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The Santa Delusion: Why ‘Religion Is Useful’ Is a Terrible Argument For Religion

Happy_face_ball “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!

Comments

  1. says

    I agree with the idea that people using the utilitt argument are on the fence between belief and non-belief. I have never heard a hardcore believer use the Santa Defense.

  2. says

    I was on the fence for a good while myself (and I suppose I still am, to a small extent). But I was never stupid enough to actually use the utility argument.
    Living in one of the more atheistic (and peaceful, and advanced) countries in the World, it would indeed be completely backward and self-defeating.
    Realising this is not particularly difficult, and goes a long way towards pushing ones mindset to atheism.

  3. Stonyground says

    The utility argument was put forward in Britain in the nineteenth century. Among elevated thinkers it was decided that it was pretty much proven that Christianity was bunk and that where God was concerned Deism was the only kind of god belief that was tenable. The argument among these folk was not whether they themselves should still believe anyway, it was more about whether they should pretend to believe so as not to let on to the plebs. As it turned out, this decision was taken away from them by a very energetic freethought movement that grew up at that time.

  4. Nemo says

    Certainly the argument from utility is a stupid reason to believe for oneself, and the idea that’s it’s “useful” for others to believe what you yourself don’t is repugnant. On a theoretical level, I have no doubt about this.
    But then I look at this girl I love, smart, kind, a progressive, her religion (if you can even call it that) as benign as you can imagine. Her grandfather died not along ago, and it seems to comfort her to think that he’s in heaven. And I think… do I really want to take that away from her? It gives me pause.

  5. says

    Well … I just went over to read the full article on AlterNet and now I’m sad. I just found out there’s no Santa (sobbing).
    Just kidding …
    :^)
    On a more serious note, I had a “sophisticated theology” conversation with my daughter when she was in elementary school after she learned how the Santa racket really worked.
    She had suspicions that Mom and Dad were really Santa. She asked Santa for a limousine and all she got was a Hot Wheels limo. No real limo …
    Being a natural skeptic, the pattern she saw was that “Santa” could only bring stuff your parents could afford to buy. Maybe “Santa” was Mom and Dad putting stuff under the tree while she was asleep?
    A few years later, I mentioned the ideas of Martin Buber (Jewish theologian and philosopher) and they might be applied to this Santa thing. Buber suggested that God didn’t exist a remote theistic being but rather could be found in the relationships between people.
    I asked her if Santa “existed” not as a jolly elf but instead “existed” in the generosity happening between people during the Christmas season.
    She gave me a skeptical look in reply and thought that this “sophisticated theology” approach to Santa was pretty silly. Or perhaps I should have called it “sophisticated Santaology”?
    :^)

  6. Nosmo King says

    Hey, “The Santa Delusion” is the title of my seminar at the Very Big Atheist Conference, held each April 1st (stomps feet demanding a shout-out or something) :). I mean, it’s in the catalog and everything, if only I could hyperlink to save my life…

  7. says

    When someone presents an argument like this to me, I take the tack that people are also (good, happy, charitable, able to find purpose, whatever) without religion. People also find it traumatic to find faith and fear they are going to hell.
    Whatever it is that determines whether someone is happy or sad, kind or cruel, charitable or stingy, there is no indicator that religiosity is the deciding factor.
    Because of that, it’s a non-argument.

  8. says

    Nemo:
    True. Though depending on the specific religion, it can be quite a relief to realise just how unlikely it is that something like Hell exists (and that many great, decent and likeable people will go there).
    That my own (or other people’s) continued existence in Heaven after death is equally unlikely seemed to me a small price to pay.
    But it is difficult, and I would have a hard time myself arguing about this with someone who is close to me.
    Still, I don’t really like being dishonest about it. And I feel this kind of dishonesty might hurt a relationship in the long run. Though admittedly, I don’t really have any experience on that particular account.

