Monday, June 25, 2007

Religion and Bad Desires

I am spending these days looking, in detail, at the idea that teaching religion to child is a form of child abuse.

In Part 1, "Religion as Child Abuse", I argued that teaching religion to a child does not qualify as ‘abuse’ because it lacks one of the necessary components of abuse – a desire for, or an indifference towards, the harm inflicted on the student.

In Part 2, "Teaching Religion", I argued that teaching religion to children is, in fact, bad in part because it teaches false beliefs. Each person acts so as to fulfill his desires given his beliefs, but seeks to act to fulfill his desires. False beliefs cause actions that aim at fulfilling desires and cause them to fail – the way that taking a drink that one thinks is clean water, but which turns out to be poison, leads to disastrous consequences for the person who only wanted to quench his thirst.

Today, I am going to argue that teaching religion to a child is bad because it teaches them bad desires. It teaches them to like things that no good person would like.

All of the caveats that I mentioned yesterday – that the bad desires taught by some religions are worse than the bad desires taught by others, and that religion is not the only source of bad desires – apply here as well.

Three Types of Bad Desires

(1) Desires that thwart other desires of the agent.

(2) Desires that thwart the desires of other people

(3) Desires that cannot be fulfilled.

Desires that thwart other desires of the agent.

In the every-day world, the paradigm example of a desire that thwarts other desires of the agent is an addiction. People act so as to fulfill their current desires, given their beliefs. Future desires are fulfilled only in so far as the agent has a current desire that future desires be fulfilled, and current desires that tend to fulfill future desires as a side effect (e.g., a desire to exercise, a taste for healthy food). A drug addiction, or even a taste for unhealthy food, is a desire that tends to thwart other desires of the agent. As such, it is a desire that the agent is better off not having.

In the religious world, nothing fits the mold of a desire that thwarts other desires more than the desire to be a martyr. The suicide bomber, or even the holy soldier whose desire to serve some god is strong enough to motivate him to risk injury or death, is somebody given a desire that thwarts other desires.

Now, many of these suicide bombers and religious warriors may well be operating from false belief, rather than bad desires. Their motivation may be to secure a place of fulfillment in heaven for their friends and family (or for themselves). These are not bad desires. Instead, these are examples like that of an agent drinking a glass of poison, thinking it is water, doing great harm to themselves for what they falsely believe will fulfill a good desire. Yet, it would be strange at best to argue that the suicide bomber, jihadist, or crusader, lacked a desire to promote their religion.

The guilt associated with something as morally innocent as masturbation, or the self-loathing that the religious inflict upon the young homosexual, severe enough to drive many of them to suicide (which, itself, is the ultimate in desire-thwarting acts) are also examples of religion teaching bad desires.

Finally, there are the resources that are spent trying to do something that cannot be done. Imagine a person who comes across a starving village, so she plants a garden, tends it through the summer, waters it, protects it from harm, then, in the fall, harvests the fruits and vegetables, and hands them to the villagers. Only, there never was a garden, there are no plants, and the baskets she hands to the villagers are empty. The whole garden and everything that came from it were figments of her imagination. The cost here is that the time and energy that she had spent tending to her imaginary garden could have been spent tending a real garden that would provide real-world nourishment to people who are suffering from real-world starvation.

Desires that tend to thwart the desires of others.

Many religions not only prevent people from fulfilling their own desires, they cause people to have desires that thwart the desires of others.

Look at the agenda for the Christian Right in this country, and with the Muslim Right in other countries. Their religion has made them into people whose primary desires are those that add to the overall misery, suffering, and death in the world. Opposition to embryonic stem-cell research, the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ (promoting an ignorance of evolution, from which we have derived tremendous breakthroughs in physical and mental health), adding misery to the lives of homosexuals, forcing real people with real interests to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of microscopic entities that have no interests, inhibiting the education of women, inhibitions on free speech and the free exchange of ideas (which only results in the dogmatic enforcement of ignorance) – all of these are examples in which religion has given people desires that thwart the desires of others.

