Is religion good or bad for humanity?

December 12, 2014 • 10:30 am

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.


315 thoughts on “Is religion good or bad for humanity?

  1. Perhaps it is not religion per se that is bad but it’s nature as dogmatic and faith based. In other words, it discourages seeking the truth in exchange for compliance and submission. This is really no different from totalitarianism and it goes against natural human curiosity. Religion encourages stagnation.

    1. I tend be believe that the more monolithic and creed/dogma-based (and authoritarian) faiths are the most harmful. Thus the Quakers who say “Deeds, not creeds” and lack a strong governing hierarchy are more likely to be benign in their effect than Roman Catholicism. (Though I must remind myself, Richard Nixon was a Quaker.)

      Strictly monotheistic religions tend to be less tolerant than say Hinduism.

      The rub in Western Christianity is that it elevates faith to the position of the !*highest*! of religious virtues (especially traditional Protestantism) and says that on this faith depends your salvation. Combine that with a detailed creed, and you have a breeding ground for pitting faith against science, because the true believer will worry that their salvation is in jeopardy simply by believing what the evidence points to if it contradicts their faith.

      This is why religions mainly focused on ethical behavior more than dogmas are generally less toxic.

      (This is also why I can’t get very excited about an accomodationist scientist like Arthur Eddington who was a Quaker arguing for the compatibility of science and a highly generic religiosity [including a belief in God]. Eddington doesn’t go through the labyrinthine mental gymnastics that John Polkinghorne does. Not to mention that Eddington made MAJOR solid contributions to astrophysics figuring out the internal chemistry of stars, ironically enabling Lawrence Krauss’s quip “Never mind Jesus. The stars died so you could live”)

      1. The Spiritual-But-Not-Religious (which includes New Agers and neo-pagans) make a good show about being tolerant, ecumenical, progressive, and politically liberal, insisting that creeds, dogmas, institutions, and rules are “not what God is about.”

        And yet in my experience they are virulently anti-science and anti-reason, embracing instincts, intuitions, superstitions, alternative medicine, the paranormal, and magical thinking as ennobling virtues on the path towards transcendental truth. They smile kindly as they happily put out the flickering candle of what we humans have painfully managed to learn.

        On a small scale there are regular personal and group problems. If this category of “liberal believers” were ever in real power, however, it would imo be disastrous.

        1. I tend to agree, although I’m perhaps a bit more optimistic about what would happen if they were in real power. Since the SpirNotRels kind of believe everything and aren’t very well organized, they would tend to cancel each other out much of the time. Still, it would be a disaster for science research and education, all things being considered equally true and worthy of support.

          1. I had a conversation with my sister-in-law, who is a New Ager and lapsed Mormon. We were talking about how hard it is for kids to break away, given the social pressures and benefits – and financial benefits! – that encourage going along with it. I told her about the stories in Boghossian’s book and in Generation Atheist, and how much I respected the courage it takes to break free. She said “Oh, so they don’t believe in ANYTHING then?? That’s not good!”

            There is so much going on in “belief” and to your point sometimes it feels like it is the main attraction for many. To the extent I ever had belief, it came easily, because o was taught to believe by the people and community that supported me. Getting rid of belief, now THAT takes WORK, once you’re infected with the belief virus!

        2. I agree that many spiritual-not-religious types are anti-reason anti-science, though some are not.
          Here in the San Francisco Bay Area is a very real though unspoken rift between two breeds of Buddhist, which I label the “skeptical Buddhists” and the “New Age Buddhists”. (And the same is true of Unitarians.)

          In the former category are those who think that Buddhism once purged of Tibetan angels and demons and folk beliefs about karma is genuinely compatible with modern science, and these remain deeply committed to scientific method as a way of adjudicating truth. In the second category are rather fuzzy-minded types who when they aren’t reading classical sutras may also be reading Deepak Chopra.

          If a local Buddhist group has a lending library or bookstore, check to see which author is more represented, Stephen Batchelor (“Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist”) or Deepak Chopra, and you know which direction they’re going in.

          Likewise, some Unitarians I know are deeply committed to modern science and others are off on wild New Age tangents.

          I maintain the hope that folks like Sam Harris and Bertrand Russell point (and others such as Chet Raymo) to the future of non-creedal spirituality, but there are no guarantees. (I am thinking of Russell’s essay “Mysticism and Logic”. I also recommend Raymo’s “When God is Gone, Everything is Holy” among other titles.)

          1. Yes, I see the same division across all the “I’m-Spiritual-Not-Religious.” Sometimes I even see it in the same person, as they flip back and forth on what they believe and what they mean. “Spirituality” is one of those deepities.

            That’s partly why I worry about the entire category. It’s so fuzzy. The Spiritual seem so eager to avoid being “judgmental” (‘that’s religion, not us!’) that the siren-song of mysticism is likely to creep into the pro-science kumbaya circle.

          2. I especially dislike Unitarians who stereotype all Christians into the fundamentalist box while bending over backwards to rationalize the most destructive elements of Scientology and militant Islam!! You definitely have to make judgment calls in a better way then that!

            Spirituality is definitely a word that New Agers have made dicier. Old time atheists like Percy Shelley and Bertrand Russell were perfectly comfortable with that word, but its coinage has certainly become problematic since their time.

            When Ulysses/Odysseus passed by the sirens, he strapped himself to the mast of the ship.

        3. This is where I see the true danger – in faulty thinking and adherence to dogma. If you were to institutionalize the new agers, I wonder if they would be distinguishable from a totalitarian state?

          1. That’s an interesting question because special revelation is top-down. New Agey Spiritual tend to see Truth as something you recognize when you no longer fight, argue, reason, or even think. They pride themselves on not debating (“imposing your beliefs on others.”)

            So how do they think everyone is going to get along in a group once the Ideal State is eventually reached?

            I’ve asked. Magic, basically. We are all Perfect and once we’ve all evolved to a higher spiritual level it’s nothing but harmony.

            Unless you’re still in the lower level.

            They don’t see this as elitist at all though … because the higher level is Humility and those who fail to join Spirit are stuck in arrogance. So yes, totalitarian state. But it’s based on LOVE so there’s no problemo.

          2. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” – Han Solo

    2. But that’s not an empirical argument that religion (faith, &c.) is net harmful. Nevertheless, I agree, and disagree that such an opinion has to be based on evidence; it can be based on principles.


      1. No, but an empirical argument can be made that dogmatism is bad, whether it is religious or not. It can also be empirically shown that most religious people are influenced by dogmas. The fact that some dogmas may result in good and a theoretical scenario where all dogmas result in secular humanism is no different than sophisticated theology that tries to dismiss all the people who take the bad bits of the Holy Books seriously.

      2. I agree it isn’t completely evidence based because you have to accept a few things first. However, you can compare theocracies to secular governments. Admittedly, you would need to do some statistical work in eliminating other variables.

  2. Mr. Coyne, I have the July/August 2014 issue of SI. If you want it, its yours. I have since canceled my subscription, and it will just end up collecting dust. I am from Canada, and will be traveling to the USA tomorrow to get my mail, so if you want it, let me know.

      1. I don’t see it in my inbox as of yet. Email servers could be slow, so I will give it a half hour and if that doesn’t work, attach another email address.

  3. For me it is simple. Religion trains people to accept ideas in the absence and contrary to evidence. It teaches them to think unclearly. I don’t think it is possible to build a better world by abandoning rationality.

    Some religions generate bad results more quickly or more extremely than others. But all result in bad decision making. And that is bad for humanity. (And most of the rest of the living world.)

    1. My feeling as well. It really doesn’t matter how conducive religion is to fostering motivation or solidarity. The fact remains that religion does not try to make sure that the goals it motivates and solidifies action toward are actually beneficial. When those goals are beneficial, it is by accident or because, as humans, theists can recognize what humans need – that is, the ultimate source of theists’ good work is not actually religion. Religion is just as likely to motivate someone to advocate for the extirpation of homosexuals as it is to motivate someone to donate a couple of bucks to the Salvation Army.

      Faith is an obvious method for bad decision making.

      No. I just don’t see how anything would work if no one was thinking clearly.

      1. Given the nature of the Salvation Army, a couple of bucks dropped in a red bucket is advocating for the extirpation of homosexuals.

  4. 1. Because religious beliefs are based on faith, turning ignorance into a supposed virtue.

    2. No, because atheists exist. We would just have to work at finding an alternative.

  5. 1. Religion provides an inaccurate scientific understanding of the universe. Epistemologically it fails to provide a properly functioning roadmap with which to live. In this sense, a computer does better at dealing with reality than a person who believes in a creation theory that is incompatible with the physics.

    2. There are beneficial psychological effects in believing or at least hoping in fictional things. These include plays, movies, art, music, and maybe some innocuous transcendent personal ideas of the universe un-tied to any organized religion and recognized for what they are…fiction with optimism.

  6. How do you support your claim that religion is on the whole a bad thing for humanity?

    I don’t claim that. I don’t think that question is answerable. Confirmation bias for all of us.

    However, if you can construct secular replacements for whatever positives exist in religion, I do think it does move religion into the negative category. How could you argue with the position that if you take all of the positives and none of the negatives, you’ll end up in a better position? The pseudo-math seems unambiguous.

    If religion were really shown to have net beneficial effects, regardless of its truth, should we promote it, even as atheists?

    To accept that religion is the best that humanity can do to make people behave is pretty defeatist. Amputation is sometimes better than doing nothing, but antibiotics are even better.

    1. My thoughts are pretty similar. It may be accurate to say that some aspects of religion have had positive affects. But I have never heard a good argument, or come across any good evidence, that would support the claim that only religion is capable of providing those positive affects.

      There does seem to be good evidence to support that religion is not necessary to provide the positive affects that it is so often credited with. Given that, there is no reason whatsoever to favor keeping religion except personal desire.

      1. The claim is not whether religion is the only thought system that can have positive effects; the claim is that religion promotes MORE positive effects than do other thought systems, or stimulates them more readily. That’s an empirical question, right? The question is whether a world without religion would be better (I construe this as meaning “having more well bing”) than the religious world we have. That question is not answered by saying that secularism can also have good effects.

        1. I agree with that. As you seem to have said in the OP, I don’t see any way to answer the question in a definitive way for the reasons you give, at least not yet. And I agree that it could be of benefit to be able to.

        2. But how do you define “well bing” (or “well google” 😉)?

          Is “well being” Slartibartfast’s “I’d far rather be happy than right”? How do you weigh “mental hygiene” against happiness in calculating a well-being index?

          And do you evaluate current personal well being or societal well being generations hence? How do you weigh believers’ well being against the (negative) impacts of those beliefs on non-believers o those with contrary beliefs?


  7. I’ll address the second point first because it will inform my response to the first. I don’t believe an atheist should promote a religious belief they know is false out of a concern for a general beneficial effect because this will have the unfortunate consequence of creating a rather large rift in a society, that between those “in the know” (elitists), and ignorant but well-meaning believers. If one desires an -equal- community, the task is to educate and inform all its citizens. I believe one of the marks of a good ethical system is that it is universal in its scope. A desire to keep some people in the dark in order to maintain peace is inconsistent with this universality. Kant’s categorical imperative seems to me to be a fairly good ethical guide: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” In this case, the fundamental values of science (and one would hope of atheism, skepticism, etc), would be treated as if they only hold true for the elite, for the few, while the obscurantism and superstition of the majority, would have their own truth, all in the name of “general well-being”. But all this does is damage the truth, and for the atheist, limits the scope of the claim of his or her truth to the finite. It is because science (in fact human reason) is unlimited in its scope, that any such partitioning of its activity and impact is not only absurd (is it still science if limited in this way?), but unethical.

    Regarding the first point, I cannot say that religion is on the whole a bad thing for humanity, though I suspect with many of you that it is. But in a way this is beside the point. If we hold to the potential of science to address nature’s mysteries, and this potential is limited only by our own reason and ingenuity, there is no other choice but to confront these mysteries and in so doing penetrate the cloud of religious obscurity that often gives its own version of the natural world and our place in it. If we believe that truth is better than falsehood, let our actions prove this to be a universal law.

  8. 1. How do you support your claim that religion is on the whole a bad thing for humanity?

    There are several approaches, but here is my favorite:

    From the point of view of an atheist, this claim is simply a matter of logic and reason, not empiricism. Consider the issue as an issue and analyze it.

    By necessity, everything in religion which is ‘good’ is valuable for secular reasons. Otherwise, an atheist wouldn’t recognize and label it ‘good.’

    That would include charity, community, compassion, beauty, scholarship, and so on. It would include social justice activism or humanitarian benevolence. The aspects of religion which make sense to an atheist make sense on their own merits. Whatever is being done with our approval, it falls into psychology, ethics, philosophy, aesthetics, scholarship. It involves something which applies to all human beings, regardless of religious belief or non-belief.

    So what’s left?

    All the religious nonsense, tedium, error, wickedness, and cruelty which make sense ONLY if you are religious (and usually make sense only if you are in a particular religion.) Religion can be recognized as bad for humanity simply by unpacking what it entails and separating what is shared from what is unique.

    This approach is clean, simple, and rather devastating to religion. Thus we see the faithful insisting that atheists either do no good, mimic the religious when they do good, or can’t explain where or why good comes. They must do this because common ground leaves them only the dregs.

    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?


    If atheists are wise enough to recognize and value “beneficial effects” without believing in God, then so are the religious. Promoting “belief in belief” is a Little People Argument, one which divides the wise, brave, truth-seeking atheists from the simple, fearful, childlike religious believers who can’t handle the truth, don’t care about the truth, and/or can’t reason or be reasoned with.

    Classifying and treating a large and otherwise ordinary group of humanity as inferior is unethical and untrue. It replaces respect with forbearance. And given the fact that the supernatural is not real and faith teaches its adherents to commit to “truths” which don’t make sense by the standards of the world (see answer to first question)- it’s also unwise.

    We need to give religion less credit and the religious more.

    1. Re your point #1. I do think it’s an empirical issue rather than a logical one. Yes, you can have the benefits of religion without a god IN THEORY, but what if, in practice, the benefits were increased with false belief in god. How can you settle an empirical claim–that religion is on balance harmful for the world–without empirical data? Logic won’t cut it. I do agree with your logic, but I don’t see that that answers the question.

      1. If on the whole the benefits of religion do require a false belief in God, then this tells us something about atheists.

        Either we should try to believe in God in order to become better people — or we atheists are strange exceptions to the general rules of humanity.

        Examine both sides of that. I disagree with each. And when I think carefully about why I disagree, the idea that IN PRACTICE the world would be better off with religion looks less and less likely.

      2. Ah. I see now I erred in how I thought this through. If we are supposing empirical evidence that belief is better for humanity than not believing, then the answer by induction is there would be no basis for asserting that belief is worse for humanity than is non-belief.

        I’m not the only commenter who gets hung up on “better,” which is normally construed as subjective but I reckon for our purposes we assume it is an empirical measure, or at least a dispositive set of criteria with unanimous agreement. Since the benefit of belief is “on the whole” and not in every way, presumably we are saying x and y benefits of belief are more valuable than anti-belief benefit z. We are not assuming that there is zero benefit from non-belief or zero detriment from belief in a universe of mutually exclusive effects (benefits equally presented by both do not enter into the calculation).

        That being the case, you cannot answer “no” to the second question without resorting to a value judgment: one cannot logically say they would not promote belief unless they do not want humanity to do better, but “better” was the whole point of the criteria selected in #1. If one starts for the premise of wanting humanity to do better, any justification for not promoting faith would constitute an irrational value judgment based on criteria that we already disposed-of in the first question. For example, in order to say I value reason over belief without evidence, that implies we are not in 100% agreement on the empirical criteria: that is, reason itself would have to be valued more highly than “humanity doing better,” which would contradict the supposed agreement on terms in #1. If I negotiated a tradeoff between reason and other factors in #1, I’m not entitled in #2 to say that the sacrifice is not worth the benefits of belief, because an acceptable tradeoff is the premise of #1.

        I have to answer “yes” unless I am illogical (which undermines the validity of #1 by making my endorsement of the criteria suspect) or dishonest – or my brain malfunctioned right before I answered #2, turning me into an a-hole.

        Which is interesting because this thought experiment basically turns the current state of the world on its head: in the real world, it is the belief in belief that results in assertions contrary to empirical evidence – precisely because empirical data, to the extent it exists at all, tilts noticeably, even if not dispositively, toward non-belief.

        1. By logical extension, in a universe with empirical evidence in support of belief in belief, believers in belief would be the ones with evidence, and those who willfully believe in evidence would be the ones who believe without evidence.

    2. Sastra, I don’t think your argument#1 is correct. Even if all good aspects of religion could, in principle, be obtained atheistically, there could be a difference in the effectiveness of those two paths. I suspect that for most people, a sincere belief in eternal torture may have a stronger effect on behavior, relative to a philosophical belief in a Kantian categorical imperative.

      1. I have only a crummy anecdote, but in the fundamentalist church I grew up in I judge that there was actually an inverse relationship between the degree of sincere belief in eternal torture and anything that I’d judge as good behavior. Sincere belief in eternal torture tends to terrify people and terrified people don’t, from what I’ve seen, behave well. Rather, that terror tends to feed into hate of the dangerous Other that threatens to drag you into torture with them.

        1. Sincere belief in eternal torture tends to terrify people and terrified people don’t, from what I’ve seen, behave well.

          I think most of us react instinctively to real mental terror.

          It either makes you explode or implode.

      2. Yet the standard of good and evil being used for Jerry’s question is — must be — a humanist standard — and I think this has huge ramifications even when we’re dealing with effectiveness. The entire picture of what makes a good society is going to involve good motivation as well as good behavior — as even the religious readily agree when the question is asked with that in mind.

        “Is it better to obey God out of a fear of going to Hell … or out of a deep and abiding love for God?”

        I have never met anyone, fundamentalist or not, in any religion, who didn’t say it was the second. Sure, they may think there may be some people, other people, who require a fear of hell to behave. But they all insist that’s not the goal of their God, their religion, or their faith. They want and try and need to love God. And they love God because God is the authority, and the authority is good.

        But unless WE set the terms by which “good” is evaluated then the religious will be counting prayers, honor killings, correct theology, and all the rest of the “religious nonsense, tedium, error, wickedness, and cruelty which make sense ONLY if you are religious.” But we’re going for a neutral measurement.

        Jerry’s question is not only an empirical one. First, it is philosophical because we need to figure out the standard we use to evaluate the religious and the non-religious. I think the fact that it has to be a non-religious standard is really very significant to answering the question.

  9. 1) I think it is belief without evidence, and not religion per se, that is a bad thing for humanity. As Sam Harris has said, “I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.” From there it is easy to get to religion being a net negative, because religion is probably the single largest repository of unsupported beliefs in the world today. That means that if religion were to suddenly shed its unsupported beliefs, I would cease to oppose it.

    2) Evidence that religion is beneficial would not be enough to get me to support religion. You would also need to show me that these religious benefits go above and beyond what any secular institution is capable of generating. If religion, say, increased altruism and happiness, AND it were impossible for any secular institutions to increase altruism and happiness, then I would support religion. But this is so unlikely as to be unworthy of consideration. Yes, religion has benefits, but these benefits can be achieved in countless alternative ways that don’t involve lying to people. So the relevant comparison is not between religion and nothing, but between religion and comparable secular institutions or communities.

    1. I had a brief exchange about torture with a friend of a friend on Facebook recently. I didn’t know the guy, but for the first couple of comments it was a pretty rational discussion. Then he started talking about the need to oppose Satan’s armies in the world. What can you say once someone invokes a fictional character as a player in a real world situation? The discussion was clearly over at that point.

      1. It seems to me that one could probe a *bit* further and see if there any evils you agree on. Eventually though you will have to at least part company on the fictional character stuff.

  10. My objection to religion isn’t ‘moral’. I don’t care if religion is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for society; I just think it’s wrong.

    I don’t care if it inspires great art or music; it’s just wrong.

    I’ve never believed in god. I was never disillusioned. I’ve just been baffled people would believe in obvious nonsense for as long as I can remember.

    There’s either a god or there isn’t.

    There isn’t.

    1. I agree. No morality needed.

      It’s like choose the box you want to live in: Reality or Delusion. And you can’t figure it out for yourself, let Maru decide.

      1. The problem is that Maru will consistently choose all available boxes, so this method, despite its obvious appeal, doesn’t actually help us.

        1. So you end up with a superposition of belief eigenstates. Which one is in effect depends on when you open the box. Hence people can hold mutually incompatible beliefs. Schrödinger’s categories.


    2. So, what’s wrong with being wrong?
      Is “wrong” good or is “wrong” bad?
      (Hint: we both already know the answer, and it’s not “neither”, and it’s not “both”.)
      Clearly, “wrong” is bad (= not good).
      That’s a moral judgment.

  11. For me it is pretty simple: something that is responsible for so much pain, suffering, and intellectual subjugation is bad for humanity, regardless of the benefits, particularly so now the benefits are no longer the sole property of religion. Doctors without Borders is a great example of how we would cope morally without religion.

