Religion Gets Good Results

December 3, 2009

Some may think that a good result is about the last thing that one would associate with religion, but that is to take the perspective of the nonbeliever. For many believers, religious practices are critical for achieving desired goals. This confidence in the practical value of religion has been manifested throughout most of human existence, even though the content of religious beliefs and the form of religious practices may have changed. You sacrifice a lamb to obtain a favor from Zeus; you pray to God to cure your cancer. Nothing could be more practical -- especially now that we don't have to worry about the logistics of obtaining sheep or cattle for sacrifice.

The recent controversy over possible inclusion in health care reform legislation of provisions that would reimburse the "costs" of prayer healing and other forms of spiritual care made me think of this topic, but I'm not going to address that specific issue. My colleague, Derek Araujo, has already written about this topic. I want to address a larger point that ties into aspects of the ongoing debate about whether and to what extent we -- the atheists, agnostics, and humanists of the world -- should be critical of religious beliefs and practices.

There is a school of thought that holds that critique of religion is largely passé. We should focus instead on constructing secular counterparts to religious institutions and practices, promoting not just ethical alternatives to religious moralities, but also ceremonial and social alternatives to activities connected to religious institutions. The key, often unexamined, premise supporting this view is that there is little need to combat religious dogma: most believers are supposedly Harvey Cox clones who cling to a vague, insipid spirituality. All we need to do to nudge them over to a thoroughly secular worldview is to let them hold their bingo games in our churches ... er, buildings.

To some extent, this view is abetted by those liberal religious who have commented on the "new atheists." Almost universally they claim that the new atheists are arguing against phantoms because they are using a concept of God -- a personal deity who rewards and punishes and answers prayers -- that believers have forsaken.

I view the religious landscape differently. Yes, there are many liberal religious who believe only in a very attenuated deity, but for most believers, in the United States anyway, God retains substantial meat on His bones. (This is a metaphor, not an endorsement of the Incarnation.) They believe, in part, because God is so thoroughly involved in their lives. They turn to God because He is the answer. He provides direction. He answers prayers.

He gets results.

Until substantially fewer people stop leading God-permeated lives, it is unlikely that we can establish a truly secular society. I have written elsewhere that I do not see humanism or atheism as a missionary movement. Our goal is not to persuade everyone to give up religion. But we do have to persuade a substantial minority of the population to give up religion -- at least dogmatic, all-embracing religion -- to prevent religion from having an undue influence on our society and our public policy. And to achieve that end, we must be forthright in our criticism of religion. The God who gets results will not be rejected because we offer dance lessons at secular centers. The God who gets results will be rejected only when people cease to believe that He is the way to get results.


#1 Kritikos on Thursday December 03, 2009 at 3:29pm

I have read this post a few times and I still don’t feel confident that I understand it. The principal hypothesis by which I try to make sense of what you have written (and it may be a mistaken hypothesis) is that you intend the statement in your title ironically. I take it that when you say that “religion gets good results,” you mean only that people who accept a religion typically interpret their experience as providing confirmation of their religious beliefs. That they do so by means of selective attention, goalpost-moving, Texas sharpshooting, and other fallacies does not contradict this point. I would expect you then to say something about the need to make people aware of such fallacies in their thinking and to make them think more critically. I am not sure if that is the kind of thing that you have in mind when you say that “we must be forthright in our criticism of religion.” I suspect not, as you seem to say that we must do this as part of an effort “to persuade a substantial minority of the population to give up religion—at least dogmatic, all-embracing religion.” But I really can’t make clear sense of this. Why is it necessary to persuade a minority to give up religion? What is the force of the qualification “at least dogmatic, all-embracing religion”? Why that kind of religion specifically? How is the distinction drawn? Perhaps I am missing your point, but I should have thought that the pertinent goal was simply to promote critical thinking, let the effects on religious belief be what they may.

#2 Pau (Guest) on Friday December 04, 2009 at 9:11am

Yes, religion gets results -as do many other placebos. But other placebos do not do as much harm as religion to the rational mental processes.
Yes, religion gets many other results, such as the crusades, the burning of many innocent people, 11-S…
It all depends on what your objectives are.


#3 Ronald A. Lindsay on Friday December 04, 2009 at 12:51pm

Kritikos: The title is ironic. One of my points is that many humanists –- especially those who believe criticism of religion is a waste of time—fail to appreciate the mindset of many believers. For the devout, God delivers the goods. He is not just some impersonal spiritual force. Promoting critical reflection about religion is important to shake some of them out of this mindset.
If we want a secular society, we need enough people who support the idea that religion should not dominate the public square and influence public policy. As there are some religious who support a secular society, we don’t need to have the majority of the population become nonbelievers—but we probably do need a substantial minority of the population to become nonbelievers.
Promoting critical thinking is obviously important, but I hope it would have the benefit of persuading some to give up their religious beliefs.

#4 Ophelia Benson on Friday December 04, 2009 at 1:02pm

There’s another possibility, between persuading everyone to become nonbelievers and persuading a substantial minority of the population to become nonbelievers, and that is persuading a lot of believers that they don’t actually know anything about the deity. Karen Armstrong insists that that’s what most believers think anyway.

#5 Ronald A. Lindsay on Friday December 04, 2009 at 3:08pm

That is a possibility, and that position arguably reflects the views of some religious, such as Armstong herself or the Unitarians, who are only confident enough to assert that at most there is but one God.
However, I would disagree with Armstrong that this disavowal of knowledge about God is representative of the views of most believers.
One of Armstrong’s claims is that religion isn’t about belief but behavior. For most religious, their beliefs not only inform their own behavior but also motivate them to try to shape the behavior of others, sometimes through compulsion.

#6 physicscitizen (Guest) on Sunday December 06, 2009 at 3:14am

I originally came from the very center of the bible belt and many of the things this author points out are very true. These people insist that God is in their lives every day.

I agree with the thesis of this article. We do need to be actively promoting an alternative to God. (I would call it non-theism as some atheists act almost religious themselves!)

But we will not convince the people who have “taken God as their personal savior” and we shouldn’t try. Rather, my experience is that you can certainly work on the vast majority of people who are not sure. Who do not believe quite so strongly that God personally listens to them (though one would think a being to which such unlimited power is attributed could spare a moment to listen and answer in an obvious way).

We need to work on them and show them the error of uncritical belief and how it steals your freedom just as surely as any totalitarian state.

#7 Stormy Fairweather (Guest) on Sunday December 06, 2009 at 10:57am

Willful ignorace is never benificial.

Baseless faith should be outlawed for the betterment of society at large.

#8 gray1 on Sunday December 06, 2009 at 5:10pm

I would never want to be found guilty of attacking “good results” per se. On the other hand, it is often very helpful to point out when someone’s fly is open. 

It is also interesting to note that most religions in practice do not actually follow a great deal of what is actually written in their own various Holy Scriptures, “the word of God”, to which they ascribe even the basis for their whole existence.  As to these practices out of line with their scriptures they are undoubtedly a bunch of liars who are undeserving of any respect. Their “flys” are open.

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