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Dec 30 2008

Why we can easily do without religion

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in October 2007.)

The recent appearance of best-selling books by atheists strongly criticizing religion has given rise to this secondary debate (reflected in this blog and the comments) as to what attitude atheists should take towards religion. Some critics of these authors (including fellow atheists) have taken them to task for being too harsh on religion and thus possibly alienating those religious “moderates” who might be potential allies in the cause of countering religious “extremism”. They argue that such an approach is unlikely to win over people to their cause. Why not, such critics ask, distinguish between “good” and “bad” religion, supporting those who advocate good religion (i.e., those parts of religion that encourage good works and peace and justice) and joining with them to marginalize those who advocate “bad” religion (i.e., who use religion divisively, to murderous ends, to fight against social justice, or to create and impose a religion-based political agenda on everyone.)

It is a good question deserving of a thoughtful answer, which you are unlikely to find here. But I’ll give it my best shot anyway.

Should religion be discouraged along the lines advocated by these books, by pointing out that evidence for god’s existence does not rise above the level of evidence for fairies and unicorns, highlighting the many evils done in religion’s name, and urging people to abandon religious beliefs because they violate science and basic common sense? Or should we continue to act as if it were a reasonable thing to believe in the existence of god, thereby tacitly encouraging its continuance? Or should religion be simply ignored? The answer depends on whether one views religion as an overall negative, positive, or neutral influence in society.

If you believe, as atheists do, that the whole edifice of religion is based on the false premise that god exists, then it seems logical to seek to eliminate religion. As believers in the benefits of rationality, we believe true knowledge is to be preferred to false knowledge. In fact, there is much to be gained by eliminating belief in the supernatural since that is the gateway to, and the breeding ground for, all manner of superstition, quackery, and downright fraud perpetrated on the gullible by those who claim to have supernatural powers or direct contact with god. I offer TV evangelists as evidence, but the list can be extended to astrologers, psychics, faith healers, spoon benders, mind readers, etc. All of them claim to provide a benefit (perhaps just emotional and psychological) to their followers, just like religion does, but few argue that that reason alone is sufficient to shield them from criticism.

Those atheists who argue against seeking to undermine belief in religion and favor the other two options (i.e., tacit support or ignoring) usually posit two arguments. The first point is really one of political strategy: that by criticizing religion in general we are alienating a large segment of people and that what we should preferably do is to ally ourselves with “good” religion (inclusive, tolerant, socially conscious) so that we can more effectively counter those who profess “bad” religion (exclusive, intolerant, murderous). The second is that religion, even if false, can also be a force for good as evidenced by the various religious social justice movements that have periodically emerged.

I have touched on the counterarguments to the first point earlier and will revisit it later. As to the second point, that religion can be justified on the basis that even if not true it provides other benefits that make it worthwhile, discussions around this issue usually tend to go in two directions: comparisons of the actions of “good” religious people versus that of “bad” religious people, or comparisons of the actions of religious people with that of nonreligious people. But such discussions are not fruitful because they cannot be quantified or otherwise made more concrete and conclusive.

I prefer to argue against the second point differently by pointing out that 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 family, friends, 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?)

Now it is true (as was pointed out by commenter Cindy to a previous post) that religious institutions do provide a kind of ready-made, one-stop shop for many of these things and new institutions may have to come into being to replace them. Traditional groups like Rotary clubs and Mason, Elk, and Moose lodges, that mix community building with social service, may be the closest existing things that serve the same purpose. The demise of religion may see the revival of those faltering groups as substitutes. Some countries have social clubs that people belong to that, unlike in the US, are not the preserve of only the very wealthy. England has the local pub that provides a sense of community to a neighborhood and where people drop in on evenings not just to drink but to meet and chat with friends, play games, and eat meals. The US has, unfortunately, no equivalent of the local pub. Bars do not have the family atmosphere that most pubs do, though coffee shops may evolve to serve this purpose. It may be that it is the easy convenience of religious institutions that inhibit people from putting in the effort to find alternative institutions that can give them the cultural and social benefits of religion without the negative of having to subscribe to an irrational belief.

