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Oct 12 2007

The case against religion

In the previous post. I argued that more education did not necessarily lead to less religion and that if one thought that its net effect on humanity was negative, one needed to more actively campaign against it. But others disagree. Even those who accept that religion has done some truly evil things might argue that the good that it does compensates (at least partially) and merits preserving it. The mere fact that it is false, it might be claimed, should not be sufficient to cause us to undermine it. They could point to children believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, that these are examples of false but benign beliefs. What is to be gained by destroying such innocent illusions?

But the reason that beliefs in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy are benign is because children are deliberately weaned away from such beliefs before they reach adolescence. If we did not deliberately do so, who knows what might happen? We might end up having wars with armies of the followers of Santa Claus battling with those of the Tooth Fairy. Having adults who are capable of causing great harm believing in magical false things is usually not benign. We are unfortunately all too aware of the truth of Voltaire’s assertion “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”.

In a comment to a previous post, Corbin Covault argued that even though religion may be a human construct, it can still serve important functions that merit preserving it. He draws a comparison with government:

One could argue that both [religions and governments] are human social constructions. Both manifest in institutions which may give some great sources of benefit to societies and individuals, but both have also been great sources of destruction and oppression. Would it be fair to say that the argument that the “militant atheist” makes that the world would be better off without _all_ religions analogous to the argument that the anarchist would make that the world would be better off without any governments?

I think that we will all agree that religion can be the source of many good things and of many bad things. We will undoubtedly disagree on whether the net result is positive or negative. But the key question is not how the balance sheet between good and evil comes out for any particular institution, but whether that institution is the only one that provides those benefits, so that we have no choice but to also tolerate the evils that accompany it. With religion, I have argued before that every benefit claimed for it can be provide by other existing sources. If we get rid of religion, while we will lose both the good and the bad, my point was that we can regain every good thing lost using other means and institutions, so in the end we need only lose the bad things caused by religion.

The question then becomes whether we can say the same thing for government. If the answer is yes, then we should undoubtedly get rid of government but currently it seems like the answer is no. We know that there always exists a tension between the existence of governments and individual liberty. But we strike a deal, accepting the restrictions on personal liberty as the price we pay for peace and the benefits of community living. We struggle to define the proper balance between freedom and order. Although we currently seem to need some institutions of government, we are not committed to any one form. We are free to change them if they prove to be evil. We tend to deplore dictatorships and admire democracies and no particular government has any claim to divine sanction. There may come a time when people feel that no government at all is better.

A similar good-evil comparison can be made for science. Science has given us great benefits but has also been responsible for some terrible evils. No scientist can avoid the fact that we are, to some extent, complicit in the many evils done in its name.

My own physics research involved studying what happens when a high-energy photon strikes a nucleus and produces a short-lived sub-nuclear particle called a pi-meson. There is no obvious link between this and any weapons system, but that is deceiving. The whole field of study in which it is embedded, nuclear physics, is an integral part of weapons research. It is not inconceivable that someone else will come along in the future and find that my small and seemingly innocent contribution to the field is important in developing a component of a deadly weapons system. If it happens, I cannot claim complete innocence. Although I may have not intended my work to serve evil ends, the fact that it has the potential to do so is inescapable. No scientist can ever have clean hands.

While it is impossible for scientists to have a perfectly clear conscience, scientists are usually able to figure out rationalizations to justify their actions because the immediate goals of scientific research are usually to benefit humanity. Even those scientists who deliberately choose to work on things that are clearly destructive (the development of agents for biological and chemical warfare or more powerful bombs) usually can find some reason to square their consciences, by appealing to in-group/out-group thinking (“The enemies of my country/race/religion may also be developing these weapons and so I am doing this in self-defense and to protect humanity against a greater evil.”).

