Is Religion A Good Thing?

September 21, 2010

As you can tell from the video clip, we'd like to hear from you on the question of whether religion is, on balance, beneficial for humanity. Please register your opinion. Comments are encouraged.

Comments:

#1 John Taylor on Tuesday September 21, 2010 at 10:06am

In ancient times religion was a store-home of knowledge and a branch of government concerned with public social issues.

The priests claimed to have knowledge of things that were simply unknown. Worse, as knowledge progressed it began to be obvious that priests were often quite wrong.  This called their god into an embarrassing admission of error. Solutions often entailed flat out denial of new knowledge, and a demand that adherents rely on “faith” rather than evidence. This placed restraints on the pursuit of knowledge. We also see a growing list of apologetics and the redefining of terms to re-mold the belief system.

We are no longer beholden to a church for improving the morality of our neighbors. The Church does not provide moral guidance. We know that our moral behavior stems from the rules of group dynamics. We see the same rules of moral behavior in all group species from insects to people. This is why we point to bees and ants as moral examples.

Religion has nearly outlasted it’s useful role in society with the final duty of organizing communities being the last final useful attribute. This function is being taken over by the Internet and by secular groups.

The church still claims to know that which is unknown, and still claims that their particular deity is the ultimate storehouse of all knowledge. We can easily point to huge errors in their holy books to disprove this claim.

More, we can point to a real storehouse of knowledge and an unimpeachable judge of truth. Nature. We accept the verdict of evidence.

j. taylor

#2 L.Long (Guest) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 at 11:56am

Religion may have started out with high ideals, wasn’t there so don’t really know.  But based on its performance at this time it still only does 2 things.  Supports a terrified populace with fear,self-hatred, and delusional fairy tales of an afterlife. and 2) gives many the rationale to kick ass on everyone they disagree with.
I really can not see anything religion does that can’t be replaced with rational intelligent thought.  Which is why it will always remain with us as so few are able to grow up and leave their ‘father’s (g0d’s)‘control.

#3 Tom (Guest) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 at 3:22pm

Anything that prevents people from asking questions about the world is a bad thing. Period.

#4 Mike Smith (Guest) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 at 3:39pm

Religion promotes faith as a virtue, which I think is highly under-rated as a bad thing. Some people dispute whether beliefs are important, and whether we should just leave them alone, but your beliefs inform your actions and your actions matter. Therefore, your beliefs matter. So much is believed on faith, without good reason, and it leads to a lot of bad things and holds back progress. For examples of harm from lack of critical thinking, see whatstheharm.net

Getting people to understand the importance of evidence in forming beliefs would be a major step in the right direction that would help in many areas of life, and religion is holding that back.

#5 Simon (Guest) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 at 4:00pm

You define “religion” but not “beneficial”.

On a purely practical stance I think religion delayed the advance of scientific progress. Since scientific progress is responsible for the largest and more rapid diminishing of unneeded suffering ever, one is led to conclude that religion has probably been a net hindrance.

But it is hard to be confident in such a verdict because of the churches heavy role in education in Europe in the middle and dark ages. What would have been if is a hard game.

The more urgent question is will churches be a net benefit going forward. I’m doubtful, but predicting what will be is even harder than pondering what might have been, had say the effort spent on building the beautiful cathedrals of Europe been spent building hospitals or schools.

#6 Daniel Schealler on Tuesday September 21, 2010 at 4:35pm

...

I think I hear PZ Myers coming.

#7 RonH on Tuesday September 21, 2010 at 4:40pm

Simon’s right.

Also, I answered, ‘I don’t know’, because there’s another problem:

Compared to what?

Do we assume all the religious suddenly disappear?

Or, more or less equivalently, do we assume they suddenly become like the non-religious?

If you make such an assumption (RL seems likely too) the answer seems to be religion makes not difference in the world; it’s neither good nor bad.

But it might not be right to make an assumption like this because we don’t know much about the differences between the religious and the non-religious. The religious might not be suited to life without religion.

Why should I be good? The theist has brief answers to this question that lots of people find compelling. What is the non-believer’s sound bite answer to this question?

