10 6

Steven Weinberg once said, "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion."

I've read this quote hundreds of times, and I never liked it, because it assumes that there are GOOD people and BAD people, like two moral 'races' or 'sexes'.
But humanity is not divided into good versus bad people.
The vast majority of us are both: sometimes good, sometimes bad, and it depends on circumstances to bring forth the bright or the dark side, and people can switch between both sides.
Just imagine a member of the Taliban, who has killed a few American soldiers, or who has beaten a woman in the street because of indecent clothing : is he a bad person to his inner core? He may also be a loving husband and father, a good friend, full of humour, helpful towards his neighbors.

Exceptions would be 'saints', those who always act altruistically (very rare), or psychopaths, who always pursue their private interests in a ruthless and criminal way, or even sadists, who love to cause pain in their fellow human beings, but they are very rare too.

I'd say that there are no 'good' or 'bad' people, because that presupposes a kind of moral essentialism. There are only people who sometimes act morally, and sometimes immorally (whatever that may be, depending on cultural frameworks).

Matias 8 June 21

Enjoy being online again!

Welcome to the community of good people who base their values on evidence and appreciate civil discourse - the social network you will enjoy.

Create your free account


Feel free to reply to any comment by clicking the "Reply" button.


I wholeheartedly do not agree with you. There ARE good people and bad people. Good people do bad things every single day. But they feel remorse for those things. They also feel sympathy and have empathy. Bad people are those who have none of those things, aka sociopaths. Sociopaths/psychopaths (at least 1 in 14 are...though I would argue that number is very low, I would say almost 1 in 5 or 6) are the actual bad people. The fact that you are adding them as a "well, except those people". Who do you think he was referring to??


I see your post as possibly over-thinking Weinberg's words.

...or maybe Weinberg under-thought them? When a, possibly, casual comment is taken up by a faction of society as a cudgel against another faction, it's time to deconstruct it.


I tend to agree with those who have said that we, as a species, have both “good” and “bad” (altruistic and violent) traits that exist within each of us. They are, after all, a product of evolution. But we have the ability to choose. We can decide that today we will not kill. To quote Captain Kirk from the Star Trek episode, “A Taste of Armageddon,“ we can choose to say:
“We're human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we're killers, but we're not going to kill today. That's all it takes. Knowing that we won't kill today.”

The problem with religions that claim to hold a singular truth is that their dogma can short circuit the altruistic tendencies of believers, replacing them with a demeaning, if not dehumanizing tendency towards those who do not believe “as we do.” Nothing is more dangerous to those who fervently believe than those who, whether within their midst or without, do not accept the party line. To spit out the Kool-Aid and refuse to take part is the worst sin one can commit… It is blasphemy!

Weinberg recognized what so many before him had observed: that reasonable and decent people could be coerced into allowing, if not doing some very ugly things in the name of their religious belief.

In the name of their religious belief, or political belief, or nationality, or race, or sports team, or, or, or...

If you agree that, as Solzhenitsyn said,

“The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.”

...then why would that battle line not also run through the heart of every human institution? Why only religion?

Why would an evolved trait disappear in all but one human institution?

It's what we see on the news daily in politics. Tribalism is everywhere. Try working for Chrysler while driving a Ford. Try rooting for a football team that is the rival of the college you attend.

Why blame a philosophy that begs us to love our neighbor as ourselves for its self-declared followers who fail to do so? Why not just blame the individuals who are being what, as you acknowledge, nature made them. Jesus, if he ever existed, is dead.

Tribalism existed long before anything like organized religion did. And if religions' attempts to civilize human beings fail, it will be the arms of tribalism into which we will most certainly fall again.

If the religions we have today are obsolete ( hint: They are. ) why not work toward their reform, instead of blaming them for their failures and pretending that if they just disappeared, then that battleline that evolved in the heart of every human being would then just magically evaporate, because... religion bad!

@skado Of course religion is not the ONLY source of virulent tribalism. The altar of religion has, for millennia, been in league with the throne. I loathe the concept of monarchy almost as much as I despise religion. Were up to me, any and all vestiges of royalty would face the same dustbin of history as religion. To quote Wilfred Owen:
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


I agree, people do not divide into two tribes, the good and the bad, that is a crude simplistic dualism, which is about as useful as most dualisms. ( Not at all.) But that does not mean that there are not good and bad people, by which you may mean, people who are mainly beneficial to the larger society, and people who are harmful to it.

While anyone who thinks about it, even at a very shallow level, and only for a second, will probably, and I would say correctly, suspect, that human social behavior is probably distributed according to the standard distribution, AKA the bell curve. With a few very anti-social people ( moral criminals ) at one end, a few moral saints at the other, and by far the vast majority of people clustered in the big group in the centre. But at the same time, while everyone's position on the line in relation to other people is mainly fixed, relatively, it would still be true that they can move up and down the line under the influence of ideology. Both as individuals and groups. So that people raised in or inducted into a bad culture may be expected to behave more anti-socially than those raised in a good culture, which sets higher standards of moral behavior. Though it is also true that there are no wholly good or bad ideals and cultures either, just some which are kinder than others.