This was the kind of thinking of many scientists who worked on the Manhattan project during World War II that resulted in the creation of the atomic bomb. There is no reason to think that they were any more evil than anyone else. In fact, I have met and spoken with Hans Bethe, the Nobel Prize winning physicist (for his work explaining the energy production in stars) who was the leader of the theory group on the project and instrumental in guiding and shepherding the many brilliant scientists who worked under him. Bethe struck me as a kind and gentle man, who after the war worked for peace and disarmament. Einstein was the same. Although they both advocated for the development of a nuclear weapons program prior to the war, and their own groundbreaking research was the basis for nuclear weapons, they were also consistently a voice for peace. And there is reason to think that the scientists working on the opposing German nuclear weapons program, led by another Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg, were doing so for the same reasons.

It is possible for society to decide to make a judgment that science is too dangerous to continue and to shut it down almost completely. If governments refuse to provide funding for research and for agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, modern science as we know it would cease to exist, because we could no longer maintain a professional class of scientists. Of course, the spirit of scientific inquiry will remain and there will be amateur scientists whose thirst for knowledge will drive them along. But we have to remember that the emergence of the professional scientist, someone paid primarily to do research, is a relatively new invention. In England, such people only came into being around 1850, with Charles Darwin’s friends and colleagues Jacob Hooker and T. H. Huxley being two of the earliest. Darwin himself belonged to the earlier tradition of the amateur scientist who was independently wealthy enough to indulge what was essentially a hobby, or who had a job (clergyman or professor) that allowed them sufficient freedom and time to do so.

But in shutting down professional science, people would be aware that they would also be shutting themselves off from almost all the enormous benefits that science provides. And this is where the difference with religion arises. Although it can be argued that science and religion provide both benefits and evils, when it comes to science there is nothing else that we know that can be substituted to provide those benefits. We cannot keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater, so we make a Faustian bargain.

But in the case of religion, there is no benefit claimed by religion that cannot be provided by other institutions. The only real reason to continue supporting the idea of god is that it is true. Since there is no convincing empirical evidence at all in support of that proposition, religion becomes dispensable.

POST SCRIPT: Tortured logic

The Daily Show discusses the damage done to language by the ‘war on terror’.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    Cindy

    Assuming that society will become more secular over the next few decades (which I think is likely), the question is how is that likely to happen given that religion currently fills some enjoyable niches in society? As you mention, one possibility is that people will abandon their religion, and join secular institutions to fill the same needs. This obviously could happen, but I personally think it’s more likely that religion will get watered down until it’s no longer theistic/magical, but people will continue to use the same buildings and same communities for the same basic events. For example, you’d think a personal god would be pretty important to anyone who believed, but he’s getting surprising few mentions at weddings and Christmases. And churches are being used as meeting places for various secular groups, since they have empty rooms to rent. Religion has become highly customizeable, and I think that will lead to less magic over time. It just seems more likely that, rather than a revolution, these gradual changes will continue until Christianity becomes a culture rather than a religion, and people will slowly stop believing that the stories are anything but stories.

    (My husband suggests that Christianity seems culturally weaker than Judaism or Hinduism,with many fewer parties, or fun traditions, and so it might take this a little harder.)

  2. 2
    bob

    I think at the end of the day, people just want something to belive in. Religion provides this.

    Government, science, and other domains fail to provide this.

  3. 3
    Kathy

    It’s impossible to argue these issues, when the terms are so narrow. “Spiritual,” I would assume, is ruled out, because it is “irrational.” I can’t measure it in a lab, or meet it on a street corner with TV cameras to film the event. Ipso facto, the “spiritual” is illusory (and needs to be eradicated).

    Most people in churches (but who’s asking them?) would argue that worship and church fellowship address their spiritual needs. Which the average political rally does not.

    But we can’t mention spiritual needs, because these terms evoke magic and irrationality, and we’re back to the Easter Bunny.

    We can’t suggest that many people have had an experience of God in their lives. Sometimes even in church or temple. Pure crazy talk.

    So much for Buddha, Jesus, Muhammed, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Dorothy Day. Foolishly deluded folks, all.

    Stories, I agree, are nothing but stories. Romeo and Juliet, Oedipus Rex, the parables of Jesus, War and Peace, Lolita, creation stories of cultures around the world…Why would a modern, rational adult bother with any of them? I suppose they might provide an evening’s entertainment. But beauty, meaning, symbolism? Truth? Truth different from (but not exclusive of) the truth of science? Nope, there is no such thing.