If you’re non-religious and good, why are you good? How well do you think your reason will work for the religious if we pull the rug out?

RonH

#8 Manu (Guest) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 at 4:46pm

The only good thing I find about religion is some additional incentive to mentally weak individuals to conform to societal morals. But in reality, what we need to teach children is not to do something because God or any supernatural thing punish you rather why it is wrong to do such an act and consequences of such actions to himself and fellow human beings. Also some religious individuals might say that religion gives them comfort in times of crisis. Others say that when they see that proper justice is not accorded to all the law-breakers and hence some divine judge should be there who see these things and give them proper punishment after death and they get lot of comfort believing that. Only solution to the above problem is that we strive to ensure that all the law-breakers are given proper punishment while they are alive rather than depending on any non-existent being. Hence I am not against a person being religious or believing in a deity. What I am fed up with is the problems posed by organized religions. I really don’t mind if all the people who want to believe in God remain deists or practice their religion in their personal life and thereby end the domination of organized religions in social and political framework.

#9 Daniel Schealler on Tuesday September 21, 2010 at 5:12pm

Is religion, on balance, bad thing?

Yes.

Religion is built up out of our worst features. It’s built up on fear, ignorance, and intuition about reality. It perpetuates the idea that believing something to be true on no evidence at all is a good thing. It’s infantilizing, and we’d be better off without it.

Note that this is not the same thing as saying that religious people are all bad. To the contrary. Most religious people are in practice people first and religious second. Religious people only make a problem of themselves when they put religion first and humane decency second - such as when crowds of people publicly chant for the death of, say, Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or Molly Norris, or murder those that criticize them as in the case of Theo van Gogh or the bombing of abortion clinics, and when they attempt to retard the progress of humanity by opposing the teaching of evolution or research into stem cell research, and when they interfere with basic human equality and rights such as same-sex marriage, the rights of blacks to be part of the congregation and clergy (still recent in some faiths, looking at you Mormons), or the rights of women to become clergy (Mormons and practically everyone else), and when they send out messages and communication that are guaranteed to result in greater human suffering, such as a ban on contraception that leads to greater numbers of poorer people on scarce resources, as well as the increased prevalence of aids.

I could go on.

Sure, many religious believers don’t do this. But the reason they’re not doing it is because they make sure that there interpretation of religion converges on basic human decency. They do good because they’re good people, and they make their religion good because they’re good people. Not the other way around.

When religion truly gets the upper hand and begins to override basic human decency, that’s when we get the problems.

Also: While it’s true that many religious believers do good work, such as contribute to charity - no-one considers it to be a worthy defense when a man on trial for rape and murder points out that he’s actually a nice guy because he bought his father a really nice present for his birthday. The same line of reasoning shouldn’t apply to ideologies either.

#10 Bruce Long (Guest) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 at 8:45pm

You may want to change the question to “Is Faith in imaginary beings good for hunmanity?” or “Is religious Faith and Faith thinking good for humanity?” When I was a burleevur (Christian), religion was something looked down upon. There is a verse somewhere in the NT about having religion but not love and being like a banging gong but otherwise useless. Many devout Christians who are in reality very religious in the sense of having faith in imaginary or supernatural beings use this ‘clause’ as an ‘out’ to justify claiming that they are not religious. Your results will be skewed, because faith adherents can answer in the negative.

#11 Daniel Schealler on Tuesday September 21, 2010 at 8:48pm

@Bruce

Is it just me, or has speaking English suddenly turned into a game of tap-dancing on quicksand?

Nothing means anything anymore other than what the speaker wants it to mean at that exact moment - which may not even be anything in particular other than an emotional bullet-point.

Its frustrating.

#12 gnrands (Guest) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 at 9:10pm

It is possible to be a good person with or without religion.  To be really evil, delusion is a prerequisite.  I see nothing of a positive nature attributed to religionists (charity for example) that is not shared by secularists.  Religion is not a good thing, and it can be a genuinely bad thing.

