Would we be better off without religion?
This is the debate question.
Answer: Not necessarily.
This is not the answer many atheists give - but I think it is easy to demonstrate that it is true.
In arguing that the world would be better off without religion, atheists tend to us a particular argument that is easily shown to be invalid. Theists then respond with evidence that it is invalid. However, it seems that a lot of atheists - blinded by the fact that this flawed argument supports a desired conclusion - refuse to see reason.
That traditional argument is to categorize the evils done in the name of religion. Crusades, Jihads, terrorist attacks, faith healing, praying for solutions rather than finding scientifically sound real- world solutions, the condemnation of homosexuals and other minorities, the religious defense of slavery - all of these go on the catalogue of religious evils. The claim is that we would nit have these things without a belief in God.
The idea seems to be that, without religion to corrupt us, our natural virtue would have prevented these evils.
But this is the question I want to ask: Where did religion come from?
None of the evils that were listed above - or those not listed - actually came from God. The thoughts that motivated them did not magically appear in scripture. They all came from human beings, working without a drop of divine influence, who created scripture - and from other human beings who decided to accept those stories. Humans created God in their own image.
If, as Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion,
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Then so were the people who created that God, and those who decided that this God - and not some other - is to be worshipped.
This us the human character that would have risen to the top in the absence if religion, and it is identical to the character of the people who created that religion. It is in humans that these flaws exist - not in God.
What sense is there to the idea that, without religion, they would have behaved differently? It is much more plausible to hold that, without religion, they would have performed the same evils. The only difference is that they would have used different justifications.
We already know that this is possible. Social Darwinism, atheistic communism, subjectivism, Ayn Rand Objectivism - these all demonstrate that, in the absence of religion, humans are just as capable of inventing non-religious justifications for the same evils and carrying them to ends that are just as - or even more - bloody and harmful.
There will, some day, be an atheist terrorist. Some young male, feeding off if the works if Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, will decide that religion is the root of all evil. He will load up some weapons and decide to take out a congregation - knowing that this is his last act on earth, but thinking it is worthwhile way to send his anti-religious message. While none of these authors intended or would condone these such an action, this will not necessarily stop a determined individual from drawing his own conclusions. Yet, these authors and the "militant atheists" will still be blamed for inspiring hate.
There is nothing in the human nature such that, in the absence of religion, they will not do evil.
My answer is that the world could be better off without religion - but it could be worse off.
Why is that?
It is because religious beliefs are false - and false beliefs get in the way of fulfilling desires.
A woman is thirsty, sees a glass of what she believes to be water, and takes a drink -poisoning herself. Her false beliefs caused her to act in ways that ultimately thwarted her desires. True beliefs would have allowed her to have picked the option that actually fulfilled her desires.
A woman stands before two buttons. She believes that the red button will release a stranger from his cell. The blue button will start a compressor that will suck the air out if the room. She us told that she will never know the actual results of her actions, but to have faith. She presses the red button, and lives the rest if her life comforted by her faith that she let a stranger out if his prison. Meanwhile, the researchers bury the bodies of a room full if children who suffocated to death as a result of her actions.
True beliefs are useful. False beliefs lead to regrettable actions. And the comfort felt by those who have faith is no compensation for the harms done.
We could be better off without religion because we are better off without false beliefs.
But we are not necessarily better off if we replace those false beliefs with another set of false beliefs that are equally or more dangerous. We are not better off if we replace those false beliefs with social Darwinism, communism, subjectivism, or Ayn Rand objectivism, to name only four possibilities.
To be better off, we need to replace false beliefs with true beliefs.
The works if the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates represents the best medical knowledge of his age. Yet, today, we would take the person who held that Hippocrates was the last word in medicine, and that anything that contradicts Hippocrates is heresy to be unfit to practice medicine.
Religious scripture represents the best in moral knowledge at the time in which it was written. However, anybody who holds that scripture is the last word in morality, and that anything that contradicts scripture is heresy, is unfit to practice ethics.
We can imagine how horrible the state if medicine would be if it were dominated by people who held that everything that was true about medicine was written by Hippocrates. We can see without imagining how horrible the state of ethics us at, where it us dominated by people who hold that scripture is the last word in morality.
Yet, we are better off simply because modern medical practitioners have more true beliefs than ancient medical practitioners. If we had instead replaced Hippocrates with some tribal medicine that, in fact, even more wrong - we would be better off with Hippocrates.
So, would the world be better off without religion?
Possibly - to whatever degree we replace the false beliefs of religion with true beliefs, and not some other set of false beliefs that happen not to include a god.
(Note: I had a different answer to that question when I started this blog, but I found that the weight of the arguments did not support that conclusion. So, somewhere between writing the first sentence of this blog and the last, I changed my mind, and went back to rewrite the beginning. That is how reasoning is supposed to work. Right?)