  9. says

    Here’s what I wrote about Santa on my blog just one week ago at: http://chainthedogma.blogspot.com/2011/07/faith-evidence-and-immoral-drug-war.html
    Children also suffer from the religious confidence trick of indoctrination. There is a reason most religious evangelism focuses on children. They are easy targets for spiritual fraud because they already have confidence in authority figures such as their parents and religious teachers. It is easy to exploit their credulity and naïveté to trick them into believing in faith-based fantasies rather than evidence-based reality. But the con doesn’t stop with just convincing little children that God or gods are real, or that they will live forever in paradise if they just believe, otherwise most children would eventually out grow their belief in imaginary religious figures and places, just like they out grow their belief in Santa and his toy factory at the North Pole.
    No sane parent continues to push the Santa story on a child that has grown to reject that particular myth because of common sense and observable evidence, so that belief is easily discarded at a certain stage of childhood. The myths of religion, on the other hand, are constantly reinforced throughout childhood and adolescence with dogma that prevents critical thinking and disables a child’s ability to discern the difference between reality and fantasy. By the time a child subjected to such indoctrination reaches adulthood it is extremely difficult to escape the imposed religious worldview. For example, any child convinced to accept the religious fantasy of creationism over the scientific reality of evolution is a victim of a con job of the highest order as it can infect their worldview throughout their life. Nothing could be more childish than to believe that the Biblical creation myth, and other events in Genesis such as the flood and Noah’s ark, were literal events that happened exactly as described. Yet many adults who were indoctrinated with creationist lies as children retain that childish belief contrary to the advice in I Corinthians 13:11 to “put away childish things”. The childish thing in that example of creationism is holding a belief or an opinion on an issue when there is no evidence to support that view and all the evidence supports the opposite position.

  10. Azkyroth says

    And, on that note, atheists who insist that while religion is, of course, contrafactual, people who aren’t as smart as they are probably need it to give them hope and guidance and a reason to be moral – no matter how many temper tantrums they through when you strip away the equivocation and misdirection and characterize their argument in these stark terms – are essentially reducing everyone else in the world to mental and emotional children.

  11. says

    Sure, it’s obviously ridiculous to suggest that being useful makes religion’s claims true. But I don’t think that’s the most important part of the “religion is useful” claim for atheists and humanists.
    Religion plays various (social, emotional, community, etc.) roles in people’s lives. So, people who rely on some functions of religion, are motivated to accept the whole bag — including a lot of bad stuff that they might otherwise reject. We need to ask ourselves (1) what sorts of things do people get from religion? and (2) how can atheist and humanist groups fill those needs?

  12. Sastra says

    I think the simplest way to address Nemo’s question on whether he really wants to “take away” religion from the girl he loves is for him to shift the question directly to her. I assume she already knows that her boyfriend is an atheist. So ask her outright:
    “If your religion is not actually true — would you want to know? Is it so useful, so easy, and/or so convenient that you would you rather go on believing anyway? Or do you think that no, if it’s really not actually true, you’d rather face facts and figure out a way to deal with them? You’d want to change your mind.”
    You can tell her that you’ll respect either answer, in that if she picks the first horn of the dilemma you’ll back off from discussing religion with her. Of course. You can. It’s polite, it’s kind, it’s generous. Agree to disagree and move on.
    But in a sense both you and she will know that giving the first answer is a bit … weak. Forgiveably and excusably weak, perhaps — we all have our foibles, large or small — but it does establish the circumstances here, the set up. Since society will no doubt provide most of the encouragement and praise towards the person who Believes, it may help if she realizes that she doesn’t really hold the high ground here.
    You know, there is already a technical philosophical term for people who advocate, promote, or argue for a view while not caring whether or not it’s true, because they have a different agenda. They are not liars; they’re not advancing a known falsehood. But true or false isn’t the issue. Some other issue is the issue.
    The term is “bullshitter.”
    “For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” — Harry G. Frankfort.
    The “purpose” behind bullshit isn’t necessarily a bad purpose though. It could be a good purpose, a noble agenda, a benevolent and kind goal, fraught with the very best of intentions. But people ought to be able to call it what it is.