    1. Again, though, how can you show CONCLUSIVELY that the pain and suffering caused by religion outweighs the benefits? This is an empirical claim and can be settled only with data, not with assertions or anecdotes.

      1. I’ve thought about this for years — as have, I assume, most people here. I can’t even think of a way to present the question in a way that leads to good empirical research.

        But I would turn the issue on its head. Using the “sin separates us from god” rhetorical trick, I would say that lies separate us from reality. And even if a lie does not actively cause evil, it may steal time and resources from more productive activities.

      2. It is one of those problems that is, practically, virtually impossible to solve. It is easy to see what needs to be done to solve it, but the specifics of collecting the data are just too difficult.

        Perhaps the only reasonable way to reach a determination is to go at it from a different angle. Wait for possible future scientific findings and theories regarding human cognition and behavior, then use those tools to model the different scenarios.

      3. The problem is, you cannot objectively define either the benefits or the detriments, people will disagree with either the positives or the negatives, therefore how do you hope to conclusively demonstrate anything when the questions themselves are so open to interpretation? What you or I might say is bad, the religious adherent is going to say is good. Whose standards do we use?

      4. “[H]ow can you show CONCLUSIVELY that the pain and suffering caused by religion outweighs the benefits?”

        I suspect that is not possible, for various reasons. One, as outlined already, is how you agree on what is a benefit. As an illustration, a friend of mine suggested that the cure to curb spreading Islam is more xtian and/or jewish faith – there’s a fire in the kitchen so the cure is to start another in the living room. Never mind that religious belief is a significant part of the problem in the first place.

        Another problem is that, for example, more charitable work is probably done by the faithful than the faithless, simply because there are more faithful. If we got rid of religion the level of charity might drop, but only temporarily. So until we actually try a world without religion I can’t help but think we cannot know “CONCLUSIVELY that the pain and suffering caused by religion outweighs the benefits”.

        As to the second question, no. We won’t ever get to a world without religion that way, so we’ll never be in a position to “CONCLUSIVELY” say that the pain and suffering caused by religion outweighs the benefits or not. And the best answer to the question is probably evidenced by the data already to hand from Scandinavian countries, and the most religious states of the US.

        As a further note, the various religions are not the same in the pain and suffering they cause, so before we start supporting any religion for the good it does maybe we should try reforming religions religions to eliminate the bad they do. IMO getting rid of religion altogether would probably be the best way to achieve that.

  12. Commonly the question is phrased – “Would the world be better without religion ?”.

    As the authors of the paper note, this implies a value judgement on what makes the world a better place.

    The question should be more specifically phrased – “Would the well being of human beings increase without religion ?”, allowing specific categories such as suppression of the rights of women, discrimination against homosexuals, treatment of children as property and chattels, sexual molestation of children, opposition to life enhancing medical therapies, opposition to sexual prophylaxis and birth control, opposition to end of life autonomy and so on to be evaluated.

    While value judgment is still required, we can focus in on specific categories allowing for a more in depth examination of the question and avoiding the need for a blanket yes/no answer.

    Then it would become very much apparent just how damaging religion is across the board.

    As the Author put it, religion is put[ting} dogma before reason in order to make complex moral questions appear simple, and then act[ing] upon our conclusions without regard to real-life consequences.

  13. Personally, I don’t think the bad can be calculated realistically as long as the only thing standing between peace and the Armageddon is the Israeli secret police, who recently saved the world again.

    Israel indicts U.S. citizen suspected of planning attacks on Muslim holy sites
    Adam Everett Livvix, a 30-year-old Texan Christian, cooperated with his roommate, an IDF soldier, to get 1.4 kilograms (3 pounds) of explosives.
    The Israel Police and Shin Bet Security Service released information on Tuesday regarding a Christian American citizen arrested on suspicion of planning a terror attack on Muslim holy sites in Israel.

    1. How does that follow? I thought Israel was a largely secular state albeit with spectrum of sectarian communities.

      I doubt the Israel Police and Shin Bet acted from religious motivation, they were just doing their job protecting the state of Israel.

      1. Maybe I expressed it poorly.

        I didn’t mean to imply that the Shin Bet was acting on the good side of religion. Rather that the attempts to blow up the Dome of the Rock are so horrendously dangerous that it outweighs any other good that religion might do.

        I highlight it because I’ve never heard any religious apologist mention this clearly religious threat to world peace when ascribing religious evil to “politics” or “ancient tribalism”.

        I find some irony that it’s the (secular) secret police who are the unsung heroes here, standing up against religious fanatics. I also find this aspect is rather under-reported in the liberal press.

        (Hope that clears it up.)

  14. I’m not sure how I feel about the following analogy, but what if religion were something that doctors were thinking of prescribing for its putative benefits?

    We can think specifically between an analogy between religious belief and acupuncture. All evidence points to the effects of acupuncture being strictly placebo: It is equally effective whether you use toothpicks or real needles or needles that simply disappear into the handles, and it is just as effective if you poke people in random spots as it is when you poke the specially designated spots. And yet, the placebo benefit is a real benefit to a patient suffering pain or whatever.

    Now what if acupuncture had unfortunate and REAL physiological or mental side effects. Let’s say sometimes the needles caused violent death by seizures, or sometimes induced paranoid schizophrenia such that patients felt strongly persecuted, or sometimes caused people to go persecute other people.

    Surely in this case the medical profession would decide that the temporary delusional benefit to a patient is outweighed by the terrible side effects, even if they were fairly rare.

    As I say, I don’t know what I think about this analogy. It seems much too sweeping in its implications. But I do know I have to get back to work!

  15. 1. I struggle claiming that it is, on the whole, bad for humanity. I cannot confidently make a claim on the basis of how much bad I perceive. Are the non-horrifying religious in our world all doing good? Maybe, maybe not. I AM glad a point was brought up in the linked article that religious morality trends towards those who are in some way affiliated positively with that religion. I wonder if this extends to those deemed worthy of support or pity as well – the homeless, for instance, may receive pity from Christians. Helping homeless is probably a uniformly GOOD thing, so these people are good and their acts have a positive net worth. But what of their opinions on those they deem unworthy of support or pity? One who HAS committed a crime denounced by the religion, for instance. Are these people helped? Are homosexuals treated more favourably? If the religion inspires good towards certain groups, does it also inspire walls to remain strong between those groups it does not favour? If a religion came along that accepted everyone but still resembled a celestial totalitarian state, would this be a positive force regardless of the metaphysical improbability? I guess that’s what the next question asks, so I’ll answer it there.

    2. This suggests that an alternative has been explored in full and rendered less positive? It depends on the heights of the positives and the severity of the negatives. I guess this one is difficult for me because I wonder how a positive is weighed next to a negative. If one part of the world GREATLY benefited from its religion but the other was held back, though not to the extreme degree that its counterpart benefited, I might argue that any suffering is intolerable regardless if another found a way to make it work. I think I may still promote the idea that finding an alternative is more important, and trusting that we can make that alternative work.

  16. I have argued — and see no reason to stop arguing — that personality traits are orthogonal to ideologies and theologies. Bad people are bad independently of isms.

    What I do see — rightly or wrongly — is people cafeteria shopping for isms that support their proclivities. In the absence of societal or parental coercion, people seek out comfort groups. If adopting an ism is the price of group membership, the ism is adopted.

    1. Well said. Although I think personality traits are not necessarily orthogonal to ideologies.

      And I take by ‘bad’ you can also mean epistemologically bad: i.e., a person can think that fairies run their iPhone and cause the rain, etc. How bad is that for society? It is hard to quantify that.

    2. And I have mostly argued for the opposite.

      Certainly ‘personality’ is a huge component we use when deciding if someone is a good or bad person, yes. But on the whole most people are an ordinary mixture of both good and bad and what matters most when we examine the pros and cons of religion is the ideology.

      Almost all religions and spiritualities emphasize love, compassion, peace, wisdom, and commitment. Even the nasty ones look good … on the surface. Faith does not encourage critical analysis. An otherwise good person with a bad belief system will look very much like a bad person. The ultimate problem is not in their heart: it’s in their head. It’s with what they believe — and doesn’t religion manage to spin-doctor vice into virtue in the name of Higher Truths?

      They get to invent facts to use as a framework.

  17. It would have been nice if the CSICOP article was not so centred on the US (there was one mention of El Salvador), there atheists are a hated and mistrusted minority. If someone is hated and mistrusted by their community then it seems very reasonable that they would not want to, or could not, be more prosocial. The question was whether the world would be a better place. Here is a well referenced essay that answers (indirectly) this question on a more global scale. It’s a .pdf and you may want to skip down to page 7, and read the “criminality and moral conduct” chapter and after. The safest and least murderous cities in the world are the least religious. More secular nations are more charitable to poorer nation per capita (with the exception of America where more religious people donate)and the more secular are more likely to vote for candidates that support the poor. This essay really shows a difference in how atheists and agnostics behave in USA where they are not very liked with more secular places were atheism and agnosticism is usual.

    1. This illustrates what I take to be an important point. I don’t think one should say in some vague sense “over all”, but talk about specific topics, and if necessary, add in “now” (or if interested historically, another time index). So I would say that there are clear ways in which it is worse to have it, at the social level anyway.

      (Which is another topic: do we mean is it better or worse for “everyone”, or for each person taken atomically? I take it the first is more useful, but that’s more a reflection of my ontology, more than anything.)

  18. I think religion is bad for the simple reason that it shifts attention away from what is real (science based) to what is false. Religious people vote, (never mind about religious wars and such). The world is screwed for that reason alone. And religious people are not more good than the non religious. The only thing religion offers, from what I can tell, is comfort to those struggling with the concept of death.

    1. Not only is religion not good for humanity, I’ll bet it’s not good for any living thing.

      The Drake equation should include a variable for religion – if a civilization has it, it will not propagate through the galaxy, because it will have blown through its resources tending to religious matters.

  19. May I express my opinion as a former Christian but still committed theist? If so, here’s my take:

    “1. How do you support your claim that religion is on the whole a bad thing for humanity?”

    In my opinion, religion is often, if not always, one of the central causes for much bad in human culture and society.

    But this topic is also neither fish nor fowl, (though often foul fish;-)
    because religion also has done tremendous good (I’ll leave off the name-dropping to save space).

    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?

    NO WAY. I can’t speak for atheists, but as a theist, I think it would be the worst
    action possible for religion to be “promoted” because it might have some good effects.

    Centrally, because that is not honest. Should we promote superstition because sometimes
    humans gain from it?!

      1. I am very disillusioned with C.,J., and I. I lived for a short time in the Middle East. Bad news. Religion usually seems to mostly major on harm and illusion. But I was a liberal Christian for many years.

        I use the word theist in the general sense–meaning one who thinks existence, the cosmos, etc. has objective purpose and meaning–ie. characteristics such as mathematics, reason, logic, consciousness, ethics, the regularities of the nature (sometimes call “laws”), and aesthetics are inherent in, essential, not by chance or determinism.
        I am opposed to the views of materialism and determinism, or the idea as expressed by Chance and Necessity (which I’ve read) by Jacques Monad “Man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance.”

        I disagree. I don’t think consciousness, reason, etc. came about by “chance.” And I don’t think humanity is “alone,” etc. I wouldn’t go as far as Carl Sagan and others who think there are probably many alien civilizations, but I do think life and consciousness are probably existent elsewhere. Though, of course, all of this is only my educated guess. I’m only an average retired literature teacher and writer, not a cosmologist.

        But, I don’t “know” any of this. In fact, the older I get (am 67) the less I know;-)

        The dictionary pretty well describes my view–
        Merriam-Webster: “belief in the existence of a god or gods; specifically : belief in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world”

        I don’t use the word Deist (traditionally spelled with a small cap “deist”) because the present day connotation of the word doesn’t describe my outlook. But I’m most strongly influenced by the Enlightenment and by Quakerism (used to be a liberal one).

        I now call myself a “theistic seeker and humanist, one who thinks humans should find their purpose in reason, science, and ethics.

          1. I am aware that some or most of the regular posters are determinists.

            That’s another difficult issue.

            As for my “chance” comment, check back on my previous comment where I was responding to this:
            Chance and Necessity (which I’ve read) by Jacques Monad “Man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance.”

  20. 1. How do you support your claim that religion is on the whole a bad thing for humanity?

    Depending on the context by the facts of history and by trial and error.

    If the religion in question makes claims about the origins and workings of our biology/physics then I simply refer to the modern industrial and technological revolutions.

    If you agree that human life as we know it have been and is being unprecedentedly and drastically improved by scientific methods, then I simply point out that religion tried and failed.

    I’d argue that every major discovery about the truth of our biology/physics have been a revolution and statement against religion.

    If religion on the whole really was a good thing for humanity then why the need for science?

    Or to put it another way: Because moderate religious people no longer practice what they preach.

    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?

    If it was shown to be so, then I would assume that we would also know why it was so, and hopefully could easily offer better alternatives that had the benefit of being true to the best of our current knowledge.

    But I suspect it would require us to know a lot more about death and how it feels.

    If we could simulate death, then maybe a lot of people wouldn’t fear it to the extent that it overrides reality.

    1. “If we could simulate death”

      I’ve been dead before. It wasn’t bad at all.

      The Great Depression and two World Wars didn’t trouble me in the slightest. Smallpox, famine, invading Romans, invading barbarians, tigers lurking in the underbrush… none of it worried me.

      I’m having a good time being alive. But it was pretty peaceful being dead.

        1. I see, from Google, that it’s attributed to Mark Twain. I wonder about that. Did they talk about billions of years in those days? The first dating of the earth in the billions was in the 20th century, wasn’t it?

          1. I’d agree that it’s doubtful Clemens was the source (the intertubez also seem to agree). If it is someone else’s, he or she certainly managed to capture Clemens’ style.

          2. I’ve been saying “I’ve been dead before” to people for at least fifteen years, perhaps longer. Maybe I originated it! Someone polished it into Clemens form, and now it lives on forever in the tubes? 😉 OTOH, that sort of makes me think it might actually be from Clemens if it infiltrated me that long ago.

            It’s an excellent point regardless. For some people the process of dying is kind of awful (which is maybe what Jesper meant by simulating death), but actually being dead, well, we all have lots of experience with that.

            And for those who are joining the thread and don’t know the quote, here it is to save googling:

            “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” – Attributed,with some dispute, to Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain)

          3. For some people the process of dying is kind of awful (which is maybe what Jesper meant by simulating death), but actually being dead, well, we all have lots of experience with that.

            It may sound a bit eerie, but if we knew more about different ways of dying, what exactly goes on in the brain and how it feels, and could simulate that, then maybe we’d start taking it seriously instead of relying on old wishful thinking.

            I predict a fast and universal implementation of assisted dying as one of the first consequences. 🙂

          4. He might have conceivably have said “millions” (as that was the order of magnitude of the scientific consensus at the time for the age of the earth. Or he may have been an eternalist (like we are now realizing is the way to go) and speaking about the universe as a whole.

  21. As we know from evolutionary biology, altruism and self interest are one in the same. All of our “altruistic” instincts are evolved social behaviour and they exist in all of us (with the exception of anomalous mental illness). Religions do not create altruism in people they hijack the altruism that is already present. If we are lucky they channel that altruism towards actual good but in so many cases, as Weinberg points out, they can cause good people to do bad things by making them think they are doing good things.

    Believing in something that is not true is never helpful. It is only by luck that such beliefs ever lead to good. Evolutionary biology is all we need to understand that giving, helping and caring about our fellow humans is both natural and beneficial, and ultimately leads to the happiness of ourselves and others.

  22. 1.How do you support your claim that religion is on the whole a bad thing for humanity?

    Like you, Dr Ceiling Cat, I think this is a hard thing to quantify. In its most radical forms religion is most definitely a bad thing. But in its more benign modes it can be very beneficial, at least for individual lives. It is tempting to say that whatever benefit accrues from believing in things that are not true are outweighed by the problems inherent in cleaving to false things, but that’s not an easy thing to demonstrate. On balance I’d only say that religion is bad for humanity because since it is built on beliefs that are not true it is essentially useless in addressing most real-world problems we face and particularly those derived from its most radical forms. That uselessness means those who wield it cannot meaningfully address problems, or at least it is orthogonal to problem-solving. So they aren’t addressed or delayed until reason prevails or even worsened. That means, to me, it is on the whole a bad thing.

    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?

    If it was shown to have net beneficial effect, perhaps for the individual I would say yeah, promote it, let sleeping dogs lie.

    Best said here; “Does your religion inspire you to help people? Does it make you happier? Does it help you cope with the fact that you are a bag of meat sitting on a rock in outer space and someday you will die and you are completely powerless, helpless and insignificant in the wake of this beautiful cosmic shitstorm we call existence? Does it help with that? Yes? EXCELLENT! Carry on with your religion!* *just keep it to your fucking self.” (From the comic “How to Suck at Your Religion” at The Oatmeal).

    Another way I think about this was exemplified by the Daily Show bit the other night where they looked at the foo-fa-rah about the restaurant that gave discounts to people who “prayed” (it turned out that wasn’t entirely true and that even atheists got the discount). The gist of the piece was that the FFRF were being “dicks” about it because, well, they were. Some atheist groups should get better at picking which fights are worth it, even if that means sometimes promoting religious(ish) belief.

    All IMO, of course.

      1. I agree, club.

        FWIW, I think it is a mistake for people like Dan Barker to participate in this sort of thing. I’m a Daily Show fan. Love it. But those segments are designed to make someone look dumb and I think Dan was a bit naive when he walked into this one.

        1. Yeah, I was surprised he went on the Daily Show as well since you pretty much know they are going to edit it to make you look bad.

      2. Damn. That is disheartening. I think the Daily Show is generally great, and that makes this even more distasteful. Hints of accommodationism are common on the show, and they occasionally flare up into full blown outbreaks.

        Another that comes to mind was an episode hosted by John Oliver in which Reza Aslan was the special guest. It was embarrassing how much bullshit Oliver let Aslan get away with that in contexts other than certain religions Oliver, and Stewart, would be all over making the person look like an idiot. Not just get away with, but treat with undue respect and admiration.

        Still, it is one of very few shows for ethically sane commentary and criticsim on important topics. But, I wish . . .

      3. “so, it’s being a dick to be concern civil rights?”

        In this context, yes. FFRF are being dicks. I did read that bit you posted and it doesn’t alter how the Daily Show presented the issue. All interviews on the TV are edited and everyone -every single one- who is unhappy about how they appear claims they were misrepresented. Sometimes they are even right.

        Not so here. The restaurant gave that discount to *everyone*, including two atheists interviewed (they’re the ones who called FFRF “dicks”, BTW…the Daily Show just ran with it), who took a moment of reflection whether it was hand clasped, head bowed prayer or just a moment of silence. Barker admitted no one from FFRF went to the restaurant to find out if the story was true and he did try to equate genocide with this kind of civil rights issue. That’s dickish. Barker said he wasn’t equating them just making an analogy. The Daily Show reporter correctly pointed out that is the very definition of analogy.

        Barker and the FFRF are right; such practices, even in the way the restaurant really handles them, ARE a violation of the Civil Rights Act. The Daily Show did not dispute that. But being right doesn’t excuse dickish behavior. They rightly said (IMO) that Barker and the FFRF are being dicks for going after someone and something so inconsequential to both secularism, the respect for our rights and the Civil Rights Act itself. They do a disservice to secularism and to society by being dicks.

        IMO, of course.

          1. I apologize unreservedly to you Dr. Coyne for giving offense. In my defense I was quoting what others called him, but acknowledge that I should have been more careful with my own language.

        1. it gave a discount for praying. that’s what it said. If it gave the discount to others that does not say that it is okay to treat one class better than another.

          What is dickish about standing up for civil rights? Oh darn, it makes someone feel uncomfortable? There is nothing “inconsequential” about standing up for civil rights. This “discount” says that one group is worth more than another. I am guessing that you would not say this exact thing if it were about race. Let me ask you directly, would you say that one instance of someone saying that white people got 15% off but it was offered to others and still said “15% white discount” on the receipt, that would be okay? Would this be “being a dick” if someone called them out on this?

          1. Perhaps you missed it, but the restaurant gave that discount to *everyone*, including atheists (so there was, in fact, no view-point discrimination) not just to those who engaged in overtly religious prayer. Yeah, it said “15% discount for public prayer” on the receipts. That’s probably why someone alerted FFRF. FFRF should have tried to find out what was really going on, at the very least spoken with the restauranteur.

            There is a world of difference between the struggles against racial discrimination that black people faced in the U.S. and a diner that gives discounts to everyone who shows a moment of contemplative thanks. That is the point. FFRF is correct…they are right….it IS likely a violation of the Civil Rights Act if not in letter, in appearance…they are group I have long and will continue to support.

            But this kind of thing can be a mistake. It can wind up hurting their efforts more than helping. Perception matters. If one makes what appears to be righteous but frivolous claims one runs the risk of undermining broad based support. Discretion is at least as important as vigilance.

