Cyanide, Aspirin, and Breath Mints

My experience teaches me that it is rare for a skeptic to differentiate between the religions.  Not for identification’s sake, but in discussions of the real or perceived evils done in the name of religion, or by religious adherents.  This was especially true following the terror of September 11th.  My suspicion is this is an intentional blurring of the lines.  I think the skeptic feels intellectually insulated from having to fuss with the details.  But the details are the most significant aspect of the religions.

Nearly all the world’s religions affirm a particular deity or deities.  For many skeptics, “god(s)” is the single most important identifying factor, and therefore, it is “religion” — regardless of the specifics — that matters when talking about religious evil.  As stated above, there are at least two important aspects in this discussion that skeptics fail to make distinctions.

The first is the differences in the details of the religions.  Since I like analogies, I’ll offer one.  Cyanide, aspirin, and breath mints all come in tablet form.  If these three tablets are defined only by their relatively similar shape and size, they do appear to all be alike.  But would it be accurate to say the three are all pretty much the same?  Obviously not.  Their differences are  more important than their single unifying feature.

In fact, it would be silly to blame Altoids™ and Bayer™ if people started dropping dead of cyanide poisoning.  To be sure, even skeptics would see such an equivocation as nonsensical.  But for some reason, it seems perfectly rational to some skeptics to lump all religion together because they all come in “God” form.  Post-September 11th, some skeptics started blaming tablets rather than cyanide.

The second problem, is the lack of differentiating between actions done in the name of an ideology, and actions done by a person who happens to hold a particular ideology.  This might not seem to be a big deal, but the difference is immensely important.  If the reader will indulge me in another analogy which I think makes clear the distinction.

Police officers are sworn to both uphold the laws of the State, and the policies of the department for which they work.  If police officers started regularly pulling over citizens who speed, but then robs and assaults them, the officers are acting outside the set scope and boundaries of their sworn oaths.  They become robbers and assailants who are police officers.  They are not robbing and assaulting people in their official capacity of police officers even though they may be wearing a uniform at the time.  However, if officers pull over citizens who speed and issues warnings or tickets, they are acting in accord with the scope and boundaries of their oaths, and they are being good officers.

Again I ask: Does it make sense to blame the occupation of police officer because of those who abuse their authority?  Or do we rightfully blame the particular officers who abuse their power, acting outside the capacity of their official duties?  This is one of the more important and precise distinctions.  There is one religion in particular, that by prescription — and in context — advocates violence.  In this case, the adherents who perpetrate violence in the name of their religion are acting in accord to its teaching (See: The Prudence of Islamophobia; Religion Is Peace?) .  Other religion’s adherents who perpetrate violence, however, are acting outside the dictates and — though are members of the religion — are violent not in the name of their religion.

It’s my opinion, that these equivocations are made by skeptics in order to afford them — in their own mind — the intellectual satisfaction of their skepticism.  If all religions can be reduced to tablet form, it’s much easier to fight against (i.e., “tablets are dangerous”).  Getting in the lab and breaking down the tablets to examine and discover the ingredients takes a lot more effort.


  1. In some countries the police do rob people. They issue false speeding tickets and are corrupted in many other ways also. Those police are acting within the common culture of the said country and their actions are often a result of the pay for a police officer to be so low. Do we actually blaim the individual police officer, or the common state of officials in said country? We know the effects of the pills you mentioned. We also know the results of religions and actions done in their name. Maybe buddhism would be the breath mint among religions, but if islam is syanide christianity is arsenic. Your analogies do not hold ground.

    Religions in general have many different interpretations among the adherents. The fundamentalist interpretations almost any religion are often very violent. Though, there are many kinds of violence and terror. Who are you to say which interpretation of any religion is the right one. Is that not a matter of faith? Historically, religions (and other ideologies) turn out to be really dangerous when fundamentalist agitators and demagogues manage to convince masses that their intolerant and violent version of them is the correct one. This usually happens when nations face severe trauma, or the despair of the poorest people has lasted long enough. This is easily witnessed in the islamic countries of today, or in christendom during the crusades and the colonial period. But even in western countries of today we have religiously motivated intolerance towards other people.