  13. says

    Nemo: I think this is a classic example of context and timing being essential. As a general rule, do I want to take away the “comfort” — i.e., false hope — that religion offers people? Yes. Mostly because I think the comfort to be found in atheism and humanism is far more powerful… if for no other reason, because it’s not based on self-deception.
    But do I try to do that when someone is in an acute state of grief over a very recent death of a loved one? Absolutely not. Not unless they specifically and explicitly ask for my opinion, without any prompting from me. That is, IMO, grossly inappropriate to the point of being cruel. That is personal axe-grinding at the expense of basic human compassion. No.
    Here’s an analogy: When my cat Lydia died, and I wrote about it in this blog, one commenter very persistently expressed the sentiment that he thought Lydia’s soul lived on and that I would see her again… despite the fact that I had explicitly asked people not to do that, and despite the fact that I repeated this request in the comment thread. He claimed that he was merely trying to offer comfort… but given that I’d made it clear that I didn’t find such sentiments comforting, and in fact found them to be salt in the wound, his persistence made it clear that he did not want to offer comfort. He wanted to proselytize for his religious views.
    And he was choosing a grossly inappropriate time and place to do it in. I am fine with people making arguments for theism and the afterlife in my blog — but an obituary was a horribly inappropriate forum to do that in. When someone is grieving, you don’t make arguments. You give them support and love. You save the arguments for another time.

  14. says

    Greta:
    Also true. Though it does bring up the question of when such discussion becomes appropriate again.
    The right answer to that is likely and annoyingly: “depends” and “use your own judgment”.
    I have played with the thought of bringing up atheism with my closer family, but I am acutely aware that the recent death of two grandparents would make this a particularly bad time for it.
    It might in fact be a few years till I am seriously going to consider it.
    But if I wanted to start a relationship with someone, the whole question of faith is one I would like to clear up beforehand.
    It’s not quite the same as deliberately confronting someone in an argument, but I can imagine situations like this making it a bit complicated.
    But that’s life, I suppose. In the end, it does indeed depend on the exact context.
    By the way, I just had a random, semi-related thought on atheism: I have noticed that my life-experience is no longer being prodded and overridden by a 2000 year old book.

  15. says

    I’m an atheist, but from a historical and evolutionary point of view I see clear examples of religion’s utility in:
    – wars – belief in an afterlife is a primitive but efficient way to suppress self-preservation instincts in soldiers
    – society – shared rituals enhance the bonds in community; shared faith increases the in-group trust (and usually increases the distrust to non-group members)
    – compliance – “numbing of the brain” by religion makes the populace easier to rule and less likely to turn against authority
    I’m not arguing the above are morally good things, but when looking at it from a group evolution standpoint, religion is a strong asset in group competition from the level of tribes to nations. It enhances the “us vs them” mentality, which is considered wrong in the modern days, but has been very necessary in the past. As much as I believe we don’t need this type of mentality in the modern times and hope it won’t be needed in the future, I fear it greatly depends on another group considering “us” a part of their “them”.

  16. Steve Jeffers says

    A little while ago, I made this comment on Pharyngula in a similar vein:
    You atheists have it all wrong – no one these days thinks of Father Christmas as an old man with a white beard flying around on a magical sleigh.
    We Christians understand now that ‘Santa’ is far more awesome than that – the name we give for the perfect expression of Christmas presents, or gifts generally. More of an energy field. In fact, modern quantum physics certainly doesn’t rule out the existence of Santa at all. And this is a view shared by many Eastern spiritual traditions. And so that means it must be true.
    Presents have to come from somewhere. Even if the theory of parental selection is true, then surely it’s Santa working through the medium of parents. If a parent earns money, gives a lot of thought to a gift, goes to the shop, buys it, carefully wraps it and then hands it to their child, then surely Father Christmas is working through them and deserves all the credit? There’s nothing incompatible with that and my belief.
    A flying red nosed reindeer could not evolve by natural selection, but don’t tar us with the ‘creationist’ brush. Rudolph is clearly symbolic – a metaphor for something or other.
    And, yes, many of the various Santas that we know of in malls and department store grottos have been proved by so-called ‘science’ to not be the real thing, but that just goes to show how naive scientists are. This isn’t a valid area for science to study. It’s not as though ‘this exists’ is some kind of meaningful or testable claim, is it? If I say ‘Father Christmas lives at the North Pole’, it’s not like scientists could go up there to check, is it? What does ‘North Pole’ even mean?
    Anyway, I don’t envy you atheists. Without Father Christmas, what would stop me being naughty instead of nice? If I wasn’t going to get presents at the end of the year, I might as well go around stabbing people and raping animals. What a horrible, empty life you atheists lead. Why are you so obsessed with animal rape?
    Even if Father Christmas didn’t exist, we should act as if he did. There’s nothing to lose. If we’re wrong, we won’t get any presents.
    Hitler didn’t believe in Santa Claus. Although he made speeches saying he did, and there are photographs of him dressed as Father Christmas, that in no way means he really believed
    Only 52% of Americans would vote for a politician who didn’t believe in Father Christmas.
    Santa Claus demands total faith. It says that in my Bumper Anthology of Santa Stories. Belief in him is, basically, the only thing he values. He doesn’t even mind if you’re naughty, as long as you believe in him. Oh, and he recently sent some of his elves to Uganda to lobby their government to criminalize homosexuality. Not that I condone that personally.
    Merry Christmas, atheists.