  4. 4
    Mano

    Cindy,

    You raise a very interesting and plausible scenario. Maybe many years from now churches will have become neighborhood social clubs. . .

  5. 5
    Mano

    Kathy,

    Rationality does not deny the value of concepts of truth and beauty and meaning and symbolism. Rationality does not mean that we cannot learn many things from stories such as Romeo and Juliet and Lolita and even the parables. The point is that we know that all those stories are fiction, those characters never existed, and that those books do not prescribe standards for behavior. No one would accept a claim by someone that the book Lolita justified his pedophilia.

    I would not disagree with you if you are saying that we should put the Bible, the Koran, the Mahabharata, and other religious texts on the same level as Romeo and Juliet. Are you?

  6. 6
    Mano

    Bob,

    I agree that people do need something to believe in. I just don’t know why belief in god and religion is thought to be superior to a belief in love and kindness and justice and a sense of universal humanity.

  7. 7
    Kathy

    Mano —

    A good question. Not sure I can answer it even to my own satisfaction.

    My faith was re-energized in grad school, when, as an English major, I realized that the immense pleasure and profound, life-changing meaning I found in books I could find also, surprise!, in the Bible … that the stories there are complicated, human, ambiguous — like all great literature. My professors, most of them probably agnostics or atheists, spoke with great reverence of myth — including Biblical myth. I was attracted to the Trancendentalists and poets like Blake and other Romantics. I think Paul, for example, is another great spiritual writer — sometimes frustrating, but profound and moving and all the rest.

    This is a long way of saying that I don’t make much distinction between the Bible and other literature. But where I probably differ with you and Cindy is that I mean to say Romeo and Juliet is as spiritual and profound as those religious texts you mention. The word “fiction” might connote something different to me than it does to you and Cindy. I do not mean that the religious texts are “just” good, interesting books that can teach us a few things. I put all great works on a very high plane — as revealing great spiritual truths (not just life lessons). I know these terms sound pretentious, but I don’t know how else to express the ideas.

    I’m not exactly an orthodox Catholic…and one of the frustrations in reading your blog is that there are thousands of us believers who don’t fit the definitions you and some other posters seem to assume. When people dismiss the Bible as a collection of silly stories that only foolish people believe in, it seems to betray a childish understanding, not only of the Bible but of great myths and literature in general.

    The Bible is distinguished from other great books in its length, age, complexity, breadth, and depth of its wisdom.

    I do believe that Jesus actually existed. I think we disagree on that point ;-)

    I’d also argue that great books of all sorts do prescribe standards of behavior, although I’d never use those words exactly. I’d say that the great books (religious and otherwise) consistently communicate the value of compassion. Humbert is a monster, but Nabokov pulls off the amazing trick of making us care about him.

  8. 8
    Zar

    Mano, you use well too much bias in your writting. I know your a fan of Dawkisn and Harris et all, but woudln’t it behoove you to look at what your sayign relaisticlaly?

    Like when you employed the false dichotomy of “Religious people VS Scoentistss” in sayign religiosu peopel often critisised sicnetists for not takign arguemtns for god (soc) seriosuly. You just up and assumed all Sceintists where Atheists and that ther eis cnflict between sicnetists and rleigiosu people, which is not true at all.

    And in the last few posst its been abotu how Religion leads ot evil. Others have cited hwo this is a caracature.

    Hell, you even think the good doen itn eh name of rleigion can be doen in other institutions whilst arguing that we can be rid of the evils doen int hename of rleigion by getitng ri of rleigion. THat basiclaly asusmes that rleigion cna only truely motivate evil, and the good is smehow independant. Otherwise you have no case. ( Because the eivl can reaidly be done withotu rleigion, at leats hwo you nrowly define it.)

    ou also dont aruge that religion is false, and instead ismply declare it to be false. But this makes dialuge iposisble. How can soemone hwo hodls ot a rleigion tlak to you? You’ve alreayd decided that what they beleive is not true and therefore shoudl be extermianted. You also are remarkabely closed midned sicne you ruse to see evidence they may present to supprot theor beleifs. ( No Mano, Faith is not beleif withotu evidence. THose idiots you read like Dawkins and Harris are wrong.)