          2. Again, would it be okay for a restaurant to have a “15% off for being publically white” if it gave others the same percentage off? Yes, or no? I know that they eventually gave the discount to anyone. But that was not how it started. It started with the assumption everyone is like us and we will reward “us”.

            So there is supposedly a world of difference between one group of people wanting equal treatment and another. How is it different?
            And prayer is not “a moment of contemplative thanks” that everyone does. A prayer is an invocation of a religion. I do not pray.

            How can it or has it harmed FFRF’s efforts to stand up for civil rights? Back in the 60s there was a disagreement on how aggressive to be in pursuing equal rights, and it seems the same thing happens now. Perception does indeed matter. And there is little evidence that saying “don’t rock the boat” helps anyone.

  23. 1. I will address a narrow part of the issue as to whether religion is on the whole a bad thing.
    A major down-side to religion is that it motivates people to kill other people. Religiously motivated homicide has long operated on a vast scale, and is particularly serious nowadays in Islamic countries where members of different sects are highly eager to kill each other. There is also murder within sects, such as honor killing and the like.
    I recognize that other religions have had their times of religiously motivated violence.
    Religion does do the good things you mentioned, such as motivating people to charity and to contributing to beneficial harmony and stability within a community. But I think that making people feel good or lending economic assistance is not as good as killing is bad. And religion kills lots of people.
    Are people motivated to save the lives of other people from religious motivations? If so, then one may start to subtract bodies from the piles of the dead whose deaths were inspired by religion, replacing them with live people. I have no idea how many lives are saved by charity from religion, but my gut tells me it is not easy to measure and not as many as the dead.
    At present, I feel this measure of religion is like a balancing scale with one pan holding a few coins while the other pan is holding a bloody brick.

  24. Being a life long atheist I may look at this matter a little different than most who found their way to becoming atheists after having one faith or the other. Also, I am more of a history person, American history mostly and I am no Scientist, however I most surely believe in science and the scientific method. Also, I’m your age so have been around the park a few times.

    I see religion as bad because of what it does and causes in society. In the middle east we have one religion against another (Jews and Muslims) and parts of the same religion against each other. In Ireland it is the catholics and the protestants. Then there was the old Yugoslavia and we could go back in time to the crusades and inquisition. As we began the dark ages we saw the rise of christianity.

    On a more current national level we have a religious war of sorts going on in America because the religious have mostly taken over one political party, the Republican. Any who do not believe this have not been paying attention. A great deal of this party’s agenda is all wrapped up in religion and religious causes. Doesn’t matter whether you start with women’s rights, poor people’s rights, power to the few at the top, it is all deep in the religious agenda. It may eventually wreck this country. Sure, many will argue this is all political and religion is not really that big a deal but I think not.

    Religion is never about fairness or facts because it is all about money and corruption. Just take a look at the recent history of the catholic church.

    If I could be convinced of any good in this religion business I would sell it, but you have to look really close to find it.

  25. Great discussion idea, thanks for posting this. I look forward to reading all the comments.

    1. I have a “gut feel” that the overall effect is negative; but I don’t feel like I can push this too hard, since I think the data aren’t really in.

    I think it’s bad because: It promotes bad thinking. It places honor on believing stuff without good reasons for doing so. It promotes the idea that is you perform certain rituals or think certain thoughts, that it will result in significant real-world effects.

    All of these are bad/nonsense.

    I see no reason to promote such things. Even if they make people feel better. Sometimes, you really do need to give up your drug.

    2. No, for the reasons noted just above. If religion can do this, other means can be found as well.

  26. 1. As inhabitants of our planet we are faced with very serious problems. Problems that threat hen our very existence. The systematic destruction of our habitat is one example. The fact that some people who used to throw stones at each other because of a disagreement over the significance of a fictitious character from a barbaric text from the bronze age now have nuclear weapons and airplanes at their disposal, is another. We will need to cooperate as humans. We will need all the brainpower and all the ingenuity we can muster. Relying upon some non existing omnipotent being to solve our problems seems very irresponsible and downright dangerous to me. That is why I am against organized religion.

    2. Let me have the truth. If the truth distresses me too much I prefer a splash of Ardbeg over a lie. (After all I am a Dutchman)

  27. 1. I would and do support my claim that religion is on the whole a bad thing for humanity because religion is built on the belief that “I’m better than you” and there is no evidence of this. People act on such nonsense, to consider others less human or deserving than they. We can see this yet again in the new report (I saw it on CNN) that ISIL now approves of slavery and having sex with little girls.

    2. Well, if belief in Santa Clause was really shown to have net beneficial effects, regardless of its truth, and I think the case might be made for this, why do people always reveal the truth about the situation? Because it makes you believe in things that are not real and you will act on such nonsense to your or someone else’s harm.

  28. These are loaded questions. When you try to answer for ‘society,’ the abstract group of individuals, you take a collectivist view like Hitler or Mao. The question is so wrong. When you ask is religion is ‘good’ Good for what? Do we assume and accept the ‘goodness’ judeo-christian virtues of charity and altruism? Why? Of course, Religion (or its secularized form- authoritarian government) is great and essential if you want to control people and resort to force to make them to do good or follow a set of commandments or laws. I think we need to re-think everything.

  29. 1. As inhabitants of our planet we are faced with very serious problems. Problems that threaten our very existence. The systematic destruction of our habitat is one example. The fact that some people who used to throw stones at each other because of a disagreement over the significance of a fictitious character from a barbaric text from the bronze age now have nuclear weapons and airplanes at their disposal, is another. We will need to cooperate as humans. We will need all the brainpower and all the ingenuity we can muster. Relying upon some non existing omnipotent being to solve our problems is irresponsible and downright dangerous. That is why I am against organized religion.

    2. Let me have the truth. If the truth distresses me too much I prefer a splash of Ardbeg over a lie. (After all I am a Dutchman)

  30. 1. I don’t know how it would be possible to prove with available data that the bad effects of religion outweigh the bad. There would have to be objective criteria on what is good versus what is bad. There would have to be criteria for individuals and criteria for communities, indeed for all of humanity, and I fear that one person’s objectively bad feature, say, submission to authority and inaction in the face of evil, is another person’s objectively good feature.

    I think the responsible starting point is to assume that belief versus non-belief is a wash: people, are born neither good nor bad, and how each person impacts the world is a result of his or her circumstances and upbringing. I think it’s fair at this point to invoke the rule that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence: since belief is a hypothesis in conflict with available facts, the onus is on belief to show why extraordinary claims and behavior reliably produce a more favorable result.

    It may be begging the question to assert that there isn’t a way to prove the assertion that religion is on the whole bad for humanity, or at least I can’t do it (even though I have expressed that sentiment and it is my personal sense of things).

    So I settle for an evaluation of better versus worse – for two reasons. The first is that the positive features of belief are not unique to belief, and the effects, being of this world, can be achieved without reliance on supernatural causes or authority. Whether it’s a sense of community, encouraging lawful behavior, standing up for the oppressed, being charitable and merciful, bringing sentimental meaning to life events – or any number of qualities I know are present in believers I know and respect, they are worldly attributes and are found in equal proportion among non-believers.

    Other commenters note that “bad” and destructive behavior similarly is not the sole province of believers, and I agree. Not to sound like Karen Armstrong or anything, but religion is not the only cause of oppression and physical harm – like goodness, badness is a human measure and trait, so, had we never come up with the idea of a supernatural power, there is every reason to think humans would be awful to each other on some other pretense. I would like to be able to say that logic and reason would have advanced more quickly without religion blocking it at every turn, but that would be speculation and we don’t have any case studies to show for humans in a religion-free environment, not even in Scandinavia.

    What we do have is real world evidence that the religious have, in fact, this is my second point, been behind that vast majority of the suffering humans have inflicted on one another. We can say the causes are totalitarianism and discrimination, which again are not exclusively religious inclinations, but the preponderance of cases of keeping people scared and ignorant, attempting to control sexual and reproductive freedom and conspiring with the power structure to keep people in line have had religious sanction and motivation.

    So whether or not it is theoretically proven that religion is worse, in actual practice it has been the case. If you can’t say religion is superior at producing good outcomes (the premise of question 2), you can’t make a fair evaluation of whether the good outweighs the bad. And if you can’t calculate the trade-offs – I can’t for example conceive of a good consequence that would justify denying medical treatment to the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses except for a guarantee that prayer is a better cure than medicine, and that is not the case – you can’t posit a way to balance the good versus the bad: the bad and potential bad are so heinous and vile it makes the entire religious project poisonous, in my view.

    2. I’m in the same camp as the rest of the commenters on this one. George Bernard Shaw’s “happy drunk” is the Occam’s Razor on this point. I don’t think a mere net benefit is sufficient to outweigh the sacrifice of logic and the principles that come with it. I know good people of faith, and they credit their faith with their goodness, so the most I can say is that it is not my job to disabuse them of their ideas. We’re there a demonstrable net benefit beyond some little people argument, I would not lose sleep at night if my daughters grew up to be believers. These are the kinds of accommodations I can make to other people having belief: if they have “a” non-a-holish way of being good and happy, that is better that not being good and happy.

    So I can’t go so far as to say that I could promote irrational belief for a mere net benefit, because the things I would have to give up – rationality and desire for social justice – are worth more to me than a little more happiness or a little longer life. The belief that I could consider believing in would be a very different belief than any which exist in the real world!

    Could I evince a belief in belief? Not as long as any religion worked actively against values that I think are fundamental to of-actualizaion. It may be guilt by association, but it is the conclusion I came to and it is how I came to finally accept that I am an atheist, not a faitheist and not an agnostic. The problem for me is that, although I am as flawed as the next person psychologically and at least as prone to delusion and self-deception, I can’t bring myself consciously to believe in something I don’t believe in, and I would not be able to evince something I know to be false for anything short of a substantial, verifiable, life-changing benefit. If clinical studies showed that a belief in a higher power eliminated diabetes or cancer, I might have a harder time saying no to belief. If there were incontrovertible proof that belief alone was causing worldwide peace and prosperity to break out, it might actually be irresponsible not to try, and I would likely join in.

    Unfortunately for humanity, these are not the case. The science is not there, and I am very confident that any objective, professional investigation of belief versus non-belief would bring very bad news for those who believe in belief (not that they would listen).

  31. “On religion’s good side, they cite psychological studies showing that religion promotes charity, altruism, and so on…”

    On closer examination, most all of the claimed examples I have seen of this behavior by religions fail to withstand closer scrutiny.

    The “charity” and “altruism” promoted are usually directed only at their own in-group of fellow-believers, and nearly always counterbalanced by exhortations to behave uncharitably towards out-group members. These range from simply withholding such charity to admonitions to shun or kill heretics, which in my mind more than outweighs the “good” claimed.

      1. It also makes me wonder just how much “charity” is really just an excuse to try to convert people when they’re at their most vulnerable. Much of this supposed charity comes with strings attached, the requirement to listen to sermons and affirm belief in things to get the handout.

        That’s not really charity and it’s certainly not altruism. It’s reprehensible.

  32. Number 1 reason: yes, religion is a messed-up way of thinking that is potentially harmful. Recent clear example: climate change is a huge problem facing humanity and in a recent poll of Americans asking about causes of recent “natural disasters” almost 50% point to apocalypse/end-of-times (up 5 points from a 2011 poll). Thus, climate change “isn’t a priority”.

  33. The best response I can think of this: religion teaches things that are not true. There’s no evidence for Adam & Eve, angels, souls, and all the silly rest of it. I fail to see what ultimate, true, and lasting good can come from indoctrinating people with ideas that have no foundation in reality.

    Now, is there any direct harm in believing that dogs will go to heaven? No, except to say that a belief like this acts as a kind an Alzheimer’s-like promoter/enabler: the more that people (brains) take in information that has no correlation with material reality, the more those people (brains) will atrophy from misuse. I can’t say there’s any evidence to back up this view and I don’t know how such a study could be conducted, but common sense seems to rule the day: if you continue to pile up things in the brain that are only imaginary but you believe to be true, trouble — intellectual trouble, that is — will only ensue, eventually.

    As for the supposed good that religion promotes, I always come back to Hitchens’s formulation, which I’ll expand on here (starting with a slight paraphrase): show me a moral act that can ONLY be done by a religious person and I will concede that religion does do good in the world. But, as Hitchens noted, because we cannot point to such an example, we can safely conclude that religion has zero exclusive purchase in this regard — and therefore there is no reason to accord religion any special status as a unique contributor to the discussion of moral and right behavior. (You’ll find Hitchens’s remark in the paperback-only Afterword to “God is Not Great”.)

    1. Most extant religions don’t feature Adam and Eve. Some people claim Buddhism is benign and are surprised when I laugh at them.

      1. Yeah, I saw something on Twitter recently about the non-benignity of Buddhism. I can’t recall what it was right now.

  34. Late to the party, haven’t yet read the comments.

    “If you can get people to behave better by making them believe in things that aren’t true, shouldn’t you favor that?”

    For me, it again comes down to the question of what you measure your beliefs against — for, whatever that is, that’s what your beliefs will inevitably align with.

    Science uses objective observation as its gold standard, and does a superlative job at aligning beliefs with those observations.

    If something isn’t true, that would mean that it’s not consistent with objective observation. But then, what is it consistent with?

    Invariably, these other standards are themselves inconsistent and unreliable, and any benefits to be had by them only accrue to the extent that they just happen for the moment to align with objective observation. But only for the moment; once the tides shift, the standards and the alignment shift with them.

    Objective observation at least has the benefit of matching the universe as it appears to be at this moment. As the universe changes, observations change to continue to align themselves with the universe. But these “other ways of knowing” are unmoored and adrift; who knows where they’ll wind up, or how they’ll get there?

    So, if there’s a “better” behavior to be had, your best bet at getting people to join you in that behavior is to convince them of the validity of the objective observations you’re using to reach that conclusion. That way, they’ll stay anchored to those conclusions. Even if you manage to change their behavior to what you want by using some other standard, you have no reliable means of sustaining the belief that maintains the behavior. And, as a bonus, if some better observations are later made that indicate some better behavior is called for, they’ll automatically track to the better behavior with you and you won’t have to invent a brand new religion and hope you can persuade people to adopt it instead of the old one you convinced them to adopt.



    1. This is an excellent point. How would one keep todays Benevolent Belief from becoming tomorrow’s Apocalyptic Fantasy?

    2. I agree.

      The problem is that people often prefer wishful thinking over objective knowledge. Not only religious people.

      Well …., so be it.

  35. 1) Religion is bad for humanity on the whole because it’s not purely altruistic. The quid pro quo is of course, take up our beliefs. It actively seeks to abridge the rights and freedoms of people. It insinuates itself in the affairs of government. It maintains the worst aspects of tribalistic behaviors. Good can be done without the trappings of religion, and so is unnecessary for anything other than to continue as an instrument of influence in societal environment. We can measure the influence of monotheism particularly by the improvements to culture compared to say science or the industrial revolution or great intellectual awakenings…
    I suppose there is some measurable advantage to singularity of purpose in relation to survival pressures, but those days have long passed.

    2) No. No. No. We’ve got to move beyond the need for an emotional security blanket.

  36. “If you can get people to behave better by making them believe in things that aren’t true, shouldn’t you favor that?”

    No because it strips them of their freedom and their power.

    My goal is not to control the behaviour of other people, I do not presume to know what is best for them, nor do I know what is best for everyone else either.

    The fact that these things which aren’t true are being said for the sake of getting people to “behave better” is in itself harmful.

  37. 1. At its core religion promotes beliefs which simply aren’t true. In the best of times those beliefs will do no harm, but any good is likely accidental. Religion wastes peoples’ time promoting nonsense rather than an understanding of the world. Where is the medicine developed by religious practice? Why is most religion-based ‘medicine’ harmful rather than helpful? It’s simple – religion has no basis in reality. One of the worst things about religion is that promoting unthinking belief in claims which have nothing to do with reality conditions people to be susceptible to doing the most horrible things based on mindless belief.

    2. Surely religion cannot be the sole supplier of any particular benefit (if indeed there are any). We should not promote religion but alternative sources of whatever benefits people derive from religion.

  38. Apologies for the length, but here it goes….

    (1) I claim that ideology is a bad thing for humanity, and religion is a subset of ideology. However, negative net effects are contingent on the proportion of individuals in a population who strongly adhere to said ideology. This is hinted at in the Lilienfeld and Ammirati article, that strong believers or nonbelievers are less likely to be coerced into immoral or objectionable actions, whereas people who are only mildly ideological (in the classical sense) are more easily manipulated. This speaks to malleability based on strength of conviction, rather than on belief in a religion or lack thereof. In a population with a relatively large number of “strong believers,” the “mild believers or nonbelievers” are likely easier to be coerced into following, tolerating, or excusing the actions of the strong. “Strong religious belief” is highly ideological (although strong nonreligious belief need not be – see below).

    Regardless, religion is certainly a main supplier of hard ideology. Ideology is the real beast: it also accounts for the retort about the myriad atrocities due to Mao or Stalin or the regimes of NK. That’s extreme ideology at work, not necessarily belief in the supernatural per se, or lack thereof.

    Ideology can be thought of as the opposite of the scientific method. It’s not that all ideology is a priori irrational, it’s simply that ideology provides a set of axioms that all subsequent rational inquiry must automatically be subordinate to. Consequently, ideology informs all morality and reason. This is extremely bad, as no ideology is capable of “getting it all right” from first principles alone; the world and society in general are simply too complicated and varied (further, from an empirical standpoint, we don’t have an example of even a single ideology that even comes close to accomplishing this).

    Some will object that I’m being too vague with my definitions, and they would be right. Is secular humanism an ideology? Well, as a philosophy, secular humanism integrates the use of the scientific method into determining at least some questions of morality, and it certainly bases most rational discourse on empirical principles only. So I would say, no, not exactly. Ideology is a subset of philosophy. I might go so far as to say that philosophy in general can be thought of as the union of ideology, the scientific method, and true nihilism, although I’m sure we could quibble about the exact partition. Regardless, I am aware of no counterexample to the claim that all religious philosophy is a subset of ideology. This is why I argue that religion is a bad thing for humanity, and that ideology in general is as well.

    Empirically, I think there is quite a bit to back this up. I’ve already mentioned the anecdotes of great historical atrocities committed in the name of religion (or a nonreligious ideology, as with NK or Mao). The work by Gregory Paul on “successful societies” backs this up too. I don’t have the time right now unfortunately to properly address even a small piece of the research that has been devoted to the topic, so I’ll just briefly say that I haven’t yet read anything to suggest my hypothesis is in error.

    As for (2), no, I would not argue that belief in belief should be promoted, even if it were really shown to have net beneficial effects. In fact, for many individuals, I think it’s quite safe to say that belief does have positive effects within their own lives, and that they also do not live in such a way as to inflict measurable negative effects on others via those beliefs. In that sense, I am already convinced that belief has a positive net effect on a not trivial subset of the general population.

    Personal belief in god/gods or a higher ground of being – or an even vaguer notion of “universal purpose” – is not categorically a bad thing for every individual. For many people it seems like these ideas do fill an intellectual or epistemological void, answering the unknowable questions for them and providing a kind of personal peace with the universe, allowing them to live their lives relatively free of existential angst. I suspect that the less scientifically trained and minded people are, the more likely such a lifestyle is to be attractive and also the more effective it is. Anecdotally, I have several family members that fall squarely into this category, so I’ve witnessed the effects firsthand. On the flip side, I also have several friends who are both atheist and adhere to an extreme nonreligious ideology that informs virtually every part of their social and personal lives (basically, American neo-Libertarianism). Their ideologies are every bit as frightening and harmful (if they had the followers to enact their ideas) as your garden variety American neo-Christian ideologue.

    With that being said, I hope it’s clear that the above ideas are about personal beliefs; so not religious in the truest sense of the word. To me, it doesn’t make sense to call a belief “religious” if it is not immediately consequent of an abstract, outside ideology. We could call such alternative belief systems “spiritual.” Anyway, the personal nature of these beliefs dictate that it’s rather pointless for anyone to go about espousing their virtue to the public in general. My mother. for example, is somewhat of a spiritualist as I have described, and that makes her a happier and healthier person, but I would be a rather unpleasant sod if I was made to believe similarly. Again, in my opinion, the likelihood of a “spiritual” belief system of some kind providing a net benefit for an individual hinges squarely on how scientifically minded that person is.

    So should we promote belief in belief to the subset of the population that is not so scientifically minded? Well, no, that seems like a ridiculous waste of time (I hope it’s clear as to why exactly). Personally, I would say we should focus our efforts on promoting science and the general method of philosophy that comes with it, but that’s maybe a bit to beside the point for right now.