    You would like to separate one semic religion from others by your interpretation of it. This is the new form of antisemitism.

    • You keep using “Fundamentalist,” considering that particular word is used so many different ways the meaning has become lost (at least to me). So if you would please give me your definition of the word…thanks :)

      • Thanks for finally commenting! But I think it has become such a derogatory slogan, the term’s use is not consistent with an actual definition and more like someone who has the audacity to believe they are right and those who disagree are wrong.

        • Actually, “Fundamentalist” is only one who follows the fundamentals of their faith or profession. I sure want a fundamentalist CPA doing my taxes, and a fundamentalist pilot flying the airplane I’m in, and I was a fundamentalist air traffic controller! I am still a fundamentalist Christian – one who follows the fundamentals of the faith. And it is fundamentalist Muslims who are terrorists and those who support them.

  2. Better analogy: beans and nuts. Just fine for most people, but some people die from beans, and some die from nuts due to allergies. That’s the concern. Better yet, alcohol. Most people are fine, but some kill themselves or ruin their lives. Some can be recovered, but only by recognizing the issue and taking action. It’s not that all religions are the same, it’s that there are core pitfalls that we skeptics and humanists see causing havoc in religious populations and people.

    The two problems are supernaturalism and dogma. Supernaturalism manifests in the form of god, prayer, chakras, ghost stories, sacrifices, and other totems. There are two sub-issues. First is the idea that some magic power can make the world a better place. This pulls the focus on human ingenuity, caring, and action and then people dance in circles, drink poison, shut their eyes and pray, and otherwise engage in dangerous and/or meaningless actions that fail to solve the world’s problems. The second sub-issue generally but not universally found is the idea that this life is unimportant, and only rituals and practices focused on the eternal afterlife are important. More lives have been wasted or sacrificed on this than any other idea. If you believe in an afterlife (or a future life) then you are likely to discount your current life to the point of sacrificing life, liberty, happiness, and ethics to reap a future reward or avoid a future punishment. This isn’t a necessary outcome, but it is a pitfall to be carefully avoided for those that are inclined to a religious world view.

    Dogma is the second great pitfall to avoid, and by dogma I mean the acceptance of religious claims and practices by decree and authority rather than by consideration of evidence. This has stifled science and medicine and general ignorance, promoted xenophobia, racism, sexism, and general intolerance…. IT just locks the mind into the past… a past often populated with hatred and violence. That’s how people were before breaking those chains of dogma and discovering the world and each other.

    Both those issues, dogma and supernaturalism, put fellow humans into categories of “others.” Those that do not follow divine decrees or have the benefit of divine protection are less worthy of true love and caring. They are worthy of condescending re-indoctrination or they can have ostracism or death. That splits religious communities into the haves and the have-nots of godly favor (and the have-a-lot clergy who prance around enforcing dictates by their fiat and collecting money).

    Not all religions are bad, but they do have the character of supernaturalism and dogma. Avoid those pitfalls and what remains of your religion should be love, community, and progressive improvement. When you embrace your fellow humans and continue to learn about the world around you, you will necessarily have a better life. That is extremely difficult when locked into supernatural and dogmatic religion.

  3. John, Your analogies were right on target and I will have to remember them for the future. Obviously, though, liberals still don’t want to acknowledge the truth.

  4. Just a quick note – as a person and a skeptic who isn’t concerned with details – but with a serious migraine on day 2 and not enough drugs to dull the pain

    I just don’t see the details and particulars as being meaningful enough in a big picture discussion.

    No religion has any more evidence than any other so none are more valid than any other – so this religion or that religion is really beside the point of a discussion about the harms done because of religion.

    And getting down into details and specifics, just seems like hairsplitting and creating the appearance of significance where there is none.

    It’s really the same as people who say that I can’t know I’m a lesbian unless I have sex with a particular man – generally the one making the argument.

    The idea of sex with men is icky to me, so this man over that other man, doesn’t negate the basic ick factor.

    So, what those religious believers did versus these different ones over there – doesn’t change anything in the discussion that there’s no empirical evidence for religion.