    You also make a stupid, purile, and even bigoted remark abotu rleigion in this paper. I dotn mean to offend, Im nto liek tyoyr Inspirations, but how can I take seirosuly your arguments agaisnt rleigion when they exist only to rpove relgion wrogn by demeanign it?

    You think that other thigns can eaisly replace rleigion liek Rotari clubs? Are you insane?

    No Mano, the good doen int he name of religion isn not just the community gettign togather to sing songs, nor do the charitable spirits of giving and lvoe stem soley from commuity gatherings. Religion acts as a mroal anchor, and provides direction nd purpose. If tou got rid of rleigion ( Which is imposisble, evben you and Dr, Dawkisn have deep religiosu faith) all you do is neutralise the means by which one understands the world.

    Rotari CLubs and community gatherigns woudl not fill the void if all the CHruches where closed down.

    In fact, if you look at the Soviet Union and other countrues that tried to get rid of rleigion, what you foudn was hopelessness and dispare. This was dispite the soviets providing useful alternatives to rleigion that you suggested. They provided clubs, meetign halls, gatheirgn centres, ect…

    Still many risked death rto worship in illegal and undergroudn chruches.

    And those Soviet-run clibs didn’t exaclty inspire good deeds.

    what you seem ti miss is that Rleigion acts as a mean of Psycological training, to help one internalise spiritual truths and to transform oens life.

    CLinical study after clinical study has shown that rleigion has the power to deeply affect how oen lives. This can of ocurse be used for good or evil, but it cannto be substituted by other institutions. It snot buildigns and gatherigns that makes religion so powerful to begin with its the beleifs that are taught by the religion and how they are used ot shape ones charecter.

    And you CANNOT drop religion without also removing the very thing that makes it benificial, the ability to mould and shape charecter and develop a conssitant worldview.

    If you did substitute such, you woudlnt be ridding theowlrd of reliion, youd just create a new religion.

  9. 9
    Mano

    Kathy,

    I think that very few people dismiss the Bible as just a collection of silly stories. I know I don’t. What I feel is that the Bible is a book written by hundreds of people over a long period and has undergone many ad-hoc edits along the way. So it is bound to be uneven in quality.

    There are undoubtedly many silly stories in it, and also vicious and cruel and barbaric stories. But there are also very profound and poetic passages. I myself like the style and message of the book of Jonah, though the literal story itself is preposterous. The book of Amos is a terrific call for social justice. And the book of Ecclesiastes is a marvelously written document.

    I do not find the New Testament very compelling as literature. Paul has some lyrical passages but generally annoys me as being a mysogynist and a misanthrope. The book of Revelations is totally nutty, which may explain its appeal to the rapturites.

    What atheists dismiss is that the Bible has any greater weight than any other book. Just like the others, it is written by humans for humans.

  10. 10
    Zar

    I may be wrong, Kathy, but I don’t think Mano argued that JEsus didn’t xist.

    Most Athest accept that he was a Historical figure.The Christ myth theory is a fringe theory not held by the majority in Academia, nor even most Atheists.

  11. 11
    Zar

    Mano, could the reaosn you find the New testament not compelling be that your baised agaisnt it?
    It does seem from your blog here that “Religion” generlaly means “Christianity” and you have a Christian background.

    It just seems your regurgetating the tired old usual claims agaisnt th eBible, such as “Paul was a Mysogenist” for the sake pf putting the text down. Paul wrote very little abotu women but to hear many tlak thats all eh spoke on.

    Lets nto forget the Gospels which are ignroed.

    And to call thebook of Revelaiton “Nutty” is to show a great deal of ignroance as to what the book actulaly is. Its a rich apocalypse text, designed with eloquent allegorical symbolism, which you dismiss as “Nutty” simply because you associate it with Rapturists.

    You haven’t, I sispect, really formed htis opinion base don an honest valuation fo the NEw Testament text, but on you own need ot discredit Christendom.

  12. 12
    Zar

    One last Adfd on.

