Follow up to: Why Argue About Religion?
In my previous essay, “Why Argue About Religion?”, I responded to a commenter who critiqued the usefulness of arguing religion. But there was another part of the argument worth responding to, and I come to focus upon it in another essay:
I think that the story “San Manuel, bueno martir” would be eye opening for you. It’s about an agnostic catholic priest, who teaches his people salvation and prayer to keep order, provide hope, and give them reason to do good deeds, while he’s really working to better the world, and has no idea what’s out there in terms of religion.
This is a statement made by many defenders of religion who aren’t very religious themselves. Religion is useful. Religion makes people happy, provides them with a reason to do good things, and comforts them in bad times. So who cares if it is true or not?
Put in a logical argument, it would look something like this:
- Even if religion is not true, religion is useful to believe.
- We still should believe in things that are useful, even if they are not true.
- Therefore from 1 and 2, we still should believe in religion.
When The Argument Isn’t Relevant
Before even beginning to analyze the argument, a good point can be made about its relevance. If religion is useful, can’t it still be useful even if atheists critique it? As I’ve said in many different essays (see “Where is God?”, “The Great Problem of Evil”, and “The Contradictory Failure of Prayer”), the traditional God; the kind of God seen in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; most certainly does not exist (I’ve said nothing about deism yet, but I will).
And the idea religion may not be true, but it’s useful completely agrees with me on the may not be true part. So why there is a problem? My arguments against religion are not met with a “Yeah, I guess my religion is false, but it’s still useful”. They’re not met with a “You’re right I can’t present a case, but would you still leave me alone to delude myself?”. My arguments are met with a “How dare you say that! Your arrogance is astounding!”.
As Greta Christina pointed out if people think that religion is not true, but rather some metaphor, they should be reacting to the idea with about the same ferocity as they would react to someone saying “Alice and Wonderland probably never happened”. Well, duh. But remember that saying Alice in Wonderland never happened is not the same as saying the story has no literary merit — just as saying religion isn’t true is not the same as saying religion is useless.
I have never said religion is useless. I agree that religion does have some benefits. So why is this argument even being made?
When Religion Goes Bad
Yes, I did just say that religion has some benefits. I did say religion wasn’t useless. But I never said it was useful, for while useless implies that there are absolutely no benefits, useful implies the benefits outweigh the costs. I do not think the benefits of religion outweigh the costs.
And the costs of religion are legion. Sure there is Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., religious charities, and religious hospitals. But religion also regularly goes bad. I wrote about the one example of John Shimkus in “Why Argue About Religion?”, but there are tons of others.
Let’s start in the many cases where religion outright directly causes deaths: consider religious honor killings, the religious endorsement of stoning as a punishment, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch burnings, and religious terrorism.
Consider religion’s contribution to health problems: increases in STDS because of opposition to condoms and bad sex education, deaths brought along because of faith healing, deaths brought along by refusing blood transfusions, and deaths brought along by exorcisms.
Consider religion’s endorsement of bigotry: many women are mistreated, left uneducated, and forced to be submissive because of religion. Religion helped perpetuate slavery, both theologically and in practice. The opposition to interracial marriage was often religiously motivated. The opposition to same-sex marriage is almost always religiously motivated. General bigotry and hatred towards homosexuals is also almost always religiously motivated. Bigotry against atheists is definitely religiously motivated.
Consider religion’s suppression of science: The opposition to stem cell research is religiously motivated. Galileo was imprisoned because of religion. Evolution is maligned in favor of creationism, leading to problems in public education.
Consider religion’s suppression of free speech: The Catholic Church maintained an Index of Banned Books until 1966. Blasphemy laws make it illegal to criticize religion in many countries. South Park was censored due to religiously motivated death threats. Consider Damon Fowler and every other atheist kid thrown out of their homes and ostracized by their communities for speaking out against religion in even the simplest ways, by challenging unconstitutional school prayers.
Consider religion’s defense of bad thinking: “God told me to do so” is a reason that has been used to justify many terrible things. Age-old kings used it to defend their position on the throne. George W. Bush used it to defend the Iraq War. Multiple presidential candidates have used it to say they’re the right candidate for the job. People pray instead of doing things to actually help, like donating or volunteering. Religion allowed people to think a rapture was eminent, selling all their possessions and ruining their lives, often committing suicide.
Consider religion’s abuses of power: Televangelists use religion to scam people and collect wealth. Catholic priests are able to sexually abuse children and not go to jail. The Catholic church put kids up for adoption against the will of their parents.
When Arguments Need Disclaimers
Now there are many attempts to circumvent these arguments, but they won’t fly here.
There’s the overstatement punch which accuses me of saying religion is the root of all evil, but I never said that — I just said that religion goes bad in many different ways. I never denied that religion does good things, and I certainly don’t think all these problems would be solved by eliminating religion. However, it is undeniable that religion is the main contributor to all of these problems. It is undeniable that religion very often does harm.
There’s the double standard jump, where people say that every good thing done in the name of religion is because of religion, but every bad thing is due to politics and culture. But obviously that is just silly — religion is clearly to blame for any bad it causes, just as it is to praise for every good it causes.