#13 Pau Cortès Font de Rubinat (Guest) on Wednesday September 22, 2010 at 2:36am

The problem of religion and morality has been already been discussed enough in these pages. Enough rational moral systems have been postulated.
According to Taylor, “In ancient times religion was a store-home of knowledge and a branch of government concerned with public social issues. “
We should not confuse rules and tribal superstitions
as knowledge.
.

“Religion has nearly outlasted it’s useful role in society with the final duty of organizing communities being the last final useful attribute. This function is being taken over by the Internet and by secular groups.”
First, you must believe that the church ever had a useful role in society other than perpetuating the groups in power and the status quo.
And a final thought on faith and religion. Faith is a necessary trait for our life. We need faith to carry out our daily chores, faith in our senses, that what we see is real, faith in some of our equals, faith in some or our readings, etc. But this does not mean absolute faith, faith without doubt and certainly not making a religion based on it!
Pau

#14 souper genyus on Wednesday September 22, 2010 at 10:55am

My vote was for “probably not.” It may have been in the past, but I think it is likely that it is detrimental and it will become more so as time goes on. The reasoning that lead me to this conclusion is that service to and worship of some unobservable entity or realm is, at its heart, irrational. Basically, you have people acting based upon an unsupported assumption, which is more likely to lead to negative consequences for humanity than if you base your actions on a rational foundation.

As we have seen, religion is easily used to justify an individual’s or culture’s prejudices, which has lead to some pretty grave consequences for humanity as a whole. The only reason this can happen is that religious doctrine is not based upon the words of a perfect God, but the words of imperfect men, who carry with them evolutionary baggage that is detrimental to civilization as a whole.

#15 Dave (Guest) on Wednesday September 22, 2010 at 1:20pm

Before voting, I’d be interested in the definitions.  What is “religion” and “religious” intended to mean?  Is it referring to “organized religious institutions”?  Or does it also include “faith”?

I think religion is bad, but faith not so much…

#16 Bruce Long (Guest) on Wednesday September 22, 2010 at 8:49pm

Yes - we are victims of polysemy here.
It is the Pharisees and the pagan religion that are maligned in Christian doctrine : Amos 5:21 “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies.” There are things more important to them than “being religious”: James 1:26 “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” The Jesus character regarded the pharisees as religious hypocrites. To their credit, religion of the right kind is as follows: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

So when we call them religious, we mean “Believers in supernaturalist doctrines” or “Adherents to religious doctrines” or “Believers in the supernatural who take religious doctrines to be authoritative” or “Persons who behave according to non-naturalistic religious creeds”. They take themselves to mean something else. This doesn’t mean that they are not religious in the normal sense, but that we need to focus on their propensity to believe in fictional stuff as real and to behave accordingly. The “Word”-first ontology is at their locus of control, and a more duplicitous, confused and horrible human-constructed “word” narrative is hard to find.

Slippery words and metaphors are thick in the buy-bull. Theologians and religious doctrine spinners have always been masters of manipulating language and meaning. The bending of discourse is central to their aims of programmatic control of others. Most Judeo-Christian-Islamic doctrines are extremely logocentric. They are centered around natural language. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, language takes on a mystical quality (similar to the way it does for pagan spell-casters and the like). Language dictates reality in a creative sense, it does not just represent and describe it. This goes beyond language which results in human actions. In the Genesis story, the God character speaks the creation into existence: the creative act is largely a locutive one. The text has it repeatedly that “And he said, let there be…and it was so”. The only possible exception to the above is that in Genesis 1:2 “the spirit of God was hovering over the waters” which he perhaps had not created wordy-wise. Everything after that is definitely word-powered creation.

