(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
When all else fails, religious people sometimes resort to utilitarian arguments in favor of god, such as that some people would act worse if they did not believe in a god who would punish them for doing bad things. Other alleged benefits of ‘good’ religion are that it helps people cope with the stresses of life and deal with the fear of death, that it encourages people to do good acts, and to summon up courage in the face of adversity.
While some of these things may be true, they seem rather a weak foundation on which to base one’s support for religion. The basic problem is that every one of these benefits is not unique to religion. As I have written before, every benefit claimed for religion can just as well be provided by other institutions.
Provides a sense of community? So do many other social groups. Do charitable works? So do secular charities. Work for social justice? So do political groups. Provide comfort and reassurance? So do friendships and even therapy. Provide a sense of personal meaning? So does science and philosophy. Provide a basis of morality and values? It has long been established that morals and values are antecedent to and independent of religion. (Does anyone seriously think that it was considered acceptable to murder before the Ten Commandments appeared?)
So by getting rid of religion we can still have all the benefits claimed for it while getting rid of the evils that are unique to it. Some try to argue for retaining religion by pointing out, correctly, that science also has been used for massively evil ends so why not call for the end of science? But the fact is that if we get rid of science, there are no alternative ways to obtain all the social benefits it provides, so the only alternative is to try to learn how to use it wisely. This is not the case with religion. It provides no social benefits that cannot be duplicated by purely secular institutions.
Christopher Hitchens says something similar in his introduction to The Portable Atheist (2007), p. xiii-xiv):
One is continually told, as an unbeliever, that it is old-fashioned to rail against the primitive stupidities and cruelties of religion because after all, in these enlightened times, the old superstitions have died away. Nine times out of ten, in debate with a cleric, one will be told not of some dogma of religious certitude but of some instance of charitable or humanitarian work undertaken by a religious person . . . My own response has been to issue a challenge: name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer. As yet, I have had no takers. (Whereas, oddly enough, if you ask an audience to name a wicked statement or action directly attributable to religious faith, nobody has any difficulty in finding an example.)
If the foundations of religion are false, then the alleged benefits it provides are merely placebos, devices to make people feel good in the short-run, to allay their fears about death, and to provide facile answers to deep questions of existence and meaning. It is not clear to me why making people feel good on the basis of a falsehood is better than them being able to see the truth clearly. Of course, this does not mean that one should go about destroying people’s beliefs indiscriminately. I would not argue with someone in grief who finds consolation in some religious dogma. But that leave-well-alone policy does not extend to public discussions of religion, and the new atheists are perfectly justified and even to be commended in pointing out that religions are based on false foundations.
Religion also results in people being required to suspend rational thought and judgment and encourages passivity and tolerance for injustice since provides people with the dubious option of putting their faith in a higher power to redress injustices and looking towards justice in heaven rather than fighting for those goals here and now.
In the past I have shown clips of exorcists, mind readers, and people who claim the ability read the thoughts of animals. I argued that such charlatans (and others like faith healers) would not be able to ply their trade without the cover that religion gives them to persuade people that supernatural forces exist. For atheists to not attack religion in order to preserve some façade of coexistence with ‘good’ religion is to permanently leave ajar the door that enables those who use religion as weapons for evil ends or to exploit the gullible for profit to enter and ply their trade. As Christopher Hitchens says in God Is Not Great, (2007, p. 160):
It is not snobbish to notice the way in which people show their gullibility and their herd instinct, and their wish, or perhaps their need, to be credulous and to be fooled. This is an ancient problem. Credulity may be a form of innocence, and even innocuous in itself, but it provides a standing invitation for the wicked and the clever to exploit their brothers and sisters, and is thus one of humanity’s great vulnerabilities. No honest account of the growth and persistence of religion, or the reception of miracles and revelations, is possible without reference to this stubborn fact.
I believe that it is futile to try and separate bad religion from good religion and to try and eliminate the former while preserving the latter. In my interview in Machines Like Us, I say:
[W]hen one decides to not criticize the thinking of ‘moderates’, one has shut off the most powerful critiques one can make of extremists, which is that the whole edifice of thinking they adhere to has no evidentiary foundation and simply makes no sense. Trying to counter extremists without hurting the feelings of the ‘moderates’ is like agreeing to play chess while giving up the right to capture the opponent’s queen. You are bound to lose, except against the most incompetent player.
Good religion and bad religion are two sides of the same coin. The only way to end bad religion is to end religion altogether, and the way to do that is to advance as publicly as possible all the powerful arguments and evidence we now have that there is no reason whatsoever to assume that god exists in any form or that any of the supernatural doctrines of any religion have any validity.
This is the ‘new atheism’ and I am proud to be a part of that movement.
POST SCRIPT: Baxter again
Because you can never have too many photos of a terrific dog. . .