Follow up to: But Religion is Useful!
Every once in awhile, especially when I have less free time than usual, I like to take a break from structured blogging and do a bit more freeform, unedited rambling. This lets you see a bit more of my unfiltered voice, and lets you get a window into things I write before they’re edited or made thorough. Some of you probably won’t like it, but I write four substantive essays a week, so I think you can get over it.
The Harms of Religion
Anyways, the point of this essay is that I want to make one thing clear: I do not think that religion, on a whole, is bad. I don’t think religion is evil, and I don’t see a high priority in getting people to stop being religious.
Sure, I still stand by what I wrote in “But Religion is Useful!” — the existence of religious beliefs have lead to direct deaths, bigotry, science suppression, freedom suppression, health suppression, bad thinking, and abuse of power.
Add to that list this ceremonial Halal/Kosher stuff I just learned about; that’s a pretty sad way to treat those nonhuman animals. (Here’s a disgusting and shocking video to the effect, if you want it. But be warned! And remember, it’s not that different from normal slaughtering methods for meat production, complete with another super shocking video.)
I do think the general lack of a reality check is problematic for religion, and makes it unstable and potentially dangerous.
Sympathy for Religion
But on the flipside, I do have sympathy for religion. I don’t know any fundamantalist wackjobs, though they obviously exist somewhere. I live in the northern part of the United States at a fairly secular and very liberal / socially progressive university, so all the religion I encounter is cheerful, welcoming, and ecumenical. There certainly isn’t any direct deaths, bigotry, science suppression, freedom suppression, or power abuse around here. All the religious people are very nice, sincere, caring, compassionate people.
Generally, I find ritual and community to be an important part of affirming purpose and meaning in my life, especially when they go together, and I can see how getting easy access to that via religion is important. Lastly, I see religious stories as often being meaningful, though I’m not personally a fan of narrative literature. I can see the Bible being a culturally important and significant book.
I do think that the Vatican does leave much to be desired in its staunch opposition to safe sex and the dispersion of condoms even though doing so would probably prevent a lot of suffering for little cost, covering up a pretty aggressive sex abuse scandal, and in its unwillingness to, as Sarah Silverman humorously and half-jokingly suggests, “Sell the Vatican, Feed the World”.
But I also admire the spirit of charity within Catholicism, and many other religions, to be inspiring. I find the idealized popular culture Jesus as this fellow who endorsed an ascetic lifestyle of frugality and devotion to helping the less fortunate to be greatly admirable, and fit very well with my broadly utilitarian and aretaic personal values; being the kind of lifestyle I want to live, and I see some religions (not just Christianity) as offering access to that.
I think a robust freedom of religion is important for allowing everyone to express themselves the way they want, as long as they… you know… aren’t bigoting or suppressing people and/or things, which luckily most religious people I encounter are not doing. Thus when I learned from a Wiccan friend of mine that the state of Virigina was arbitrarally denying a Wiccan preistess(?) the ability to marry people, I was upset, and gave him a quote for his blog, saying on his essay “Equality Part 2″:
Despite being an atheist, I don’t have anything against religious ceremonies — I really want people to be able to get married in the way they choose, as long as they aren’t causing harm in the process. And I think it’s pretty clear that Pagan weddings don’t cause significant harm to anything.
The restriction [Virginia has] put in place (you have to own a building?) is extensively arbitrary, and seems to do nothing but oppress minority religions with insufficient resources and prevent people from marrying the way they want. Not only do I not like this because of the freedom of religion enshrined in First Amendment, but I want people to be able to fully express themselves, especially in something to them as important as their marriage.
It’s Not Just Religion…
Indeed, I think the enemy is intellectual recklessness, not religion itself. And I think that the so-called “New Atheists” often make a mistake in making sweeping generalizations about the harms of religion that only extend to a minority of it. I think we should fight harm where harm is found, not fight religion and ignore the harm that comes out of other philosophies, even atheist philosophies that take an all-or-nothing hatchet-job approach to religion.
But on the flipside, I don’t think we can ignore the legitimate harms that religion does bring when it is intellectually reckless. Thus I agree with Alonzo Fyfe on wanting to be between New Atheism and accomodationism.
The True, The False, The Good, The Bad
However, I think it’s very important to separate the idea of religion being true or false from religion being nice or mean. No matter how terrible religious people are or harmful for society religion might be, that wouldn’t do anything to mean that a god doesn’t exist, unless that deity is supposed to have nice followers by definition, or something.
Likewise, the niceness and cheerfulness of religious people doesn’t mean anything for religion being true, unless the only way they could be so nice is if God made them, which seems extensively unlikely. If you can be good without God OR good with God, God isn’t factoring much into the picture. I could say a lot more here, but my main point is that saying more isn’t relevant, so I’m going to stop. If you want to advance some sort of moral argument for God’s existence, I suppose we can work it out in the comments section or something.
The reason I don’t want to be religious is that religion entails false claims about how the world works, as I have argued too many places to list. However, I don’t think this means that religious people are stupid — often, people don’t have the time to investigate these issues thoroughly, and even if they do, I don’t think either atheism or theism is intuitively obvious.
While I do think that theists would do better epistemically to become atheists, I don’t think the situation is such that they would do better practically, nor do I even think they are making a serious mistake. It’s a bit hard to sort through it all without the proper philosophical training, though I do think that may be in part because some apologists are intentionally misleading.
The Bottom Line
Basically, I don’t think religion is all that big of a deal, really. I don’t think your average non-homophobic, non-fundamentalist, mostly-progressive religious person is any harm at all. Sure, I’d like fundamentalism and all those bad things to go away, and I’d like atheists to have safe communities of their own. I’d even love to see a way to get things like ritual, and stories about the importance of compassion, and community without having to endorse a series of faulty facts about how the world works.
My essays here intend to argue that religions are false and that gods do not exist. I do believe that sincerely and confidentlyk though I remain open to arguments to persuade me otherwise, and even actively seek them out. But the reason why I argue against religion is largely as an academic exercise, not for thinking that people need to be argued out of their religions.
If you’re honestly seeking for an answer on the issue, I think it’s possible to be just fine without a religion, and if you agree with my arguments, I think you should err on the side of reality and go with atheism. I’ve said as much in “But Religion is Useful!” — religion may be useful, but not irreplaceably so.
That being said, if you’re beholden to your religion and not looking to see the atheist side, I think you may be unjustifiably close-minded, but not harmful to others. It’s only intellectual recklessness as applied to other areas that would do that. Stay away from the direct deaths, bigotry, science suppression, freedom suppression, health suppression, and abuse of power, and you’ll have nothing to hear from me.
I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.