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May 09 2008

The end of god-8: Why even ‘good’ religion is not worth saving

(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. . .

baxter2.JPG

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Corbin

    Hi Mano,

    This has been an interesting series, but I do not feel that your final
    conclusion — that moderates should give up religion and that you
    cannot criticize “bad” religion without criticizing all religion — is
    very compelling.

    You/Dawkins make the case that religion in particular causes
    what-would-otherwise-be-moral individuals to behave immorally, and
    then you go further to claim that this danger applies even in the
    context of “moderate” religious views. But it seems to me that none
    of the examples given in yesterdays post, (Israeli settlement Jews,
    Mormons, and Taliban) or today’s post (exorcists, mind readers, and
    people who claim the ability read the thoughts of animals) correspond
    very well to what I would consider moderate or moderate-to-liberal
    religious views.

    I also see no evidence that atheistic people are, as a segment of
    society, more humane, generous, and/or more concerned with making the
    world a better place than moderate and liberal religious observers. I
    see no evidence in history or otherwise to support the contention that
    if and when such religious views might be abandoned by an increasingly
    larger segment of society that those societies will act in a more
    effective and moral and/or rational manner.

    Indeed, you seem to argue that religion — any religion — is a sort
    of a kind of “poison pill” that invariably acts in a negative manner,
    making the practitioners vulnerable to dangerously irrational views of
    all kinds. But it seems to me that your arguments are mostly
    plausibility arguments and anecdotes based on particular problems
    associated with flaws in particular relatively extreme religious
    viewpoints. But where is the historical and/or sociological evidence
    to support this idea that the world would be better off without any
    kind of religion, even liberal ones, whatsoever? Where is there
    evidence to support the notion that communities and nations where
    atheists viewpoints dominate do, in fact, operate more effectively,
    equitably, morally, and rationally than corresponding groups where
    atheistic viewpoints do not dominate?

    To say that it is not possible to attack the problems with “extreme”
    religion while at the same time sparing a criticism of more moderate
    religious perspectives. But to my mind it is quite easy to criticize
    literalistic and fundamentalist perspectives because they can simply
    be proved wrong. To my mind there is a qualitative difference two
    different kinds of irrational behavior. If, as a result of irrational
    behavior I come to a conclusion that can be directly falsified, a
    belief which can be shown to be in contradiction with demonstrable
    facts, then such an irrationality is deserving of the strongest
    possible criticism. But if an irrational viewpoint is irrational
    simply because it cannot be supported by evidence, but at the same
    time is not in contradiction to any particular demonstrable facts,
    then to my mind this is a “weaker irrationality”. If such a viewpoint
    does not lead to any demonstrably false conclusions, then as far as I
    can tell, the only criticism that can be leveled is that the viewpoint
    is irrational. To my mind this is a much weaker criticism.

    You dismiss the “value” of religious perspectives as either
    “replaceable” or “placebos” having no substantial value. But the whole
    idea of things that we find valuable is that we are free to choose
    these things just because we value them. It seems to me to be a
    desirable and happy characteristic of human nature that we do not all
    value precisely the same things, and in a just society we are free to
    pursue those things we value the most, even if they are not valuable
    to others. For many people, having a religious perspective and being
    a part of a particular religious community are extremely personally
    valuable. Asking people to give up things that they value, simply

    because you do not appreciate that value rubs me the wrong way. My
    own instinct is that people should be free to pursue things they value
    whether or not they can justify this value rationally.

    Here’s an analogy. Consider your lovely dog. Certainly your
    affection for your dog cannot be justified in any rational context.
    Certainly the posting of your dog’s pictures on your website cannot be
    used in defense of any logical argument you might ever want to make.
    The pictures are there for enjoyment. You enjoy your dog and others
    might too. The issue is that you value of your dog and you value
    being a pet owner and being in relationship with your dog.

    Certainly someone might make the argument that you could get the same
    emotional benefit from another dog, or a different pet, or another
    person. The value of your dog is replaceable. There is not one
    benefit you can name that cannot be obtained from some other source.
    But why should you give up your dog. Indeed, it is that particular dog
    that gives you the most particular value. What business is it of
    anyone else to tell you that you should be giving up your dog and
    looking for a replacement? Why would you expect that replacement
    relationship to be as personally satisfying as the relationship you
    already have with your dog?

    Likewise, are the emotional benefits you get from your dog merely a
    “placebo”? What if someone argued that relationships with pets cannot
    be “real” because pets are not people? What if someone argued that
    time and effort and money spent on pets and so forth should be
    directed toward more important things? Would such a statement change
    the way you actually feel about your pet? Would you agree to give up
    your dog if someone else argued that having pets is preventing us from
    facing our “real world, here and now problems”?

    What if someone argued that because your attachment to your pet is not
    rational, it makes you susceptible to all kinds of other irrational
    delusions. Would you find such an argument compelling?

    What if a certain class of pet owners are acting in a way that
    negatively impacts society (say, they let their pets hurt others or
    whatever). What is a subset of pet owners had a set of ideas about
    their pets that were demonstrably provable to be false. What if some
    pet-owner relationships could be shown to be unhealthy and/or
    dangerous. Maybe the love of a pet would blind a owner to the fact
    that the pet was a vicious animal prone to bite others. Wouldn’t you
    be able to criticize those particular pet owners for their actions and
    policies without at the same time criticizing the whole concept of
    pet ownership?

