Is Religion Beneficial to Society?

I’m currently in a correspondence with a person who is offering me the tired line that religion is helpful to people and not in conflict with science and has been involved in some worthy efforts.

This morning, February 25, in the Austin American-Statesman, there were two articles—one on the front page of the National section, and one on the front of the Local and State—that covered dangerous errors in sex education in our schools and legislation undermining the relationship between a woman and her doctor, which also noted that our governor has once again spoken out against medical research that researchers believe could yield beneficial medical results. Make no mistake, these initiatives are designed purely to resonate among religious constituents. Are there nonreligious people who might (and do) support these same measures? Yes, I’m sure there are. Would there be enough people motivated outside of religious initiatives to make these “issues” important to legislators? I highly doubt it. The reason they are “issues” is because they are religiously supported agendas. And religion means numbers.

I agree that religion is not in conflict with science—in any area where science is not in conflict with religion. However, as soon as science puts forward any assertion that does not correlate to religious claims, science comes under attack from religion, and bad things happen. The correspondent pointed out that Islamic nations long ago were among some of the most progressive thinkers in math and science. I have heard this, too. However, I wonder what sorts progressive thinking applied to apostates and heretics in these same ancient Islamic nations? Was a conversion to another religion (outside of Islam) taken in stride, do you think?

I don’t claim that where religion doesn’t conflict with X, religion will automatically oppose X. But where religion perceives that X opposes religion, X will be castigated by religious adherents—often violently and forcefully. We see it daily. And I am unaware of a time when it wasn’t so.

For awhile, I’ve been mentioning to Matt that I would like to see a publication of the letters we get to the TV-List. I would devote a section to all the letters, like this latest, telling me that religion is benign or good for people for the most part. And I would follow that section with all the letters we get from adherents telling us that their religion is good, who after a few exchanges say that mass genocide, mass infanticide, suicide-mass-murder, rape, slavery and child sacrifice are all morally acceptable if, and only if, a god tells you to do these things.

I often hear the question “Name one benefit religion offers that could not be achieved secularly (without the lies and harm that comes with religion).” It’s not a benefit, but I have found that you can get a person to say that “X is not moral in situation Y,” and then turn around in only one or two exchanges and get them to say “X was moral in situation Y because there was an added caveat that god said to do it.”

Religion can take a human being who is willing to condemn an action as immoral in a particular circumstance, and get them to say that same action is moral in that same circumstance, if a god says to do it. Now, there are certainly regimes that can get people to commit atrocities that aren’t religious. But it would be hard to get someone who is not a sociopath to admit in a hypothetical that he’d be willing to slaughter children in droves if a charismatic leader asked him to do it, or that he would kill his own child at the request of some persuasive person. Might he do it for a person if the situation actually arose? Yes. He might. Is he likely to foresee and admit that a human could ever convince him to do it (without some form of immediate duress)? No.

Is a belief system that can take a person’s moral reason and short-circuit that to “obey without question” a benign and harmless system? Aren’t we describing a ticking time bomb? What stands between this person committing atrocities—but something to convince him it’s what his god wants out of him? Is a person who says that killing children is right if god requests it, honestly that different than a person who actually kills children because he believes god requested it? Aren’t they the same person, except that one is merely waiting for some cue?

I recall a particular letter from a father of a nine-month-old who wrote to say that even if his religion isn’t true, what harm is it to raise his daughter in Christianity?

I asked him if he accepted the doctrines of hell and salvation. He did. I explained that in his paradigm, salvation requires a blanket condemnation of all human beings as imperfect for being who and what they are. Salvation and hell don’t mean “imperfect” as in “nobody’s perfect,” but “imperfect” as in “You are so horribly and inherently flawed, that by rights you deserve eternal torture according to god, and as your Christian dad, I have to agree that’s exactly what someone like you, my child, should get.”

I asked him what he thought it would mean to a little girl to know that her father sees her as that sort of a horrible being—inherently flawed to the point of complete and total unacceptability?

Initially he attempted to argue god’s love for us and how god wants us to go to heaven and not go to hell. But he couldn’t really find a way to get around the fact that his doctrines meant that he had to say he thought his daughter was inherently flawed and that nothing intrinsic to her could ever be “good enough” to merit anything but eternal punishment. He finally grasped that if there were something she could do that would make her “good enough” to not merit an eternity of torture, then intervention by Jesus would be unnecessary—negating the doctrine of salvation through Jesus. And without someone like Jesus granting her god’s “mercy” (mercy, meaning it’s not what she really deserves, but what god gives her regardless of her undeserving nature), she was hopeless and despicable.

