Saturday, May 05, 2007

Melvin Konner: Hope, Benefit, and Prohibiting Religion

Melvin Konner (Professor of Anthropology, Neuroscience, and Behavioral Biology) spoke third in the 9th Session of Beyond Belief 2006, ending a trio of presentations meant to start a dialogue about the value of religion. The first two participants were Sam Harris and Jim Woodward.

I think that the overall impression is that Woodward and Konner formed one side of the debate, and Sam Harris formed the other side. (Later, in the discussion that I will cover next week, Richard Dawkins joined Harris.)

Though I think that Woodward made some important points, Konner contributed virtually nothing of merit to the discussion at all. Indeed, Konner’s presentation appeared to me to be nothing more than an attempt to score rhetorical points against a with little if any concern for what actually makes sense or was relevant to the debate.

The Scientist Physican

Konner drew his first lesson from his training as a physician. He asserted the moral position that “it is not the job of the physician to take away the patient’s hope.” He explained this with an example of a patient who does not accept that he has terminal cancer.

Yes, you tell the truth. ‘I’m sorry, sir, but you have terminal cancer and you might die next year or the year after, I’m not sure.’ No, doc, I think I’m going to be okay; it is going to be fine. When you have that exchange three times, you stop, because it is not the job of the physician to take away the patient’s hope. Truth is fine, but you don’t have to batter somebody with it.

I was happy to hear that Richard Dawkins agreed with me. He said that he would not tell somebody his views if they were on their death bed. I find that quite inconsistent, actually, as many people have pointed out during the meeting, we are all on our death beds as soon as we attain consciousness. . . .

And I would suggest to you that all of us who speak to the public about science are physicians, in a way, and that it is not the job of the physician to take away the patient’s hope.

Change the example just slightly. Have this cancer patient refuse potentially life-saving treatment because, ‘I think I’m going to be okay.’ Or, make the person a diabetic alcoholic who refuses to give up drinking, or have her be a patient who tests positive for HIV and refuses to accept the fact that through unprotected sex (and even protected sex) she puts others at risk.

In at least the first two of these cases, it may be wise to follow the rule to present the truth to the patient three times and then stop. The doctor does not stop “because it is not the job of the physician to take away the patient’s hope (that he will survive without treatment or will not suffer harm from drinking).” The physician stops because the patient is almost certainly in denial and is not going to listen.

Yet, the third case – the case of the HIV patient - represents a situation where the physician may not stop even after the third iteration of the conversation. Innocent lives are now at stake and, even if the patient refuses to care for herself, there is reason to take action to prevent her from being a threat to the well-being of others.

The type of case that Konner used in his example, and the type of case that Dawkins agreed to, is one where the patient in fact has no hope and one in which it is nearly certain that no harm will come to others.

Yet, Dawkins and Harris, in making their case against faith, assert that faith is something that stands in the way of hope (a delusion that there is nothing wrong rather than finding real-world solutions to real-world problems) and in some cases makes the ‘patient’ a threat to the well-being of others. In these cases, it is, indeed, the duty of the doctor to try to remove the patient’s delusions.

I have some disagreements with Dawkins and Harris over the strength of these arguments in all of the cases where they apply them. However, Konner has decided to build and attack a straw man, building an argument filled with assumptions that beg the question and misrepresents what his opponents are trying to say.

The Costs and Benefits of Religion

In a related argument, Konner accused the critics of religion of attempting to perform a benefits-cost analysis of religion while considering only the costs of religion itself. In fact, he describes two ways in which Dawkins and Harris flubbed the cost-benefit analysis; by not including any of the benefits of religion, and by not considering the costs of abolishing religion.

Assigning Benefits

On the benefits side of the equation, Konner accuses Dawkins and Harris of neglecting the good that religion does. To illustrate the type of argument that he is constructing, Konner pointed out that a paper on water that only discussed, hurricanes, tsunamis, and the fact that 97% of the water on earth is poisonous, one could conclude that water is bad. However, that conclusion only follows because one has ignored the benefits.

The form of Konner’s counter argument is sound. An evaluation of the overall value of something is measured by its overall costs and its overall benefits requires that we get the costs and benefits right.

However, Konner assumes that religion provides a number of benefits. It does, in a sense. However, by the methods used in standard accounting, these are technically not benefits of religion. For a benefit to qualify as a benefit of religion it must be a benefit that would not exist if not for religion.

For example, let us assume that religious institutions perform $500 billion worth of charity. This counts as a ‘benefit of religion’ only if it is the case that, in the absence of religion, people would not have performed $500 billion worth of charity. It is not enough to argue that they would not have performed this charity in the name of God - if they would have performed this charity for some other reason. It is necessary to argue that, without belief in God, there is no charity.

I made this point in detail in an earlier post, “A Special Way of Knowing” . The only benefits that can honestly and accurately be attributed to religion are those benefits that would not be obtained in the absence of religion.

To see the form of my argument, assume that you were testing a drug against a placebo. Thirty percent of the patients who took the drug ended up being cured. However, thirty percent of the patients taking the placebo were cured as well. In addition, the drug causes some obnoxious side effects such as vomiting and convulsions. The recommendation comes down not to use the drug.