    I would like to take a closer look at some of the studies that Lilienfeld and Ammirati mention in their interesting article sometime. I was certainly aware of the existence of mild correlations between increased religiosity and lower criminality (among other things), but I am not familiar with many of their cited works. I usually have many problems with most sociological and psychological studies, pretty much regardless of topic or conclusion, so I shutter at concluding anything from the data they discuss. (Much to their credit, they do a great job at warning about the same thing.) One thing in particular that I usually object to in this type of research is that the subjects used are almost always of the same nationality; and furthermore, most studies are done in the States. That’s going to have a huge effect on what happens and on what can be concluded. It’s impossible and, in my view, extremely wrong to say a study showing a correlation between two factors in American subjects says anything about humanity in general. Cultural influences are way too large, especially when studying things that are themselves often culturally sensitive.

    I’ll stop here, since I’ve taken up waaayyyyyy too much space by now – sorry! :/

  39. #1 The evidence of religions terrible effects on humanity (if not the whole of life on this planet) have all lasted for very prolonged periods of time. Its beneficial effects, I maintain, are only for short and fleeting periods of time. Easy examples to consider: The Inquisitions, heresy hunting & witch burnings lasted several centuries, in fact right up until the 1800s people were being condemned to the gallows for “blasphemy.” Remnants of those periods can be seen even today. When have we seen such a protracted and sustained effort on behalf of the religious to bring the full force of their so-called charitable and benevolent efforts to the sustained benefit of life on this planet?

    #2 No. In my opinion, the answer to this question is an easy “no.” I assert this because the so-called good that may be wrought via “belief in belief” (or acceptance of dogma regardless of how benign) is an illusion. What can we readily predict about the likely outcome of a life based on illusion? With a fair amount of confidence we know that the result will not be beneficial to anyone including the “believers.” What good, for example, could a worshiping devotion to Jibbers Crabst bring to life on this planet?

  40. 1. The core question here seems to be whether the good stuff that religion supposedly brings with it is really due to religion or, as I suspect, to innate human nature that would come through just as well in an atheist society. Just about the only thing I would count for religion on the positive side is that it helps people who could not psychologically cope with dying or losing their loved ones if they didn’t believe.

    That there are people like that cannot really be doubted. Does their peace of mind outweigh the Tirthy Years War? Unlikely, even without empirical data in my hand. But I would not want to see anybody shout at a grieving person that there is no god. The solution would be to find a belief (spirituality?) for people like these that does not involve a holy book demanding horrible atrocities.

    2. I am definitely with you: I prefer a harsh truth over a pleasant lie. But that is a matter of personal values (and maturity), not of empirics.

    1. Just about the only thing I would count for religion on the positive side is that it helps people who could not psychologically cope with dying or losing their loved ones if they didn’t believe.

      That there are people like that cannot really be doubted.

      But would there be people like that in a culture which didn’t encourage a belief in an afterlife? I don’t know.

      I tend to be skeptical of people who insist that they could NEVER have psychologically gotten through a trauma if it hadn’t been for X — whether X is a belief in God, a good support system, an engrossing hobby, a busy schedule, a leave of absence, a loving sister, Oprah Winfrey, or the pan flute.

      Well, maybe … but how do they know? There are people who have no X and yet come through desperate circumstances nevertheless. Are they sure that they would instead have … what? Life in a mental hospital? Suicide? Spontaneous combustion?

      I’m not saying that we can’t point to things which help us and have helped us cope. But to say there is no way we could possibly have done without is pushing it I think.

      1. I very much agree. But I think there is at least one significant issue that false beliefs, such as religious beliefs, can offer comfort for while not being a significant cause of the issue. Existential angst, fear of death. Or maybe it is yearning for life to continue. For one’s self or for loved ones.

        But I think this is also a good example in favor of atheism with respect to at least part of the issue Jerry has brought up. Believing in life after death may certainly make someone who is terrified of death feel better about it, and that is undeniably good. But believers still check before crossing busy streets. And, more to the point, life after death has been used in numerous ways by religions to coerce people, exert control over them and to devalue lives. Believers are giving up their “free will” to others, giving up their ability to be competent actors regarding their own destiny.

        And here we are at a value judgement. I think that is negative. I think that is one of the worst things about religion. Lots of other people think it is positive, at least if they are surrendering it all to their god.

        1. I was once in on a conversation where the believers were asserting that all fears could be knocked down to one major fear — fear of death. And this is where they were strong: their spiritual beliefs helped them accept death.

          But I pointed out that as the lone atheist in the group I was technically the only one who actually had accepted death — as something that really happens. It happened, it happens, it will happen .. so now what? Atheists look it in the face. We deal with death emotionally and are forced to discover ways to grow and cope and find and create meaning in spite of it.

          Everyone else seemed to be involved in an elaborate and implausible scenario of denial: nobody ever dies, death is an illusion, the physical world is a dream and so on. Even if they were right about an afterlife it wasn’t because they became strong enough to accept death. They rejected the possibility in fear. They had to avoid the obvious and fight off doubt. Atheists don’t have to do any of that.

          It’s the difference between dealing with grief head on … and blindly insisting that no, the loved one is just resting “at a farm in the country.” Who is really learning to “accept?”

          I got the strong impression this line of reasoning had never occurred to them. Religious privilege. They laughed and nervously changed the subject. I was wrong, but let’s talk about something else now.

          1. As an atheist, I tend not to question “why me?” either. I may obsess over deterministic reasons that caused something but I don’t wonder if I had it coming because of some bigger reason. This, I think, is freeing.

        2. Existential angst, fear of death.

          Well, that is exactly what I meant. Although I would say that for many it might be even harder to accept the reality of the annihilation of their loved ones than their own.

          Note that I am not claiming that failing to accept that reality is good. In fact it seems to be a sign of immaturity to cling to a false but comforting belief, and if one thinks the whole afterlife issue through it becomes rather problematic. (What about toddlers who die, won’t they miss their parents in heaven? And if they don’t, is it really them?)

          My claim is merely that there are indeed people who are not strong or mature enough to accept the reality of annihilation at death. I doubt that merely telling everybody to toughen up and behave like an adult would solve the issue. Some of us just are more easily frightened and depressed than others…

          1. “I doubt that merely telling everybody to toughen up and behave like an adult would solve the issue.”

            I have heard believers and accommodationists characterize atheists / atheism saying or meaning that. I have also heard atheists say similar things, typically to other atheists when griping about, or criticizing religion.

            But, that just isn’t the way it really is. Atheists don’t tell each other, or anyone, to toughen up and behave like an adult when they are grieving or afraid. They also don’t take advantage of the situation like the typical pastor does. And while I agree there is a wide range of responses and tolerances, I am not convinced the little people argument is valid here. I don’t think there is anybody who, in principle, needs religion to cope with their fears. I am not convinced that religion, at least anything resembling the major religions of today and the past, is the best or one of the best, or even a good way to help people cope with their fears or offer comfort.

    2. So now the utility of religion is as a crutch for the psychologically weak? Religion teaches people to live on their knees instead of getting up on their feet. That’s not a strength, it’s a thinly disguised weakness.

  41. Religion, by which I mean the three Abrahamic religions, is a dangerous enabler. It may foster social cohesion in a religiously homogenous society, but since these religions proclaim a monopoly on the truth, they foster tribalism and persecution of those who belong to different sects or religions. The thousands of years of three-way strife between Christians, Jews, and Muslims are enough to discredit all three religions. Because religion is a marker of difference and of belonging to a select group, it has become the handmaiden of nationalism, one of the worst ideologies of modernity, responsible for many of our worst wars.

    Were religion to disappear, the world would not automatically become a peaceful place. But it would mean that one of the greatest spurs to ethic/nationalist aggression would no longer be there. As a marker of difference, religion helps anyone discriminate toward anyone who is different from them. The gradual elimination of these markers can only be a good thing. Modern Scandinavia is proof that the “great” religions can be safely relegated to the scrap heap.

    As noted earlier, by “religion” I am mostly speaking of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The polytheistic religions of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome were far more syncretic and less likely serve as markers of difference or causes of strife (look at how Egyptian deities like Osiris and Isis were incorporated into the Greco-Roman pantheon). Buddhism also has a more peaceful track record. Hinduism unfortunately has fallen into the hands of Indian nationalists and has spurred violence between Hindus and Muslims.

  42. question 1 would only be an empirical question if we could timetravel into the future.

    The answer to question 2 is clearly no if we believe in the “wisdom of crowds”.

    The answer to the 3 question is I don’t know what ‘evince’ means.

  43. I’m looking at this question a bit differently than proposed. If we can agree religion isn’t necessary in the same way as government or infrastructure, the question becomes can the good you do outweigh bad. If I beat my partner then take my kids for ice-cream, is that ok? Is there any amount of good that I can do that would offset beating my partner? I would argue no. Giving religion a pass on the harm it does is nothing more than condoning it’s bad behavior, something that I don’t think we would do for an individual.

  44. An interesting and informative comment thread. One of the best I’ve read. Kudos to you Jerry Coyne for the prompt. As I read through I cannot seem to get past an observation made by Morris R Cohen (RIP) professor of philosophy and law at City College of New York,

    “If religion cannot restrain evil, it cannot claim effective power for good.”

    The evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, clearly underscores the veracity of Cohen’s observation.

  45. I appreciate the questions and comments thus far. Most of which I agree with, and after reading 90% of them, I don’t have much novelty to add.

    I’m echoing many here, but the main reason why religion is harmful is that it is ultimately self-defeating. What is the end-game? What does it really hope to accomplish on a grand scale? (I’m going to focus on Christianity, though many religious creeds have similar doctrines.) To me, the most egregious error that religion makes is the assumption that eventually God will come down, destroy the earth and all the evil people therein and save those who are worthy. It isn’t difficult to imagine how this pathetic world-view can ultimately lead an intelligent species to thoughtless self-destruction. The ancient religious texts were written by a people who didn’t have our contemporary concept of “future”. “A thousand years from now” is not the type of thinking these ancient people grasped. The Book of Revelation wasn’t written for a population 2,000 years after John’s life (assuming he wrote it). It was written for contemporaries who wanted solace that all the injustices wrought upon them here and now would be paid back in full- and soon. Unfortunately, people steeped in religion have held this belief all the way to 2014. They are not worried about the ultimate future of mankind (all is in good hands) and many even welcome the Apocalypse. Having an apathetic view of the planet and by proxy mankind is the epitome of irresponsibility and recklessness. A perfect example of this line of thinking comes from Senator Inhofe who has said (summarizing) it is arrogant for man to think he can alter the fate of the world that God has set in motion and continues to guide. Inhofe is not alone in this belief that there is nothing we can do to either save the world (humanity) or destroy it. This bullshit from a powerful politician in 2014! There are many good reasons why religion is harmful past and present, but dealing with present harm, this “live, let die, and don’t meddle” approach to reality is the most damaging.

    As far as question #2, I have to answer no. We atheists need to engage in some tough love. That’s why parents eventually take away the security blanket from their children. We need to do the same thing with adults and their religious blanket. I enjoyed “Breaking the Spell” and understand Dennett’s take on “belief in belief” (did he endorse it…iirc he didn’t) but to move forward quickly, we all need to stop accommodating hocus-pocus. Belief in belief is a liberal pit-stop that will only prolong mankind’s urgent problems.

    Phew…I think I’ll crack a brew now.

  46. Invent a hypothetical bizarre belief system with tenets similar to main religions (if Scientology is not bizarre enough) – would the world be better if a large number of people adopted that belief?

    The point obviously is that our case rests on truth, and valuing the truth. We are capable of inventing magic explanations, and then believing them without evidence. Science is the opposite of this, and skepticism is our philosophical worldview.

    *Empirically* we have no way of proceeding if we don’t begin with the above methodology of truth claims or epistemology. Anecdotal evidence is easy to bend by both sides for such a broad case.

    Scandinavia disproves only one hypothesis: that religion is compulsory for a healthy society. Everything in any religion is accessible to all of us – and everything that is exclusive to religion (hellfire, wrathful gods, revelation of specific human morals, etc) are all poisonous and harmful lies.

    The examples of how these dogmatic exclusives MANIFEST could be the best example I can think of for emperical evidence – because post-modernists and tricky apologists like Aslan have built a huge “Hellfire is metaphor” empire of lies. The evidence of actual manifestation and effects of such lies (very easy to find) could be the best case.

  47. I think we first need to acknowledge the distinction between whether religion is a force for good and whether religion can be a force for good.

    Certainly, the latter can be trivially demonstrated by acts such as religious people helping the poor. My own family members have for years visited the poor providing charity without proselytizing because of the teachings of the Catholic Church. The fact that the ultimate end game is that they believe they will be eternally rewarded does not matter in the context of the good they are doing.

    However, I think Hitchens offered the best challenge when he asked people to name a good deed that can be done in the name of religion that cannot be done by a secularist. While I don’t think we can rationally promote theism because it sometimes results in good, we can tolerate theism stripped of its nasty bits, as Thomas Jefferson did when he modified the Bible. Good done in the name of a falsehood certainly doesn’t have the solid basis that good done based on reality does, so this type of thinking always risks problems arising. But whether my religious family members are a net force for good, I don’t know. Certainly my fear of hell made the religiosity a net force for bad for me personally and I agree that religion as a whole is bad. Is my psychological pain “worse” than the good accomplished by feeding the poor? I don’t know how that could be answered. But, saying that the world we want to live in could not sustain some religions is a big stretch. I look forward to the day when we only have to worry about innocuous religious beliefs promoting good for the wrong reasons. For now, we should continue fighting bad ideas wherever they occur and combating the evil religion causes, especially religion of the fundamentalist stripe.

  48. You may need to qualify “good” in the first question to arrive at a definitive answer for the second. Whatever you mean, it is inherently goal oriented (we kill each other less, we’re happier, perhaps both, well being in general). If some practice achieves that goal we would have to change goals in order to say the practice is bad and say we shouldn’t support it (be honest, have evidence, etc.)
    I believe most people have difficulties in the moral sphere because they confuse moral sentiment (biological) with an explicit value system (synthetic) and transition between the two without realizing it. In other cases they apply a variety of meanings to good simultaneously, in series or both and don’t realize it; much like we do with”good” throughout the day (good=healthy, tasty, funny, correct, etc.).
    If you agree we should do what is good and good is defined as promoting well being, and self deception and/or deception at large promotes well being then I believe you will have answered your own question, good sir.

  49. To me, the issue is not if religion does good, it is that secular humanism does better. So if you say that the world would be better off without religion I would agree with the caveat that its replacement must be a deterministic, egalitarian, secular humanist outlook.

    The video Jerry posted the other day called “The Dark Side of Free Will” talks about the fact that subscribers to the idea of libertarian free will (i.e. every religious person I have ever heard of, despite their simultaneous belief in “God’s plan”)are more punitive and believe in a Just World. These have tangible consequences, such as the disproportionate number of inmates in America and the focus on punishing them rather than rehabilitating them.

    If you look at the prison systems of the Nordic countries, they are almost determinist in their design. They recognize that criminals are a result (mostly) of imbalances in society, and so they work to address the root problems of inequality (of income, healthcare, housing, et cetera) and also focus on rehabilitation in their “prisons” (more like gated communities) to show criminals that their is a better life they can live and that they deserve it.

    If a religious society ever becomes like the secular Nordic societies I just described, then we can say the religion is a force for the best good in the world. Right now, there is far better to be found.

  50. My argument for question #1 is simple…

    1. The average standard of living for everyone on the planet is demonstrably better than in the past.

    2. Primary causes for standard of living improvement are advancements in medicine & technology brought about by science.

    3. Religion is often directly opposed to science as it encroaches on the gaps in knowledge that religious people fill with their particular deities. Religion also opposes it through subversion of education in science.

    Hence, we would be better off without religion which hampers that progress.

    1. I think you missed an essential ingredient at point 2.: wealth. Frequently the application of the latest technology is hampered by the cost.

  51. Would the world be better off without religion?

    Emphatically yes. For one simple reason. In a blink of evolutionary time, one of these religious zealots is going to get hold of a nuclear weapon and end the world as we know it. The Israelis vs. Muslims seem most likely to be where it will happen, but if not there, somewhere else backed by the same higher ground motivation. As I’ve said here before, it makes me enormously angry that in all likelihood my kids will have the same threat over their heads thru their lifetime, if a world nuclear calamity doesn’t happen.

    The only solution is ditching religion. Realistically, this won’t happen, but rather than nuance one vs. another religion, the push should be to get rid of them all. So what if religion saves more orphans than atheism (which isn’t at all clear anyway). The world’s more important.

    1. Skimmed your article, Doug. Must admit I’m impressed but also avow not having the background in statistics that would allow me to criticize it on that basis. And the stats are crucial to its claims. The principal claim is that missionary Protestantism has in many instances catalyzed a change toward more open and democratic societies by empowering a disenfranchised group. This dynamic is tangential to belief in God as such.

      1. Please provide evidence (or at the very least a good argument) that “This dynamic is tangential to belief in God as such.” Otherwise it is quite an empty assertion.

  52. I wrestle with this question a lot. I used to be an evangelical Christian, and I thought that the greatest good I could contribute to the world was to share the gospel with people and convert them to Christianity. Now that I’ve lost my faith and can see the dark side of religion, I wonder to what extent I would be helping the world by deconverting people.

    It’s hard to measure, for sure. I’m skeptical that merely getting rid of religion would solve any problems, since the destructive forces within human nature would still probably find plenty of other outlets. Something positive must be found to take religion’s place. That’s why I admire Sam Harris’s efforts (whether he’s right or not) to offer an alternative basis for morality and a naturalistic approach to spirituality. I see a lot of people bashing religion, but I don’t see very many people offering constructive alternatives to fill the void that would be left behind if religion were eradicated.

    On another note, I often wonder whether Karen Armstrong knows that she’s spouting BS but is doing it on purpose because she thinks that belief in God is what’s best for society. It seems to me that she recognizes that belief in a more traditional, fundamental interpretation of God is certainly detrimental to society, and she is intentionally inventing an alternative understanding of God that she believes would be beneficial. (In other words, she may have wrestled with the very same question that you’re asking, and she may have come to the opposite conclusion, namely that God is a lie that the world needs.)

    I also wonder whether Glenn Greenwald might actually agree with Sam Harris deep down but simply be afraid that a direct assault on certain religious ideologies might be disastrous for humanity. Perhaps he and Armstrong both secretly believe that it is necessary to tolerate a certain amount of BS in order to safely bring about the changes that our world needs. That is, maybe the best way forward is to render religion benign first (by redefining God just as the sophisticated theologians are doing) and then let it die a slow, natural death as humanity collectively comes to its senses.

    1. “I’m skeptical that merely getting rid of religion would solve any problems”

      Getting rid of religion would at least get rid of the excuse religion gives for doing evil, to, say, gays, unwed mothers, women in general, etc. Would it solve those issues? Well perhaps not, but it would help.

      “Something positive must be found to take religion’s place.”

      Some people suggest that’s like curing cancer and looking for something to replace it, and I am inclined to agree. Atheists, individually, have either found something to replace it or have found that it doesn’t need replacing, that it is simply unnecessary.

      “I don’t see very many people offering constructive alternatives to fill the void that would be left behind if religion were eradicated.”

      What void? The “god-shaped hole”? That’s the only unique thing that religion offers to fix that hasn’t already been supplied by society. The fact that religion takes various things already extant in society (like morality, community) and call them its own does not make them so. If religion disappeared overnight only misguided theists would think morality or community ceased to exist, they would just need to find it. Or are you suggesting that theists lack the organisation, motivation or will to find these things in society, that they need to be led?

      Plenty of people have suggested humanism as an alternate source for any good religion may offer. There’s a point where it ceases to be productive in repeating it. If ex-religionists are looking to replace the community of their church they can join sports clubs, get active in some secular charity, join an atheist group, join an arts appreciation group, start a band, or a coffee club. The alternatives are already there.

  53. My answers to the questions.
    1. Humanism says, We are all in this together. We are all in this together to raise the Standard of Living and Quality of Life for as many as we can. (that is, to make the world a better place)
    None of the Abrahamic religions say, We are all in this together. Rather they divide us. We are believers or infidels. They say males have privilege over females. They say we are Christians or Jews or Muslims. (or Catholics, or Methodists, or Orthodox, or Reform, or Sunni, or Shea, or . . . . . . . . . . . ) World peace? Forget it! They can’t even get along among themselves!
    Nor are any of the Abrahamic religions very concerned with peoples Standard or Living or Quality of Life. Rather they are concerned whether or not you are pious. And you are never sure is you will be judged to be sufficiently pious.
    There is plenty of empirical evidence for all of this.
    2. If belief worked, if there were proof of it working, then it would not be simply belief, would not have to be a matter of faith. Its rather like, What do you call alternative medicine that works? -Medicine!

  54. I rather think that religion or something like it does do some good for some people. All people are not alike. We talk of getting people to think in different ways, but really, some people aren’t really inclined to think much at all beyond daily necessities and amusements. Nor could they be; a society of intellectuals would accomplish very little without the worker bees.

    This may sound like a “little people” argument, but it’s not; it’s more of an argument from the fact that there is variation in intellect and cognitive abilities and predispositions amongst people.