  17. Steve Jeffers says

    “We need to ask ourselves (1) what sorts of things do people get from religion? and (2) how can atheist and humanist groups fill those needs?”
    Yes, this.
    I think atheists have started to get better at this, mainly by adopting a ‘science unveils a far bigger and more wonderful universe’ approach.
    To fight comforting lies, we need to concentrate on the comforting truths. ‘Relax: you are not actually being spied on by a creature that will send you to a torture camp for all eternity because you did something he didn’t like’ being the best one, I think.
    As a gateway drug: ‘relax, you can still go to church even though you know it’s bullshit’ is a great one, I’ve found. Sure, you *can* still spend all that time and money supporting that team you don’t *actually* support any more …

  18. Nurse Ingrid says

    Steve Jeffers, I like the cut of your jib.
    The Sophisti-macated Santa Theology especially.

  19. Liz says

    What I typed out below reads as a bit like flame war baiting, but I’m honestly wondering how atheism can help people in the situations I describe below. I’d appreciate any thoughts if anyone wants to comment.
    I was thinking the “useful” thing when looking at blogs of moms who had stillborn children. There is this whole subculture of these mothers thinking that their babies are growing up in heaven and they’ll see them again someday. They base a large part of their lives around this. One couple I knew started a charitable organization in honor of their dead child and have helped people.
    I don’t know if this would work so well if they were atheists.
    The other thought I have is that sometimes I desperately want to help people but feel like there’s nothing I can do. If you’re religious, you can pray for whomever and feel like you’re doing something. It’s just horribly depressing to think that there is NOTHING that you can do.
    So I think religion is helpful in some cases from keeping people from spiraling into deep depression because their baby is DEAD DEAD and there is nothing they can do to help their dying friend etc. etc. It may not be true, but it’s better than hitting the bottle etc. and may spur people to do something productive out of their sadness.

  20. Liz says

    Well thinking a bit more about it, these bereaved parents also struggle A LOT about why it was in God’s plan to take their baby away, and struggling to love God/Jesus even though it was in a plan for them to be in terrible grief. So in that way, a secular/humanistic solace could be mentally healthier in some ways.

  21. Jade says

    so this may be waay of topic, but is there a single ethical justification for telling a child that santa is real. i mean it doesnt even seem practical, sure a child will behave better invthe run up to christmas, but like religious believers still committing sins, they’ll probably forget about it the rest of the time. and in the long run the child is going to be pretty distressed when they learn that you’ve been lying to them in an attempt to control them almost all of their life. again the probably off topic, but the article got me thinking, that if telling people god is real isnt ethical why would telling them santa exists be ethical either? especially since in that case it is a very deliberate lie.

  22. Robert B says

    @ Jade: I think a lot of times Santa is just played as a story or a game – at least, that’s how my parents did it. No one actually says that he isn’t real, but he occupies a similar place in the kid’s mind as Mickey Mouse or Spongebob. Young kids aren’t 100% on the concept of reality yet anyway. As long as they’re filling in big patches of the world with imagination because they don’t have understanding yet, I don’t see any harm in giving them something to imagine that involves presents and cookies and cool animals and a secret hidden workshop.
    That said, my parents never really pulled the Santa-as-behavior-control thing much. That’s a little wonky. Also, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is a really creepy song, and I never liked it even when I was little.