    Religion and political ideas are dangerous ideas and both will drive their fanatical adherents to violence under the right conditions.

    The same does not hold true for skeptical or atheist thoughts – no one is strapping a bomb to their bodies and walking into crowds and screaming “For Nothing Whatsoever” and detonating themselves.

    as the saying goes, science flies people to the moon and religion into buildings.

    any attempt to focus on details and difference, is just an attempt to exempt the particular religion of the given debater from being painted with the same brush as all the other religions.

    • Actually, Christianity, along with Judaism, do indeed have more evidence to support them as being the true faith, making all others false. But I doubt if it is worth discussing such things with you.

      • Glen

        the Abrahamic religions are Judaism as the first one and Christianity and Islam as second generation rehashing of Judaism.

        There’s no evidence to support that Jews were ever slaves in Egypt, and no evidence for Moses, David or Solomon – and with that critical storyline lacking evidence, everything else falls to the wayside.

        Additionally, there are over 35,000 sects of Christianity alone

        so if there was one true religion, then I would expect there to be only one of it.

        that said, I am more than happy to be presented with actual evidence, because no one I’ve ever discussed the topic with has been able to provide evidence.

        So, if you have some that is not sacred texts, because those are not evidence, those are the claims.

        That is not subjective experiences or feelings or wishful thinking.

        But solid empirical and undeniable evidence – I’d be interested.

        I would like nothing more than knowing that there is a cosmic balance of justice, but there’s just no evidence out there to support that desire.

        • Actually, off the top of my head, I know there is indeed archaeological evidence for King David since I have read that engravings were found mentioning him.

          Islam is NOT a rehash of Judaism – not even close. Christianity is NOT a rehash of Judaism, rather it a continuation and fulfillment of it.

          I’d like to know where you got the number of 35,000 sects.

          I’d suggest you find the book, “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist.” You should find it enlightening. Besides which, the evidence for God is all around you. This stuff didn’t just happen by accident, and if you believe it does then it takes a lot more faith to believe in eternal matter!

  5. Terrance H. says:

    My experience teaches me that it is rare for a skeptic to differentiate between the religions. Not for identification’s sake, but in discussions of the real or perceived evils done in the name of religion, or by religious adherents.

    I have noticed that myself. Good post.

  6. Well, to Christopher Thomas Booth, if what I meant whith “fundamentalist” was not clear from my post, I shall give a couple other words that are not quite synonyms, but serve the same purpose. How about regligious zealot or fanatic? Maybe not all fundamentalists are fanatics, but most fanatics rather see themselves as fundamentalists.

  7. I wrote a post with nice diagrams to differentiate between various religions in terms of benefits vs harm. Check it out.

    Some Atheist got pissed at me for this. I am sure you will disagree with my rather subjective numbers and with my presumptions, but ya got to admit, the idea is nice, eh?

    Concerning your broad generalizations of skeptics. I don’t think their agenda is as thought out as you imagine — but neither of us have a way to substantiate our perceptions. But I agree that lumping religions hides too many important details.

  8. There could actually be archeological or even historical evidence for the human characters of the Bible to have existed. And even if there were not, it does not make them unplausible. It is only their claims about the supernatural that remain unsubstatiated.

    There is ample evidence that historical person called Tacitus existed, but as for yet his claims for cynecephalons and other mystical creatures has remained without evidence. For over thousand years after his death people believed in those (christian & others alike). Today they no longer are plausible. Same should apply to mythical entities in the Bible, but of course the Bible has more profound cultural meaning than the writings of Tacitus. Yet, that does not make it true.

    Islam actually is in a way a form of “rehash” of christianity. In many ways it is a logical continuation to where christianity had stopped at the time. It is sort of refined and tuned monotheism, but even so, that does not make it any more true than the others. The claims about supernatural are as invalid as whith all the other religions. What does it matter if there are 3000 or 35 000 different sects of christianity, as all of them promise the only way to salvation is through that particular cult, chances are you are not part of the right one. Hell of a lottery! Especially as there are all the other religions, their sects and cults out there also.

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