Thursday, November 17, 2011

Would We Be Better Off Without Religion?

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?)


Brad Foster said...

I worry if there was no religion simply by the number of believers who explain, quite clearly and simply, that apparently the only thing that keeps them from going wild and committing all sorts of horrible thigns is their religion. These people are nuts, and they are out there.

Anonymous said...

imagine these 2 scenarios:

1) evil dictators and organisations who rule the world based on ancient myths that you cant disprove or,

2) evil dictators and organisations who rule the world based on greed or evil.

dictators fall, democracy and capatilism rules he 1st world but i would rather be fighting just people and not people with religion in tow.

Robert G said...

If religion is based upon "false beliefs" and if we are better off without false beliefs, then we would be better off without religion. You need not go down the path of "What if we had something WORSE than religion?" That obviously would be bad. But if you ask "Would we be better off without heart attacks?" you don't respond "Yes, of course, but what if we had cancer instead> That would be even worse, so heart attacks may not be so bad."

Albert Ip said...

The argument missed an important point - the competition of meme.

Religious belief is a set of false meme competing with reason and logic. If there were no religion, science, e.g., would not have to deal with the misinformation from creationism. If there were no religion and the Christian's wishful thinking of the coming of Jesus, we would have face to coming climate crisis with better sense, logic and reason.

When will humanity grow up to get rid of religion once and for all?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Robert G.

Your point seems semantic - and not an objection in substance.

You are not saying that any of my points are mistaken - only that a presumption of "as opposed to having true beliefs" is written into the very question "Would we be better off without religion".

I would deny this - because, if this were written into the meaning of the question, then the answers would be different. In fact, the whole debate would be different.

Indeed, the debate would not make sense - given that the theist already assumes that his beliefs are true.

Albert Ip

This competition you are talking about - who are the competitors?

It is not the case that "If there were no religion and the Christian's wishful thinking of the coming of Jesus, we would have face to coming climate crisis with better sense, logic and reason" precisely because the alternative meme standing in its place might not mention God - but still could be even more nonsensical, illogical, and unreasonable.

Thus, my answer . . . "It depends on what the alternative to religion is."

John Myste said...

Since we cannot conceive of what the world would actually look like without religion, it is hard to say. Religion provides an excuse to commiserate, to associate and to empathize, and it provides an often needed justification for seeking the moral sense most of us have with or without it.

If there were no such thing as cognitive dissonance and if people gravitated to support groups naturally, religion would have less value.

Neither of those things is true.

I don't believe in God(s) and I don't need religious so far as I know.

However, I see many people who do need it, and badly.

I think ti is hard to imagine the real long-term consequences, were it to cease to exist.

Rob S said...

When these conversations come up, I'm always surprised not to see anyone mention Phil Zuckerman's work in Sociology, especially his "Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being" article. He shows fairly definitively that atheists generally behave themselves better (especially in relation to violent crime) than believers. He also talks about nations like Sweden, which have very high percentages of non-believers.

I think that constitutes evidence against the notion that we wouldn't be better off without religion. Sweden certainly is.

Sabio Lantz said...

Dissecting a religion
and understanding the organs which are most deluded and harmful, is the first step toward moving toward healthier religions -- since I doubt they will disappear.

currentbaptist said...

Concerning the second of this post, from "Why is that?" and on, I believe it’s a misguided presumption. While I believe, as well as those from other religions, that not all religions can be right, I do believe that the Christian standpoint has the strongest case. Your examples pose situations in which the result of an action leading to death. While Christians accept much in faith, the considered mysteries or unknowns of the faith don't lead to death. Christians don't know exactly how the world began but we believe that God created it. At the end of the day I want people to see it as the beginning of a grander story but my supposedly false belief, as you think it its, will not lead to my own death nor will it lead to any desire within me to bring harm to others. This is the effect of belief in true Christianity of the Bible. Ninian Smart uses six dimensions to describe religion: sacred narrative, doctrine, ritual, social and institutional expression, experience, and ethics. Atheists do not believe in any god and could not consider the majority of these to be a religion but the results of false belief or extreme belief on their part has led to much more death than any Christian action (for us, mainly the Crusades). I agree that we need to replace false beliefs with true beliefs. Anyone would agree with that. Yet, your absolute statement is ultimately wrapped up in relativism because ones' belief will be equated with someone else's as long as it does not meet the criteria of religion, is without a deity, and is probably formulated within the academy of science.

Anonymous said...

Look religion has it's problems sure but a world without it would be terrifying, everyone points to how superior atheists are to thiests but heres the thing and nothing against atheists in anyway shape and form but they're a minority that includes scientists of all kinds, to political leaders and so on and so forth. They behave better because they do, I mean its like choosing all the behaved top mark students and compare the rest of them to the black kids, and then coming to the conclusion of white kids are better. What if we compare all the olympic athletes to average americans. But what if all the athletes demanded that america got rid of all it's junk food on the case that it's healthier to do so. Then you see a response from average americans saying multiple things, such as very obese people saying don't take my chocolate away from its only food we need, and they have an extreme view, then the athletes judge everyone else by what a few say or do, the others however say no we eat in moderation.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, I have spent a bit of effort denying that atheists are superior to theists.

I have repeatedly said that, in a community that is 85% atheist, most people will become atheists for the same reasons they become theists today. They will simply and unquestioningly absorb the beliefs common within their community.

Also, atheist factions have not shown an overriding abundance of peace, love, and understanding.

However, I know of no actual evidence suggesting we need religion to tame the unthinking hoards of barbarians who would go wild if not for the calming influence of religion. I do not see any reason to hold such opinions of people without evidence.