"Bad things are done by religious people in the name of religion just as bad things are done by scientific people in the name of science (e.g., Mengele)."This tu quoque is meant to deflect criticism of faith by those who, like me, consider it epistemically inadequate, irresponsible, and dangerous. But the problem posed by theologically defensible religious doctrines causing people to act in horrible ways must still be addressed, and on that matter, apologists are often quite silent except to say that their theologically defensible interpretation is the right one. With no principled way to adjudicate among the many interpretations of God's mysterious will, this defence of faith simply falls short.
But does science need a defence against this tu quoque? I think not.
Let me explain.
Behaving "in the name of" someone means having the authority to act according to his/her instructions which are, in turn, in keeping with his/her values. For example, if you buy a house in the name of someone, as you might do if you have been given power of attorney, they get the house - not you. Similarly, if you're instructed to sell someone's shares at a lower price than paid, you aren't to blame for the loss. Acting in someone else's name implies the authority to do so, and relieves one so doing of blame. Already, we can begin to see a motivation for why one might want to claim to be acting in the name of someone else.
Acting in the name of science similarly means behaving according to the instructions of the scientific method, which are, in turn, in keeping with the values upon which science is built. One who doesn't value testability, evidence, objectivity, and parsimony can hardly call herself a scientist and can hardly act in the name of science. This is important: just because someone says that s/he is acting in the name of science doesn't make it true. There is a fact of that matter that is independent of mere opinion.
Examples of widely recognized scientific instructions include minimizing bias, making precise measurements, performing careful experimentation that tests falsifiable predictions or retrodictions, open reporting of methods, and ensuring that results are reproducible.
Josef Mengele MD, PhD, one of history's most notorious villains, did many of those things. An SS Nazi officer, he is also responsible for the murder of thousands in the gas chambers. But he is best known for the vile experiments he performed on prisoners, especially children, prior to their murder in concentration camps where he worked. It has been claimed, apparently, by Mengele himself and others, that he did what he did "in the name of science". For the record, I have not been able to identify a source indicating that Mengele made this claim. If you know of one, please share a link in the comments below. Nevertheless, the notion that he did, and that he said as much, is widespread enough that it deserves attention.
What exactly did Mengele do that was noteworthy? Was it that he chose subjects for genetic investigations who shared identical genes (twins)? Was it that he kept detailed records? Was it that he made careful observations? Those things, we could coherently say he did in the name of science because science, as a method of acquiring knowledge, prescribes them. But none of these things are noteworthy. If that was all that Mengele did, nobody would have any reason to talk about him. What he did that was noteworthy was torture and murder his victims in unspeakable ways without a care for their well-being, and on that behaviour, science is completely silent. Science doesn't tell us that we should care for the well-being of research subjects; ethics does. This is why universities have Ethics Review Boards (ERB's) that ensure that scientific experimentation is carried out according to the highest ethical standards. They aren't called Scientific Review Boards because the question of whether research is carried out ethically is not a scientific one; it's a moral one.
If an amoral psychopath like Mengele undertakes unethical experimentation, his claim that his immoral behaviour is entailed by the demands of science is incoherent - it doesn't make sense. It's just a lame attempt to deflect blame by trying to suggest that the authority and instructions to have so acted came from something larger than oneself: in Mengele's case, science.
I hope that you are beginning to see how inadequate an excuse this really is. Those who advance the notion that Mengele acted in the name of science are suggesting that what he did that was noteworthy, that was evil, was done in the name of science, and that's just misleading because it's completely incoherent. Perhaps Mengele did those experiments in the name of the German cause, or in the name of selecting the supreme race, but neither of these motivations can be said to be scientific. There's nothing about science that tells us that we should try to dominate the world, or purify a particular race or species. Ironically, Nazi antisemitism had its roots in centuries old Christian influences.
Now, I'm not arguing that scientists can't be bad people who do bad things even while doing science; in every bunch, there will be rotten apples. To be perfectly clear, I am arguing that the claim that scientists can do bad things in the name of science is incoherent, and to it, an end should be put.
But what of religious people who do bad things in the name of religion? Should we stop making this claim because it's incoherent, too? Well, if, like science, religion provided no moral instructions and completely lacked authority on moral matters, then yes, we ought not make it. But the very people who make the incoherent claim about evil done in the name of science are also the ones quick to emphatically argue that without God and religion, there can be no morality. As Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig puts it:
"In a world without God, who’s to say whose values are right and whose are wrong? There can be no objective right and wrong, only our culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments. Think of what that means! It means it’s impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can you praise generosity, self-sacrifice, and love as good. To kill someone or to love someone is morally equivalent. For in a universe without God, good and evil do not exist—there is only the bare, valueless fact of existence, and there is no one to say you are right and I am wrong."But now watch how this backfires as Craig argues how with God, one can justify and praise war, oppression, and crime as good with frightening ease. Here he is again on God commanding the Canaanite genocide:
“So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgment. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalising effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.”
"By setting such strong, harsh dichotomies God taught Israel that any assimilation to pagan idolatry is intolerable. It was His way of preserving Israel’s spiritual health and posterity. God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God."Is it possible to imagine a moral compass more poorly calibrated (but internally coherent!) than that of perhaps the most formidable Christian apologist of our time? That, it seems, is where acts coherently done in the name of religion - with the authority and by the instructions of God, in keeping with God's values - can and do regularly get us. Last year, the Institute for Economics and Peace found that religion played a significant causal role in one third of the world's violent conflicts and was the main cause in almost half of those*. Consider the horrific but hardly covered genocide undertaken by Boko Haram in Nigeria at this very moment.
The idea that evil can be done in the name of religion is completely coherent because religion is entirely in the moral business of telling us what God values, what we should value, what God wants us to do, and what we should do. Religion defines the good and the bad as well as our moral obligations, or so its adherents believe and regularly inform. What people believe really does matter and really can motivate good people to behave very badly.
It's worth pointing out that not all religions endorse evil behaviour equally well. I'm not the first person to recognize that it would be completely incoherent for a team of Jain assassins to have stormed the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and murdered innocent cartoonists while this heinous act makes perfect sense in light of the Islamic doctrines of Jihad and martyrdom.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and people around the world are contemplating how it came to pass that humans could be so cruel to their fellow humans. My contribution to this effort is to note that Nazism had much too much in common with religion:
"People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable." - Sam HarrisAnd while admittedly incomplete, the words of Stephen Weinberg are also worth remembering on this occasion:
Frederick Douglass told in his Narrative how his condition as a slave became worse when his master underwent a religious conversion that allowed him to justify slavery as the punishment of the children of Ham. Mark Twain described his mother as a genuinely good person, whose soft heart pitied even Satan, but who had no doubt about the legitimacy of slavery, because in years of living in antebellum Missouri she had never heard any sermon opposing slavery, but only countless sermons preaching that slavery was God's will. 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.
*A strong case could be made that this report significantly underestimated the influence of religion and religious ideology in violent conflicts.