The company manufacturing Drug 1 then shouts back, “You are ignoring all of the good that Drug 1 does. It cures diabetes.”

Well, no, it doesn’t. Yes, there is a thirty percent cure rate for those who took the drug. But the benefit of the drug is not to be measured by the number of people cured, but the number of additional people cured than would have otherwise been cured.

Similarly, the benefit of religion is not the amount of charitable work done. It can only be measured in terms of the amount of charitable work done that would not have otherwise been done, if any.

I want to stress this, because it is easy to overlook the implications of this. The phrase, “Look at the good that religion has done,” is to the phrase, “Look at how selfish and uncharitable nonreligious people are.” It is a bigoted remark – a statement filled with bigoted and denigrating assumptions. It is not just wrong. It employs a denigrating and insulting assumption that atheists are uncharitable.


Konner’s second attempt to make his case demonstrates that in his eagerness to attack Dawkins and Harris is grossly irresponsible and insulting.

Ethanol demonstrably causes great harm. We also know now that it cause some good, but the balance is clearly in favor of harm with ethanol. Why was Prohibition repealed? It was not repealed because people had a wrong idea about that balance. It was repealed because it was discovered that the attempt to abolish ethanol and the use of ethanol for consciousness alteration was more costly than the harm done by alcohol. That’s the conclusion that was come to.

And I urge on you the analogy of that with religion, because not only do Sam’s and Richard’s books not take up the balance between the good done by religion and the harm done by religion. They do not even consider the harm that could be done by attempting to abolish religion that they both advocate strongly.

Neither Harris nor Dawkins has outlined a program of religious prohibition like alcohol prohibition during the early 1920s. Neither of them have advocated outlawing religion. The most either of them have argued for is public condemnation of those who engage in faith-based thinking in order to get people to voluntarily (in the sense of not coerced by law) give it up in favor of a better form of life. Because they do not even suggest such a prohibition, they have no need to consider its harms.

Making such a claim about Harris and Dawkins is simply irresponsible.


Konner also devotes some time discussing how religion fulfills certain needs. Konner is an anthropologist, and used as his example the Kung Trance Dance through which tribal members enter a trance in which they (believe they) talk to their ancestors. In explaining this ceremony, Konner said, “Looking at a system like that shows you how religion fills very basic human needs.”

Candy fulfills certain needs. It provides people with calories and, of course, no body would survive without calories. However, this is not enough to say that candy is good, or even 'good for you'. There are other things that fulfill this same need, but which also provides other benefits (such as essential vitamins and minerals). So, relatively speaking, we can still say that candy is bad for you, even though it fulfills certain bodily needs.

So, to make a meaningful statement that religion fulfills certain needs is to say that, for those who are nonreligious, these needs are unfulfilled - that there is no alternative (not having the same harmful side effects) for getting these same needs fulfilled. "Religion fulfills basic needs" either assumes that atheists do not have these basic human needs (they are not fully human), or that atheists have these needs and they are not being fulfilled. Neither of these conclusions are defensible. Therefore, we can reject the assumption that religion fulfills otherwise unfulfilled needs.

Here, again, is a statement that is fundamentally insulting, denigrating, and demeaning towards atheists - that they are somehow incapable of taking care of basic human needs, when there is absolutely no evidence supporting that position, and no non-bigoted reason to assume it.


When Richard Dawkins gave his presentation (which I commented on in “Richard Dawkins Part I: Consciousness Raising.”) I gave some criticisms about where Dawkins wanted consciousness to be raised. However, here is an important place where moral consciousness needs to be raised. Even many atheists take seriously the claim “Look at the good that religion does,” without recognizing that the person who uttered it had just slapped him with an insult, “Look at the good that the nonreligious would not do.”

The argument, “Look at the good that religion has done” or "look at the needs that religion fulfills" begs the question, in that it requires the assumption that people will not do good or find ways to fulfill needs without religion. It assumes that atheiss are selfish individuals with basic human needs unfulfilled.

If as much good would have been done (but for different reasons) without religion, then religion has done no good – at least not any that gives us any reason to prefer religion over the comparable alternative. If more good would have been done by the alternative, then the claim, “Look at the good that religion has done” becomes “look at the harm that religion has done” in preventing us from moving to this more powerful reason to give to charity.

1 comment:

olvlzl said...

Alonzo, you know about Dawkins signing onto a petition that would prohibit parents from instructing their own children in religion before the age of 16? That he retracted it, in the face of outrage by atheists, among others, doesn't change that someone of his intelligence signed onto it in the first place. I can't believe he did so from any other motive than his agreement with the proposition that criminal penalties were appropriate for the simple act of a parent telling their child what they thought was true.

The absence of a "program" in the sense of having a law drafted and ready for legislative action is a smokescreen for the stated desires of both of these epically impractical heros of the entirely unrealistic. They invite reaction, maybe in the hope that it will power their careers in pop culture, without any care of how other non-religious people might fare. They are egoists with no sense of responsibiltiy to society in general or any movement except their own, personal, cults.