But that leads back to the original assumption, of people as dualistic and divided into two tribes, good and bad. Which I am sorry to say is an idea and attitude, and a false one, which has deeply damaging effects on society, and which I am also sorry to say, is one which we have inherited from religion, especially in the west from Christianity. Which set up a moral myth of things like saints and devils, as its main metaphor and the basis of its moral code, and as a justification for its other myth of those lost forever and the saved, with nothing between. Which even the followers of Islam think of as primitive idea. And sadly it is exactly primitive ideas like that, which make it unsuited to the modern world. It is simple not good enough any longer to use such ideologies any longer in a world which has and understands better ones, without the misleading baggage.

And while Christianity and other religions may move some people up the scale of good social behavior, they will also move some down. ( All ideals probably do both. ) So that the real question is not. "Does it make people better ? " But. "Does it make more people better than it makes worse ? " And certainly Christianity has some very bad effects, not least the whole two tribes of good people and bad people idea, which we started with, which is so easily made to fit along with other imagined social dividing lines, such as class, race, nation hood, geography etc. enlarging the horribly. And also the fact that by ignoring the majority in the middle, and only celebrating its few saints and great sinners, it effectively sets up a culture, in the central majority, of irresponsible giving up on morality, because it is too demanding, and the falling back on the other great Christian myth of easy cheap forgiveness, ( Only available to the true believer of course. ) which was created exactly out of the need to address the problems created by the dualism. And the myth of universal cheap forgiveness along with impossible moral ideals, creates the moral indifference and lack of wider social responsibility , common among many, though not all, Christian cultures.


I dislike this quote too, for the reasons you mentioned, plus it simply isn’t true at any level of analysis. It reveals a hateful prejudice as bad as any religious fundamentalism. It commits all the errors it accuses others of. And it is tribalism at its most insidious.

It pretends that otherwise “good” people are never tempted by ambition or money or status or power or sex, or indeed, by tribalism. And for as popular as it has become among atheists - the people who are so fond of bragging about their superior knowledge of objective reality and their reasoning skills - it pretends it knows what religion is, when the professionals who study it are never as sure of themselves. To paraphrase Richard Feynman’s famous quote about quantum mechanics, “If you think you understand religion, you don’t understand religion.”

skado Level 9 June 21, 2022

Exactly like that.

@Matias Yes, but Nazi Germany was, in effect a state run cult! It had all the trappings: a savior (or prophet), a priesthood, ritual (and plenty of it), and a virulent and an unyielding dogma. You could join the Nazi party, but to leave it would be nothing less than treason!

When you start calling everything that is infected with tribalism a religion, then the word religion loses its meaning. Religion is religion and politics is politics. Why not just acknowledge that the human instinct for tribalism is the problem, wherever it is found, and that it is found everywhere humans are found?

@skado So where do you place cults in your worldview of religion? Do you consider Jim Jones, David Karesh or Sun Myung Moon religious figures? At one point, nearly all religious leaders were considered off shoots or sectarians from the mainstream, whether you’re referring to Mary Baker Eddy, Ellen G white, Joseph Smith, John Calvin, Martin Luther, or Jesus Christ himself!

Well that’s a fair question. But not an easy one.

I think of politics as primarily about the distribution of power. And within that broad category there are systems that are more equitable, and systems that are more despotic, often with no clear lines between the two.

Religion is similar. Some are earnest attempts at relieving human suffering, and some are the handiwork of sociopaths. But no government or religion is lily-white, because they are all made of human beings, being human.

I think, historically, we have to recognize the cults as belonging in the religious category, because they governed congregations - not countries. But from an evolutionary perspective, they are imposters. They mimic religions in order to parasitize the unsuspecting. Real religions serve the evolutionary purposes of engendering social cohesion and personal emotional buoyancy. And as always... the dividing line is fuzzy, but the extremes are reasonably clear.

And as with biological evolution, the religious systems that serve reproductive fitness are replicated for many generations, whereas systems that serve madmen end up as colorful one-offs.

@skado “Real religions serve the evolutionary purposes of engendering social cohesion and personal emotional buoyancy.”

Please provide a list of religions that are both real and not real.

That’s a lot of work you’re asking for. What are you paying? 😁

All religions that have lasted thousands of years are probably serving fitness. All religions that died with their founders, probably weren’t.