I cannot think of a single benefit that is claimed for religion that could not be provided by other institutions. Meanwhile, the negatives of religion are unique to it. We see this in the murderous rampages that have been carried out over thousands of years by religious fanatics in dutiful obedience to what they thought was the will of god. I am not saying that getting rid of religion will get rid of all evil. But it will definitely remove one important source of it. The French philosopher and author Voltaire (1694-1778) had little doubt that religion was a negative influence and that we would be better off without it. He said: “Which is more dangerous: fanaticism or atheism? Fanaticism is certainly a thousand times more deadly; for atheism inspires no bloody passion whereas fanaticism does; atheism is opposed to crime and fanaticism causes crimes to be committed.”

While the evils done in the name of religion are often dismissed as aberrations by religious apologists, they actually arise quite naturally from the very basis of religion. When you believe that god exists and has a plan for you, the natural next step is to wonder what that plan is, what god wants you to do. To answer this, most people look to religious leaders and texts for guidance. As political and religious leaders discovered long ago, it is very easy to persuade people to believe that god expects them to do things that, without the sanction of religion, would be considered outrageously evil or simply crazy. (As an example of the latter, recall the thirty nine members of the Heaven’s Gate sect who were persuaded to commit suicide so that their souls could get a ride on the spaceship carrying Jesus that was hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet that passed by the Earth in 1997.)

The belief that god is solidly behind you and will reward you for obeying him has been shown to overcome almost any moral scruples or inhibitions concerning committing acts that would otherwise be considered unspeakable. The historical examples of such behavior are so numerous and well known that I will not bother even listing them here but just look at some of the major flashpoints in the world today, where the conflicts (even if other factors are at play) are undoubtedly inflamed by perceptions that people are acting on behalf of their god: the vicious cycle of killings in Iraq between the Shia and Sunni, between Israelis and Palestinians, between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland (now thankfully abating), and between Hindus and Muslim in India.

Just recently, certain Islamic groups have called for the death of a Swedish cartoonist who is supposed to have drawn a cartoon disrespectful to Islam. This is yet another example of how religion seems to destroy people’s basic reasoning skills because for some religious people, it seems perfectly reasonable that they have to fight and kill to defend their god’s honor.

The obvious response to this call to avenge god by killing the cartoonist is to point out how absurd it is that humans think they have to protect their god’s interests by fighting and killing people. Do such believers think that god is some kind of mobster boss who has to have goons to carry out his wishes? Pointing this out would reveal the impotence of god and ultimately the absurdity of the idea of god. After all, any rational person should be able to see that if their god has the abilities they ascribe to him, he should be quite capable of taking care of himself. He can not only kill the offending cartoonist but even wipe the entire country of Sweden off the map to drive the lesson home that he will not be trifled with.

But our ‘respect for religion’ attitude prevents us from pointing out such an obvious truth, because it gets too uncomfortably close to revealing the absurdity of the underlying premise of religion. So instead what happens is some theologian is trotted out who argues that what their religious book is ‘really’ saying is that it is wrong to kill, despite the existence of other passages in the same religious books that have been used to argue to the contrary. And so we end up with yet another dreary debate between the so-called ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ about what god is ‘really’ like and what he ‘really’ wants from us.

This is why religion is bad. Not only is it false, it is dangerously false. Believing in such a false idea requires people to abandon rational thinking and makes even murderous intentions seem noble to them. If, as I argue, all the claimed benefits of religion can be provided by other institutions, and it has negatives that are solely its own creation, then it is hard to see what utility religion has that makes it worth preserving. I think that the conclusion is quite clear. The best selling atheist authors are, in the long run, doing us all a favor by directly confronting religion and showing that we would all be better off without it.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Anonymous

    I agree entirely with your assessment of the baleful effects of religion.

