Some folks get their jollies by watching competitive sports. Not me, though - I insist on being weird. When I want to watch a competition where one side gets soundly beaten, I watch debates. The latest of these was between Sam Harris and Robert Wright. (Watch it on YouTube.)
Now, both Harris and Wright are technically atheists, but they disagree on the details. Wright agrees with Harris that religion is wrong, but parts ways with him when it comes to religion being bad. It's Wright's contention that religion is always neutral in any situation, neither bad nor good. He claims that the bad that Harris would attribute to religion is actually caused by other factors: cultural, political, socioeconomic, etc. He even goes so far as to characterise the the Israeli-Palestine conflict as a "land dispute".
This isn't the first time Wright has argued for this position. I've seen him do it once before with Christopher Hitchens. It seems to be his "shtick". He even admits when challenged that the question of religion's neutrality is a hard one to answer; that he hasn't done enough research or gathered enough evidence to be firm in his conclusion; and that it's his "intuition" about it. This is starting to sound more and more like an a priori assumption to me. It's amazing the wriggling he'll do to defend it, as well. In the debate with Harris, Richard Dawkins happened to be in attendance. During the Q&A, he asked Wright (in so many words) whether the conflict in Northern Ireland would exist without the artificial religious labels that continue to fuel it. Wright's prevaricating answer suggested that the conflict grew out of an imbalance in the two groups' access to power. This didn't go a long way to answering Dawkins' question - the concept of being two distinct groups would never have existed in the first place if not for theological differences - but whatever.
Basically, any time someone gives an example of an evil in the world that is ostensibly caused by religion, Wright will dutifully trot out a rationalisation that conveniently absolves religion. As he's not religious himself, one wonders why he bothers - but one can uncharitably speculate. When Harris asked him why he's against criticising Islam, but not against criticising the comparable (and quasi-religious) situation in North Korea, he said "Well, what are they gonna do?" Perhaps Wright is being hypocritical. He's okay with stepping on an ant hill, but not knocking on a bee hive.
Anyway, it's not my intent to figure out why Wright argues for the neutrality of religion. It's my intent to refute it. You'd think Sam Harris could have done so amply in the debate, but he seemed a little off his game (though Sam Harris on a bad day is still a force to be reckoned with). Unfortunately, the conversation turned to Islam more often than not, and much time was wasted with Harris reiterating its dangers. "There's a reason why we're not all lying awake at night worrying about the Amish," he said, making a great point in his great quotable style. But he said nothing that began to cut through Wright's argument and kill it at its root.
Wright's clung-to position that "religion is always neutral" is twofold: when an example of an evil of religion is brought up that he can't quickly dismiss, he'll move the goalpost, shifting the meaning of neutral to mean that while religion actually can inspire bad after all, it also inspires enough good that it's on balance neutral again. Once more, of course, he says this is difficult to measure and that he doesn't have any concrete foundation for his claim. (One wonders, then, why he makes the debate circuit arguing such a shaky claim.)
Both claims of neutrality, however, are easily and quickly dismissed. It's a shame Harris didn't do so, because maybe we'd be spared further flogging of the idea by Wright in the future. Anyway, I'll tackle them.
First claim of religious neutrality: "Religion never inspires bad things, people do bad things anyway and use religion to defend them. Take religion away and they'll just justify the bad things with something else, such as bastardised science."
This seems like you could dismiss it easily by finding something bad that a holy book tells people to do, and find an example of people doing it. For example: Not treating gays equally. That's a foul thing to do, and it's caused by religion, right?
Well, it may or may not be (though I'd say that in most cases, yes, it is), but Wright's rejoinder would probably be something like, "Yes, but there are lots of religious people - even ones who follow the very same holy book - who don't do it. Therefore, the bigots are practising homophobia because of their culture or some other reason, and simply using "God's word" to justify their behaviour."
That's a pretty sneaky response, and it can send one reeling just long enough for the subject to be changed. And it works with pretty much any minority group.
Atheists. Pray tell, without religion, how there could possibly be such a phenomenon as discrimination against atheists? This is at least evil that can't be explained away as due to "socioeconomic factors" and completely hamstrings the argument that religion itself generates no evil.
Second claim of religious neutrality: "Okay, you might have got me there. Maybe religion causes that. But it causes enough good to make up for it in the end!"
This second claim is so facile that one wonders who couldn't shred it, but here goes. Doing good after doing bad doesn't make one good, or even neutral. The guilt of having done bad remains. For example, if I murdered someone, and then donated one of my kidneys or lungs to save someone else, would I be "neutral"? No, I'd still be in gaol for having murdered someone! At the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, Wright's claim is tantamount to saying that the Nazis were on balance neutral because, hey! they rebuilt Germany's economy while they were at it.
Unless I've grossly mischaracterised Wright's position, it's pretty clear that it's pathetically easy to take apart. Fortunately for him Harris was fixated on Islam for so much of the talk; because if the light of reason had fully shone on his silly notions, they would have been embarrassingly revealed as unclothed in logic or consideration.