@p-nullifidian Note first Skados obvious self contradition. In his first comment he says. "it pretends it knows what religion is, when the professionals who study it are never as sure of themselves." Then in answer to you. "When you start calling everything that is infected with tribalism a religion, then the word religion loses its meaning. "

Something is very wrong here don't you think. Actually, there are plenty of professionals who can and do give perfectly good definitions of religion, as with any word, and most of those definitions work quite well and rarely contradit each other. The variation on the argument from ignorance fallacy being used here, "We can't understand it therefore no one can." is a common one among appologists, including the dishonest professional ones, who are I think the only ones meant, and its use just shows the damage that the appologist culture does to people.

For what it is worth, which may not be much. My own working definition of the word religion, which has served me quite well, is that. Religion is a synonym for the fallacy of, 'proof by authority'. Whether that authority comes from tradition, ad populum, or the supernatural. And your example of the Nazis fits that perfectly well since they tapped into all of those sourses of fake authority to create their illusion.

While some are able to employ the useful lie argument, the sort of dishonest arguments the supporters of that position employ, and the illogical rabbit holes they are led down, is itself a perfectly good example of why it is not a good idea. It should for example be pointed out that the Nazis were working in a mainly Christian or post Christian culture, and therefore they found a population who were already preconditioned to be uncritical of indoctrination and the proof by authority method. When once you start down the useful lie road, then it is much easier to find the branching points to ever other lie, including the very bad ones, and there are no warning signs.

@skado Just because a particular religion lasts for centuries does not mean it will last forever. The graveyard of religions is littered with the remnants of dead gods such as Zeus, Mars, Apollo, Ra, Thor, Ishtar, Odin, Baal, Horus, Athena, etc. The same fate awaits Jehovah, Christ and Allah. All religions have their time and then eventually pass away. My goal is to do what little I can to accelerate this process. 😉

Nothing lasts forever. A religion doesn't need to last forever in order to be considered evolutionarily beneficial. What has, and will last as long as Homo sapiens does, is religion itself. It doesn't matter which religion we use - they come and go. What matters is that we have one. This does not apply at the individual level of course, but it has always applied at the society level. And you don't want it to be otherwise. It's what makes your comfortable, civilized life possible. You have no obligation to participate, but those who do are carrying your load for you.

@skado Good. Then you can abandon the old discredited and corrupt theist traditions, and adopt the rationalist humanist belief systems then.


I don't believe that anyone is all good or all bad. I am nonetheless comfortable labelling someone as "good" or "bad" if, on balance, one side vastly outweighs the other.

It's not true, strictly speaking, but it's a useful shortcut.


Are there both good and bad people? Most certainly, but it takes a situation you are aware of and your moral views to find out who that person is.


If it is their nature, and depending on the situation, people will choose to act badly or decently. I have known people who would always choose to act selfishly for their own interests at the expense of others. Does that mean that they can't act decently? Of course not. I have also known people who have done the opposite. Does that mean that they can't act badly? Of course not.

However, I have also known others, who have been influenced by religion, who have been indoctrinated to hate, condone and call for the murder of those who do not conform to their beliefs. Much like racism, which is also belief, that has been ingrained in a person early in life. They were not born racist, they were indoctrinated by those in their environment. That is what this quote is dealing with.

Calling for the death of homosexuals, atheists, or anyone that doesn't conform to their beliefs because of a religious conviction is sick, just as it would be if it was because of racist convictions.

You are trying to put religion on a pedestal and exempt it from any wrong doing, which is wrong in itself. If you consider yourself a decent person then you have proven the point of the quote.


The quote works because whether you or I believe in "good" or "bad" people, religious people do. And, it's calling them out on supporting a book that condones slavery, rape, genocide, etc. Even better that they try to cherry pick only what they believe from the book. So, yes, the quote doesn't perfectly fit reality, but it's perfect all the same.

Good points.

@Matias My point is that it's good for calling religious people out on their BS or at least to force them to look at what their so called holy book wants them to do vs. what they actually do. Most xtians would say stoning for adultery is barbaric, but according to their old testament, this is the proper punishment. So, what can they say when it happens in the middle east? Your last sentence is what TST is built on. They officially don't believe in a Satan, but they use it against those who claim to believe. Works quite well as a foil against xtian nationalism.


I choose to look at it in terms of ignorance. Although we are all ignorant to one extent or another, the more ignorant one is the more likely they are to be swayed by nonsense and act in a way that is considered "bad". Although this is not always true I find as a general rule it does apply.

@Matias Valid point. There are exceptions. I to have family that are uneducated and ignorant. Although uneducated doesn't always equate to being very ignorant especially in this day and age. Your mother may well have been quite intelligent. My mother is quite ignorant and fairly religious but morally quite good.

I suppose it comes down to morality to a large extent. Although morality is taught it's also something we all have innately with some having a stronger sense of it than others. Religion, as with other things, can lead a person down whatever path they find morally acceptable.

Write Comment
You can include a link to this post in your posts and comments by including the text q:672838
Agnostic does not evaluate or guarantee the accuracy of any content. Read full disclaimer.