My recent criticisms of the sign, "Imagine: No Religion" has raised the question of whether or not I think humanity would be better off without religion.
If you are going to ask me if I think we would be better off if there was no religion, I will ask in return, "Compared to what?"
I can easily imagine a world without religion. It is a world in which no people exist.
Is this a better world?
I would say not.
I can imagine a lot of other possible worlds in which there is no religion - no beliefs about Gods, or no belief that a God exists - that I would not count as good as the existing world.
So, my answer to the question, "Would be be better off without religion" is "It depends. What's the alternative?"
So, does that mean that we are better off with religion? Am I somebody who holds that religion is a good thing - that we need a little religion in our lives?
Religion is a set of false beliefs. People seek to fulfill their desires, and act so as to fulfill their desires given their beliefs. False beliefs lead people astray - preventing them from realizing those states that actually fulfill their desires.
I have compared a religious life to a life inside an experience machine. The person is living a lie, and many of his imagined accomplishments are fake. Think of a person in an asylum who is convinced that he has personally cured cancer. He may be quite happy - quite pleased with what he had done. However, he had not cured cancer, so his happiness counts for little.
He is living a lie - just like the people who think that they have spent their lives serving God or promoting what some primitive tribesmen falsely called 'good' 2000 years of more ago. The "good" that they pursue does not exist - these are false goods mistakenly said to be important by primitive cultures that did not know any better.
So, am I in favor of "no religion" or against it?
One of the arguments that I have made is that, on a social level, it is better to try to unite the best 80% of humanity against the worst 20%. Doing this in the other direction will guarantee that the best 20% will lose, and the worst 80% gets to control the course of the human race.
If we were to institute such a project, this would mean (1) that a substantial majority of the best 80% will believe in God, and (2) some of the worst 20% will not. One cannot simply take a person, discover that the person does or does not believe that a God exists, and know whether to categorize him as an ally or an enemy. We need to know more about the person than that.
This does not imply that it is wrong to criticize religion. The best 80% are well aware of the fact that they may be mistaken, and being challenged in one's beliefs is a useful way to helping to make sure that one is not pursuing a course that is better off not pursued. On the other hand, the worst 20% will be disposed to be upset about having their beliefs challenged - who will want to censor or otherwise silence their critics.
If we keep fighting the worst 20%, and if we keep winning, I suspect that, in the long run, we will eliminate religion. This, however, is a prediction, not a project.
Every religious person on the planet holds beliefs that I take to be false. At the same time, so does every atheist. I can honestly say, of every person on the planet, that he holds at least one proposition to be true that I hold to be false, or holds one proposition to be false that I hold to be true. If the fact that somebody holds a false belief is enough for me to condemn him and to refuse to form an alliance with him to better humanity, then I must condemn everybody.
Including myself . . . because I will guarantee that I hold at least one proposition to be false that is in fact true, and at least one proposition to be true that is in fact false.
And I hold that false belief because I unquestioningly picked it up from my parents and my culture.
I just don’t know which of my beliefs this is.
You, reader . . . yes, I’m talking to you . . . you hold at least one proposition to be true that I hold to be false. We do not agree on everything. Does this fact, and this fact alone, imply that we must be enemies? Can’t we put those differences aside for a while and work together – join forces on a project to eliminate what we both agree to be some of the worst problems that face humanity?
That point of difference might be that you believe that T-Rex was a predator while I think that T-Rex was a scavenger. That point of disagreement might be that you think that happiness is the sole end of all human action, while I hold that human brains hold a number of desires like it holds a number of beliefs and each desire identifies a separate end to human action. That difference might be that you hold that you hold that at least one God exists and I hold that it is not the case that at least one God exists.
People who cannot allow and accept that there are and will always be points of disagreement between them and those they call friends and with whom they make alliances are going to live lives without friends and allies.
Another question that I was asked by a member of the studio audience is this one:
If the population of the United States was 90% atheist and/or anti religious and only 10% Christian, do you think the chances of a Christian being elected President would be very good?
Well, this is a trick question. I think that atheists carry no special immunity against bigotry. Because of this bigotry it may well be the case that a Christian could never be elected in such a society. However, I would object to such a standard.
I will say this with absolute certainty – that every candidate that runs for public office holds at least one proposition to be true that I hold to be false. The atheist and the theist candidate running for office will both have beliefs that I do not share. I obviously hold that the theist’s beliefs about the existence of a god are not true. The atheist will also have beliefs that I will hold to be not true.
Only the most irrational bigot would conclude that the mere fact that one is a theist is enough of a reason to vote against him – regardless of what the other differences might be.
However, there are a lot of different types of Christians. A Christian who believes that we must trigger the Rapture by declaring war on the infidels, who stands before the podium and argues that the Bible demands an immediate attack on the forces of Islam with all of the weapons at our disposal, will not get my vote.
I am not one who holds that a minority view has a right to be represented – that we should ignore the religious beliefs of candidates and focus only on the non-religious matters. Where religious beliefs support policies that bring death and destruction, we should very much consider those beliefs in deciding who to vote for. I will insist on taking a person’s religious views into consideration when deciding who to vote for.
Yet, I consider it absurd to suggest that the only thing worth looking at – or even the first and most important thing to look at – is whether a candidate, friend, or ally believes that there is a god.