    Authoritarians exist because a certain number of people need authority figures. They do need to be told what is right and wrong, in some cases. They probably also exist because most forms of social animals do develop hierarchies of one kind or another.

    I dislike religion but I’ve always had Dennett’s Doubt: what would fill the resultant hole some people are going to have should it disappear?

    Secular humanism is a start, but it’s far from organized enough to do so (and I sort of hate the idea of it getting organized…)

    Sorry, this is not an empirical input at all; I’m just feeling a bit contrary.

  55. Hmmm, empirical. I think the best measure is to compare quality of life standards in theocracies vs. democracies. Jerry, you bring this up but dismiss it because correlation is not causation.

    Not always, but sometimes. Even very religious societies like the United States have developed whatever social safety nets there are via secular processes. Most education, most hospitals, most welfare programs, all were achieved by secular government. All infrastructure. All policing and fire-fighting services. The list is a long one. And much that is claimed by religion–religious hospitals, for instance–are highly subsidized by tax money.

    Now add in other first world countries. A pretty suggestive correlation, IMO.

    And while the betterment of everyone benefits all of us, I believe much of the impetus behind the safety nets reflects true altruism. (At least it’s not coerced by threat of hell!)

    (I’m probably repeating a million other posters here–only had time to skim the other comments.)

    1. I thought the same somewhere else on this thread before I read yours. The only thing you’d have to do is eliminate some of the other variables that aren’t to do with the ones you are interested in. I’m not sure if this is doable or not.

      1. You might be able to do it historically: if one carefully analyzes what happens if a country becomes more secular. Now there’s a common cause in most cases – increased affluence – but there might be a possible way to disentangle the feedback loops.

  56. 1 is indeed an interesting question, and one that can in principle be examined empirically in a serious way.
    We could e.g. compare on the one hand things like religiosity of a population and/or the International Humanist and Ethical Union report ( ) measuring secularism (I must say they are a bit harsh on eg Denmark, which gets red status for a weak and non-enforced blasphemy law) and the like, with -on the other hand- things like human development index, happiness index, violent crime and civil strife stats, etc.(if we accept the latter as indicators of ‘goodness’).
    Without having done detailed comparisons, let alone statistical analysis, -and at risk of confirmation bias- I think there are enough indications at present that the burden of empirical proof is with the religious apologists. Of course correlation is not proof, but it is a good start.

    2 ‘The White Lie’. I do not have much evidence to believe in ‘belief in belief’. The answer to 1 should weigh heavily in the answer to 2.

    1. very nice report.

      it claims that:
      Atheists (those who do not believe in any god), and humanists (those who embrace a morality centered on human welfare and human flourishing that does not appeal to any supernatural source), and others who consider themselves non-religious, are a large and growing population across the world.

  57. Another line could be to follow societies where women have become more empowered -something opposed by all big, moralistic religions) and compare that to the following improvement in poverty levels.
    If Christopher Hitchens proposition turns out to be true (that this is a systematic phenomenon), it would greatly support causality.

  58. Only a handful of secularized countries allow assisted dying if a citizen is terminally ill. Opposition comes almost exclusively from some religious arguments.

    So at least for a small group of people religion makes the final part of their life much worse and not as self-determined as they wished and deserved it to be.

  59. To me, point 1) is settled largely along lines of the famous “challenge” by Hitchens: show me one good deed that is done by religion that cannot or will not be done by secular means (I’m paraphrasing but that’s the drift).

    Then it comes down to me that, almost by default, all the good bits done by or in the name of religion, are not really good things done by religion but merely good things done by good people. (example: the NHS as a secular health service seems to be doing at least as good a job at health care as private, religious-run health services do).

    On the other hand, the plural of anecdote to me at least does add up to data: the myriad examples of religion undeniably doing harm where science and secularism would not do harm (or at most, less). Even in the same issue of SI:S&R it has articles about faith healing and witch doctor persecution, then there is opposition to abortion, euthanesia, same-sex marriage, faith-sanctioned killing of infidels, the Magdalene laundries, and countless examples that are hard to find arising from secularism and atheism.

    So that adds up to a balance of
    good deeds:
    religion 1, secularism 1
    bad deeds:
    religion 1, secularism, maybe not 0 but less than 1.

    Whether that is conclusive for others I don’t know but to me it is.

  60. As Lilienfield and Ammirati address at the beginning of their piece, when asking ‘Would the world be better off without religion’ we need to define what we mean by ‘better’. And furthermore, in their conclusion they also acknowledge that the term ‘religion’ may be too simplistic – with approx.. 4,200 different religions in the world today, are we referring to all of them i.e. are we assessing ‘better’ in terms of the options of all existing or none of the 4,200 existing?
    As Sam Harris has pointed out, the term religion is a bit like the term sport in that the varieties of activities we lump together as sport are so varied, all they have in common is breathing.
    One of the most telling aspects of the improbability of any religion being true, is that there are so many of them across the globe. Not to mention the many thousands of dead gods e.g. Apollo, Zeus, Thor, Poseidon.
    I often wonder how my views on religion would differ if there was only one on offer, if the choice was ‘X’ or atheism.
    And how do I feel about each of the different values I can replace the variable ‘X’ with: Christianity? Which Christianity, Catholicism, Protestantism? Which Protestant branch – there are over 40,000 different Christian churches/affiliations in the US alone. What if the choice was atheism or Quaker Christianity? What about atheism or Jainism, clearly one of the most peaceful religions on offer? What about atheism or Islam?
    The fact that so many conflicting and incompatible religions abound goes to show how weak each is in their claims to truth, but also how divisive they are.
    Sam Harris (yes ok, I’m a big fan!) says there appears to be only three ways to defend religion: 1 – my religion is true; 2 – it doesn’t matter if it’s true because it’s useful i.e. gives a moral framework; 3 – the alternative to no religion is unbearable i.e. the world would descend into moral chaos and nihilism.
    Argument 1 has been addressed above i.e. they can’t all be true, so which one would I choose?
    Argument 2 – do you mean the Christian moral framework that obliges us to kill anyone who works on the Sabbath, or that tells us if, on our wedding night, we discover our wife is not a virgin, we MUST take her to her father’s house and stone her to death?
    Waddya mean I’m cherry-picking, and you don’t believe in those biblical morals literally? Ok, if we can pick what we choose to believe, how about we choose and agree ALL our morals through secular human discourse based on the well-being and suffering of conscious beings? (‘The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values’ by Sam Harris, available at all good bookshops and online!)
    Argument 3 – to suggest the non-religious can’t be moral and good is too insulting to be taken seriously. Go visit the people of the Scandinavian countries to see what chaotic and nihilistic looks like.
    For me, it comes down to imagining a hypothetical ‘better world’ at some far off point in the future, and asking if any religion could get us there – is ‘religion’ part of the solution, or part of the problem?
    Because no one religion can ever come to dominate and lead humanity, no matter how caring and kind and humane a variety it may be, I can’t see religion as anything but a divisive force in history. The endless battle-cry ‘my god’s better than your god’ (how Christians have the cheek to laugh at Scientology I will never know!), suggests religion can never unite humanity to help bring about a truly peaceful stable prosperous global civilisation. Maybe not so surprising given most religions focus on the eternal afterlife anyway.
    Honesty is the most important aspect of any discourse, whether it be at the day to day personal level, or at the level of the most profound philosophical debate.
    The idea of claiming to know things I simply do not know, and instilling those ideas into my children, is one of the most dishonest things I can imagine. Encouraging my children to say ‘I don’t know’ when they lack a degree of certainty on an issue, has got to be one of the best principles I can convey to them.
    So, ‘Would the world be better off without religion’? I don’t know.
    But it’s one experiment I’d love to see us try – where do I sign up?

  61. I forgot to mention a book I am currently starting — Christianity Is Not Great by John W. Loftus. It looks like a very good one to answer the questions at hand although we can’t say for sure until nearly 500 pages later.

  62. 1 is not as easy as we’d like to think, though some commenters have done a decent job. I’ll leave that argument to those with better data and better debating skills.

    For 2, however, there’s a very clear answer, which I’m glad to see that most here agree with: absolutely not. “Promoting” something we don’t believe is true is dishonest. If we are dishonest about this, why should anyone believe us when we say true things about evolution, or climate change, or any other scientific or philosophical matter?

  63. So the oft-mentioned, especially high prevalence of religious people in the (e.g. US) prison system may be either a false factoid or an instance of the ‘ecological fallacy’; we still don’t know. Where’s the data? I admit to not having applied skepticism to the claim before, but it’s also not something I’ve relied on in argument.

    “Some nonbelievers may react to this debate by staking out an alternative position: as scientific thinkers and skeptics, we should be seeking the truth, the consequences be damned.” (Lilienfeld & Ammirati). This seems to be the position usually taken by most scientists who are atheists, including Prof CC if I’m reading him right.

    However, consequences are undeniably important, and we can also say that “Faith is an obvious method for bad decision making.” (musicalbeef); this is the core of William Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief.

    I’m suspicious of the positive correlations reported (in so many studies reviewed by L&A) between religion and ‘moral’ behaviour; how many of them involved self-reporting of behaviour or hypotheticals, and could just be measuring a higher incidence of self-delusion and lying in the religious? Without knowing that, how much use was the review?

  64. I would argue at first that it has been both good and bad. This is not to play the middle game it is just an observable historical fact and applies to the personal and the collective.
    Without rituals and religious cohesion hunter gatherers and later societies would have collapsed, some did collapse despite their best efforts while others were absorbed.. by hook or by crook.
    Historical ignorance that is, without science they would have had no way of knowing what they were dealing with.
    Enter science, we now have a tool that can make sense of the world empirically and shunt religion into the realm of fantasy and expose it for what it is, a cognitive crèche.
    From here on religion is a drain on our progress, endeavours, resources and all things in between. Stagnation, divisiveness, violence we are patients in our own world wide ward.
    Since we have never know a world without religion and it’s monopoly on our moral well being, influence on politics and decision making (individually and collectively) it is impossible by my reckoning to measure or quantify life with religion for where would we be if it never existed, we have yet to find out and maybe from that, the true net cost to humanity.
    So no belief in belief, I don’t think anyone of a sound mind wants to live a lie, fiction is for entertainment, part of, but not a way to a healthy cognitive life.

    1. “Without rituals and religious cohesion hunter gatherers and later societies would have collapsed…”

      While that sounds plausible, what evidence is there for that, and in particular what evidence is there that cohesion had to be religious?

      1. There are other elements in play in group cohesion such as security (from attack, food supply)being the most obvious that would keep a small band, extended groups and societies together. Being kin and extended family would be another.
        Rituals are performed even today amongst hunter gatherers after kills as a way of bonding and the continuation of a sharing ethic.
        In more complex societies laws and customs, social norms would be a factor along side religion. In this case the threat of punitive action, isolation, ostracising a malevolent member such as you see in Catholicism, is used to keep cohesion within it’s ranks.. Pre science, religious values gave it’s proponents a disproportionate share of power and wealth and used this to keep the populace under their control, in a cohesive homogeneity.
        When these groups went to war they call on their god by rituals, prayers, symbols to protect them and unite under a common goal. Still practised today wouldn’t you agree. All this has the affect of cohesion and group determination.
        My opening claim about religion is of a broad nature since religion was what we were commenting on. As for evidence I am summarizing only what I have read by authors covering various empirical disciplines and extrapolating that to religion as a cohesive force with no consideration to it being good or bad, politics, monarchism, commerce and trade etc. or in some cases, literally a gun to the head.

  65. I am extremely dubious about the psychological benefits of religion because religion is not based on reason. And everyone is reasonable to some extent. People may lie to themselves for emotional reasons, but whether or not they’re always convinced seems subject to some doubt. Take the reality of death, for example. Is it not obvious, even with all the stories they tell themselves about God and souls and heaven, that most Christians are still terrified of it? Or at least anxious at the prospect?

  66. I found the article informative and well-written. Although I can’t say I pondered every word, I did get the impression that some questions I have about the issue weren’t dealt with. For example, instead of asking the topic question, which (as the authors pointed out) leaves “better off” undefined, one could ask a question like “How would the world be a worse place to live in without religion?” Or, given that the limited statistical data indicate a modest correlation between religious beliefs and commitments and more moral behavior, one might test for the extent to which this could be out of fear of divine judgment or some kind of existential guilt acquired early in life through punishment.

    Since almost all religions involve some form of supernatural belief, it’s reasonable to ask whether if there were a universal “religion lite” that encouraged moral behavior in the absence of superstition, one could accomplish the same thing. The bottom-line question for me is, why should it be necessary to believe, or pretend to believe, in gods and other supernatural phenomena, in order to behave morally? The only answer seems to be that those who can think critically enough are capable of being moral with out God; the rest of the people NEED religion to tell them what to do. Maybe Marx was onto something when he called religion the opium of the people.

    To which I might respond, how hard have we really tried to encourage the people to learn to become critical thinkers? Deep critical thinkers, I mean–not just people who can tell you what a fallacy is. Developing those habits of thought and intellectual virtues around which a meaningful life can be built. Theology is a dead-end road and a waste of time in the only life we have.

  67. The argument whether religion is good or bad is like an argument whether fire is harmful or not. It’s deadly when it’s out of control or is used to cause harm. But it is also necessary to cook meals and heat our house.

    Science can never tell what is good or not. If we devise a scientific experiment to find out whether religion is good or bad and come up with a measurable parameter to make the judgement, we need to first justify why certain values of that parameter are more preferable than others.

    Bottom line, the very belief that religion is bad is a religious belief. And the harder you try to fight other people’s religious beliefs, the more you become just like those religious people. It’s a paradox.

    1. Religion isn’t ethics, so your argument is based on falsely assuming the two are synonyms. It’s true that religions have often provided ethical frameworks, but since ethics exists independently of religion, there’s no necessity in having religion around.

      In any case, the fact-value distinction only works if you assume some form of dualism, since any attempt to keep the two in different spheres destroys any serious attempt to unite the two; in practice, the distinction assumes human consciousness and decision-making have nothing to do with the real world. This would go some way to explaining why ethics is still a field in philosophy and not yet a fully fledged science.

      1. I do believe that values are not based on any facts. I don’t see how they can be.

        As for mind-body dualism, I think, it’s a convenient way to describe reality because it’s hard to think of ideas as something material, although, there is relation between ideas and physical matter.

        1. Most people value a society where murder is prohibited. If fewer people are murdered, it reduces an individual’s chance of not being murdered. If society is more peaceful, people are less stressed and anxious. People who are not in constant fear or in a state of anxiety can be more productive and in turn make life more enjoyable for themselves and others. These are all observable facts driven by empirical evidence and can be backed up by scientific facts about evolutionary drives to survive.

          Sure, there are much less obvious cases such as valuing security over luxury but even these are rooted in our genetics and our environment and analysis on the tradeoffs and relative risks of valuing one thing over another. How many values do you have that are not based in fact somewhere down the line? Do you hold the values “just because”? Even something as trivial as valuing vanilla over chocolate is based in some fact about which one triggers more enjoyment when we eat it, a fact that could be verified in a brain scan.

          1. It’s a lot easier to declare that human life has value. Period. No reasons, no proofs, no evidence. Once you enter the reasoning chain, you are doomed to circular reasoning or infinite regress. Now you opened yourself to having to explain why fear, anxiety, and stress are bad. You may argue that they can make people sick and shorten their life and we return to the question whether life has value. Yes, I’d rather leave it as a “just so” belief.

            Do you make a choice between chocolate and vanilla ice cream based on scientific research and data on how they affect your taste buds? I don’t need the data to say which one I like better.

            I’d say that all my values down the line have nothing but emotion.

          2. No, I don’t do a scientific investigation to determine whether I like chocolate or vanilla better. But I do have evidence based on which one caused a more favorable reaction in my body, and for personal preferences, many times they do indeed contain emotion. A positive emotional experience is still an empirical fact that one can base a value statement on.

            Once you enter the reasoning chain, you are doomed to circular reasoning or infinite regress.Now you opened yourself to having to explain why fear, anxiety, and stress are bad.

            I don’t need to explain why these are bad anymore than we need to explain why ebola or HIV is bad when we talk about good health (paraphrasing Sam Harris here). If we agree to a definition of what ethics is, there is no reason why empirical investigation and objective facts cannot be used to determine whether a value is moving towards or away from the goal. We can say actions moving towards the goal are good and actions moving away from the goal are bad and then determine which actions fit those definitions. The fact that there can be semantic debates over word meanings does not then mean that the meanings are wholly subjective. Under this scheme, one could also argue that we can’t really say whether something is hot because after all, the point where you think it is hot is different than when I think it is hot.

            I’d say that all my values down the line have nothing but emotion.

            Someone may decide not to jump off a bridge due to emotion, that doesn’t mean there aren’t objective arguments about why one shouldn’t jump, not to mention empirical evidence as to why the though of jumping off the bridge elicits fear in the first place.

          3. I don’t need to explain why these are bad anymore than we need to explain why ebola or HIV is bad when we talk about good health (paraphrasing Sam Harris here).

            OK. By this logic, ebola and HIV are “bad” because they move us away from the goal of being healthy. But you have to declare good health to be a value. And that declaration has no factual basis. It is deemed to be “self-evident”. You simply have to stop somewhere with your justifications and declare one thing or another to be a “self-evident” value. Once you do that, sure, you can use science to determine whether you move away or towards the goal. But science cannot set the goal for you. There is no science that can tell a human to fly up into the stratosphere and jump off the baloon, for example. Logic, reason, and experience, in my opinion, are all against such feats.

            There are some other ethical conundrums that cannot be resolved by logic. Consider euthanasia or eugenics. Is it ethical to kill a few sick people or people with incurable genetic or contageous diseases to improve the overall health of society? If you value health of society over the life of an individual, the logic and science will tell you “yes”. “Survival of the fittest” principle would also favor such idea. But I doubt it’s the right answer. Regarding euthanasia: can you ever say that death constitutes a better state of “well-being” than life in pain? Can science resolve those?

          4. Consider euthanasia or eugenics. Is it ethical to kill a few sick people or people with incurable genetic or contageous diseases to improve the overall health of society? If you value health of society over the life of an individual, the logic and science will tell you “yes”.

            No, it won’t. No individual wants to live in a society where the society may choose to sacrifice the individual against the individual’s own wishes. Therefore, if you try to structure a society like that, it will have no willing members. Those types of societies have a difficult time getting off the ground, and rapidly self-destruct if they’re the result of an hostile takeover.

            “Survival of the fittest” principle would also favor such idea.

            “Social Darwinism” is an abomination that has nothing to do with healthy society nor Darwinian Evolution. Appealing here to that movement will get you less than no sympathy.


          5. Ben, I’m not arguing for these horrible theories here. But these theories exist and they have arguments and “science” behind them.

            No individual wants to live in a society where the society may choose to sacrifice the individual against the individual’s own wishes.

            This statement is not true. There are plenty of societies in the world that value the interests of society over the interests of an individual. China and Russia are just few examples. These countries strongly oppose the American idea of individual freedom, and with the exception of some minority dissidents, most people in those countries are quite willing to sacrifice a few “traitors” for the perceived “benefit” of the majority.

            I believe, if atheists want to change the society, appeal to reason will not do. Using reason against indoctrination is coming with a knife to a gun fight. You need to use the good-old propaganda tools to plant “good” ideas into people’s heads through the good-old indoctrination. Just accept this as reality and stop blaming religion for doing that. That’s exactly how and why religion has spread.

          6. This statement is not true. There are plenty of societies in the world that value the interests of society over the interests of an individual. China and Russia are just few examples.

            No, in those societies — as in America with the fantasy of everybody being a temporarily inconvenienced millionaire, the perception is that others will be sacrificed for your own benefit, but no way could you yourself ever wind up being one of the ones sacrificed against your own wishes. Those being sacrificed are defined as subhuman non-members of society.

            Using reason against indoctrination is coming with a knife to a gun fight.

            “The ends justify the means” and “little people” arguments fall extremely flat ’round here. In no small part because they’re so viscerally disproven. What was the Final Solution but an exercise in the means being justified by its ends? And the “little people” of Scandinavia and elsewhere do much better than us without our religious fantasies, thankyouverymuch.


          7. In the U.S. and elsewhere, men are expected to risk their life defending their country or go to jail. But, generally, you are correct. People who encourage others to “hang on the cross” are rarely willing to do it themselves and would much rather crucify than be crucified. That’s the problem with any moral teachings. People who blame others for lack of reason rarely see their own irrationality. (I mean “those other people”, of course 😉).

            The final solution was not a good end to justify the means. But what do you have against indoctrinating children with scientific method, critical thinking, and other holy cows of atheism? Moreover, how else would you make most of the society accept those values if not by preaching them on every corner? And if New Atheists are not proselytizing their ideas, then what are they doing?

            I guess, that’s my answer to the second question in Jerry’s post. If you believe something passionately and you are convinced that society would benefit from accepting that belief unconditionally, why not preach it? If one does not believe in his own beliefs, then how on earth will he ever convince anyone?