    Unfortunately, human nature assures not only perpetuation of the current situation with respect to religion and, in all likelihood, we can expect an aggravation of tensions as resources become more scarce and governments fail to adequately redress grievances (real and perceived). Religion always offers the final refuge and, as Eric Hoffer noted in “True Believers”, a cadre of fanatically disposed personalities will be drawn to the ideological refuge afforded by religious beliefs.

  2. 2
    dave

    “Meanwhile, the negatives of religion are unique to it. We see this in the murderous rampages that have been carried out over thousands of years by religious fanatics in dutiful obedience to what they thought was the will of god.”

    Are you saying this is unique to religion? Surely you are aware of the atrocities in Communist Albania and Maoist China in the name of atheism. When Chinese soldiers beat monks and forced nuns to have sex they did not do it in the name of a god. They did it in the name of the state.

    I think a close look at the 19th and 20th century would show that more people have been murdered in the name of the state than in the name of god.

    That beings said, why don’t you allow an individual some level of personal autonomy. If a free individual desires to worship a god – why does this concern you? I’m not talking about a militant KKK member who is using his god as justification for killing. Rather, a person who prays quietly at home and reads scripture regularly.

    It is important to remember that the paradigm that places science above religion is just that – a paradigm. And to impose your paradigm on another is not just unfair – it denies the other individual liberty.

  3. 3
    Mano

    Dave,

    I am saying that supporters of religion claim that it makes people do good things as well, not only bad. But the good things can be achieved by non-religious means while the bad things that religions do in the name of their god are often horrendous. So we can do better without religion than with it, because we can retain the good while getting rid of the bad.

    Any other ideology (such as devotion to the state) should be judged equally. If we can get the benefits of having states by other means, then we should work to get rid of nation states. The same with science. Science leads to both good and bad things. If we think that we can get the benefits of science by other means then we should encourage people to stop scientific research, so that we still get the good and avoid the bad.

    People do have the liberty of praying or whatever they want as long as they are not harming people and I am not suggesting otherwise. I am saying that they should not be sheltered from hearing the truth about the overall negative effect of religion and they should be encouraged to abandon it, just as we try to persuade people to vote one way or the other.

  4. 4
    Jim D

    Mano,

    You wrote:

    “I am saying that supporters of religion claim that it makes people do good things as well, not only bad. But the good things can be achieved by non-religious means while the bad things that religions do in the name of their god are often horrendous. So we can do better without religion than with it, because we can retain the good while getting rid of the bad.”

    And,

    “If, as I argue, all the claimed benefits of religion can be provided by other institutions, and it has negatives that are solely its own creation, then it is hard to see what utility religion has that makes it worth preserving.”

    You seem to be pointing towards some Utopian idea of a society ruled by reason where men learn to peacefully coexist. Some point on the evolutionary timeline where we humans rise above our primal instincts to do evil against each other. I believe that this is very idealistic and I also believe this gives you something significant in common with most religions.

    In fact, if I concede your point from the post that we can all do without religion and more than that, that religion is actually a “dangerously bad” idea then it is a short jump from there to atheists murdering theists because of this. I could see one feeling justified in doing so based on the idea of religion being a “dangerously bad” idea and society would be better off without theists (to the misguided atheist the murder of theists would be a noble thing to do). Now you could argue that this isn’t how you intended your idea to be interpreted but then we get right back to the moderates versus extremists debate.

    Therefore your claim that the negatives of religion are unique to it seems to me to be completely false and without any merit whatsoever.

    Therefore, you seem to have a problem with all ideas (which you in as much state in your comment to Dave) because all ideas are subject to human interpretation which can and does get mangled from time to time. Of course ideas are not good or bad in a moral sense to you (at least I would not think?).

    And so really what I think you mean to say is that reason and rationale thought ought to prevail. And not just reason and rationale thought but a specific kind that is advocated by you and the collective as a whole. Once again the irony of this is that it gives you something that is significant in common with many practicing religious types. If we could just all think about this in a rationale way then society will be moved forward towards a more civilized and just point-except that of course it won’t. That is a limit to be approached but never achieved. A worthy idea but practically impossible to achieve.