Most of us would normally have a hard time saying any of our worst recorded criminals should be, by rights, tortured for eternity. But even if we felt that way about a person, I would expect that their actions would have to be, in some regard, fairly heinous. Someone might want revenge on Hitler to the point of hoping for a merciless, vengeful eternity of torture. But an average child? Or even an average adult? It’s hard to believe anyone would say that any of our friends and neighbors should be deserving of torture for ten minutes, let alone eternity?

I asked this dad what he would think of a neighbor who each day sat his own kids down and told them, “I think you are all such despicable children that you deserve nothing less than to be beaten without mercy, but since I love you so much, I won’t do that to you, so long as you tell me how truly sorry you are that you’re who and what you are—utterly unworthy.”

I don’t say there aren’t or couldn’t be secular systems that impact normal people’s minds and thwart their reason and moral sense in this way. I don’t say that nonreligious systems can’t and haven’t gotten good people to do bad things. What I’m saying is that I’d be hard pressed to get a human with a normally developed brain, who isn’t already abusive or a sociopath, to say—in a purely hypothetical framework—that people ought to be tortured simply for being people—and for no other reason.

I have never met people who have told me that any historical or current genocide or mass infanticide was “morally right” for any reason other than “god commanded it.” And I haven’t just met a few of those. I’ve met many. And I’m still meeting them. And I can Google their responses to the Old Testament stories and find site after site attesting to the moral correctness of committing atrocities for the Christian god. And I can
’t stress strongly enough that these are not the Fred Phelps’s of the world. These are good, tax-paying, loving, caring, generous people who work and live along side us all in every segment of our society. In fact, any Christian who accepts the Bible as true and god as good, must assert these actions are good in any situation where they are commanded by a god.

There is something unnerving about living in a society where the predominant religion is one that can make a standard, normal human assert that atrocities should never be committed—except when god says to commit them. And then recognizing that in this same society, most of my fellow citizens believe a god exists and in some way communicates or has communicated with them and/or others. And that they further believe that this god, according to their sacred texts, has righteously commanded such atrocities to be committed by his adherents.

Call me crazy?


  1. says

    Tracie: I apologize that this is OT, but I wanted to commend you on the ‘jars of dice’ analogy you used to open the last episode of The Atheist Experience TV show. I think it got a bit lost in the great Dillahunty-Slick debate, but I definitely think that the argument you’re making is worth revisiting, perhaps the next time you co-host.The insight that there are no criteria by which we can differentiate transcendent, non-material things that exist from non-existent things is a point I haven’t seen anyone make before. It neatly sidesteps the argument that I usually see (which is that transcendent non-material things simply don’t exist) which, in my opinion, proves far too much.Anyway, great job, and I apologize for derailing this thread on comment #1. 🙂

  2. says

    I live in the UK and the church of england is considered benign compared to many fundamentalist and conservatives christians.They do, however, still believe in original sin which I consider to be one of the most immoral things going. So I still find myself venting my anger towards my more liberal christian friends!

  3. says

    Hi Andrew:>The insight that there are no criteria by which we can differentiate transcendent, non-material things that exist from non-existent things is a point I haven't seen anyone make before.It's actually at the core of Sagan's "Dragon in My Garage" section of his book "Demon Haunted World." He puts it like this:"Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so."And I do plan to do more with the dice model. It's highly flexible.

  4. says

    You know that liberal Christians will say that their view is more nuanced. Which it is.About the future of religion in general, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, it’s an anachronism, and, for many of us, no longer serves the purposes for which it was developed. I’m hard-pressed to see how we can survive unless it goes by the wayside – with the possible exception of a vaguely-defined mysticism.On the other hand, as Seneca said, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” Unless we breed the fundie mindset out of the genome (which I would be in favor of doing), I don’t know that we can keep them in line any other way. These are the people who keep telling us that without Christianity, they’d rape, pillage and plunder.

  5. says

    I just read the previous post, containing the email from “J”, who says that without a belief in God and postmortem consequences (why do the two always have to go together?), he’d “hurt anyone who pissed me off and kill anyone who did anything bad enough for me to want to kill them”.There you go. I guess we have to keep it.

  6. says

    I’m impressed that you manage to get them to admit that it would be moral if god commanded it. Most of the time I get responses like, “Oh he didn’t command it, it’s just a historical account!” or “well, it was a different time then.”

  7. says

    The existence of religion probably does offer certain benefits to society such as in-group cohesion or cooperation. The problem is that religion is like societal training wheels. Sure, it was useful organizing nomadic sheep herders and they probably benefited. But you’ll never go mountain biking with training wheels. Religion had its place, but in modern times it is becoming more of a liability. In context of the times, genocide was probably necessary to ensure the survival of the group. Harsh maybe, but reality. Nowadays, I think we can afford to take a step back and say that genocide is abhorrent.