This is not to say that these people desire the suffering of others – though, in some cases, this is clearly true. Instead, these are desires that tend to thwart the desires of others. Like the child rapist, whose desire is typically not to do harm to a child, but to do things that nonetheless cause harm to the child, many religious teachings promote desires that nonetheless result in harm to others (women, anybody who does not share the believer’s specific faith, anybody with a disease or illness, anybody who can benefit from increased knowledge and understanding of the real world, homosexuals) nonetheless.

I wrote about a prime example of this a while back where I discussed an evangelical who wanted to turn the attention of the world’s religious community to fighting global warming. Many religious leaders condemned him for diverting attention from more ‘worthy’ goals such as the fight against homosexuality and abortion. Here is a community of millions of people, refusing to contribute to something that will cause untold harm to future generations, because they are too concerned with causing untold harm to current generations.

Related postings:

The Hitler and Stalin Cliché” discusses the idea that atheism is also responsible for great harm.

“The Good that Atheists Would Not Do” discusses the claim that religion can be defended by the good deeds it inspires.

Desires that cannot be fulfilled

People act so as to fulfill their desires, given their beliefs, and seek to act so as to fulfill their desires. A parent with a desire that his children be healthy and happy will act in ways in which he believes will bring them health and happiness. However, the only acts that have real value are those that generate true health and happiness. If an act does no good, then it has no value. If an act harms his children, even though he acted with the best intentions, the fact that his children were harmed means that this is an act he has reason to wish he had never performed.

Religion fills people with desires that simply cannot be fulfilled, no matter what the agent does. No person has ever fulfilled God’s wishes or helped to execute God’s plan on earth – because there is no God, no wishes, and no plan.

Of course, some people believe that they are serving God. These are like the parent who believes that he is helping his children, when in fact he does not even have any children.

We can compare the life of the religious person in this case with the life of somebody hooked up to an experience machine, which feeds them the illusion that they are acting in the real world. We can imagine an agent with a desire to promote the health of children being hooked up to such a machine. The machine feeds him the impression that he is going through medical school, studying to become a pediatrician. Later, the machine feeds him the illusion that he is working in some impoverished part of the world, promoting the health of children who otherwise would have gotten no medical care. Yet, all of the while, he is floating in a vat of jelly, being fed impressions from a computer.

In many cases, it would be more accurate to say that the computer is also hooked up so that, every time the individual thinks that he has saved a child’s life, the computer tortures and kills a real child. Every jolt of satisfaction the subject has for doing good, is in fact a source of evil. This is the case of many religious people who devote their lives to ‘saving’ others – particularly children – by bringing them to religion. Every jolt of satisfaction that they experience form a success, is actually an instance of doing harm to the people they think they are helping.

This is not to say that a religious person cannot do good. A real-world doctor who saves a child, who thinks he is serving God, is not serving God. However, he is saving a real-world child, and that is a real-world good thing. His life need not be nothing but an empty delusion. However, those accomplishments he has that are of real-world value are accomplishments that bear no relation to religion or God.


So, these are three ways in which teaching religion to a child is a bad thing.

It is a bad thing when it involves teaching a child desires that tend to thwart other (harmless) desires he may have.

It is a bad thing when it involves making the child into a person who will dedicate his life to causes that add to the misery and suffering of others.

It is a bad thing when it involves teaching a child to value things that simply cannot come to be in the real world.

Of course, any given religion is bad to the degree that it does these things, and religion is not the only way in which a person can acquire bad desires. It is, however, one of the most common sources of bad desires, and some religions promote far more bad desires than others. As a source of bad desires, it is something that people who are concerned with the quality of life in the real world have reason to take action against.

What types of actions may we take?

I will write about that tomorrow.


the blogger formerly known as yinyang said...

I've been reading you for a couple of weeks, and am enjoying this series. Probably my favorite part so far was the issue with the idea of "teach children how to think, not what to think." I look forward to reading about the actions that can be taken.

Anonymous said...

My apologies, but I've tagged you.

Ella :) said...

Wonderful article! I completely agree. Teach children how to think, not what to think is an amazing statement, and is very true to me and my beliefs. You are a very good writer, and the article is organized very well. I look forward to more posts!