The thesis of “New Atheist” books like The God Delusion and God is not Great is that the net effect of religion has been bad, both in ancient times and today. Yes, the authors argue, religion has sometimes motivated people to do good things, but that is far outweighed by the misery, death, and divisiveness produced by religion since it arose thousands of years ago. And certainly, the argument continues, religion today is not a force for good; we have science and secular philosophy to turn to.
Although I agree with that thesis, I can’t say that there are data that make an airtight case for it. After all, how do you weigh any beneficial effects of religion (making people behave charitably and so on) against the repression it’s caused, the deaths that have accrued in inter-religious wars, and other malfeasance? All we can do is make a judgment call, and although to me religion comes down as harmful on balance, I couldn’t prove it. One can only cite anecdotes, and the other side has their anecdotes too. And in fact I do say exactly this in The Albatross (soon to be on sale in fine bookstores everywhere).
My beef against religion is that for some religions in the modern world, like Islam and Catholicism, it’s easy to point to the bad stuff they do, and hard to find the good stuff, so the harmfulness of those faiths (and others like Scientology) seems self-evident. But most important to me is that if religion does indeed motivate people to do good, it’s based on lies, or rather on the assertion of truths about the universe that cannot be demonstrated and seem highly improbable. The question then comes down to this: “If you can get people to behave better by making them believe in things that aren’t true, shouldn’t you favor that?” It’s not a question that can be rejected out of hand or sneered at.
My own belief is that it’s better to base your actions and philosophy on things you know, for if you do good because you think that this is what God wants, or in hopes of having a nice afterlife, you’re basing your actions on things that likely aren’t true. But one could respond that after one is dead, and goes nowhere, you’ll never know you were wrong, so—even if based on lies and false promises—religion has still promoted net good. In the end, I suppose, it’s my scientific penchant for wanting to know what’s true that makes me an atheist, although my lack of belief in Gods is buttressed by the feeling that those beliefs have been harmful in net to humanity.
I’d recommend, if you automatically say that religion is a bad thing for our planet, reading a piece that’s free online in the July/August issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, an issue devoted to “Science and Religion” (please, someone send me this issue!). The piece, by Scott O. Lilienfield and Rachel Ammirati, is called “Would the world be better off without religion? A skeptic’s guide to the debate.” Their thesis is the one I raised above: we can’t make a knockdown case from data or scientific studies that religion is a bad thing.
On religion’s good side, they cite psychological studies showing that religion promotes charity, altruism, and so on, and on religion’s bad side they point to religious wars, coercion—and all the bad stuff we know so well. It’s a long piece, but I think everyone who argues against faith should read it. Two objections I have to the data are that the studies cited are the usual psychological tests measuring short-term effects of reading faith-soaked literature (and we have no idea if those effects persist or are actuated in the real world) and the fact that all those studies are done in the West. That is, they ignore Islam, which in our world is hard to see as anything other than a faith that has harmful effects.
And I wish the authors had mentioned more about Scandinavia and Western Europe, countries that have, by and large, rejected religion but are certainly no worse as societies than the highly religious United States. Data by Greg Paul and others show that secularist societies in the West show more “well being” than religious ones: there’s a negative correlation between the religiosity of a country and its well being, at least as measured on Paul’s “Successful societies scale.” The negative correlation would, I think, be even more striking if one included sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, places where many countries are both highly religious and deeply dysfunctional. But of course correlation is not causation (my own view is that social dysfunction breeds or perpetuates religiosity).
As I said, my atheism stems from a lack of evidence for gods, but I suppose it’s possible in theory that one can increase social well being by promulgating the Big Lie about God. That doesn’t seem to be the case in today’s world, at least in the West. But I’m really writing this to ask readers two questions:
1. How do you support your claim that religion is on the whole a bad thing for humanity? NOTE: This is an empirical question and requires empirical data for an answer, not gut feelings or anecdotes.
2. If religion were really shown to have net beneficial effects, regardless of its truth, should we promote it, even as atheists? Should we evince “belief in belief”, as Dan Dennett calls it?
Do weigh in below, maybe after you’ve read the long Lilienfeld and Ammirati piece. I’m quite interested in these questions.