  8. says

    @traciehand has been involved in some worthy efforts.Just once, I’d like to see a study done of the percentage of money donated to religious institutions and then see the percentage of that money which actually gets used for charitable purposes.For example, one can make a reasonable argument for how beneficial Catholic Charities (The organization) is, and how they don’t have any religious tests for administering the charity. For the moment, allow me to agree that it is a fine charity and deserving of praise and donations. And, for the sake of argument, let’s assume it is 100% efficient (in other words, 100% of the money donated goes to the actual charitable recipient. This is wholly unrealistic, but the math might work out better.)Can we then take the total money donated to the Catholic Church, and use it as the denominator of the Charity/Total Donated, and come up with a percentage of how efficient this particular religion is at funding charitable works?If we use those kind of numbers, include all charities across all religious denominations, and divide by all donations to any religious institution for any reason, people might get a better idea of how amazingly inefficient their charitable dollars are when they are sent to religious institutions.Never mind how much of that money goes to suicide bombers in Iraq, or doctor murderers in the US. It will still be pitifully low.

  9. says

    As I see it, really one of the great potential benefits religion can provide are connections between people. Depending on a particular doctrine, those connections may serve to improve or degenerate a society.

  10. says

    Awesome post Tracie. This is something I have been asking myself and dealing with lately. I called in to AE about a month ago to talk about my fundamentalist Christian friend. When I was trying to understand her beliefs I asked her a hypothetical question about whether she would kill innocent children if God commanded her to, and she said that yes she would. She’s a sweet, kind, intelligent girl and it absolutely floored me that she said this. As a response I asked her how she is different from a jihadist other than she hasn’t received a command to kill from God and that they have. Her best answer to that was “well they’re not really talking to God”. It makes me sick to my stomach to think that a friend that I hold so dear is willing, without any reservation, to commit murder. She is no longer willing to speak with me about her beliefs now which makes it even harder for me. I’ve had so many thoughts and feelings and discoveries that I wanted to share with her and since I can no longer do that, I started writing them to my blog. Link is below in case anyone is interested in how this situation has been developing and how I’ve been coping with it.

  11. says

    The sad thing is that Tyler’s friend could easily have said, “If I heard the voice of God telling me to murder children, I’d assume that I was losing my mind” – but that wouldn’t occur to most of them. It seems more reasonable to them to say, “Why, yes, I’d murder children.”Again, we really need to start breeding this out of the genome.And Tyler – if she thinks you’re going to hell, she’s not kind, and she isn’t your friend.

  12. says

    Sorry, I can’t agree with breeding it out of the genome, as I wouldn’t be here. I come from a semi-fundy background and my family is becoming more fundamental as the years go on. I am trying to counter this as much as I can, things like having them read Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth Miller. Stuff that won’t be totally offensive to them. So I can’t agree with eugenics even when said tongue in cheek. :)This was very good Tracie. I love the hypothetical and may use that myself someday.