    M

  13. 13
    ZAR

    “Bob,

    I agree that people do need something to believe in. I just don’t know why belief in god and religion is thought to be superior to a belief in love and kindness and justice and a sense of universal humanity.”
    The reaosn you don’t know why this is so, Mano, is the same reaosn you misspell the word god,w hen used as a proper noun, because you dont’ wan tot undersand it.

    You have deided to attack beelif in God ( used as a proper noun it is capped) so you spell it god, for the sake of insultign him.

    You also misdefine words, and misrepresent relgiiosu beleif, and bolster your atheism with Shermer, Dawkins, and Dennet, all in the interest in butressing your particular view ont he world. This you mistakenly call “Reason” when in fact its simply reinforced bias.

    Incedentlaly, theres a fmaosu passage form the New Testament, which although you find not good literature, ds address htis.

    “God is love”.

    Just because you don’t wan tot beleiv ein God, and wan tot conflae sicence with Ahteism and atheism with reason, doesn’t mean that beleif in God woudln’t engender kidnness, justice, and peace.

    And clinical studies shwo that ot often does.

  14. 14
    Cindy

    On the story point, I would point out that a large part of the New Testament is made up of the parables. I don’t think anyone believes that Jesus was telling factual stories. So even within the bible, fictional stories were a means of conveying ethical values in a very meaningful way.

  15. 15
    Heidi Cool

    Far too many ideas to cover fully hear, but I did want to mention that Christ as myth rather than historical figure is gaining wider acceptance by many non-Christians.

    Also I think given the space and time limitations involved in these blog entries it is important to look at the full meaning of what is written. I didn’t take Mano’s statement, “What atheists dismiss is that the Bible has any greater weight than any other book. Just like the others, it is written by humans for humans.” to be that all books are equal, merely that the Bible is not more important in and of itself. As a piece of literature I think we would all give it more weight than a romance novel.

    On a slight tangent, Mano did you see the Council of Europe’s provisional draft of Resolution 1580, The dangers of creationism in education? I thought it was quite well-crafted.

  16. 16
    bob

    Why is the belief in love or kindness better than the belief in a god?

    Both the idea of love and the idea of God have led to wars and murders. Both ideas have produced works of literature that cause people to pause and contemplate life. Both ideas inspire some and cause others to say ‘bah!’

    Why Mano do you continue to post entry after entry, month and after, when you seem to have already clearly decided that God does not exist?

    You have compiled a pretty impressive body of work. Nearly any argument for God has been dissected and analyzed. These entries are searchable and available to anyone who chooses to seek out intelligent discussion on this topic.

    Yet you continue to post.

    Why is that? Are you looking for a reason to believe?

  17. 17
    Mano

    Bob,

    I am glad that you think the series of posts has been comprehensive.

    The answer to your question is quite simple.

    I tend to write about things I know something about, and about ideas that are triggered by books I have read recently. I had read a spate of books on religion and wrote about them. Next week I will be moving on to other topics and I am also working on a lengthy series that examines the law and evolution in schools that will be posted when ready.

    The case for religion has been made by many people over the past millenia and thus has become part of people’s tacit knowledge, with many assumptions taken for granted, and that makes for a good writing challenge. Uncovering those many assumptions and showing why the arguments don’t work is not trivial and takes some time and effort. I relished the challenge of doing so.

    Also I enjoy refining arguments and making them more pointed, and this means going back and improving earlier versions of arguments, sometimes in response to comments and critiques.

    These posts are also meant to assist other atheists respond to the arguments of religious apologists, and so one has to deal with the many variations of the arguments for god that are presented.

    Am I looking for a reason to believe? No. Why would I voluntarily put myself back into an intellectual prison after I have experienced the freedom that comes with atheism?

  18. 18
    Zar

    Mano, tyou know nothign abotu religion and your arguments are weak. Your statement above is an excuse. Im sorry to soudn rought but it seems mroe liek you liek rpesentign Sophestry.

    Heidi, no one is takign the Jeuss-as-myth claim seriosuly in Historical fields. There is too much evidence that the man JEsus existed.