  23. says

    Jade: In principle, I agree with you. I don’t like lying to children, and if I had kids, I wouldn’t do the Santa thing.
    But that being said: The psychological studies I’ve seen show that the Santa thing doesn’t do harm to kids. There’s sometimes some short-term upset when they find out Santa isn’t real, but there very often isn’t, and even the short- term distress passes quickly. And it’s turns out to not be a big trust-breaker or anything. Kids seem to treat it like a game their parents were playing, not like some terrible breach of trust. It’s more like if your partner told you “lies” to keep a surprise birthday party a surprise. That seems to be how kids frame it.

  24. Steve Jeffers says

    “It may not be true, but it’s better than hitting the bottle etc. and may spur people to do something productive out of their sadness.”
    As ever, Douglas Adams got it right, I think. Read ‘Is There An Artificial God?’ in Salmon of Doubt where he notes that *sometimes* acting *as if* something is true can be helpful (he uses Feng Shui as an example).
    The dead child thing is a really hard one for atheists, as is the dead parent one. At a recent family gathering I was basically confronted with ‘well … are you saying that Grandpa *isn’t* in Heaven looking down on us and smiling?’. And of course he isn’t. I can manage a little sleight of hand – ‘if he was here, he’d be smiling’, but no further. They saw through my ‘If you find that belief comforting’ line. But somehow engaging the Inner Dawkins seems inappropriate: ‘where’s your evidence, you deluded chump?’.
    It’s a comforting lie. And there are enough of those in the world. It’s an offensive belief, ultimately. And those people are far more interested in Grandpa smiling down on them approvingly than they ever were in talking to the guy when he was around.
    I think atheists have to accept that we also believe in comforting lies from time to time. Of course the BMI tables don’t apply to me. Of course this house is worth more than I paid for it. Of course my high level of education makes me a more moral individual.
    Aesthetically, I think atheism is more comforting. I think Lennon’s Imagine sums up why best.

  25. Bill says

    I have a real problem with the Santa myth. It is all well and good for those children who are in a position to provide the requisite presents, but what about those children living in poverty? Those that miss out? Those that have, nevertheless, have been told that ‘Santa is checking if they are naughty or nice…’ I find it hard to believe that these children don’t suffer some psychological harm from believing in Santa and then being disappointed. Perhaps, this damage is subsumed into the rest of the challenges that life throws at these kids.
    I think this provides a good parallel with one of the problems with religion. Believers are told to be good and god will reward them. They are told to pray and god will reward them. And when they follow these instructions, but then there life is still crappy, for whatever reason, the have three possible responses:
    1. Console themselves with ‘my reward will cone in heaven’. This is religion as a comfort.
    2. They can come to the realization that religion is bogus and begin the journey that many who read this page have gone through.
    3. They punish themselves, they become wracked with guilt (‘I obviously haven’t been good enough’), they punish themselves, they worry about their ultimate fate (‘I am going to hell; god doesn’t love me’). They are psychologically scarred and increasingly miserable.
    Which path they go down depends on their mental strength, their ability to sort through the years of indoctrination. The most vulnerable suffer the most.
    So, yes, religion can provide comfort to some; but this comfort to those people can not morally justify the pain and suffering religion imposes on the psyches of others.

  26. Michael says

    A list of some interesting publications on the usefullness of religious self-deception:
    http://evolution-of-religion.com/publications/
    (e.g. group cooperation, evolution of morality, belief in someone watching and judging our actions, altruism, reciprocity and martyrdom, religious wars, and evolution of religions themselves):

  27. Steve Jeffers says

    “I have a real problem with the Santa myth.”
    Looking at the kids I know, I think it’s a great gateway drug to atheism.
    Pretty much every kid starts to question how it works, the mechanism, who says, why didn’t I get the Barbie I wanted even though I raised $1.5M for local charities this year and saved three people from drowning?
    And there’s evidence for Santa, and it’s all cause and effect. Jesus is pretty weak beer to an eight year old – eternal damnation when they die in eighty years, if they do bum sex. Well, yeah, not really as relevant as ‘clean your teeth every night this year and you’ll get a toy’, is it?
    I seriously think that all the seeds of atheism are sown by Santa. He doesn’t exist, it was all made up, the people telling you he existed were lying, some naughty kids get better rewards than some nice ones. You know: just like God.
    So, three cheers for Santa. It is a bit cruel (a little like teaching a child anatomy by giving them a pet puppy and a scalpel), but it does set the right wheels in motion.

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