  13. says

    Cipher:>he'd "hurt anyone who pissed me off and kill anyone who did anything bad enough for me to want to kill them".This is what they say, but you have to remember this statement comes from a lifetime of being told that they are naturally depraved and that human minds are always only bent on evil. They’re taught as children that they–and all people–are inherently bad and prone to do bad things; we can't, apparently, stop oursevlves, and so we need forgiveness.I submit we can’t judge this guy based on this statement if he is a Christian, because he had an upbringing that indoctrinated him into the idea that people can’t control themselves and are bound to do harmful, awful things to one another. What if he _hadn’t_ been taught that throughout his life? Without a religious upbringing, would he be insisting, still, that this is what he’d be like without god to keep him in line?It’s no different than people claiming that they’d have “no reason to live” without god—no purpose. The truth is that they never had an opportunity to try to have their own meaning and purpose. They can’t imagine that a person can even do that without god because they’ve always been told god is the only meaning and purpose to their existence. "Living for god," right?I don’t think it’s fair to take indoctrinated people and use their current paradigm of what anything would be like “without god” or, more accurately, without religion. Most of them who were raised in this "Christian Nation," aren't honestly capable of considering what they would be like without religion. They only consider what it would be like without if the only paradigm they've ever been taught was stripped away overnight. Seriously, how scary is that? They don’t even realize that they’re being robbed of living their lives by being told living for this institution is the only thing worth living for.It's like Amish children learning through 8th grade and being cloistered on the farms and told about the wickedness of the outside world. Would it be any wonder that such a child would be terrified at the prospect of leaving? He would be utterly unprepared to cope with life outside what he'd been taught. And with fundamentalist Christianity, critical thinking skills are said to be "pride" and a "sin.""Trust and Obey"–that's all you need to remember.Amnistar:>I'm impressed that you manage to get them to admit that it would be moral if god commanded it. Most of the time I get responses like, "Oh he didn't command it, it's just a historical account!"In this case, they are simply saying you can’t trust that the Bible is true. This is not the person I’m describing. A Christian who does not accept Biblical inerrancy is not bound by the doctrines in their holy book. Basically they’re believing what they like and tossing the doctrines they don’t. They’re making up their own religion as they go along, and don't have to subscribe to the Bible. This person has no logical reason to accept any of what’s in the Bible. And they are usually just subscribing to whatever makes them feel warm and fuzzy. They aren’t interested in making sense. And usually they aren’t interested in a substantial dialogue.>or "well, it was a different time then."This would have to be established at the outset. In other words, you can ask: If two nations are at war, and one uses mass infanticide against the other—is that moral? If they say, “Yes, if it was done more than 500 years ago, I would say that makes it moral,” then you’re dealing with a moral relativist—which most Christians deny they are. I guess my question would be "How far away, chronologically, do we have to get from the Holocaust before that becomes a moral event?"What this guy is saying is that rape isn’t really “immoral” it’s just currently socially unacceptable, but if it comes back into vogue, that’s cool with him. If a Christian goes this route, he has a tough row to hoe to demonstrate there even is such a thing as "morality" beyond what your society condones/condemns.I consider morality to be the individual sense of right and wrong, and the social morality, I tend to regard as mores. Or you can use "individual morality" and "social morality"–but it's important to keep them separate within discussions.With god, you get into problems of Euthyphro Dilemma, though. And the idea of god authoring morality becomes problematic.Shane:>In context of the times, genocide was probably necessary to ensure the survival of the group.Actually, though, Hebrews didn’t _always_ go genocidal in the stories. So, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Sometimes they used genocide including infanticide. Sometimes they enslaved the people. Sometimes they killed certain segments of the population and enslaved others. Sometimes they even killed all the animals. And what would be the benefit to _not_ taking the livestock that you could actually use?I’m guessing that the relative level of extremism was the result of whoever was in charge at the time—just as some political regimes are harsh today while others aren’t. Or some areas may have a liberal leader who is replaced by a conservative leader or vice versa. We still compete for resources today, we just don’t consider slavery and infanticide to be acceptable. I’m not sure it would ever be realistically “necessary” to slaughter on the level that was claimed in Old Testament Bible accounts. And I have to admit, I can't even say I know the accounts to be accurate. It's quite possible they were exaggerated for story telling impact. The "kill all the babies" theme seems to come up in a handful of tales, like a theme–but I don't know if any Biblical claim of such an event has ever been substantiated?Ai Deng>Depending on a particular doctrine, those connections may serve to improve or degenerate a society.I agree. The problem with them, though, is that they’re unstable connections. If I accept a god exists and can communicate with people, and that this god rules by fiat (everything he says is correct and should be executed), it only takes someone convincing me that god requires I commit atrocities for me to commit atrocities. And I will do it with a feeling of total justification.I’m saying “religion” in this instance, but really I’m describing some very specific religious doctrines that aren’t universal to all religions in this particular case. The point would be that if I can adherents of my religion to suspend reason to believe my claims, what _can’t_ I get them to believe and do? Once I convince you that you cannot trust your own judgment—and that I speak for the god you can trust, your life is mine until you somehow snap out of it.Tyler:>I asked her a hypothetical question about whether she would kill innocent children if God commanded her to, and she said that yes she would. She's a sweet, kind, intelligent girl and it absolutely floored me that she said this.THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about! You are describing the exact exchange you can have again and again with otherwise sane Christians for as long as you want to keep talking to them. And I don’t know of any other thing but god that will make a person say, if asked hypothetically with no strings attached, “Sure, I’d kill children if X asked me to.” I agree that it is unbelievable to see that they will say it outright–sometimes without a moment's hesitation. But god is always right—so killing children becomes right if god says to do it. That’s how "god" works in people's heads.>As a response I asked her how she is different from a jihadist other than she hasn't received a command to kill from God and that
    they have. Her best answer to that was "well they're not really talking to God".I could have told you this before you asked her. She’d "really" be killing for _god_, but they are killing because they’re deluded about what they think god is (i.e., their god isn't the "real" god). So, they’re not justified. It’s only justified if you do it for the "real" god. And since her religion is the "real" one and theirs is "false"—they’d be terrorists, and she’d be a martyr. Funny, though, how that works both ways, right?> It makes me sick to my stomach to think that a friend that I hold so dear is willing, without any reservation, to commit murder. She is no longer willing to speak with me about her beliefs nowThe man telling me his daughter was wicked and deserving of torture stopped the correspondence as well after sending the note where he owned up to that. Just never wrote back. I don’t know where that comes from. They tell you they’d kill babies for god, or despise their own child, and somehow _you_ become the person who needs to be avoided.Cipher:>The sad thing is that Tyler's friend could easily have said, "If I heard the voice of God telling me to murder children, I'd assume that I was losing my mind" – but that wouldn't occur to most of them. It seems more reasonable to them to say, "Why, yes, I'd murder children."Actually they do say things like “god would never say that.” But it's just too easy to point to all the times their god is described to have had people do these things in their own Bibles. Then you say, “You mean this god?” The question becomes, if you were in the shoes of Abraham, and god asked you to sacrifice your own child as an offering—would you ask what sort of knife he wants you to use? Or would you say, “that’s not god!”Abraham was the righteous example of faith (as expressed in "Hebrews" in the _New_ Testament. Let me say that again–the NEW Testament) that followers of Yahweh are to emulate. Abraham didn’t question. He obeyed, up to and including trying to murder his only child. Abraham knew god, according to the Bible, as intimately as anyone. And when god said, “kill your child for me,” Abraham didn’t say, “Whoa—that doesn’t sound at all like the Yahweh I know! That’s Satan or I’m losing my mind!” Abraham seemed to think this was absolutely Yahweh. Isn’t that odd? All these Christians saying Yahweh wouldn’t do this—and Abraham, the father of the faith, seems to think this is utterly indicative of the sort of thing Yahweh would ask of a follower. He didn’t hesitate for a moment to conclude “this is god, and I’m following god's orders.”And in the New Testament, in Hebrews, he’s labeled as a man of great faith for whom this world was not worthy. He _is_ the model of faith that Christians should idolize as the type of faith a believer should emulate. The type of faith they should put in Jesus–the manifestation of Yahweh here on Earth.