          8. But what do you have against indoctrinating children with scientific method, critical thinking, and other holy cows of atheism?

            It’s that word, “indoctrinating.”

            There’s plenty to not like about Socrates, but his basic approach to teaching is still the best anybody’s come up with. Point students in the right direction, give them enough help to make it over rough spots when they need it, and generally let them re-discover stuff for themselves. They usually will…and, often enough to be worthwhile, they’ll go in some random direction you’d never have thought of that turns out to be really quite interesting.

            There’s no need to indoctrinate a student to the fact that the acceleration of gravity near the Earth’s surface is about ten meters per second squared. Tell the student that you know the secret pattern about how things fall down, and challenge the student to work it out. Keep at it long enough and the student will eventually make it to 6.7e-11, or close enough as makes no difference.

            The only reason to indoctrinate somebody is if you don’t have confidence that you can convince that person that you’re right in the first place. In other words, indoctrination is dogmatic insistence upon a certain answer despite an open admission of incompetence — the last thing you want from your teachers. Not only should teachers never be afraid to admit ignorance, they should generally be feigning ignorance most of the time.


          9. I’d say, this is somewhat idealistic and narrow view of education. It mostly applies to teaching natural sciences. But for social studies, I do not see how children can discover the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights on their own, for example. There is no logic that can explain to me why it was OK and necessary to fight the government soldiers in 1776, but it’s not OK to fight them now. Children would never discover on their own that giving away their property to the government is their patriotic duty and that they should feel proud to be a good citizen and pay taxes instead of feeling robbed and exploited. Education is not only about teaching scientific facts. It’s also about forming the character. How would you teach discipline without exercising authority? In my opinion, indoctrination is a necessary part of education. I think, society benefits from a certain degree of uniformity in values. My examples are entirely secular, by the way. The point is, be careful not to throw away the baby with the bath water when you fight indoctrination. Methods used by religion which stem from religion seem to be crucial for society to function.

          10. I do not see how children can discover the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights on their own, for example.

            Huh? You tell the students that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and hand them a copy to read for their own damned selves. When they quite understandably start squawking about the 3/5 compromise, tell them to keep reading.

            There is no logic that can explain to me why it was OK and necessary to fight the government soldiers in 1776, but it’s not OK to fight them now. Children would never discover on their own that giving away their property to the government is their patriotic duty and that they should feel proud to be a good citizen and pay taxes instead of feeling robbed and exploited.

            Why should we teach students that revolution is never called for again after 1776, when the American Revolutionaries themselves explicitly left open that question in their post-Revolutionary writings? Why should we teach students to unquestioningly pay taxes, when most of what Congress does today is question which taxes are and aren’t just?

            Again, you’re calling for indoctrination, which is the exact opposite of what a true liberal education is all about.

            Fuck indoctrination. That shit’s for tyrants and cowards. A real education grows citizens — citizens who will cheerfully participate in healthy societies and fight injustice where they see it. It’s indoctrination such as you’re espousing that got us into most of the messes we’re in right now…you need indoctrination to justify perpetual war in Afghanistan; an healthy citizenry wouldn’t even have countenanced the invasion in the first place.


          11. Fuck indoctrination. That shit’s for tyrants and cowards. A real education grows citizens — citizens who will cheerfully participate in healthy societies and fight injustice where they see it.

            I agree, but you may need to hammer this idea into people’s head somehow. I still think that “good” values must be planted into children’s heads before they have the ability to question them. This is why they have classes about bullying and harrassment in 3rd grade of my son’s school. Along with good things, children also discover bullying and harrassment on their own.

            I know how much harm can be caused by indoctrination. I grew up in Ukraine when it was a part of the Soviet Union. Soviet ideology still causes a lot of harm over there. Using absolutely shameless propaganda, Russia was able to make a lot of people in Ukraine believe the nonsense about fascists who are going to kill Russians in the East and in Crimea and make people in those regioins to take up arms to fight against their own country. Russia annexed Crimea and caused a bloody civil war in eastern Ukraine. Anti-Ukrainian propaganda in Russian media is just disgusting. It’s full of hatred and lies. Russian media stirs up nationalistic sentiments in Russian society. Putin is extremely popular because he calls to “restore the historic justice” and “respect” for Russia. The annexation of Crimea which is a most disgusting and hypocritical act of aggression was widely hailed in Russia.

            But what can Ukraine do to counter this informational rape? The only thing they can do, in my mind, is to teach little children Ukrainian language, respect for Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian history, Ukrainian national symbols so that when these children grow up, they don’t throw down and burn Ukrainian flags and listen to foreign propaganda. In other words, I don’t see an alternative to indoctrinating children to respect and love their own country. It’s a matter of national security. It can be overdone and can be used for wrong causes, I know, but a healthy dose of indoctrination seems necessary.

          12. The only thing they can do, in my mind, is to teach little children Ukrainian language, respect for Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian history, Ukrainian national symbols so that when these children grow up, they don’t throw down and burn Ukrainian flags and listen to foreign propaganda. In other words, I don’t see an alternative to indoctrinating children to respect and love their own country.

            Alas, that’s exactly what the Russians themselves did that led to Russian children growing up and doing nasty things to Ukrainian children. And what Germans did that led to the Holocaust, and so on. As the song so elegantly puts it, you’ve got to be carefully taught.

            The answer isn’t “good” indoctrination to counteract “bad” indoctrination.

            The answer is education, not indoctrination.

            If there’s anything worth saving in Ukrainian culture — and there most certainly is — then simply enjoying it yourself is more than enough to show children how valuable it is. And you don’t want to teach them that Ukrainian culture is superior to Russian culture, because that’s just another way to teach them to hate Russians…and, besides, there’s an awful lot of Russian culture well worth luxuriating in, as well.

            If Russian militarism is unjust — as it unquestionably is — the fact that it’s unjust will be patently obvious with a simple examination of the case. Again, no need to indoctrinate students to believe it; if a case speaks for itself, let it.

            Because, otherwise, you’re training them to accept authority, at which point they’ll be just as happy with some other authority than yours. Again, a recipe for disaster.


          13. I completely agree here. But I’d like to point out some confusion in terms “You’ve got to be carefully taught” (love that song). As in educated. I think, there is a very fine line between education and indoctrination. Remember Pink Floyd? “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control, no dark sarcasm in the classroom, teachers, leave us kids alone! All we know is just another brick in the wall.”

            Any knowledge builds a stereotype of some sort. Even if you practice moderation, it’s easy to practice it too much.

            Anyway, I enjoyed the conversation very much. Thanks.

          14. Let’s substitute “Ukrainian culture” with “atheism” and “Russian culture” with “religion” and see if the same logic applies:

            “If there’s anything worth saving in atheism — and there most certainly is — then simply enjoying it yourself is more than enough to show children how valuable it is. And you don’t want to teach them that atheism is superior to religion, because that’s just another way to teach them to hate believers…and, besides, there’s an awful lot in religion well worth luxuriating in, as well.”

            Would you still subscribe to these words?

            I have no problem swapping “religion” with “atheism” in the above statement, by the way. It still holds true. I guess, people need to stop seeing a threat to themselves in other people who don’t look like them or do not hold the same values. A sense of self-superiority is often linked with a sense of self-inferiority. Get rid of one and the other one will go away as well.

          15. Let’s substitute “Ukrainian culture” with “atheism” and “Russian culture” with “religion” and see if the same logic applies: […] Would you still subscribe to these words?

            It depends entirely on what definition of, “religion,” you’re using. I don’t, but many people do include all the cultural aspects in the definition — the music, the art, the food, the bingo nights, and the rest. All that is, of course, quite valuable.

            But I and most of us here define religion as the collection of faithful dogmas and associated behaviors: the original sin and the eternal guilt, the death on the cross and the plea for salvation, the Petrine rock and the fealty to the Pope. And there’s absolutely nothing worth salvaging with religion defined thusly.

            Take the Credo, for example, and swap in a few different names but keep everything else intact…and you’re instantly recognized as barking mad if you even pretend to believe in it. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sing Mozart, but it does mean you shouldn’t mistrake it for reality any more than you’d mistrake Monteverdi for reality.


          16. You’re still thinking of atheism as yet another “faith perspective” or some variation on that theme.

            When you realize why you reject all the dead religions as silly, you’ll understand why atheists reject the modern ones as equally silly. But still incredibly destructive, alas.

            And, as such, atheism is to religion as science is to superstition, as modern sanitation is to infectious disease, as mental health is to schizophrenia. Atheism isn’t another form of religion; it’s the lack of religion, and the resulting lack of all the nasty shit that inevitably festers in that type of wound.

            One more way to look at it: in any other context, if somebody told you you had to have “faith” in something, you’d instantly know you were being scammed. “No need to take this cherry of an used car to your own mechanic to check it out; trust me, it’s the deal of a lifetime.” “Oh, don’t worry about the prospectus. This fund is primed to soar, baby!” “Of course the check is in the mail. Don’t you trust me?” “Have a little faith!” But religion is nothing without faith, and in religion such mindless gullibility is actually promoted as a virtue — and the ultimate virtue, no less! Madness — pure madness.



          17. But you have to declare good health to be a value. And that declaration has no factual basis. It is deemed to be “self-evident”. You simply have to stop somewhere with your justifications and declare one thing or another to be a “self-evident” value.

            You’ve made a shift, although subtle, from talking about if we can figure out what is objectively good and bad in an ethical system to whether the ethical system itself is objectively evident. This is no different than saying a dolphin is a fish because dolphins have fins and swim in the ocean and to me, that’s a fish. You have no objective proof about the criteria for categorizing fish, thus we can’t objectively say that a dolphin is not a fish.

            The thing is, we can objectively say a dolphin is not a fish and we can objectively say that a dolphin is a mammal because it meets the criteria to be classified as such. Likewise, in an ethical system, we can disagree on the goal, but as far as actions that objectively move us towards that goal, that absolutely is not pure emotion. I also don’t have to declare health to be a value when we’re talking about what being healthy means anymore than I need to declare landing on the moon to be a value to assess whether a plan for getting there is good or bad. We could just as easily create an ethical system that has a goal to maximize human suffering (or any other purpose) and then in principle objectively determine which actions move us closer to that goal.

          18. The thing is, we can objectively say a dolphin is not a fish and we can objectively say that a dolphin is a mammal because it meets the criteria to be classified as such.

            Actually…I think Neil would have a pedantic urge to correct you. Dolphins are fish, and they are also mammals. And you’re a fish, too.

            What dolphins are not are neither Osteichthyes nor Chondrichthyes, which are the classes commonly referred to as, “ghoti.” But if it’s alive today and it’s got a backbone, it’s a fish, at least on the inside.


          19. I agree. A navigation system can objectively determine how to get to the destination, but it cannot set a destination for you. Goal setting still appears to me fundamentally irrational. One can set a goal to live long and healthy life or have as much fun as possible or die fighting for some idea. These are all legitimate goals. Apparently, if you are going to die for an idea, health is not a priority. But no science can tell which goal is worthier than others. I don’t see any disagreement here.

          20. Don’t forget that Evolution itself places powerful constraints on goals. A genetic tendency to destruction is going to get weeded out of the gene pool damned fast in evolutionary terms, whereas a genetic tendency towards maximizing long-term options will statistically predominate with enough generations.

            You might go out in a blaze of glory, sure, but you’ll only reduce the evolutionary fitness of your genes in the process. Small consolation for those you take out with you, but Evolution takes the long view. By definition….


          21. Likewise, if you fight and oppose proselytism and propaganda, and promote doubting your own beliefs (not to mention birth control), you doom your worldview to extinction, don’t you?

          22. The Enlightenment is evidence that, no, it’s not a suicide pact.

            And, yes. The tides of history wax and wane. But see Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature for an exhaustive cataloging of the evidence that the overall trend is dramatically towards peace and prosperity and away from tyranny and poverty, frequent setbacks notwithstanding.


        2. “I do believe that values are not based on any facts. I don’t see how they can be.”

          The process of valuation is a description of highly complex processes occurring in a human mind, combined with particular features of the object, system, or process being valued. Therefore the results – the values – come from that process in the brain(s). Since both humans and any potential candidate of interest are based on real things one can hold facts about, values cannot come from anywhere else other than facts. You can’t deny this without writing values out of any real world, which means contradicting yourself over whether values even exist.

          It’s important to stress this, because the alternative arguments are unsound, and therefore are the quickest ways of committing atrocities: that values don’t exist, and that values don’t have to answer to the demands of logic and reason. The only way to correct someone claiming to use “logic and reason” to justify an atrocity is to expose the falsehoods, invalid reasoning, and unsound arguments they are protecting from scrutiny, not to pretend ethics, etc. are “other ways of knowing”.

          As for mind-body dualism, I think, it’s a convenient way to describe reality because it’s hard to think of ideas as something material, although, there is relation between ideas and physical matter.

          Convenience counts for little, if not nothing. Vitalism was an intuitive and therefore convenient way of thinking about living things, but it’s incorrect and completely useless at any more serious level of analysis than what’ll keep Little Jim happy.

          The same goes for dualism, which, in spite of its intuitive appeal, has done more to retard the study of consciousness than any other idea from philosophy. Even ignoring the self-contradictory claims of dualism (because, for it to work at all, it must invoke some common ground between mind and body, and so invoke monism anyway), there’s considerably more evidence that strong monism is correct from neuroscience and other mind sciences. To deny this and hold an outdated model instead is either lack of familiarity with this research or desperate denialism.

          1. Most certainly, values don’t have to answer logic and reason. Take Ernie from Sesame Street. What is the logic or facts that explain Ernie’s fondness for the rubber ducky? If you ask Ernie, why he likes the rubber ducky, he will, probably, say “because he’s cute and yellow and chubby”. Those are facts allright. But those “facts” don’t cause everyone to be obsessed with rubber duckies.

            You may think, I’m being silly or trolling. This weekend I met a guy who collects nativity scenes. Why? He simply likes them! That’s all. I can study his brain and find some patterns of pleasure connected with nativity scenes. But that would be just another way to say that he simply likes them. Perhaps, he can remember some childhood experience with nativity scenes, but not neccessarily. There can be people passionate about nativity scenes who did not have that experience. The guy’s passion for nativity scenes is based in logic or fact as much as Ernie’s silly passion for rubber duckies.

            Values exist because people are passionate about things. Most people can rationalize their passion, but they would equally rationalize the absense of passion, just like atheists rationalize their absense of faith. Atheists are passionate about the absense of faith because they often have a strong emotion against religion. This emotion is the only reason that justifies atheism.

            It does not mean that the values don’t exist. People would still have passions even if they are unable to explain them.

            I noticed a strange thing. Believers are afraid to admit that morals and values are not based on god and say that without god there would be no morals and no values. Likewise, atheists are afraid to admit that morals and values are not based on fact or reason and say that in that case, there would be no morals and no values. Why? Why would things disappear if we find no reason for them to exist or are unable to find any cause for them? After all, atheists say that the universe does not need a reason to exist. Why then everything else needs a cause, evidence, or proof – beliefs, values, morals – why do they have to be based on something and obey some rules of logic and reason? Why? Would morals seize to exist or the universe collapse if we find no basis for them? It’s a strange way to view “objective reality”.

            Why are believers afraid to admit that god is an idea and creation is a myth as if they would fall dead the moment they do that? Likewise, why are atheists afraid to admit that they have lots of irrational beliefs not based on any facts or logic as if their world would crumble?

          2. Likewise, why are atheists afraid to admit that they have lots of irrational beliefs not based on any facts or logic as if their world would crumble?

            Because we’re not.

            But there are certain values that various types of evolutionary forces going to ensure are overwhelmingly common, and it is those values upon which societies are built.

            Pick any random value you might have, including rubber duckies. In virtually every instance, realizing that value is going to be easier with the help of society, even if only minimally. If nothing else, you’re going to have to survive long enough to put your plans into motion, and survival is easier if you can, for example, buy your food from the local market rather than have to grow it yourself while you’re competing for resources from everybody else.

            So, being a member of good standing in an healthy society basically inevitably winds up being a key value for everybody. And that means things like not being disruptive to other people as well as contributing, even minimally, to the general welfare. That, in turn, brings in lots of other associated values.

            It’s a two-way street, of course. Societies that place excessive burdens upon their members don’t tend to last because those members generally stop willingly participating, and often form new societies that overthrow the oppressive ones. And disease and parasitism can infect societies just as it does individuals. The dynamics get very complex very quickly.

            Again, this is all a question of averages and trends. Exceptions are trivial to identify at every step, but exceptions are irrelevant. It’s the aggregate that matters at this scale, and there’s no mistraking the big pictures.



          3. Most certainly, values don’t have to answer logic and reason.

            In one sense, true. The brain does what it does, and the phenomenon occurs regardless of whether a logic-chopping armchair philosopher denies. However, this is not what I was getting at.

            In another sense, false. Values can contradict each other, be inconsistent, be conditional on other values – in short, display all the vices of rational statements. The reason is simple: a statement of value is a claim – albeit an implicit one – about the impact of a policy of behaviour, object, process, or the like on the sentient experiences of morally relevant agents. Usually humans.

            Moral statements are treated in the brain the same way factual statements are, and that’s a dead give away. Any moral system that isn’t “anything goes” has to justify itself given certain premises, even if only on the benchmark that “it causes no harm”, as Elmo would doubtless claim for his Rubber Ducky. For instance, if Elmo was regularly buying rubber duckies made from a factory full of deprived slaves, then the revealed facts about the slaves’ conditions would change the conclusion one would make about the ethics of his actions. So while Elmo’s sheer excitement over seeing a rubber ducky would happen either way (the phenomenon), it cannot be rationally condoned given the phenomena that accompany it (the system made to approach those phenomena).

            This emotion is the only reason that justifies atheism.

            Er, no. The reason that justifies atheism is the conspicuous lack of evidence, sound argumentation, and rational consistency with existing knowledge, that one would expect if the proponents of theism were correct. Even the most mindless atheist outraged at the atrocities committed by a theist should at least have the sense not to dip into the ad hominem fallacy on this front.

            Likewise, atheists are afraid to admit that morals and values are not based on fact or reason and say that in that case, there would be no morals and no values.

            This is a misunderstanding of, if not an outright attempt at sowing confusion over, my point. My argument is not that values don’t exist if we don’t have reasons or facts to justify their existence: the phenomena alone would still need explaining. But then, the phenomenon of bungling a maths question would also be in the same easily-joined category of “things that exist”. That does not make any particular bungling less wrong.

            My point is that “right-and-wrong” for values exists just as much as “right-and-wrong” for facts exists, not by coincidence but because values ultimately rely on the same or similar principles: i.e. they are themselves facts, albeit implicitly stated ones. They are based on real phenomena, can be inconsistent, can be self-contradictory, can correspond better or worse to real life, etc. As I said before, factual and value-based statements are even treated the same way in the brain. Given this, the only sensible things the moral “right and wrong” axis can possibly refer to are the pleasant, painful, and neutral phenomena inside the heads of conscious beings, since these phenomena at least exist. Religions too often promote faulty ethics because they also promote faulty facts. I grant this is a simplified version of a more complex argument, but those are the essentials.

            I do not worry about values and morals popping out of existence, nor about irrational views destroying my brain from the inside – though I certainly don’t object to their correction. My concern is with a lot of half-baked pseudo-ethics preventing any genuine attempts to advance the field, and so causing real-world harm in the process. One such idea is praising the irrationality of human beings as though it were indistinguishable from rationality, which is dishonest in all cases and potentially dangerous in a few.

          4. Are you suggesting my arguments are sophistry, or agrudzinsky’s, or both? Your sentence is ambiguous.

          5. Generally, I agree with you. I guess, the disagreement, as always, is in the meaning of the words we put in “fact”. In your opinion, “seeing slave child labor makes me feel bad” or “I love the color and texture of rubber duckies” are facts. If we accept that these are statements of fact, we are in agreement. But I don’t think, these statements can be considered factual in the same sense as statements about physical reality (“there is a chair behind me”).

          6. In your opinion, “seeing slave child labor makes me feel bad”…

            My objection to slavery is not based on whether or not it makes me feel bad.

            But I don’t think, these statements can be considered factual in the same sense as statements about physical reality (“there is a chair behind me”).

            Why not? Feelings don’t exist on an ontologically different realm from everything else.

          7. My objection to slavery is not based on whether or not it makes me feel bad.

            After my own obvious gut-wrenching emotional objection to child slavery, my intellectual objections are purely selfish. Those slaves are, of necessity, falling far short of their true potential. They could well be doing an awful lot more to build a productive and prosperous society, yet I will never benefit from all they by rights should be doing.


          8. @ Ben Goren

            That argument is solipsistic; it presumes that the only genuine figure of interest is yourself, and everyone else belongs to an ontologically different category. In this case, that “purely selfish intellectual objection” takes people other than yourself as tools in relation to your own interests. If enslaving half the population contributed to a productive and prosperous society, then your argument would work counter to what most people – including, I imagine, yourself – would agree would be ethical. In conclusion, the basic intellectual framework of your ethical position can’t be what you propose it is. At the very least, you’re denying, to put it informally, that other people are people, too.