    My point is that what you want to replace religion with is certainly no better than religion itself. Again, for the sake of argument only I concede you can replace the good done by religion with other structures but you don’t “avoid the bad” at all. You just give the bad a different justification for itself. The amount of bad increases or in the best case stays constant-its justification for itself varies.

    Jim D

  5. 5
    Mano

    Jim D,

    Your statement that if “religion is actually a “dangerously bad” idea then it is a short jump from there to atheists murdering theists because of this.” is not a short jump at all but a huge assumption that is without foundation. The way one eliminates dangerously false ideas is by showing that they are false, not by killing off the holders of the ideas. Many dangerously false ideas of the past (the history of medicine, for example, is replete with them) were not eliminated by killing off the physicians who held and used them but by better science, based on better evidence and better theories arrived at by reason and logic.

    I am not sure what the “specific kind” of reason and rational thought you think I am advocating. I am advocating for reason and logic and evidence-based beliefs and practices in general.

    Religion is not only evidence-free but actually goes counter to the evidence. By making a virtue of this ‘faith’, religion encourages irrationality and the acceptance of all other evidence-free beliefs.

  6. 6
    Jim D

    We can quibble over whether it is a short jump or a huge leap, an assumption or not but the size of the jump is in the eyes of the jumper and it certainly is not without foundation. I agree that most philosophical naturalists would not make that jump; however, your assertion that none would is just a little difficult to believe. I think you are either vastly underestimating your fellow man or you are just being disingenuous here.
    Again you have much in common with many religious practitioners. They too would advocate that “The way one eliminates dangerously false ideas is by showing that they are false, not by killing off the holders of the ideas.”
    In fact I would bet that the vast majority of people in the world would agree with you-this is common sense. Many agree on this point and yet there are those who do not.
    Philosophical naturalism has consequences. They are not the same consequences for everyone but there are consequences (and the same applies to religious types). One consequence of your philosophical naturalism is that you believe there is no god and another is that you believe religion is dangerously false or perhaps others believe, by their own definition, that religion is actually evil. The mere idea that it is impossible for a philosophical naturalist to draw the conclusion that all religions are dangerously false or maybe even evil and that therefore it is ok to silence those theists who try and peddle such dangerous ideas (and feel justified and noble in doing so) is really hard for me to believe. Just because you are a moderate does not mean everyone else is a moderate. Do you really think this is an impossible scenario or even unlikely?
    Once again your beef seems to be with all ideas in general. Virtually no philosophical idea exists that cannot be twisted into some grotesque form for the purpose of justifying some action that in any other circumstance would be considered bad. Religion is not alone and unique in this way as you assert-not by any stretch of the imagination.

    Jim D.

  7. 7
    Jim D

    This seems to me to be a moderate versus extremist debate we are having which I you seem to think only exists in the context of religion?
    We can quibble over whether it is a short jump or a huge leap, an assumption or not but the size of the jump is in the eyes of the jumper and it certainly is not without foundation. What about the treatment of religion in the USSR under the Stalin regime? Stalin studied in the seminary as a young man and came to be an atheist out of this experience. His rise to power and the transformation that the Soviet society went through in this time period is a remarkable story.
    Philosophical naturalism has consequences. They are not the same consequences for everyone but there are consequences (and the same applies to religious philosophies). One consequence of your philosophical naturalism is that you believe there is no god and another is that you believe religion is dangerously false idea. Stalin would have agreed with you. He thought the only useful thing about religion was that it could be used as a tool to control people. When this did not prove useful enough to him he basically had priests and the like killed. He believed his actions justified and noble because they served to make the state (ideologically) purer and stronger. There are still people alive today who lived under his reign and who tell of the stories. He would clearly be an extremist and he would have little in common with you outside of his conclusion that there is no god.
    Once again your beef seems to be with all ideas in general. Virtually no philosophical idea exists that cannot be twisted into some grotesque form for the purpose of justifying some action that in any other circumstance would be considered bad. Religion is not alone and unique in this way as you assert-not by any stretch of the imagination.

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