  14. says

    I also wanted to add a few things about the “I’d kill people if religion didn’t keep me in check.”In a book I commented on on AE awhile back (wish I could recall the title now), the author talked about an experience he had in his youth. There was a police strike where he lived. He wanted to go out, but his parents insisted that would be insanity–that there would be mayhem in the streets. He told them that people wouldn’t act that way. But as it got later, people began to go out and loot.The author concluded that since we live an a very religious society, it seems that it is police presence and not god that keeps people from going nuts and commiting mayhem in the streets. Remove the police presence, and all the “bad” people seem to come out with utter disregard for god and hell.People who are prone to criminal behavior are disuaded by the knowledge of cops being available, not of divine retribution.Also, Christianity is a very codependent model. God reacts with righteous vengeance on many occasions. In fact, every time god gets mad, it’s always “justified” because of someone else’s behavior. If anything, it seems to be _god_ who can’t control himself, not people. People are consistently blamed for god’s lack of self-control in the books. And I wonder if that constant codependent model doesn’t rub off on Christian children–the idea that they can make god mad or sad would, I should think, pretty well sink in as “other people are to blame for the things we feel.”And if I think that my anger is _your_ fault–why shouldn’t I feel justified in abusing you? You deserve it–you made me mad–right?Just a thought.

  15. says

    What I find amusing is that some Christians, on the one hand, will say that under atheism nothing matters, but on the other hand if you sincerely convert to Christianity after committing the most heinous offenses imaginable, you get to go to heaven.Sounds to me like nothing under Christianity matters, because it is the ultimate get out of jail free card. I can murder, steal, commit rape, emotionally abuse people, or whatever, but the moment I find myself in a situation where I am staring my limited mortality in the face, I can get religion and everything will be okay. The irony being that any of my victims who were not Christians will suffer in hell for an eternity in the afterlife.

  16. says

    Tracie,Without taking away anything from what you and Beamstalk are saying, I question to what extent it’s cultural and environmental. There’s a body of evidence now that suggests something I’ve suspected for many years – that there is a neurological basis for fundamentalism. There’s a fellow in Florida who’s been doing work on this; he feels it originates in the prefrontal lobes. Tracie, I’d suggest that childhood indoctrination may not be the whole story with “J”, and Beamstalk, I’d suggest that you’d be here anyway, that you broke away from your fundie family because you aren’t “genetically programmed” to be like them. In the same vein, I question how much good exposing them to other points of view really accomplishes.And Tracie – yeah, I know all about the Akedah, the near-sacrifice of Isaac. You want rationalization? Try talking to an ultra-Orthodox Jew about it sometime. Tommy,The irony being that any of my victims who were not Christians will suffer in hell for an eternity in the afterlife.The rationalization generally preferred is that God knows who will and won’t accept him, and makes arrangements for them accordingly. If the victims died without accepting Jesus, it’s because they wouldn’t have accepted him if they’d lived. See how simple it is?