          9. You miss my point entirely.

            I started out by noting that this is first and foremost for me an emotional subject. And how could it not be?

            But, even for the cold-hearted calculating sociopaths, the decision comes down so hard against slavery it’s amazing it ever even occurred to anybody in the first place.

            If enslaving half the population contributed to a productive and prosperous society

            If wishes were horses we’d all plant beans. The fact is, slavery is bad for everybody. And the only way to reach a different conclusion is to do something truly idiotic, like consider the Bible a good moral example.


          10. “But, even for the cold-hearted calculating sociopaths, the decision comes down so hard against slavery it’s amazing it ever even occurred to anybody in the first place.”

            Why does it? Cold-hearted, calculating sociopaths, by definition, have no interest in the welfare of anyone but themselves. If they get fatter by trampling over increasing numbers of people, then they’ll do it. It’s not that hard to see why slavery persisted for so long: because the ones taking the cream from its production were in a good position, getting rewarded for relatively less work and responsibility. The immorality of slavery has nothing to do with slave-owners shooting themselves in the foot and everything to do with them (sometimes literally) shooting their slaves in the foot.

            Supposing, for the sake of argument, that a sociopath did the calculation and discovered that emancipation was better than enslavement. The problem is not merely that your argument could turn on itself if he discovered otherwise in another context. The problem is that it’s based on the premise that good and bad are based on how it would benefit or cost a particular individual, in this case the sociopath, who still regards other human beings as tools. You’d need a stronger baseline against which to measure good and bad, and surely the first step is to replace this egocentric calculation with one that treats everybody as equals, not merely as tools for one person.

          11. Then, what is your objection to slavery is based on if not on an emotional response to human suffering (a.k.a. compassion)?

            As I said, whether or not “I am happy” can be considered a statement of fact, is a matter of convention. I, personally, prefer to draw a distinction between my feelings and emotions and verifiable physical facts.

            My “emotional reality” – my attitude towards things, people, and circumstances, can be changed through prayer and meditation. Physical reality can not. Do you disagree?

            Where I agree with you is that statements like “I am happy” are much more credible than statements like “there is a chair behind me”. I would not trust the second statement and would rather prefer statements like “I think, there is a chair behind me” or “I have seen a chair behind me a minute ago”. That’s more accurate and honest.

          12. This type of precision in English is achieved by adopting E’ where any for of the verb “to be” can not be used. Read Robert Anton Wilson’s stuff on this including one book he wrote in this style.

          13. My “emotional reality” – my attitude towards things, people, and circumstances, can be changed through prayer and meditation. Physical reality can not. Do you disagree?

            There must be some sort of miscommunication.

            Can you not, say, pick up a piece of paper and fold it? Would that not be a change in physical reality?

            Maybe you mean that your mind can directly change its own configuration but it can’t directly change anything outside of itself. But the mind is just what the brain does; it’s just the state of a very complex biochemical computer. Just as you could use the right type of equipment to flip the bits of a computer’s memory and thus alter its state directly, you could use the right type of equipment to alter your brain’s configuration and thus your mind’s mental state. It’s convenient and useful to conceptualize the difference between hardware and software, but, when it comes right down to it, there’s only hardware, with some types of hardware easier to reconfigure than others.


          14. Software is a great analogy. You are right that software is meaningless and useless without the physical hardware to run it. But this does not mean that software is the same as hardware. Same software can run on many different hardware architectures. Also, software engineers often have very limited understanding of the electrical design, chemistry, and physics of processors, memories, hard drives, etc. In a similar way, a good psychologist does not have to know neurology. It would benefit him greatly, just as knowing hardware would enable a software designer to write a better code, but it is not absolutely necessary.

            Thanks for the Munchhausen trilemma reference. I think, it has no “correct” answer, and we simply argue here for different options. I argue for axiomatic approach, and you seem to argue for psychologism – that epistemology is based on psychology based on neurology based on biology based on chemistry and physics, etc. (i.e. infinite regress). Just another option of the trilemma – no more or less valid than others.

            I am, personally, comfortable to have unanswerable questions. When I notice my reasoning go in circles, I stop. I think, axiomatic approach is the only way out of this nonsese.

          15. You are right that software is meaningless and useless without the physical hardware to run it.

            No, that’s not my point at all.

            What I mean is that software does not exist, period, full stop.

            Again, it’s very, very useful to pretend that it does. But, when it comes right down to it, there isn’t any software; there are just different arrangements of pits in a layer of metal, or electrical charges in a wire, or some other variation on that theme. You could use paper cards with holes punched in them. There’s no actual software; just pieces of hardware with various configurations.

            Some of that hardware is very easy to reconfigure, and, as such, we use the language of software to describe it. But the software is just an abstraction, and only the hardware is really real.


          16. “Then, what is your objection to slavery is based on if not on an emotional response to human suffering (a.k.a. compassion)?”

            My objection is based on knowing what human suffering is. A minimal requirement is knowing that it is bad, i.e. it counts as a negative experience, akin to what I would feel (though not necessarily in the same degree) if I were to stick my hand in a fire, to pick a vivid example. If compassion is the means by which this understanding penetrates my brain – or at least, directs my actions as if it did – then so be it.

            Your confusion is in mistaking the means by which ethical outcomes arise (feeling compassion and moving to help someone) with the ethical measure needed to judge such actions. The obvious problem is that you can act ethically even without a shred of compassion in you, and – more to the point – can still act unethically even with compassion. One conspicuous problem is that compassion is parochial, and another is that it can work in reverse in situations of conflicting interest – as it can trigger revengeful impulses when a loved one is injured. Because compassion doesn’t equal ethical intelligence.

            I, personally, prefer to draw a distinction between my feelings and emotions and verifiable physical facts.

            Granted, I don’t have to get out a magnifying glass or turn around to check my current emotional state. But this only means the methods differ. Their ontological status is otherwise the same: they can be true or false, and they operate in the same universe, under the same laws. THIS is where you are going wrong: because you are assuming dualism – in the teeth of evidence, I might add, that I have already pointed out to you – you are giving yourself a made-up license to rewrite the rules to suit your purpose. Such as here:

            My “emotional reality” – my attitude towards things, people, and circumstances, can be changed through prayer and meditation. Physical reality can not. Do you disagree?

            You assume physical and emotional reality occupy two different worlds. But emotions are phenomena within physical reality, as you can manipulate physical reality to manipulate emotions. The problem you envisage doesn’t exist.

            Where I agree with you is that statements like “I am happy” are much more credible than statements like “there is a chair behind me”.

            I never said that. You misunderstand me. My point is that they do NOT occupy two different worlds – i.e. that monism is true.

            I would not trust the second statement and would rather prefer statements like “I think, there is a chair behind me” or “I have seen a chair behind me a minute ago”. That’s more accurate and honest.

            Strictly speaking, true. One can be surer about one’s current mental state than about what’s going on behind one’s back. Your error is in thinking that you can know your own mind in a way that proves it occupies another realm. It doesn’t. There’s a wealth of psychological literature that shows that people can be mistaken about their own inner lives as well, sometimes in extremely bizarre and improbable ways. I strongly recommend you give it a gander. It has proved an education for me, and I hope it would do so for you, too.

          17. It’s quite clear to me that if I believe that all my beliefs need justification, I have to justify this belief. So, such belief leads to a contradiction. On the other hand, belief that some beliefs do not need to be justified is self-consistent. Fans of strict logic should favor consistent beliefs over self-contradictory ones, shouldn’t they?

          18. Consistent beliefs count for nothing if the premises are null and void.

            Your reasoning is specious because you presume that beliefs float on nothing but air and each other, with no input from reality. The problem is that unjustified beliefs are indistinguishable from specially pleaded nonsense and lies – which is convenient for a dishonest (if imaginative) apologist wanting to ignore reality. On the other hand, the anchor of reality faces no such problems. If I believe there’s a chair behind me, I don’t need to provide a detailed and logical laundry list of sophistry and infinite arguments to justify my belief. I turn around and check. Anyone trying to deduce the universe from the armchair – as a history of theological thought demonstrates – is trying to build castles on air.

            Abstract thought, sooner or later, has to meet reality. There’s nothing arbitrary, circular, or viciously regressive about it.

          19. Some beliefs do need justification – mostly, beliefs about physical facts. Some other beliefs are held for ethical reasons and even research to verify them would be unethical. For instance, the belief that no race is intellectually superior or inferior to other races is held for such ethical reasons. It’s quite possible that research may find this belief factually false. And this is the reason NOT to do such research.

            You may argue that the reason for such belief is that the opposite belief (that one race is superior to others) leads to exploitation and violation of human rights and those things increase human suffering. But it comes down to how people feel being exploited or treated injustly. So, fundamentally, an emotion is the only basis for those beliefs. You may say that the statement “injustice makes people feel bad” is a fact. But this fact is similar to such “factual statements” as “I’m sad” or “I’m happy”. A person with good self-control can change those “facts” at will.

            You slightly misinterpret what I said. Belief that beliefs are irrational does not remove the responsibility for one’s beliefs. To the contrary, knowing that my beliefs are based on irrational emotions or limited and erroneous perceptions of reality, I tend to double-check my beliefs. But, in my opinion, fundamental beliefs cannot be verified for a simple reason that then they would be based on something else and would not be fundamental. Belief or disbelief in God is a fundamental belief (yes, I would treat a disbelief in statement A as belief that “not A is more likely than A”).

          20. Some other beliefs are held for ethical reasons and even research to verify them would be unethical.

            Incorrect. Research is, in fact, done to compare, say, IQs across different demographic groups. The reason we don’t jump to discrimination is not to uphold a morally comforting model of reality, but because the evidence doesn’t support double standards.

            But it comes down to how people feel being exploited or treated injustly. So, fundamentally, an emotion is the only basis for those beliefs.

            You’re mixing two different things. For a start, you’re still confusing the phenomena that occur with a system for managing said phenomena. If ethics is about human welfare, then this is no more surprising than the discovery that biology is about living things.

            “Emotion” is not the basis for those beliefs, and the only reason you are getting away with the confusion is because emotions are both the subject of study and in the minds of those who study. It’s the same dizziness that accompanies any study into the thing doing the studying.

            The emotions are the things you hold beliefs about. Reality is the basis for those beliefs, a reality in which emotions exist. In confusing the two, you are – whether deliberately or not – enabling the problem I mentioned earlier: enabling faulty reasoning to distort the account and hold back the development of ethics.

            But, in my opinion, fundamental beliefs cannot be verified for a simple reason that then they would be based on something else and would not be fundamental.

            This is a common philosophical trap, and it even has a name: the Munchhausen Trilemma. Beliefs justified by other beliefs can be circular (the belief justifies itself circularly), infinite (the beliefs are supported by other beliefs, which are supported by other beliefs, etc.), or arbitrarily stopped at a certain cut-off point. And while a useful tool for catching errors, it also only works if you ignore reality itself and demand the very things it then will put into a trilemma – that beliefs either are justified or stop dead on nothing. I repeat: you can only continue on your “fundamental belief” line by ignoring reality.

            As for theism, it is not some arbitrary “fundamental” belief. It is a hypothesis lacking consistency, never mind actual evidence and arguments that aren’t circular, false, or invalid.

          21. I think, we are, more or less, on the same page. I’m not introducing the inconsistency. The self-refuting nature of studying “self” – defining language, observing the observer, thinking about thoughts, forming beliefs about how beliefs are formed, choosing between free will and determinism – is fundamental to such studies and, in my opinion, cannot be resolved by any logic. One can only take note of the circularity and stop trying to resolve it. So, I’m in favor of the third option of the trilemma as circular reasoning or infinite regress don’t make much sense (a personal emotional preference). There is, however, a certain freedom regarding what to accept as a fundamental belief. So, logically, I’m OK with both theism and atheism, but emotionally prefer theism. Don’t ask me to justify it, though. I know I cannot and I don’t feel any burden of proof unless I want to convince anyone, and I don’t. I think, the world would be a lot more pleasant place to live if people had similar views to mine and did not try to spread their beliefs… But I am not sure if this belief is worth spreading – the same circularity, no matter where you look.

          22. So, I’m in favor of the third option of the trilemma as circular reasoning or infinite regress don’t make much sense (a personal emotional preference).

            It’s true that the ancients had terrible times with epistemology and infinity, and that even modern religious apologetics (see especially examples from William Lane Craig) is stuck in those same ruts.

            But the non-religious world moved waaaaaaaaaaaay past those stumbling blocks centuries ago. We can trivially manipulate more types of infinity than can be counted (and that’s no exaggeration), thanks in large part to Georg Cantor. And the problem of justifying beliefs? Meh. Science. It works. Bitches.

            If you really like wallowing in ignorance, great. Go for it. Knock yourself out.

            Just don’t expect anybody to have any sympathy or admiration for self-induced idiocy, any more than you’d expect anybody to think highly of somebody who takes pride in soiling himself.


          23. “I think, we are, more or less, on the same page.”

            Not in the slightest. You are denying what I’ve been saying – that dualism is incorrect – and as a result, are digging your own hole and pretending I’m in there with you.

            For starters, you misunderstand the trilemma. It is not a question of choosing which of the three you prefer or think is logically sound. All three options are fundamental problems, and the only real solution is to not ignore reality. Your persistence in ignoring reality and acting like justification is none of your business is completely opposite to what I’ve been saying, which is that this is a bug, not a feature.

            Secondly, your portrayal of theism and atheism as “fundamental beliefs” is no more than a refusal to be honest. Theism lacks both evidence and cogent argument for its case, and is buoyed up by a combination of confusion with genuine philosophical areas and historical inertia. I will not only ask you to justify it (though not necessarily here, as that would be off-topic), but you have no honest means of avoiding doing so. Your apologetic for theism, such as it is, says more about your social cowardice than about the intellectual aspects of the subject. You are able to “get away with it” only because of the widespread double standard.

            Thirdly, your polemic near the end completely has it backwards. You cannot claim the world “would be a lot more pleasant place to live” if you’re not even willing to provide a scale or means of comparison, instead shirking the issue by acting as if feelings were some infallible authority you were sagely putting your trust in. But even if you had done otherwise, you can’t advance your view without prejudicially patronizing a large sum of humanity in terms of intellect. This is before we get to the more direct facts on the ground, which – as anyone who has followed this site for a while would have discovered – do not favour the accommodationist stance of “live and let live”.

          24. Theism is an H1 hypothesis requiring a test only if your default status quo H0 hypothesis is atheism. For many people, H0 is theism. The choice of the H0 hypothesis is the reason behind the bickering regarding burden of proof.

          25. There is no “choice” in the matter. People have claimed H0 is theism only because of cultural factors and a historical inertia that has drilled it into their heads that that is how it is. Postulating the existence of a superhuman intelligence, much less any of the other attributes, is a cosmological hypothesis. The fact that many have reasons other than evidence (which is lacking) and cogent argument (which are bogus more often than not) for how they came to believe in it so strongly makes no difference, and is, if anything, a point against the position.

    2. Not only is fire a bad analogy (as reasonshark points out), it is offensive to every non-believer. We atheists do pretty well “cooking our food” without it.

      1. It’s your choice to be offended or not. Sure, one can live without fire or without many other amenities of human civilization. One can even be proud of it and claim that these amenities are harmful. It’s a personal choice.

          1. How is this view different from belief of Amish people that cars, electricity, TV, etc. are evil? If religion is a mere fluke, can you name a single civilization in human history that developed without a religion?

            Whether you like it or not, but, for some reason, all human civilizations develop a religion. I think, if we want to be in touch with reality, we have to accept this obvious fact and, instead of rejecting reality, try to understand it and use to our benefit.

          2. All human civilizations have contained violence, ignorance, intolerance, and superstitions. Taking the long view (“but who’s to say some good can’t come out of this?”) or abandoning all hope (“you can’t fix it so don’t even try for improvement”) isn’t terribly practical — or wise.

            Whether you like it or not, most religious believers think it matters whether or not their beliefs are actually true. This puts us all on the same level of respect. Your position looks like it comes perilously close to arguing that we should treat and use people like intractable tools.

          3. How is this view different from belief of Amish people that cars, electricity, TV, etc. are evil? If religion is a mere fluke, can you name a single civilization in human history that developed without a religion?

            Whether you like it or not, but, for some reason, all human civilizations develop a religion. I think, if we want to be in touch with reality, we have to accept this obvious fact and, instead of rejecting reality, try to understand it and use to our benefit and without causing harm.

            I think, the analogy with fire or nuclear power is quite appropriate.

          4. How is this view different from belief of Amish people that cars, electricity, TV, etc. are evil?

            Those are all tools. If religion is a tool, its only utility is for an elite class to command and exploit the masses. And, even if we ever did need such a tool to manage societies, which we didn’t, we now know of more effective means to coordinate our collective efforts.

            Whether you like it or not, but, for some reason, all human civilizations develop a religion.

            So? Like it or not, all humans get sick many times in their lives, too, for various reasons. Doesn’t make disease any more desirable.


          5. Those are all tools. If religion is a tool, its only utility is for an elite class to command and exploit the masses.

            The same argument can be made about money or mass media.

          6. No, it cannot.

            Money is a very effective tool for cooperative division of labor. Mass media is a very effective tool for the dissemination of information and entertainment.

            Religion has no such redeeming qualities.


          7. I agree with you. But both money and mass media have been and are used to control and exploit masses. Apparently, that’s not the only utility for either money or religion.

          8. Like it or not, all humans get sick many times in their lives, too, for various reasons. Doesn’t make disease any more desirable.

            Since bacteria cause disease, one can be tempted to kill all of them. But that would be deadly as humans need some bacteria for healthy digestion and would not survive without them.

            Remember how they killed sparrows in China during the cultural revolution because sparrows were believed to harm crops? That lead to a disaster because, along with eating a few grains here and there, the sparrows also controlled the spread of harmful bugs. When sparrows were exterminated, the bugs harmed the crops a lot more than sparrows ever did.

            My point is that human judgment regarding causes and consequences is very often very wrong. There is also a tendency to over-generalize and create stereotypes (about bacteria/religion/atheism/race/sexual orientation). And I have to be careful here so that I do not over-generalize stereotypes. 🙂

          9. Oh, please. Nobody here is calling for Stalinist purges.

            We’re calling for sanity in our societies, following the mold of Scandinavia (and elsewhere) where people simply grow out of belief in the Jesus Bunny and the Santa Christ and the Easter Tooth. Is that really so much to ask, such a radical position?


        1. It’s not my choice whether you make slurs against non-believers, agrudzinsky.

          In any case, your assertion that religion is necessary in order to live an ethical life is patently false.

          1. Where did I make slurs against atheists and where did I claim that one cannot live an ethical life without religion? Most of my relatives are atheists and are fairly ethical people. You seem to make some assumptions about me and read into my words more than they really say.

          2. Your (bad) analogy asserts “…it is also necessary…” followed by an irrelevant statement: “Science can never tell what is good or not.” (Some here might dispute this, others would not.) Either way, it’s only rhetorical value in your analogy is to tell us we need religion to tell good from bad.

            If that is NOT your intended meaning then you’ve been unclear and perhaps can correct the record.

            Some of my friends are religious. My mom was. Is that relevant?

          3. OK. Perhaps, open fire is not necessary to cook meals, but one needs some sort of heat for that, and all sources of heat can, potentially, cause harm. Even the sun.

            I do not say that you need religion per se to tell good from bad. But I do think that you need some sort of belief system to determine your values. Logic, reason, and facts are only means to influence our beliefs. But, ultimately, beliefs are based on emotional impression as noted by Hume.

            Regarding the analogy. I think, religion is extremely powerful. It’s not an opinion, but rather an observation. It has the ability to unite people around, sometimes, very strange and bizzare ideas. It is also equipped with tools to spread itself in society like a virus. In this respect, I think, comparison with fire or a nuclear chain reaction is appropriate. Like the nuclear power, it can be used for destruction or for good causes. And, even when used with the best intentions, it still can cause harm.

          4. “religion is extremely powerful”

            Yes. So is Ebola, as Ben pointed out. But we’d be better if it went the way of Smallpox.

          5. So is Ebola, as Ben pointed out. But we’d be better if it went the way of Smallpox.

            I may agree that religion spreads similar to a virus. So do many things in nature and society. Exponential growth is a natural phenomenon. It does tend to get out of control and cause harm in extreme cases. But it does not make viral growth good or bad. And one cannot get rid of it any more than one can get rid of gravity.

          6. Please, agrudzinsky, get real.

            We have rid the world of Smallpox. We no longer have to worry about Rinderpest. Turns out not to have been like gravity at all.

  68. Gary Jensen has criticized Gregory Paul’s article here

    I think, Jensen is right accusing Paul in manipulating data to achieve desirable result. Sampling 18 nations is simply not enough to draw reliable conclusions.

