Thursday, December 27, 2007

Does Religion Make One a Better Ruler?

I missed an opportunity to take part in a BBC broadcast yesterday regarding the question, “. . . whether religion helps make better politicians.”

My answer to that question would have been generally no, it does not.

Put quite simply, religions are collections of false beliefs, and false beliefs generally provide a poor foundation for policy. We see this in the mundane cases of false beliefs about who performed a particular crime, false beliefs about the safety of certain medications, and false beliefs about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

These problems are even more severe when we are talking about two different religions having false beliefs about who God gave a particular strip of land to, beliefs that we can control the course of hurricanes and thwart terrorist attacks by sacrificing the interests of homosexuals, and beliefs that the end of the world is near so we do not need to worry about the long-term consequences of our actions.

Having said this, it is also the case that religions are not the only false beliefs that exist. Consequently, the fact that a person is not religious does not imply that he will automatically be a better leader. That depends (in part) on the quality of his non-religious false beliefs.

In other words, religion makes an individual a worse leader – but non-religious faults can make an individual an even worse leader, leaving the religious individual as the least of all possible evils.

There is also the question of religion on a person’s moral character. Even where religion gives a person false beliefs, is it the case (for example) that fear of punishment in an afterlife will make it more likely that the leader will be moral?

There are several problems with this option.

The first is that, if you are going to threaten a person into doing the right thing, then you need to make sure that what you are threatening him into doing is indeed the right thing. Biblical scriptures were written centuries ago by primitive tribesmen whose access to moral truth was no better than their access to scientific truth. Many of their moral beliefs were simply mistaken. When moral mistakes are then attributed to God, and people are told that they must obey God or face eternal damnation, then those people are being given an incentive to do evil, not good.

A moral commandment to kill anybody who works on the Sabbath, or anybody who denies the existence of God, or anybody who has sex with somebody of the same gender, is a commandment to do evil to another human being. In these cases, using the fear of eternal damnation in order to motivate individuals to enforce God’s law is not a way of motivating them to do good that atheists are inclined to ignore. It is a way of motivating them to do evil that atheists are inclined to ignore. In these cases, the belief that there is no divine punishment is a good thing.

The second problem with this method is its disregard for truth. Philosophers call this type of system a ‘noble lie’ – a falsehood that is made a part of the popular culture in the hopes that those who believe the myth will be better people as a result.

There is an intrinsic conflict between telling people that they need to adopt a belief, not because it is true, but because it is convenient, and creating a culture in which people prize and seek truth. A culture that lives a ‘noble lie’ cannot value truth. A culture that values truth cannot stomach a ‘noble lie’.

Above, I described all of the problems with false beliefs. Because false beliefs cause so many problems, we have good reason to promote in people a love of true belief. This includes a love of learning and of knowledge, a love of intellectual responsibility, and an aversion to deceit. None of these virtues are easily practiced in a society that embraces a ‘noble lie’. The noble lie is quite incompatible with learning and knowledge because it tells people that there is an area of learning that they must not investigate. It uses intellectually irresponsible forms of reasoning to persuade people of the lie and encourages them to embrace this suspect behavior. It teaches that truth has value only when it is useful – and when a fiction is useful, then it is better than truth.

Of course, religious people will deny that their beliefs are false. They would assert that my objections above all beg the question – beg the question of the truth of religious claims. However, the question that I was asked was whether religion makes a person a better leader. Of course it is true that people who have different opinions about the truth of religious claims will give different answers to that question. However, my answer to that question comes from the perspective of somebody who holds that religious beliefs are false. In this case, religion makes an individual a worse ruler, but not necessarily worse than an atheist ruler who has different (and worse) false beliefs.

The idea that not all beliefs are equally bad is important here. I may believe, for example, that Tyrannosaurus Rex was a predator, when it was in fact a scavenger. However, my false belief has almost no relevance to the real world. It is not likely to be the case that any living person will be made to suffer as a result of my false belief about the nature of T-Rex.

On the other hand, a false belief that a particular button in a nuclear power plant is safe to push could do a great deal of damage. It is a far worse belief. It is so bad, in fact, that I may well be obligated to assume that no button in a nuclear power plant is safe to push unless I have been informed otherwise by a trained expert.

Where religion gives a group of people a false belief that they will be rewarded in the afterlife if they spend this life tending to the starving, sick, injured, and homeless, this false belief is not all that bad. We still have to deal with the fact that the agent needs more reliable tools for distinguishing true beliefs from false. However, that is a minor problem made up for with the good deeds that he has done.

On the other hand, where religion gives people a belief that they may or must act in ways that are destructive of the life of millions of other people, this belief is much worse.

We can tolerate the first belief in the grounds that, given that we do not have the resources to challenge every mistake, we must focus our attention on the worst beliefs. On this metric, beliefs that are relatively harmless are set aside while we focus on fighting beliefs that prompt people to act in ways harmful to others.

There are some religions that are worse than others. There are some religions that we need to take steps to exterminate because their religion tells their members to engage in behavior harmful to others – to kill others, to block the access that others need to life-saving medical care, to pose limits on the freedoms of others that deprive others of a quality life. These religions add to misery and suffering on a grand scale. No leader who is a member of any of these religions is made a better leader as a result. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

The best we can hope for is a religion that does a minimal amount of harm.

Yet, as I said at the beginning, and I want to repeat here, religion is not the only source of error and can, on occasion, consist of a set of false beliefs that do far less harm that the available non-religious alternatives.


sattvicwarrior said...

great blog!!!!!!!! well stated

Anonymous said...

If we take it for granted that not everything is known, then we are forced to make certain conjectures about what is not known. Everyone is forced have certain beliefs, that are un-testable assumptions about what is important.

I agree with most of what you say, except for the statement that religion is just a set of false beliefs. Scott Atran's view that religion represents the value choices of our ancestors (which while represented in fictitious causality (tree spirits is one of his examples) is more than just the sum of all these fictitious myths.

If the fictitious beliefs of our ancestors may be benefitial, even though they are false, because they provide secondary benefits against either more dangerous fictions or against real dangers like addictions, or infection.

The belief that religion is nothing but false beliefs seems unreasonable to me.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I did not see anything in your comment that I did not cover in my post in discussing the 'noble lie' - the hypothesis that religion is a set of useful false beliefs.

Though I will confess that there is more that I can say on the issue.

I will, in fact, be getting to Scott Atran's view in my weekend Beyond Belief series, since he was one of the presenters there.

Anonymous said...


I was following you right up until your concluding tatement “religion may … consist of a set of false beliefs that do far less harm that the available non-religious alternatives.”
I’m puzzled by the circumstance in which one’s only available non-religious beliefs would be far more harmful than religious ones.
I can envision one choosing harmful beliefs, but not having no alternatives except harmful ones.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

That was poor, ambiguous writing on my part.

I meant to be talking about an instance where the false beliefs of a theist candidate may be less harmful than the false beliefs of available non-theist candidates. An instance, for example, where a moderate theist candidate is running against an anarcho-capitalist atheist candidate.

Of the available candidates, the theist would be the better candidate.