I am not sure whether the best theory of mental representation involves sentential mentalese (Chomsky) or some kind of map theory, or a combination of both. However, natural language is now and has always been close to our cognitive processes as humans, and has been critical to our advancement and technological development. This is naturally exactly the tool of choice for religious doctrine spinning (as well as other varieties). This is one reason why Christians think of prayer as so powerful. First of all, they are relying on some fictional character to be real because they believe it, but equally, the God character is a very wordy monster. Even is smiting is done by verbal command. If you are interested enough, here is some quick evidence of the importance of words in the Christian buy-bull from the ‘The Word’ itself:

The New Testament has verses to the effect that the mythologised (or fully mythological, depending on what one is prepared to take as decent evidence) Jesus character is the personification of “the word” (of the God character) and that “the word was in the world” but “the world did not recognise it”. See also John 1, King James Version: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Many ‘translations’ of the buy-bull have John 1:10 as “The word was in the world, but the world did not know him”. See the Contemporary English version (oddly enough) for John 1:10 “The Word was in the world, but no one knew him, though God had made the world with his Word.”. In other translations this rendered thus (KJV) “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not”, but in the context of the John 1:10-18 passage it is the same subject referred to as elsewhere referred to as “The Word”. The NIV has John 1:14 as “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” You get the picture. It is a nice snapshot of the doctrine spinners doing their thing. The literary and textual nature of the ontology is interesting and very telling: you can see the textual and narrative thinking of the scribe doctrine-spinners permeating even the content of the fiction. After all - not many other people could read or write from before the Council’s of Nicea and Trent and onward for many centuries. Religious doctrine spinners sometimes did double-duty as advisors to monarchs (persuading the masses of their holy appointments) and were occasionally natural philosophers (if they could get away with it) and had great interest in such topics as early astronomy. All of this was subsumed to the “de dicto” (of the word): the ontology from the linguistic meaning (to put it very roughly). The theological worldview - and especially the Judeo-Christian theological worldview - is right out of the head of a professional scribe and historical fiction writer (or more than one of them, to be precise). Their stock in trade was language, and the buy-bull fictions describe heavily linguistic ontologies. Language becomes a force equated with the God character’s power. In fact the Jesus character (who is the God character) is prosopopeia: a personification not of natural phenomena (unless one regards language as such) but of words equated with (not just associated with) supernatural creative force. The Druids, pagans and sorcerers so maligned by the Church (competitors!) would have been right at home with this power-word stuff, (except they would probably have given perhaps more creedence to natural spirits and had less word-centric ontologies).

So, this means that when dealing with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic faith adherent - and especially the Christian - one must realise that their ontology is all topsy-turvey. It is the opposite of scientific ontology, which is “de-re” (of the thing) and recognises that the material world is a-priori, and language is just a tool for encoding representations of the natural world. If we ask a Christian “are you religious” we need to remember their ontological commitments and the propensity to assume “word authority” because - well - they believe they have the God character in them because they have “The Word” in them, and vice-versa. They will sometimes regard The Word capitalised as simply another name of the God character with no ontological implications, but this is not consistent with the commitments of the buy-bull narrative (err - The Word again). They think that the fictional god character is real because they believe it and because the buy-bull (The Word) says so, and they think that the God character and the buy-bull are both - in a whirlwind of convoluted circular ontology - “The Word”. Words, words, Word.

Incidentally, if you have ever wondered why such believers are so astronomically self-assured and arrogant about their beliefs (aside from basic stubborn ignorance), well the answer for that – aside from the fact “The Word” narrative is it’s own authority (?) - is in this Words-first ontology idea. They think that the Word ‘who’ was in the world from the beginning is inside them. The problem is that the buy-bull narratives are in a very real sense represented inside them: in their brain-mind. It is much easier for a doctrine spinner to convince a berleevur that they have the Jesus character “in their heart” and the “breath of God” (the Holy Spirit) inside them when the doctrine says that these persons are all “The Word”. How does a beleevur tell the difference between the language-implemented narrative in their brain-mind and something they want to believe is inside them? They don’t. Their religion is more this propensity to have faith in said “Word”.

The only reasons I have not addressed the Qu’ran and the Judaic texts is that I did not have those programmed into me, and so I do not know them as well. I strongly suspect there are parallels to the above in both.

