“On balance religion is bad.”

2010 October 16

The defender of the statement included “unnecessary suffering” in his specification of bad. Other bad things mentioned, such as civil strife, bigotry, and ignorance might be bad for causing unnecessary suffering or bad in themselves. It might be an empirically important point because assuming that we could get a measure of each bad and tease out  causes, we’d need to know what counts as bad and what counts as a mere contributor to bad. At the conclusion of this review I’ll mention another possible good.

Things wouldn’t approach such clarity that we could agree on what evidence
counts for and against religion’s goodness. For one thing, I got the impression
that religion’s defenders wanted to disassociate bad from religion by saying
bad was in certain people who associated with religion and “corrupted” it for
their own ends. The person making this argument also said he believed that
religion got people to behave better than they otherwise would. That seems to make religion a morally queer species, susceptible to corruption by some bad people but with a remarkable power over other people to make them behave less badly.

I imagine that a similarly evasive line of defense could come in the form of a
claim that religions themselves never go bad. Instead, some bad non-religion
thing takes the name of a religion while the religion itself goes either dormant
or extinct. Here someone would simply be defining religion in such a way that
it would necessarily be good on balance, even if that meant we could never
surely identify it.

Perhaps the more significant defense came from the assertion that religions have comforted people when nothing else has. However that plausible claim came along with others that weakened its force. First that some manifestly false beliefs are harmless. Second that religions tell us things about the human condition that science can’t touch.

A child believing in Santa Claus might be cute. Such a regard for a child’s believing might be reasonable since a child generally has few responsibilities as a member of society. By contrast, we put ourselves at risk if we are generally complacent about false beliefs. In the West, adults have authority over their lives and some varying degrees of power within society. One would
hypothetically have no responsibility to check on the truth or falsity of a
particular belief if that belief had no consequence outside oneself. We
should question how one comes to believe that any particular beliefs would have no consequence.

It was claimed that religions tells us things about the human condition that
science can’t. That might be true if we include false things. It’s important
to appreciate that science can also produce false claims. However, evidence
receives much more respect from science than from religions.

Science tells us a great deal about human nature based on observation and
experiment, while religions give us stories and stereotypes. To remain ignorant of the former while receiving guidance from the latter might happen to result in no harm, but we should dispense with the fiction that tradition has authority regarding moral issues where nothing else does. That false belief is harmful because it gives ignorant people confidence in asserting what’s right for everyone.

I think that we agreed that very admirable people can have strong religious
beliefs. I’ve heard that the US prison population is significantly less
atheistic than the general population. It’s wrong to infer from such bare facts
any causal relations.

At a recent meeting Scot proposed that we define the good as something like
“realizing one’s full designed-in potential”. Depending on your perspective,
you might be inclined to see potential in terms of being rational, informed, and otherwise responsible. A person who holds on to false beliefs due to lack of curiosity could be viewed as having stunted potential.

I apologize if I’ve misrepresented anyone’s views.

[In order to push us more toward Socratic dialogue, we decided to change our process: Previously, we had framed our meetings as discussions of a question (e.g. What is the good?). This led to a lot of voicing of opinions, but not a lot of questioning. So now we also allow a member to make a statement which other members then question. In a recent meeting, a member asserted the proposition: On balance religion is bad. The above  is a summary of the discussion. --prodigl]

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