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The cost of religion

Sometimes people will ask, “What’s so bad about believing in God? Even if it’s just a myth, it still gives people hope and a sense of purpose. What harm does that do?” If it were simply a matter of motivating people to live good lives and hope for the best, we might say it does no real harm at all. But that’s not all there is to it. There’s a cost to religion. Consider this argument, made by Heather Hughes on the Knoxville News Sentinal web site.

The main comment I seem to hear from atheists regarding Christianity is, “Prove it.” The truth is I can’t. But isn’t that sort of the point? If I could provide solid, undisputed scientific evidence of God’s existence, there would be no need for faith. That trust is an essential part of following Christ.

Faith, in other words, is when you put forth the effort to make yourself believe something for which there is no evidence. As a matter of fact, faith is when you drive yourself to believe things that are actually contrary to the evidence:

Often atheists, and at times even Christians, struggle to believe based on valid questions, many of which I can’t answer. I don’t know why there are natural disasters or why some lives are cut short due to sickness or violence. Even something as simple as why skunks and gnats exist is something I find myself asking occasionally.

But I have to return to that trust that I mentioned and just accept that God’s ways and thoughts really are higher than our own.

Faith, in other words, turns out to be ordinary gullibility—believing things that are contrary to fact and reason, just because “you’re supposed to.” Gullibility has a deservedly bad reputation, because gullible people deceive themselves and open themselves up to exploitation and abuse (and sometimes even self-inflicted abuse). And yet, when you take this same approach to believing things, and call it “faith” instead of gullibility, suddenly it becomes virtuous. People actually admire you for your ability to confront the evidence, and deny it. And that’s the cost of religion: it makes a serious handicap sound like an admirable virtue.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that religion causes gullibility, or that only religious people are gullible. People are more than capable of being foolish all by themselves. But the cost of religion is that it actively discourages gullible people from recognizing or addressing their problem, and worse, it actively encourages them to become even more gullible, in the name of strengthening their “faith.” Hence people like Heather Hughes, arguing that paper cuts are evidence for God.

That kind of self-inflicted gullibility would be bad enough if it were limited to religion alone, but it isn’t. Read the right-wing commentaries on Obama, who is supposedly socialist, communist, Muslim AND Nazi, all in one. How do people get so unhinged? How can any rational person end up believing things that are so far removed from reality, and that even contradict themselves?

By faith. Once you embrace the idea that it’s a virtue to believe things in spite of the evidence, your beliefs are free to wander wherever whim or fad may lead them. The more extreme and unevidenced your beliefs, the more remarkable believer you are. And thanks to religion making a virtue out of unevidenced faith, you want people to be impressed with what a remarkable believer you are.

The consequences are beginning to be seen in our nation today. The faith-based community is racing to see who can prove themselves to be the most faithful, and is producing front-runners who sound like absolute lunatics, at least to the reality-based community. And many of these believers are in positions of political power, and are making decisions that affect the lives of millions, based on whatever beliefs happen to be popular at the time. But the consequences of these decisions won’t be faith-based.

That’s the cost of religion. It encourages people to isolate themselves from reality, and to vote for leaders on the basis of beliefs that have been rendered impervious to fact and to reason. Those leaders are making decisions that have real-world consequences that have burned us in the past and may do so again in the future. And oh look, today is voting day in the USA.

Good luck America.

Comments

  1. says

    The problem with all such argument from consequences is that consequences are hard to predict, differently evaluated, and depend heavily on each individual’s circumstance. I don’t think an atheist can predict confidently the consequence to an individual losing faith, any more than the believer can demonstrate evidence for their god.

    My own view is that if that is where discussion leads, that also is where it pretty much ends. When someone admits they believe something because it’s what they want to believe, or because they like the imagined consequences of believing it, they have admitted they aren’t much interested in rational thought on the issue.

    Many people never will be.

    • cafeeineaddicted says

      I don’t think an atheist can predict confidently the consequence to an individual losing faith, any more than the believer can demonstrate evidence for their god.

      But the atheist doesn’t need to address the consequence of a believer losing his faith, in order to call out faith as a problem. anymore than someone needs to confidently predict the consequences of an addict confronting his addiction before decrying heroin as an objectively harmful drug.

      One of a comment on what is the case and the other is a comment on what can be done about it.

  2. dustinarand says

    Perhaps something is gained, at either the individual or group level, that offsets the cost of increased gullibility. Maybe religious beliefs signal membership in a particular group and, so long as you don’t undermine those beliefs, will facilitate cooperation between group members.
    I’m not trying to say that makes religion good. I think there are other ways of signalling one’s commitment to a relationship of reciprocal altruism that don’t also run the risk of justifying racism, xenophobia and genocide. But as a historical matter, I think you have to acknowledge the effectiveness of costly signalling behaviors at facilitating group cohesion.
    As for being isolated from reality, I think our modern technological society has done more than religion to make that possible. Religion just exacerbates it. Consider that you don’t have to understand technology to use it and benefit from it. So you can hold all kinds of stupid beliefs and get along just fine in society. There is no cost to disbelieving evolution, for example. In a more primitive culture, there would be a closer correlation between erroneous belief and negative life consequences, since those beliefs would be tested on a day to day basis in real life situations, whereas in modern society we are so insulated in our information bubbles, passing judgment about all manner of abstract questions, that there isn’t necessarily any feedback that will correct our errors, unless we actively seek it out (which most of us aren’t keen on doing).

    • says

      In a more primitive culture, there would be a closer correlation between erroneous belief and negative life consequences, since those beliefs would be tested on a day to day basis in real life situations,

      Not necessarily. For instance, not believing in evolution in a culture that’s not able to make antibiotics has no negative consequences. in a society that can, it can have disastrous consequences. Similarly, a small-scale pastoral culture which believes that the earth has an infinite supply of resources if they just move on periodically is pretty much correct, for their purposes. For a modern industrial society, that’s another matter.

  3. frankb says

    Another consequence to gullibility is susceptibility to con artists. Apart from the question of whether religion makes one suscepible to other forms of gullibility, religion is a ripe field for exploitation. There is plenty of money to be raked in by peddling fairy tales.

  4. says

    The more extreme and unevidenced your beliefs, the more remarkable believer you are.

    Unless your beliefs contradict mine, of course. Then I laugh uproariously at the lack of evidence for your beliefs…. unless you’re campaigning with the party I always vote for. Then I’ll ignore the lack of evidence for your beliefs which are contrary to my beliefs.

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