“But religion is useful. It makes people happy. It comforts people in hard times. It makes people better-behaved. And losing religious faith can be traumatic. So what difference does it make if it isn’t true? Shouldn’t we be perpetuating it anyway — or at least leaving it alone? Why do you want to persuade people out of it?”
Atheists hear this a lot. The argument from utility — the defense of religion, not because it’s true, but because it’s psychologically or socially useful — is freakishly common. If you spend any time reading debates in atheist blogs or forums, you’re bound to see it come up.
Now, when atheists hear this “But religion is so useful!” argument, our most common response is to say, “Is not!” We eagerly point out that countries with high rates of atheism are also countries with high rates of happiness, ethics, and social functioning. (This doesn’t prove that atheism causes high social functioning, of course — in fact, it’s probably the other way around — but it does show that high social functioning doesn’t need religion.) We’ll point out the many, many examples of religious believers who cheat, steal, murder, and generally behave very badly indeed… entirely undercutting the notion that religion provides an unshakable foundation for good moral behavior. And we’ll point to ourselves, and to other atheists we know — people who clearly don’t need religion, who are living happy, ethical lives without religion, who in some cases are even happier and better without religion — as the most obvious counter-arguments we can think of to this argument.
These are all fair points. I’ve made them myself, many times, and I will no doubt make them again. But there’s a basic problem with all these wonderful fair points.
They make the argument from utility seem valid.
And I don’t want to do that. I think the argument from utility is absurd on the face of it. I think the entire idea of deciding what we think is true based on what we want to be true is laughable. Or it would be, if it weren’t so appalling. I’ve seen this argument advanced many, many times… and it still shocks me to see otherwise intelligent, thoughtful adults making it. It is preposterous.
So today, I want to dismantle the entire premise of the argument from utility. I want to dismantle the entire premise that it’s reasonable, and even a positive good, to believe in something you have no good reason to think is true… simply because it makes you happy.
This begins my latest piece for Alternet, The Santa Delusion: Why ‘Religion Is Useful’ Is a Terrible Argument For Religion. To read more about why the argument from utility is such a terrible argument — and to find out what Santa’s got to do with it — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!