  17. says

    Thanks for your long response Tracie. > Actually they do say things like “god would never say that.” But it's just too easy to point to all the times their god is described to have had people do these things in their own Bibles. Then you say, “You mean this god?”Ironically enough, this is exactly what my friend initially responded with when I asked her if she would kill children. "Well God would never do that". I wish I knew at the time she said that about all the atrocities in the bible (I hadn't really read/studied it at this point). If I knew that, I would have pulled out the bible and gone right to a verse where God does the exact same thing. And once I did study the bible whenever I pointed her out to, for instance, 2 Kings 2:23-24 where God sends bears to kill 42 children for making fun of a bald man, she gets upset at me and never answers my questions about it, which makes me really frustrated.I really wish that she would be willing to talk to me again. I would love for her to read your post Tracie and some of the comments people have made here.> And Tyler – if she thinks you're going to hell, she's not kind, and she isn't your friend.That would be a tough pill to swallow, since most of the people I know are in fact believers. If all of these people are not really my friends, then I have very few friends indeed. I'm not saying I agree nor disagree with you. I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately but still haven't really figured out how I feel about the idea that many of my friends and associates likely think that I deserve to be tortured for eternity.

  18. says

    Anyone who advocates genocide or eternal torture, under any circumstances whatsoever, is ethically inferior.Because I say so, of course….

  19. says

    tracieh,Thanks for taking the time to respond. I think I should have been more specific with what I meant by ‘connections’. I’m referring to social and business connections. That is, organized religion provides an environment where these connections can be made. Of course, the extent to which connections can be made and the overall quality of the connection is dependent on the attitudes of the individuals participating.According to, can I call it, conservative social belief (perhaps this is not the correct term), it is preferable that an individual meet a mate at church rather than at a bar. Why is this? Obviously because bars are often seen to be filled with wolves and vixens, whose interests are not aligned with healthy family development. On the other hand, churches are viewed to be suitable environments for family development, where individuals are often taught to be shedding their personal desires for a higher purpose. One thing is certainly true, when a person gets outs of school and into the working world, there are far fewer opportunities for building new social relationships. I’m not saying that there aren’t opportunities, for example a person could join a club, just that there is nothing quite like the opportunities one finds to meet new people while attending school. So individuals attending church often find it as a place to socially converse, where they might not otherwise have that opportunity.Understand that I am not in any way trying to be an advocate for religion, I would just like to discuss what the real advantages or disadvantages are.

  20. says

    Great post!I’ve met with one argument that I haven’t seen here. One guy I was debating said that religion clearly must have some advantages because all of the great empires of the past were religious and none of them were atheist. The concept of religion clearly prevailed.I told him that up until some point of history all of the great empires employed torture, corporal punishment and capital punishment and up until another point of history all the previous empires held women in inferior status compared to the men. Maybe those things, just as well as religion, provided some kind of an advantage to the societies but the question is whether they are still advantageous now.Maybe you would (or already did) answer that differently. I just thought I should mention the argument here.