#17 Kyle (Guest) on Thursday September 23, 2010 at 1:23pm

It is very simple for me to answer that religion is bad for humanity. Anything that uses fear and divisiveness to promote itself is probably not for the benefit of its recipients, and clearly not for its dissenters. Therefore, as humanity encompasses all those who are human, religious or not, religion is not beneficial to humanity. I realize this is a gross simplification, but relevant I think. 

Kyle

#18 Zed (Guest) on Thursday September 23, 2010 at 3:03pm

How about another option? Religion does no harm nor does it do any good. It is a fantasy with which to attribute the evil people do or the good people do.

#19 Reba Boyd Wooden on Thursday September 23, 2010 at 3:20pm

I explored this question in my blog on September 2.

http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/show/are_houses_of_worship_beneficial_to_humanity/

I avoided drawing a conclusion because I wasn’t sure which side the balance came down on.  The fundamentalist extreme religion of all types is definitely bad.  People draw a lot of comfort from religion and the more progressive types are not so bad. However,????  I am not so sure.  I think that the progressives are enablers for the fundamentalists unless they start speaking out against the abuses at least.  When I first read Sam Harris’ statements about that, I didn’t agree but the more I think about it?  Well, I am not so sure.

#20 bigjohn756 on Saturday September 25, 2010 at 11:44am

Religion has had a detrimental effect on history and education. Religion stifled science and technology for fifteen centuries. Religious ‘education’ was then, and is now, nothing more than religious training.

#21 Robert Schneider on Monday September 27, 2010 at 7:05am

Religion is a mechanism for generating action.  The identity politics of “faith” seem to leave us with masses of people loosely committed to a tribe, who when push comes to shove will activate this deep (nearly primal) loyalty to defend their “faith” (i.e. team/tribe/group.)

As such, religion is a tool for unscrupulous manipulators to use to manage and direct their political constituency to action on their behalf. 

Apply this thinking to the cliched quote by Seneca, the Younger 4 b.c.- 65 a.d.: 
Religion is regarded by the common people as true (i.e. something they will ACT upon when required), by the wise as false (clearly the opposite of the believer) , and by the rulers as useful (a tool for inciting action).

Techniques for galvanizing mass action?  I wish I had one for atheism, to get us all pulling in one direction… but by the same token, the abuse of such a tool is manifest in the history of religion.

#22 lucette (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 3:43pm

Religion is definitively bad for Humanity.  It is based on a lie. People should have the courage to look Nature in the eye - so to speak - and accept it. I have one problem in the case of people who have a really inhumane life, like people with incurable and totally incapacitating diseases (ex. someone who has ALS) Or people who live in extraordinary poverty (ex. Haitians without basic material help) Or unimaginably horrible conditions.  These people should have the right to get a second on this earth. Cloning might be a solution. And we need to speed up the discovery of cures and the redistribution of wealth.
I will continue this evaluation of religion later, god willing (Inch Allah!)

#23 lucette (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 3:46pm

Correction:  ...a second life on this earth…

#24 Pau (Guest) on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 1:58am

Lucette, you must be young. I ‘ve ha enough with one!
The chances for a second one are worst than the present one.

#25 jerseyguy on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 1:39pm

Ron,
Thanks for this poll - great idea!  Your question is one I’ve wrestled with for the last few months.  After several false starts, I came to the conclusion that the most rational way to answer it is to (a) ignore religion’s past - we can’t change history, and (b) understand what problems huamnity will face in the future, and (c) decide whether religion will help or hinder in solving those problems. I put my answers on a set of multi-media slides which you can find here: http://www.slideshare.net/jerseyguy/is-religion-good-or-bad-for-society (be sure to watch the two video clips). I’d be happy to give this presentation to CFI or to other groups who have an interest in this topic.  Working together we can accomplish much.  Thanks again for your question.

#26 SimonSays on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 9:04pm

I think this is a largely abstract question, though worth studying. For most people in western democracies, they have a particular set of religions (or no religion) to choose from. Depending on the circumstances, it can be beneficial or not.

So while it would be great to devise a huge scale on which to make a grand worldwide assessment, I don’t think this represents the reality that people are faced with. IMO it would be more useful to ask “is religion X a good thing in community Y at time frame Z”

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.