“The deafness of many philosophers, social scientists and historians to the spiritual dimension can be remarkable. And this is the more damaging in that it affects the culture of the media and of educated public opinion in general. I take a striking case, a statement, not admittedly by a social scientist, but by a Nobel Laureate cosmologist, Steven Weinberg. I take it, because I find that it is often repeated in the media and in informal argument. Weinberg said (I quote from memory): “there are good people who do good things, and bad people who do bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.”
On one level, it is astonishing that anyone who lived through a good part of the 20th Century could say something like this. What are we to make of those noble, well-intentioned Bolsheviks, Marxist materialist atheists to a man (and occasional woman), who ended up building one of the most oppressive and murderous brace of regimes in human history? When people quote this phrase to me, or some equivalent, and I enter this objection, they often reply, “but Communism was a religion,” a reply which shifts the goal-posts and upsets the argument.
But it’s worth pondering for a minute what lies behind this move. The “Weinberg principle,” if I might use this term, is being made tautologically true, because any set of beliefs which can induce decent people, who would never kill for personal gain, to murder for the cause, is being defined as “religion.” “Religion” is being defined as the murderously irrational.
Pretty sloppy thinking. But it is also crippling. What the speaker is really expressing is something like this: the terrible violence of the 20th Century has nothing to do with right-thinking, rational, enlightened people like me. The argument is then joined on the other side by certain believers who point out that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc., were all enemies of religion, and feel that good Christians like me have no part in such horrors. This conveniently forgets the Crusades, the Inquisition, and much else.
Both sides need to be wrenched out of their complacent dream, and see that no-one, just in virtue of having the right beliefs, is immune from being recruited to group violence: from the temptation to target another group which is made responsible for all our ills, from the illusion of our own purity which comes from our readiness to combat this evil force with all our might. We urgently need to understand what makes whole groups of people ready to be swept up into this kind of project…”
–Charles Taylor in “Statement At The Templeton Prize News Conference”, http://www.metanexus.net/magazine/ArticleDetail/tabid/68/id/9827/Default.aspx