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    Cipher:I don’t doubt that there could be a predisposition to certain allures that fundamentalism may offer. But I wouldn’t say it’s as simply as people being predisposed to religion. I generally compare it to any compulsive abuse of a beneficial evolutionary trait. An example would be compulsive eating. Eating is a good thing, generally speaking. But if a person is driven to eat _too much_, it can become detrimental. And this applies to quite a lot of things. Hygiene is a good thing, but if I’m washing my hands to the point my skin is being destroyed, that’s not a good thing anymore.“Religion” is a blanket system that does offer lots of things that make humans comfortable. If we don’t know what causes X, that’s disturbing because not understanding causes can lead to bad decisions. So, if we _think_ we know what causes X, that is more comforting that realizing we _don’t_ know what causes X. This is certainly not the only “benefit” religion would offer to a mind that has evolved within this universe. But it is certainly a good example. It offers “in group” cohesion. That gives us that sense of “tribe” that social animals gravitate toward. It appeals, in other words, I agree, to the mind. And the mind is a brain function and product of genetics. Agreed again. So, while I would say that we might have genetic traits that predispose us to some of the things religion offers. I wouldn’t say a person is genetically predisposed to religion.And I’m not saying that’s exactly what you’re actually promoting. But I am trying to make my own stance clear. From a biological perspective, I can see how religion entrances people’s brains. And it makes sense that some people would be predisposed to gravitate _more_ toward social cohesion than other people, or more toward desiring “certainty” than others—just as other people might gravitate more toward food than others. I heard it once said: Genes load the gun, environment pulls the trigger. I think that as a broad and general rule, this applies.Tyler:>she gets upset at me and never answers my questions about itI just find it funny that she gets upset with _you_–as if you’re responsible for the content of her Bible. But yes, I’ve seen this response as well. I account for this as a product of her own frustration that she’s not convincing you. Apologetics is the “art” of convincing others you are right whether or not you are right. Matt often says that verification only matters if you care whether or not what you believe is actually likely to be true. And this is correct. If you don’t care about whether or not a particular believe is likely true, you don’t bother to verify. If you tell me you were out late last night, I accept that model, even while I know I have no idea it’s true or not—because I don’t _care_ if it’s true or not. You say it’s what you did. I don’t care, so for all intents and purposes I will go on with the model that you were out late last night. I don’t “believe” you in the sense that I take what you’re saying as “true,” but I do not care if it’s true or not—so I just use the info for what it is—which is pretty much “nothing” to me.Apologists try to talk god into existence. It’s a set of ideas that are meant to go something like this:“You believe X don’t you? And Y makes sense, right? And…”And at the end, “god must exist.” The problem is that often we think things are reasonable or correct, UNTIL they fail to correlate to reality. So, building a “correct” idea off other ideas that I assume are correct is a good way to create what I personally consider as a reasonable assumption—but I cannot, if I’m honest, put it forward as “true.” I can only say, “It makes sense to me. But I don’t really know if it’s correct, since I haven’t verified it.”You end up with what you personally evaluate as a good idea, but it cannot be honestly said to be true.If I work my way to such a conclusion, and I want to know if the conclusion is true, my next step should be to verify. However, the next step of the apologist is to _not_ verify, and then go on to try and convince others that my “good idea” should be accepted by them as a “good idea” as well—and whether or not it’s true is irrelevant in this model.So, for a believer to hit someone who asks for verification or who says, “I don’t agree this is a good (valid) idea,” is problematic. They aren’t really interested in discussing whether or not the belief is _true_–which is what you’re asking her to consider. They only care if it makes sense to them. And they derive comfort from the reality that it makes sense to them. And your insistence on investigating whether or not it’s actually true is a sign that you’re not “getting it.” It’s not about whether or not it’s true. It’s just about you hearing it and saying “I agree, that’s a good idea.” The more people who agree, the better it makes her feel. And someone mucking up the pyramid scheme by asking, “But shouldn’t we find out if it’s likely true or not before we go off on a campaign to convince everyone to believe it?” is just a wrench in the works.Ai Deng:You are right that in addition to the comfort of cohesive in-group, religious affiliation offers practical networking. I would add that our drive for in-group exists because of the same type of practical benefits whether you are a businessman in a community or a wolf in a pack of wolves in the wild. So, I agree.>On the other hand, churches are viewed to be suitable environments for family development,And to some real extent, they have cornered the market on this as “the only game in town.” I think that the rise in UU and Humanist groups will challenge this in coming years. And I wish I could live to be about 200 so I could see what happens.>when a person gets outs of school and into the working world, there are far fewer opportunities for building new social relationships.I think this is exactly what I wrote before I read it. So, I would agree with this (and the rest of how you put it forward).Quine:I don’t know. And I’m short on time. It looks like the link you sent is an atheist critique of something? So, I’m _assuming_(?) this is an issue that has been addressed in other atheist forums and you’re just wondering if this blog has as well? Since we have multiple contributors, I can’t say without going back through archives…? Sorry I’m not more helpful.Stenlis:>One guy I was debating said that religion clearly must have some advantages because all of the great empires of the past were religious and none of them were atheist. The concept of religion clearly prevailed.Recently I pointed out that crime, violence, disease and birth defects exist in all societies, but I don’t know what benefits they offer.The reply was that religion is macro to society while the things I listed are micro—basically if crime pervaded society like religion, it would destroy it. And I bowed to that hypothetical.However, you brought up inequality—the status of women specifically; but slavery would fit into this as well. And I see you are right. There are societies that thrive where some segments are subjugated as inherently inferior or where slavery—even brutal slavery—is employed. And it doesn’t collapse the culture. Would I argue then that these things should be considered fine, because they exist and can exist as macro parts of a society that survives or even thrives? Your reply was better than mine, I have to say.But my ultimate response was that religion is based on falsehoods and has the inherent attribute of being unstable. In other words, he mentioned that Islam was in effect in the Middle East at a time when there was huge scientific and mathematical discovery. But look at it now. It’s the same religion and the holy
    manual hasn’t changed, but what happened?If a leader came to power who inspired people to say, “Whatever he says, I will do, without question,” I would be nervous. What if the leader seemed to be honestly benevolent and trying to do good for the majority of people? Then is there nothing to fear? I submit there is always something to fear in any system that can command absolute and unquestioning loyalty from people. While it’s good, it’s great. But all it takes is for the driver to take the road of malevolence, and an entire social mob becomes a monster committing atrocities against other people and one another.I can’t support _any_ system that, at it’s core, asks people to accept it’s doctrines “on faith”—thus circumventing any/all critical thinking and becoming a potential threat to everyone.I’m not a card-carrying Humanist and I don’t attend UU. But I would rather see people taking those paths than the paths of supernatural religion, because nothing about UU or Humanism requires or requests that anyone believe things that require them to stop thinking. The benefits religion offers aren’t only available through religion. They are benefits that can be derived from secular sources. The problem is that no secular source has ever rivaled religion for this seat in society. Now that this is happening, wouldn’t it be preferable to have something that offered all the same social benefits that didn’t ask society to put itself at risk by demanding absolute, unquestioning loyalty to _whatever_ it commands?

