If Naturalism is True, Religion Should Not be Blamed for Suffering


by Marcus Otte


One of the chief complaints against religion is that it has been the cause of tremendous suffering worldwide. The crusades and inquisitions are the examples most often cited. Sometimes, it is (quite ludicrously) claimed that “most” wars have been caused by religion. Others worry that religious influence upon legislation is a slippery slope to theocracy, and therefore, to tyranny. The conviction that faith is inherently irrational is a common thread among those who make such arguments.

But the impact of religion upon history is so pervasive and complex, it requires a singularly narrow focus to see its hand primarily in war and torture. “To blame religion for the wars conducted in its name,” as Roger Scruton has said, “is like blaming love for the Trojan War.” Our English word “culture” comes from the Latin cultus, meaning both worship of the divine and the cultivation of land. Early cultures arose from communities brought together in worship and in food production. For most of human history, civilization has been grounded upon worship. The thoroughly secular state is a recent experiment. Those ideas on which the secular state has staked its legitimacy—human dignity, equality, personal autonomy—are survivals of earlier, religiously formed cultures.


The complaint that religion is principally a cause of suffering is—I would argue—imbalanced and myopic in perspective. But for this article, I will set that criticism aside. There is a more important point to be made: blaming religion as a cause of suffering is not consistent with standard versions of the naturalist worldview. Naturalism is the belief that only natural things exist. It denies the existence of God, as well as souls, angels, supernatural virtues, etc. Virtually all modern atheists are naturalists.


If naturalism is true, then everything in the cosmos operates in accord with natural laws. Whatever happens was bound to happen (setting aside indeterminacy at the quantum level), thanks to the antecedent conditions and the relevant scientific laws. But those conditions were themselves bound to happen by earlier events, and so on, back to the beginning of the cosmos. If everything is natural, then it does not seem that anything non-physical could exercise causal power. For this reason, the ordinary stance among naturalists is that only physical things bring about physical effects in the world. Standard versions of naturalism require “causal closure,” according to which all physical events are brought about by previous physical events. If naturalism is true, then causal closure seems to also be the case.

If there is causal closure, the activities of your brain are simply part of the chain of physical causes. Nothing non-physical can interfere in the chain. Either your conscious ideas are simply states of the brain (as Mind-Brain Identity Theory claims), or your ideas are indeed non-physical, but have no causal power to affect your brain. On the latter view, your ideas and conscious decisions are merely “supervenient” or even “epiphenomenal.” Your ideas and choices do not influence your actions, or anything else in the physical domain, in the slightest. They are instantiated by brain activity, but do not affect the brain. Nothing is allowed to break the chain of physical causes.


But this means that, if a standard version of naturalism is true, so that causal closure holds, then we are faced with two possibilities. Either no human idea has ever caused anything in history, or ideas have caused things, but are nothing but physical states of the brain. If the former is true, then religious belief has never caused anything, and religion cannot be truly blamed for any suffering in the world. If the latter is true, then ideas do indeed cause things, but in a manner wholly determined by prior physical causes, stretching back to the beginning of the cosmos and governed by natural laws. In that case, ideas cause things, but they cannot be blamed for anything, any more than you could blame rain for falling. Religious ideas and the people who hold them could not be morally culpable for any suffering they cause.    


Now, a person might object that this is all quite silly. Ideas have an impact on the world, and we can be morally responsible for acting on our beliefs, good or bad. I agree. This is an excellent reason to reject naturalism. If the truth of naturalism would give strong reason to accept causal closure, and causal closure is inconsistent with beliefs that are foundational to moral and practical reasoning, then this tells against the plausibility of naturalism.


Editor's Note: Article was updated on January 9th, 2018 at the request of the author.

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