    I think, Jensen is onto something when he points out that “dualistic cosmology” correlates with increased homicide rates. I personally think that “us vs. them” mentality is the one causing harm. Many religions view the world as the “struggle between good and evil”. But many secular poitical movements do the same and also cause a lot of harm. E.g. Marxists believe that all human history is driven by the “class struggle”. It’s the same “us vs. them” mentality. It is known how many people died as a result of this [atheistic] ideology. I do not claim that atheism was the cause. I believe that the cause was the “us vs. them” mentality.

    By the way, for the same reason, I believe that passionate opposition to religion is also dangerous.

    1. I believe that passionate opposition to passionate opposition to religion is dangerous.

      It is nice that you’ve been able to separate yourself from “them”.

      1. I’m not separating myself from anyone. I’m not opposed to atheism. I am simply pointing to the data implying correlation between violence and confrontational worldview. This correlation does not seem surprising to me. IMO, a confrontational world view can be an attribute of religion, but not necessarily. It can also be an attribute of any other ideology.

    2. Passionate opposition has and can lead to real progress. The “us vs them” mentality is dangerous when the issue is important and it’s assumed that the Other Side can’t be reasoned with. All that is left when persuasion, negotiation, and compromise are no longer possible is force or isolation. Or both.

      This should make you more comfortable with New Atheism because the “passionate opposition” is expressed through trying to change people’s minds. We’re attempting to eliminate the division through reason and common ground. It seems to me that this would be the best strategy in any area.

      1. I am totally OK with atheism. I think, it’s a valid world view. It can and does work.

        But New Atheists have a peculiar way of changing peoples minds which is best summarized by Lawrence Krauss in his interview to The Atlantic

        I’ve had this debate with Richard Dawkins; I’ve often said to him that if you want people to listen to you, the best way is not to go up to them and say, “You’re stupid.” Somehow it doesn’t get through.

        And people like Peter Higgs have the same opinion

        I deliberately quote your fellow atheists on this issue.

        I myself is often annoyed at religious proselytism, but Jehova’s witnesses, at least, do not riducule people who they are trying to “persuade”.

        And, by the way, I’m glad that this forum stays civil.

        1. Since Lawrence Krauss is also a New Atheist the best you can say I think is that there is controversy within the ranks.

          But I read both the linked the Krauss interview (in which he gently states “God is just an invention of lazy minds”) and the Higgs critique and I noticed something interesting: nowhere is there an actual quote from Richard Dawkins where he calls all religious people “stupid” simply for believing in God.

          In fact, I notice that about all the complaints regarding how the prominent gnu atheists argue for atheism by telling people they’re “stupid.” The beliefs may be stupid, yes. And there are certain extreme individuals who have been castigated as “stupid” (ie Ken Ham.) And someone may be being “stupid.” But the image of the dismissive New Atheist laughing at all the pious inferiors is I think mostly a straw man created for the purpose of dismissing and laughing at all the atheist inferiors.

          Keep in mind the distinction between belief and believer. We do. Also keep in mind that religion is in power, belief is routinely treated with unearned and unnecessary respect, and satire, mockery, and ridicule have always been useful weapons for puncturing the overweening pretensions of the pompous. The cringing, mewling, sighing, strutting, eyelash-fluttering pantomime of “religious faith” deserves imo a well-placed kick in the pants.

          The believers can do better because they ARE better than that. When we’re dealing with humanity it’s always going to come down to “we.”

          1. Interesting. As you say that, I did try to find a quote from Dawkins calling believers “stupid”, but I could not. But it is true that there is a good deal of ridicule coming from Dawkins and other New Atheists. Take this video, for example:

            where he ridicules the 10 commandments, totally out of context, in my opinion. He puts his own shallow meaning into many quotes and makes them look ridiculous without considering many possible interpretations and meanings that Jewish and Christian believers put into these words. Ridicule is quite a popular style among New Atheists, and many educators would tell you that ridicule is a very poor choice if your goal is to educate and change one’s mind. A school teacher who ridicules his students would get in serious trouble and can, eventually, get fired.

            I once listened to an interview with a well-knownn Russian comedian who makes quite sharp parodies of celebrities and political figures. He was asked, why he never targets Russian Orthodox Church. I liked his answer. He said that he, personally, has Jewish background. He has no problem making fun of his fellow Jews and thinks it’s OK for a Christian to make fun of his fellow Christians. But he considers it unethical for a non-Christian to make fun of Christians. This ethics is fairly common in the U.S. as well – many black comedians can say jokes about blacks that would sound totally outrageous and racist coming from a white person. I’d rather propagate this sense of tact rather than a particular faith.

            Keep in mind the distinction between belief and believer.

            Hehe. “Hate sin, love the sinner” meme. Doesn’t fly well when it comes from WBC people, does it?

            Overall, I think, we can both agree to this thesis


            and put it to rest :-).

          2. You keep flipping back and forth between ridiculing ideas (making fun of the 10 Commandments) and ridiculing people (“a teacher who ridicules his students…”) But this is a very crucial distinction.

            I suspect that your desire for “tact” on this issue comes from the belief that ‘religion’ is a matter of identity, belonging in the same protected category as race, sexual orientation, lifestyle, culture, preferences, and other areas where we equate the belief with the believer and strive for tolerance, respect, and acceptance of differences.

            The gnu atheists however emphasize that religion rests on factual claims concerning the supernatural and therefore belongs with science, philosophy, politics, economics, and other conclusions which are not only acceptable to argue over, but imperative to do so. And reasonable mockery in this area is fine.

            Our disagreement then is at least partly over the status of religion and whether the believers themselves think it matters that their beliefs are objectively true (as opposed to subjectively true-for-me.) I think they do. In which case, they can’t demand forbearance and pretend it is respect.

            I’m afraid your link lead me to a sign-in page.

          3. Yes. I completely agree. Many people consider religion a part of their identity and they consider an attack on their religious beliefs as a personal threat or an attack on their culture. That’s absolutely true. It is important to keep this in mind and be considerate of this. Not everyone is capable to distance himself from beliefs soaked in with “mother’s milk”. I think, this point is often missed or ignored leading to a lot of strife. So, you are right. Although I understand this diistinction, perhaps, I do get confused myself.

            I accidentaly posted a link to my Pocket account. A I posted a direct link below.

            It’s always nice to reach mutual understanding. Thanks. 🙂

          4. If the religious can unthinkingly and sincerely condemn non-believers to eternal torment for failure to believe, then they damned well can damned well take some sincere and thoughtful ridicule for the fact they believe such nonsense in the first place.

            Why should atheists have to be all back of the bus, again, while the religious get carte blanche to shit all over us as they please…?


          5. I do not subscribe to this opinion. If you condemn something, how does it make sense to engage in the same behavior? How does it make you or the world better?

          6. The difference is that grown adults should not be comfortable proclaiming their belief in Santa Claus. Sure, it’s sometimes cute when some kid does it, but, by the time you need to take off your shoes to count your age, it’s high past time you figured that one out.

            Go around telling people you still believe in Santa, and you’ll be lucky to get by with just strange looks. But tell people you still believe in Jesus, and everybody falls over backwards to praise you for your steadfast naïveté.

            Do you want to live your life surrounded by adults who still believe in Santa? Do you really think the world would be a better place if you could gush enthusiastically about the great presents you were sure Santa was making for you at the North Pole right now without fear of scorn?

            Or do you think it’s a good thing for society that basically everybody has long since outgrown that stuff, and anybody idiotic enough to still fall for it knows damn well to keep such shameful idiocy to himself?

            I’m certain your reaction to adult believers in Santa would be exactly the same as mine.

            What you have to deal with is why we all shouldn’t have the same reaction to adult believers in Jesus.

            If you wish to convince me to your position, you’ll have to explain to me why belief in Jesus is substantively less bizarrely insane than belief in Santa. “Good luck with that,” as they say.


          7. I hope you would agree that Santa, Tooth Fairy, FSM, IPU, orbiting teapots, and dragons in Carl Sagan’s garage (did I miss any popular cliche?) are all ideas and do exist as such. I hope, you would also agree that God is an idea also and also exists as such (otherwise there would be nothing to discuss). To any believer, the idea of God is, obviously, very different than those other strawman ideas. You made this observation yourself. You might ask yourself why. Intelligent people do that when they do not understand something, don’t they?

            One difference is the level of abstraction. An orbiting teapot or a Santa are fairly specific. It’s easy to imagine them or draw a picture of them. Not so with God. God is a very abstract idea. The idea of God is often associated with the idea of infinity – infinite power, infinite authority, infinite knowledge, etc. Is it an absurd idea? I don’t think so. Infinity is not absurd, although it is impossible to imagine and impossible to find in reality. Infinity is also a source of many paradoxes i.e. it often contradicts logic. But it’s a valid idea, often used in science. For me it’s not strange at all to use infinity as an abstract concept to model things in real life while being aware that it does not exist in reality. What’s so ridiculous?

            There are other valid ideas that do not exist in reality and are impossible to imagine. The idea of “nothing” is the most bizarre of them. One can only imagine or describe “something”. Yet people use the concept of ” nothing” many times a day. Isn’t THAT weird?

            There is also an interesting question why some people believe in Yahweh, some believe in Jesus, and some in Allah, although all three are supposed to be similar ideas. That question lead me to read Hume and William James to understand why people believe one idea, but not the other. Quite fascinating topic. It involves epistemology, psychology, neurology, and many other disciplines.

            But I can totally understand if you are unimpressed and not interested. That’s fine with me.

          8. The idea of God is often associated with the idea of infinity

            Exactly right. And not just any idea of infinity, but the hopelessly primitive Aristotelian idea of infinity, an idea of infinity that is as laughably outdated as his ideas of matter (the Four Elements), cosmology (geocentric celestial spheres), and biology (vitalism). Especially since Cantorian trans-finite set theory, it no more makes sense to invoke deities to explain infinities than it does to invoke faeries to explain flowers.

            Newton slammed shut the door to the supernatural, the abode of the gods. Darwin barred the door and crushed the key under his heel. Einstein and Schrödinger and Lemaître and the rest buried the site in a few hundred feet of reinforced concrete, and the team at CERN with the LHC have recently finished adding a several-feet-thick titanium shield to the dome. Now, they and NASA are, just for shits and giggles, in the process of adding a layer of gold of similar thickness to make it look pretty.

            Again, you want to invoke the gods for literary effect, have at it. There’re still at least a few operas to be written about Orpheus, after all. But pretend that you need Orpheus to explain the origins of music, and we’ll look at you with every bit as much puzzlement as when you pretend that you need YHWH to explain cosmogenesis.


          9. Interesting that you mention all these names as if these people promoted atheism. They didn’t. Newton was deeply religious, Gregor Mendel was a monk, and Lemaitre was a Catholic priest out of all things. Which tells me that it is quite possible to believe in God and be a world-class scientist at the same time. So, atheism is not required for scientific progress, is it?

            I like to call things their proper names. So, when I read a myth, I have to admit that it’s a myth. I hope, you don’t mind if I say that the story of creation or resurrection are myths. The world is a lot easier to deal with when things are called properly. Atheists become a lot more agreeable people :-). I like what David Wolpe said on this matter (

            I still see value in studying myths. They are part of culture. People still study the works of Aristotle although his views are outdated. So is Newtonian mechanics. As you mentioned, one needs to know the myth about Orpheus to understand a few pieces of art, if not for anything else.

            Very often people think that they absolutely need the myths to be a factual historic truth to justify the rest of their world view – that’s where those claims that without God there are no morals come from. That’s comes from a childish insecurity. And, by the way, is very similar to the way atheists cling to “proof”, “evidence” and other nonsense and are very reluctant to admit that moral values are not based on any science. As if such admission would invalidate moral values or render science useless. Isn’t that silly?

          10. And, by the way, is very similar to the way atheists cling to “proof”, “evidence” and other nonsense and are very reluctant to admit that moral values are not based on any science.

            <sigh />

            I’m sure I’ve trod down this path more times than I can possibly count.

            And I’m not sure I care to continue flagellating this particular poor deceased equine much more, at least not today.

            The shortest of versions: imagine an over-the-top caricature of an amoral society. Anybody and everybody would murder, rape, and pillage anybody and everybody else at the drop of an hat. How long would such a society last before it ripped itself to shreds? Now, imagine a slightly less violent society that’s superficially just as bad, but some of the people form limited non-aggression pacts. Hey-presto, they can now band together to protect each other against everybody else, and they’re the lone survivors. As lone survivors who already have a non-aggression pact in place, unless they abandon that non-aggression pact, they’ve already got a peaceful society and theirs is the only society left. But they still don’t work together on constructive projects…but the few who do manage to survive the harsh winter the others couldn’t handle.

            You truly need to resort to inane religious fantasies with gods stepping in from on high to act as daddy referees to be blinded to the obvious origins of moral societies. And explaining the evolutionary origins of morality at this level feels as bizarre as explaining that the Earth is not, in fact, flat, and that diseases are not evidence of demonic possession.

            And that’s all I have time today for elementary remedial education on this subject.


          11. It’s not our fault that presumed adults wish to pretend to take seriously palpable nonsense.

            Let’s not forget that the Bible open with a faery tale about an enchanted garden with talking animals and an angry wizard; prominently features a talking plant (on fire!) that gives magic wand lessons to the reluctant hero; and ends with an utterly bizarre zombie snuff pr0n fantasy, complete with thralls fondling the intestines of the king of the undead through his gaping chest wound. And those aren’t cherry-picked anomalies; turn a page here and it’s sea monsters swallowing people whole; there and it’s a stairway to Heaven; and this other has cheesy magic parlor tricks like water into wine.

            I don’t think we’d be ridiculing the religious if they treated this as fiction from which they drew inspiration, like Star Trek or Harry Potter fans. Maybe question their taste in literature, considering just how pervertedly evil the “heroes” are…but the ridicule comes from the fact that the religious would have us believe that they not only take it very seriously, but that they think it’s really true. That some dude really did die on a cross and lived to tell the tale, and we’d better buy into the bullshit, ourselves, else this same dude will subject us to infinite torture for the temerity of wondering how anybody could possibly be idiotic enough to fall for something so transparent.

            If the religious wish to be taken seriously by the adults in the room, it’s up to them to stop being so damned childish and just grow up, already.



          12. All cultures have their own myths. I think, myths make cultures. There are secular myths as well – e.g. that American Civil War was about freeing the slaves or that democracy leads to non-violent society. I think, it’s OK to believe in myths.

          13. I agree with some of your points and usually read your comments expecting to learn more about science I don’t know, and I do.

            However, in your central statement in the last couple of your comments I think you are overstating your case.

            In the first place, Einstein stated he wasn’t an atheist. For that matter, as I recall, Darwin himself didn’t describe himself as an atheist. Newton was a dedicated Christian.

            Secondly, there are plenty of modern scientists who aren’t atheists, who do think there is “supernatural” ie. “more” than matter and energy. They hold to various versions of religion from Theodosius Dobzhansky to Ken Miller to etc.

            None of them are “damned childish.”
            Miller has testified in famous court cases against intelligent design and creationism.
            Dobzhansky made the memorably statement that “nothing in biology makes makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

            According to the Pew Foundation survey in 2009, 51% of scientists believe in various forms of God.
            This survey might not be accurate, and even if it is correct, it doesn’t prove anything.

            I think your statement describing these individuals as “presumed adults wish to pretend to take seriously palpable nonsense” is unfair.

            You may, for good reasons, not agree with religious scientists, but they also have reasons why they are religious. They aren’t “damned childish.” They’ve only come to different conclusions than you.

          14. Oh, I’m not at all claiming that those scientists I mentioned were atheists. But they’re also not gods, themselves, and we shouldn’t at all be afraid to call them on their faults. Yes, Newton was being childish when he thought he still needed to invoke Jesus to solve the multi-body problem. And, as much as he deserves to be lauded for his almost unbelievably brilliant insights, he also deserves to be laughed at for reverting to his childish fantasies at the end.

            But the fact remains that Newton conclusively demonstrated, whether he believed it himself or not, that there are no gods shepherding the motion of things in the heavens or on Earth; that Darwin extended that to life itself; that the physicists of a century ago extended that far beyond human scales such that no room is left for intervention anywhere near human scales; and that modern scientists just keep pushing it back and back and back and back so far that it’s asinine and ludicrous to think that there could even hypothetically be any gods acting anywhere in the theoretically-observable universe.

            It’s like a Boy Scout troop standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon on a clear day arguing over whose big brother / daddy could leap all the way to the other side. I mean, really? Great if it’s a joke…but to actually take it seriously?


          15. Thanks for the more detailed clarification.

            I agree that many scientists have shown that literal supernaturalism isn’t true (in the sense of the gods micromanaging each detail of nature and history and of causing miracles which go contrary to the regularities of nature).

            Such belief in supernatural gods was opposed even long ago by Plato and other Greek thinkers.

          16. <blockquote>Hehe. “Hate sin, love the sinner” meme. Doesn’t fly well when it comes from WBC people, does it?

            Where did you infer that anyone here hates the people of Westboro Baptist Church? No one is advocating stripping them of their human rights for their hateful beliefs about gay people. I won’t speak for others, but if they put down their “God Hates Fags” signs and let people live peacefully, I hold no desire to seek retribution against them. Yes, we do hate their ideas, not the people. To conflate this with some Christians who assert that they hate homosexuality but not homosexuals all while trying to run them out of society, threaten them with Hell, or tell them to commit suicide is quite absurd.

          17. Again, no disagreement here. I understand that people who oppose WBC oppose their ideas rather than people. I intended to say what you said in the last sentence – that Christians often claim to “hate the sin and love the sinner”, but often commit hate crimes. One needs to be careful with such claims because people too often identify themselves and others with their ideas.

  69. I had included your book “Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible” in in my “wish list”. I saw today about your book “The Albatross” and when I clicked on it the book named first was indicated. Are two books of yours coming out? or the book called by two different names?
    S Krishna

    1. “The Albatross” is a humorous metaphor, considering the burden writing it, editing it, editing it again … , has been for Jerry.

      It’s idiomatic in English; a source of frustration or guilt; an encumbrance (in allusion to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”).


  70. I had included your book “Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible” in in my “wish list”. I saw today about your book “The Albatross” and when I clicked on it the book named first was indicated. Are two books of yours coming out? or the book called by two different names?
    S Krishna

    1. What a peculiar question.

      Assuming you don’t mean the more poetic forms of the term, energy is a property of matter with a standard unit of the joule — what you expend applying a force of one newton for one meter.

      And asking if one “believes” in energy is rather like asking if one “believes” in gravity. Sure, “belief” is a component of one’s mental state about the phenomenon, but it’s the least consequential component. Should you ever have reason to question your belief, objective verification is as trivial as it gets. Might as well ask if water is wet.


  71. It’s interesting that the post is titled “Is religion good or bad for humanity?”, but the question is “Why do you think religion is bad?” Isn’t that what they call “confirmation bias”? Is Jerry interested in views opposing his own at all? And, if not, why bother asking?

    1. Who’s that question directed at?

      You’ve been making a utilitarian case for religion, saying we can’t cook our meals without it, so to speak. There are no logical reasons why your fellow commenters can’t respond to the illogic of your argument without falling prey to confirmation bias.

      1. Bias is OK as long as one is diligent to consider data that contradicts one’s existing beliefs. I’m just pointing out that the answer you get often depends on how you ask. And being open-minded and opposing dogma does seem to require considering opposing opinions.

  72. The difficulty already starts with what is exactly a religion. Two broad definitions exist.

    Substantialist Definition: Religion is something that refers to the holy, sacred, all-encompassing, supernatural, numinous et cetera and how people position and interact with it. Daniel Dennett’s working definition (meant as a “starting point”) could be classified as substantialist.

    Daniel Dennett wrote: “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought”

    Functionalist Definition: This one is more about the system itself and how it structures beliefs of practioners. This view allows secular ideologies just as well as a range of other phenomena that aren’t usually understood as religious. A proponent of this approch would be Émile Durkheim.

    Émile Durkheim wrote: “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e., things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.

    One can be seen as the narrow definition and closer to how people colloquially see it. The other is a wider definition that could also include nationalism, soviet-communism, the belief in “Rome” and being a “Roman” whilst freezing on the Hadrian’s Wall.

    Then you have the more individual side, and the organized side which are pronounced differently in both definitions as well.

    My answer comes out differently depending on which route I take. Organized religion in the forms of catholicism, Islam and Scientology — very bad for humanity, both theoretically (what they promote, content, structure) and practically and historically. Hands down, Catholicism in particular in the late pre-Reformation phobocracy was the most evil nightmare ever conceived. Maybe the Mayan religions came close.

    1. Most of the time on WEIT you can assume it’s the first definition. Once one can do away with or at least minimize the effects of belief in the nonexistent, then you can turn your mind to other types of belief systems. (Which I don’t think should be called religions.)

  73. @ agrudzinsky

    Newtonian mechanics is/are not outdated. Newtonian mechanics is essentially what is used to make cars, planes, building,etc.

    Einstein did not prove Newton was wrong, he merely extended from Newtonian mechanics to the realm of circumstances where relativistic effects become significant.

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