  22. says

    Tracie,I agree with you about the social benefits, mutual reinforcement, etc. What I’m arguing for is a neurological predisposition to fundamentalism. The religious impulse is another matter.As I said, there’s a doctor in FL who’s been doing some research in that area – brains scans of fundies vs. sane people. He feels it originates in the prefrontal cortex. The best article I saw about it last year is no longer online, but if you’re interested, email me and I’ll send it to you.

  23. says

    I’m in a conversation with a religious person and would like to back up my claim that even today atrocities are being done in the name of religion. Do you have recent examples of (preferably Christian, but anything will do, like 9/11) a quote in scripture and corresponding behavior? Someone actually stoning a child or similar?

  24. says

    A relative of mine is currently in hospital, a Protestant one. Consequently they have a lot of what I first took to be Bibles lying around.When I looked a bit closer, they seemed to me very thin for Bibles. Well, I was right, they were the NT only (no dishonesty, the title was open about it).No surprise that so many people have no idea what the whole Bible actually contains. An no surprise that they would present NT-only versions at places where a lot of ignorant non-Christians in states of intense boredom will come along.Central rule of advertising: don’t talk about the disadvantages of your product unless you absolutely have to.

  25. says

    Benedikt,Nigerian witch hunts. Superstitious people convinced by evangelical missionaries and backed by (very rich) native preachers, self-proclaimed witch hunters and Holy Scripture that some children need to be wrapped in barbed wires et on fire in gasoline-filled car tires, or hacked with machetes. The lucky children are those who just get cast out into the wilderness to starve or get eaten and escape to be found by aid workers.Articles about this should mention the corresponding verses occasionally.I think this week a Christian father stabbed his son for disagreeing with him, right at a church.Parents murdering their children because they are supposedly possessed. Note that several fathers have thrown their child from a bridge, probably not coincidentally resembling Jesus driving the possessed pigs off a cliff.

  26. says

    Ai Deng: According to, can I call it, conservative social belief (perhaps this is not the correct term), it is preferable that an individual meet a mate at church rather than at a bar.And I think, conservative or otherwise, practical and common social beliefs would tell us that both bar and church are inferior to locations that are centered around some sort of interest. In this country, religious affiliations tend to be inherited rather than chosen, and so a church is really a gathering of people who have no reason to be together other than a common label. Contrast this with, say, a book club or a bowling league or a pottery class, where everyone involved is there because of a common interest or hobby. Despite the protestations of Paula Abdul, I think we’re more likely to find long-term partners among people with similar interests, and one is less likely to find such people in churches or bars than in other settings (unless one’s particular interests are religion or drinking). This is, of course, why college (as you mention) is so great for social networking: lots of opportunity to associate with people who have common interests, from other people in your classes and study groups to people in the abundant and omnipresent clubs. And I think this largely proves the point. Yes, religion provides a social benefit, but secular society does it better.

  27. says

    Tom Foss,I think your right, I shouldn’t call it ‘conservative social belief’, it should be something more like ‘traditional social belief’. You made an argument that common interests within a group are precursory to a more efficient social network, and that since people often do not choose their church/religion, the church/religion is not as good a place to meet people. Given these conditions, I’d have to agree, and perhaps this can be supported by higher levels of divorce among the religious as opposed to atheists.

  28. says

    Cipher:Thanks for clarifying the distinction. I do see that fundamentalism is different than religion. I’d have to say the mechanism would probably work similarly. But you are right they’re not the same thing. In fact “black and white” thinking is a sign of codependence. It is a state of thought development we all pass through when we’re younger. As we get older we outgrow it—but not if we have experienced any sort of trauma or stress at an early age that prevents our mental development. The idea is that a small child must be taught not to touch a stove—in all cases, because a child is not capable of understanding how to determine when the stove is “on” or “off.” And until he’s old enough to make that distinction, it’s unsafe to give him an impression that it’s anything but “bad” to touch the stove. So, we tell him the stove is “hot” and will “burn you” and “don’t touch.” Later, we expect the child will be able to grasp more complex concepts about when the stove is safe to touch.Benedikt:

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