    Likewise, couldn’t argument be made and supported that pets issues
    ought to have no influencing certain public arenas (government
    policies, scientific education, etc.) because pets and owner-pet
    relationships have precisely nothing to do with these topics and
    because rationality is the only basis for making decisions in these
    arenas? Isn’t it possible to argue that pets have no place within
    these arenas without also argument that people should not be free to
    own pets if they want to under any circumstances? Isn’t it possible
    to establish a reasonable boundaries on where and when pets and their
    owners can exist and congregate with each other and whether the rights
    of those who do not want to have pets are respected? Isn’t it
    possible to argue strongly that people who don’t like pets should be
    able to live free from the negative influence of pets and their owners
    without also demanding that pet ownership as a concept be removed from
    society altogether and that the world would be better off without
    pets?

    What if someone was making a general argument that having pets is bad
    for society as a whole and we ought to start calling publicly for
    pet owners to abandon their beloved pets. Wouldn’t a pet owner such
    as yourself feel inclined to respond by saying like “Well, my
    particular love for my particular pet is not hurting anyone. I do not
    need to rationally justify to anyone else my reasons for having a pet
    beyond the mere fact that doing so provides me with a real personal
    and/or emotional value.”

    Replace “having a pet” with “believing in god” and it seems to me that
    pretty much all of the above the analogy holds.

    -Corbin

  2. 2
    Mano

    Corbin,

    Individual people believing harmless things that make them happy is not the point at issue. Having beliefs that are irrational is also not a problem. As I have said many times before, we all have irrational likes and dislikes. The problem is that belief in god and religion are irrational but also not an innocent system of beliefs.

    Let’s take your dog analogy. People have dogs they love and which make them happy. That’s fine if it stays at that.

    But suppose someone comes along who says that there is a great Dog in the sky who has magical powers and that Dog revealed his existence to him in a book written on golden plates that then disappeared. He says that this Book of Dog commands people to worship Dog. Suppose that this person goes on to require all children to be indoctrinated in Dog worship from childhood and to treat the people who have cats and other pets as either misguided or evil and who should be converted to Dog worship. And suppose there are passages in the Book of Dog that seems to justify of all kinds of evil actions if they are done in the name of Dog, even if it goes to the extent of killing non-Dog worshippers. This belief structure becomes so popular and so widespread that people start believing that Dog can speak to them and they can speak to Dog. And eventually some people claim that Dog asked them to fly planes into buildings and they do so because they consider themselves loyal followers of Dog.

    That is what a good analogy to religion would look like. In that case I would definitely ask for evidence that what Dog worshippers say about Dog is true and if they cannot provide such evidence, I would try to convince people that Dog does not exist, that the Book of Dog is a worthless document that has no authority whatsoever, and that the whole Dog cult is pernicious. Wouldn’t you do the same thing?

    The fact that for some people a dog is just a pet does not mean that a religious cult of Dog is harmless.

  3. 3
    Jared

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Mano’s point is that if even in the unlikely scenario that you CAN show that being a moderate/tolerant (or liberal or what-have-you) religious person does not lead you to any particular ‘evil’, and even if these moderate believers are completely anti-”bad religion”, by suscribing to and defending some portion of this entire belief structure (i.e. saying that there is a Dog) they are unavoidably aiding “bad” religion. Because:

    1) They cannot appeal to logic to denounce the fundamental assumptions that lead bad religion, because they ascribe to some of them as well.

    2) In-group/out-group behaviour (what another commenter called “tribalism”)drives “good” religionists to unduly condone portions “bad” religion for similar reasons.

    It appears to me that these are the sort of things that Mano is providing evidence for. I don’t think he needs to go further than that. As long as there is good religion there will be bad religion. This is why he keeps bringing up the question “Is good religion good enough to justify the existence of bad religion”.

  4. 4
    hypotheekrente

    Sorry i dont have a reaction on your post, but i love your king charles cavalier! Looks really sweet! I have two at home, cant live without them anymore :)
    Regards, Aislin (Erasmus University)

  5. 5
    Mano

    Aislin,

    Yes, the King Charles Cavaliers are simply wonderful dogs. Every person I know who has them simply raves about them. A friend of ours has three of them!

  6. 6
    Corbin

    Hi Mano and Jared,

    To follow the analogy further:

    Suppose such a Cult of Dog existed and certain critics of the Cult of Dog ,while denoucing the Cult, also denounced all dog owners since the dog owners have no more justification for owning pets than the Cult members do, and by owning and publically being enthusiasts for dogs, they are effectively aiding and/or implicity condoning
    the activities and beliefs of the Cult of Dog.

    In this case wouldn’t the dog owners, who
    themselves have done no demonstrable harm
    to anyone, be justified in resisting being
    lumped in with the Cult? Would they not
    be justified in resisting any call for them
    to give up their dogs? Wouldn’t they
    be more likely to say something like, “We
    are not the same as the Dog people. It’s not
    fair to criticize us for the evils and wrongs
    associated with the Cult of Dog.”

    I suspect that for many people the essense
    of their religious experience is much closer
    to being a dog owner than being a Cult of Dog
    member as you describe. This is really the
    essense of my argument above. You say that
    owning a dog seems a poor analogy to religion
    but I think that for many people it would be quite
    a good analogy, actually.

    And to this extent it seems to me that an
    overarching criticism of all religion based
    on the notion tolerating “good” relgion
    undermines our ability to criticize “bad”
    relgion does not seem fair. It seems a little
    anti-freedom.

  7. 7
    Hypotheek Deventer

    Nano,..

    Do you see how easily Aislin takes you off topic? Why would that be? You recognize a fellow dog lover? Isn’t that a little bit the same as religious people defending there believe and watching each others back. Belonging to a group of people makes a lot of people feel strong. Doesn`t it.

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