    One of the best arugments is the rapid spread of CHristianity, which woudl not have occured if it where base odn a nonexistant person, and the fsact that we jave first-century cooberation, and no oen else mentioned the Jeus-didn’t-exist claim at all in the firts century.

    From an Ancient historical standpoint, its ludecrous to presume the man didn’t exist at all.

    THe only peopel who support this thery are htos e wiht an axe to grind, or else those who ar enot part of the fields of Historical study, who themselves have no credentials and simply blidnly accept what they are told in such books as “The Jeuss Mysteries” by Freke and Gandy.
    The Non-Christaisn who accept the Jesus-as-myth claim do so not base don acual reaosn and logic, and not on researhc, bt beause it fits their own ebelifs.

    Other htan this they’d have to have been duped by Da Vinci Code style theatrical conspiracy theories.

  19. 19
    Mano

    Heidi,

    Thanks for the link to the Council of Europe statement. I agree that it seems to be well thought out.

  20. 20
    Zar

    Mano, you think Richard Dawkins “The God Dilusion” is well thught out, and given the nature of your own poorly thoguth out argumetns that oftenr est on baised sampling and misrepresnetation fo what “Religous peopel” actuallyu beleive and the false DIchotomy between religiosu peopel and sicnetists, you’d of ocrse htink its well thoght out.

    After all, it says what you wan tit to say.

  21. 21
    Zar

    On that note, even Mano’s use of the word “Ratioanlity” is wrong. He asusmes you are either religiosu or rationa;, hwoever, there ar emany peopel who are Irrational and Atheists. Worse, Clinical studies show many who have strng rleigiosu beleifs to be nevertheless raitonal.

    The usual excuse is of ocrse that “They are raitoanl in other areas but not there religion and htey compartmentalise”, but this sint true of many, includign clergy whose whole life is spent in relgiion. If Religion where inherantly irraitonal, As Mano says, then woudln’t it also follow that those whose evry thought is aturated by Rleigion shoudl prove to be the least raitonal? YEt we dfind Monks compeltley deicated to God, who are nevertheless Rational.

    Reaosn is defined by Mano as “Beign an Atheist”, but in reality rationality is simpy the art of beign reaosnable, and religion can be defended reaosnableyu.

    Before we brign out the “Faith” canard, faiht is not th Antetheis of reaosn, and Faith is not “Beleif without sufficient evidence”, Faith si simply confidence, loyalty, or trust.

    One can have ample evidence an dhave COnfidence, and evidence inceases confidence.

    And ther eis plenty of evidence for Numeorus religious claims. ( And rleigion si not “Beleif in an interventionary god)

    Ther is even evidence for the existace of God. It snot conclusive, but then neither is the evidenc eof rmodern theoies invovling Superstirngs, and Mano woudln’t call peopel who beleive din them irraitonal. Even with many Physicisst denying their existance.
    So it sjust his own need to attatcjk a stigma to relgiion and to deminish it that speak son this blog, and his use of the word “Raitonal” to describe his own worldview and cotnrast it to “Irraitonal” worldviews such as held by “Religious people” is simply an outgrowth of his own narrow mindedness,a nd not the product of reaosn and logic.

    In fact, mano Singham himself is highly irrational whe n presentign hsi beelifs which start with fals epremises,rely on false Dichotomies, and oftne misdefine terms and misconsture or oversimplify arguemnts.

    All in the aid of mankign rleigion look follish and irraitonala nd rleigious peoel seem absurd and moronic.

    And, in contrast, “Scnetists” (Read Atheists) look somehow Noble and just and raitonal. The bette roption.

    Noen of his arguments are fairt or even true, and they never venture past his own prejudices in his attempt to slam religion.

    HEll, even his Recent Harry Potter post is nothign but an excuse to attack “The rleigious people”.

  22. 22
    Paul

    Science cannot answer every question. It can only deals with testable questions. Religion at its best proposes answers to untestable questions. Whether you call it religion or not, you cannot stop people from taking positions whether real meaning is possible in the universe.

    Because science has answered so many questions, we are lulled into thinking that it will be able to answer them all. We will always be stuck with belief systems. But that doesn’t mean we should accept any belief system. We need to get rid of the ones that are flawed, or obsolete.

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