A little while ago, Jerry Coyne, over on the Why Evolution is True Blog, asked if religion is good or bad for humanity. He asked two specific questions and wanted empirical answers. I figured it was easier to get into a lengthy answer to his questions here, especially since I don’t think this is an empirical question at all, it relies on subjective determinations and hence, is a philosophical question that needs to be answered philosophically.
So on to his two questions, which I’m sure are going to take an entirely left turn at Albuquerque from what he intended.
1. How do you support your claim that religion is on the whole a bad thing for humanity? NOTE: This is an empirical question and requires empirical data for an answer, not gut feelings or anecdotes.
The problem is, this isn’t an empirical question because none of the terms are agreed upon. Whose definitions do we use? How do we define what is good or what is bad for humanity? The things that I or Jerry Coyne or lots of atheists might argue are good for humanity, fundamentalist religious zealots might argue are bad. The things that we might say are horrible, such as flying airplanes into the Twin Towers, might be the highest virtue to extremist Muslims. As someone pointed out in the comments on WEiT, there is a near constant stream of Christians who conspire to blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem so that the Jews can rebuild the Temple and bring about the end of the world. Unfortunately, the majority of these crazy Christians are American. How can you hope to find common ground with people who believe the highest positive is to cause Armageddon? You’ll never find a definition that everyone agrees on for “good”, “bad” or “what’s best for humanity”. Therefore, this becomes a philosophical question and entirely subjective and therefore, empiricism goes right out the window. Everything that we can say is based on our own subjective positions that we can try to defend rationally but which can never be proven empirically.
Clearly, I don’t think religion is good on the whole for humanity, I want to see it go away and I think humans will be better off without it. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some positives that come along with religion, but none of those positives are inherent to religion, all of them can be achieved secularly as well. I also find that some of the things deemed positive for religion actually are not. Prayer and similar pointless gestures that provide the illusion of comfort are not positives. They cater to what I view as an irrational human weakness. That many people have that weakness is not sufficient reason to cater to it, instead we need to work to reduce or eliminate it. I’ve made the case in the past with my “stupid people are stupid” argument that just because there are stupid people out there, people who are ignorant of the world around them and who have no interest in finding out the truth, that doesn’t make stupidity and ignorance acceptable. Unfortunately, that becomes a strength for many theists and accommodationists, that some people “need” prayer because they are, in reality, pathetic losers who cannot deal with the world as it actually is, therefore they “need” to talk to an imaginary friend in the sky to get through the day. Well, no, what they really “need” is to get over it and grow the hell up. We do no favors to coddle people who have not matured sufficiently. It does humanity no good to lower the standards to the lowest conceivable denominator. We need to raise our standards and expect those that fall below to come up, not expect everyone else to reduce our barometer as far as we possibly can. There just isn’t anything that I would deem “good” that comes out of religion that we couldn’t do as well or better from an entirely secular standpoint.
However, all of the bad things that come out of religion, the discrimination, the hatred, the irrational restrictions and violence that are so commonplace among the world’s religions, those are things that should be entirely unacceptable in any civilized society. Yet to many in the religious world, these bad things are seen as positives. Honor killing, stoning, female genital mutilation and murdering the infidels are seen as the highest calling in some parts of the Muslim world. The fact that we’re having any debate at all about marriage equality, gender equality and racial equality comes directly from religion. There is no rational defense for any of these views from a secular perspective. Religion, although it isn’t the only culprit, promotes bad thinking, it encourages accepting ideas without rational reason, without defensible evidence and rejects critical thinking and intellectual evaluation of one’s positions. We also know that the more religious one is, the more likely they are to accept other irrational woo ideas uncritically. Belief in ghosts and other supernatural nonsense is much more strongly prevalent among the religious than among the nones.
Therefore, I have to say that religion is a net negative for humanity. The positives don’t require religion but the negatives do. That’s not to say that every religious person is an animal but most people who claim to subscribe to religion aren’t that serious about it in the first place. They just practice religion socially or for emotional reasons, they don’t really buy into it and live as though they really pay attention. Watered down religion is really one small step to secularism anyhow. Might as well take that last step.
2. If religion were really shown to have net beneficial effects, regardless of its truth, should we promote it, even as atheists? Should we evince “belief in belief”, as Dan Dennett calls it?
As I’ve already said, I don’t think that religion has any net beneficial effects that require religion to exist and even if it did, I don’t think we ought to promote falsehood for any reason. Truth is it’s own reward. Even if religion could be shown to be positive, we should still reject it because it isn’t factually true. The end does not justify the means. We would no more accept racism if it brought about some undefined benefit, we would no more accept sexism if something within it could be argued to be good, why then would we accept religion, just because it helps some people who have clearly not given any other method a shot? I don’t want people to believe in belief. I want them to critically analyze the evidence and come to a conclusion based on logic, reason and demonstrable fact. “Belief” and “faith” are nonsensical words in this sense, they do not denote accepting positions on good, rational evidence, but on weak, emotional desires. That doesn’t impress me at all, even when the crazy accommodationists make the plea that these people are too pathetic to stand on their own two feet. Well maybe if you’d stop handing them crutches, they’d give it a shot.
I don’t want to limit this to atheists because unfortunately, some atheists are just as irrational as many theists, but for all rational thinkers and people for whom truth actually matters and fact is more important than feeling, we simply cannot promote convenient lies because they are more comforting than uncomfortable truths. I don’t care about comfort, at least not when it comes to reality. Reality is what it is, accepting reality as it is, that’s part of the basic maturation process. I don’t care if you’re unhappy that your dog died, I don’t care that you’d feel better thinking that some imaginary man in the sky is going to get back at those bullies who insulted you. Your comfort means nothing in the larger scheme of things. You need to get it through your head that some sky-daddy isn’t going to make your life better, that rests solely on you and the people that surround you. The sooner you get off your knees and onto your feet, the sooner you recognize that nobody is going to come and save you and it’s your own responsibility, the better off the whole planet will be.
So there’s my answer, Jerry. I know you’ll never see it but it is what it is.