And don’t forget the topic switch jab, where all of a sudden we’re talking about all the horrors that atheism and science has brought upon the world. However, that’s talking about a different claim, that “atheism and science are useful”. I never said that atheists were all saints. The “religion is useful” argument is talking about the usefulness of religion, and says nothing about “well, at least religion is better than atheism”. That’s an entirely different argument.
And lastly there’s the correct religion dodge, which suggests that all these evils are because some people don’t practice religion right, and the real religion would never do these evil things. That would be great if only you could convince all these other people to adopt your obviously right religion, but we still have to wonder: what is making people practice their religion wrong? And we still have to recognize that religion is still motivating them to do harm, even if their religion is wrong by some standard you have (and I’d love to know what that standard is).
Religion does harm. Religion is not always beneficial. We must, at least, acknowledge this.
When Religion Isn’t All That Comforting
However while religion isn’t always blatantly evil, there are often times when religion isn’t comforting at all. People can only hear “God works in mysterious ways” so many times before they stop being reassured, and this is why the problem of evil has so much emotional force in addition to its logical force.
Some religions, such as Christianity, contribute to a culture of sexual guilt where any sexual thoughts one might have are thought to be evil, resulting in self-loathing. These religions also contribute to a lot of fear and feelings of inadequacy, where people worry they may not be good enough to avoid infinite torture in Hell.
Occasionally, religion does the opposite of what it is “supposed” to do — it often fails to provide comfort to people, especially when they need it most. I don’t think this is a fault in religion, but it is a fault in this argument. Many times we can do better with atheism.
When The Benefits Can Be Replaced
Now that I’ve talked about how religions can cause harm and also fail to provide comfort, what’s left? Do we just weigh the benefits against the harms and try to determine if religion comes out ahead on our usefulness scale? Well doing so ignores one key item — the benefits of religion can be replaced. You don’t need religion to have comfort.
I don’t think there is anyone helped by religion who could not be helped equally by humanism. We can match loving community for loving community, care for care, aid for aid, so the only difference we have is in hope — false hope vs. true hope. And I hope everyone would rather have true hope.
Saying otherwise is suggesting something like “Well, maybe we don’t need religion to be good, but the hoi polloi over there don’t know any better, and would descend into madness without their superstitions”. I have a higher hope for humanity than that, and I think that people will readily be compassionate without needing a God to strike fear into them. People can be good without god and people can find the comfort needed to live their lives; something I have said in many places.
When One Aims for Delusion
So I think this argument conclusively fails — religion may not be true, and it may not be all that useful either. Sure many people find benefit in religion, but these people are buying into a system that also causes a lot of harm, may not always get the comfort they need, and could have their benefits matched by humanism.
However, there is another huge piece missing from this argument: the establishment that premise two is true. How do we believe something to be true when we also know it is false? How do we delude ourselves like this? And more importantly, why would we want to?
Knowing the truth is a benefit in itself, no matter how useful a false belief may be. I think this is self-evident simply because of the ascetically pleasing and curiosity-satisfying nature of truth, but the truth is also useful: for wrong beliefs often lead to wrong actions. If we think everything is going to be okay when it isn’t, we’ll feel fine… until the world comes crashing down around us. One can only believe things are fine for so long; complacency only goes so far. Knowing the truth is necessary to act correctly.
But I also think self-delusion is not psychologically possible without some massive attempt at Orwellian doublethink. By holding a belief and acting as if it is true, one is asserting that belief to be true. Yet one also says it is false and act as if it is false (for one acts upon the belief’s falseness every time one says the belief is false). These are all the problems we see in Pascal’s Wager, an argument so false as to be outlandish.
I’m often reminded about how a perfect analogy can be drawn here to Santa Claus. Believing in Santa is immensely useful — it provides us a reason to be good, a reason to be happy, and comfort in bad times. So who cares if it is true or not?
But honestly try to convince yourself that Santa is real, despite everything you know about how Santa Claus makes no sense in reality, despite some attempts to solve problems. Now try to convince yourself that adults would be better off believing in Santa, and that we shouldn’t eventually tell kids that Santa is false. Now try to convince yourself that a belief in Santa is necessary to have any purpose or meaning in your life.
One might counter this by saying, well Santa is obviously false, but God at least has a chance of being real… but now you’ve abandoned the argument from usefulness, and are back to trying to prove that God has a chance of being real. You’re back to debating what I’ve been debating all this time. And that’s where I strongly disagree with you; I don’t think there’s any reasonable way you can expect God to be real as traditionally conceived.
If you’re holding onto religion not because it’s true, but because it’s useful, then I implore you to consider atheism and humanism. Millions of atheists are living fulfilling lives right now, rich with meaning and purpose. Aligning yourself with humanism lets you take a stance against all the harms of religion and the guilt religion causes while still giving you access to a caring community and comfort in hard times.
Not to mention you can free yourself from the backflips you need to make in order to sustain doublethink. Humanism lets you be honest with yourself.
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