against familiar ethnic groups. For the Nazis in American History X, blacks are the main enemy and the reason they became Nazis, and hatred of other groups is simply something they do because their chosen anti-black ideology demands so.
That complication is how certain religions can be directly responsible to many specific minor evils, while the major ones can be religion-independent. Opposition to stem cell research and evolution are two good examples of these evils; neither makes sense as a basal desire on a par with homophobia, sexism, warmongering, etc.
The other complication deals with the major evils: once it becomes a dominant social force, religion can influence people’s basal desires, and generally does so in a negative direction.
Nobody’s born a racist or a homophobe. It’s true that the average Christian homophobe doesn’t hate gays because of Leviticus 18:22 but rather looks up to that verse because of homophobia. But that homophobia developed in a society influenced by religious sermons; and the priests who gave them are sufficiently ideological that they would hate gays because of the Bible. That scripture alone makes hardly anyone a bigot is irrelevant when the people it does turn into bigots are religious leaders who’ll spread their hatred among average believers.
Incidentally, if we compare science to religion here, science will look a lot better. The main evils that people tar science with revolve around (pseudo-)scientific racism: early anthropology, eugenics, evolutionary psychology, even the Tuskegee experiment. But these are precisely things that evolved purely because of basal desires. Before Darwinian evolution gained credence, natural philosophers would often argue for polygenesis, that is that different races were created separately and God intended whites to dominate. Later, they’d reframe their racism from creationist to Darwinist language.
In this particular case, neither of the two complications applies. The first is entirely inappropriate, since on intellectual issues far removed from day to day life, science has almost invariably been on the side of truth. The second is a little more complicated, since the scientific establishment has promoted a certain technocratic attitude, but even that form of hierarchism has always been relatively weak, since every 25-year-old grad student could overthrow established doctrines given enough evidence.
* Note that people who convert to a different religion often change their cultural habits accordingly – for example, a Westerner who converts to Islam might adopt an Arabic name and generally modify his behavior to meet Middle Eastern norms. Arab immigrants to the US and Canada have little trouble living thoroughly Western lives while still being Muslims; but to the convert, the change in religion also signifies a change in cultural identification.