Open thread

December 14, 2014 • 8:00 am

This is the ghost of Professor Ceiling Cat, summoned forth by his minions to create a forum for discussion.  In the thread below you can talk about whatever you want.

One suggestion, which is mine, is this: in my post on Friday, I asked readers to tell me why, in the absence of data, they were so sure that religion was bad for the world. That is, how do they know that if the world had never had religion, it would be better than it is now?

That would seem to be an empirical question, resolvable only with data. Yet as far as I can see (and I haven’t read every comment), most readers feel that the question can be resolved not with data, but with logic or from first principles. Or, they cite anecdotes like religiously-inspired violence (my response would be that it’s easy to measure deaths, but not so easy to measure the consolation and well being that, believers claim, religion brings them). But pointing out that religion does bad stuff doesn’t answer the question if it’s been harmful on the whole.

One person I talked to said that New Atheist books like The End of Faith or God Is Not Great were meant not to show that religion in its net effects was harmful to humanity, but instead to emphasize that there were some bad effects of religion that had been overlooked. I disagree: I claim that those books were very clearly written to show that religion was a bad institution as a whole.  What do you think?

But of course you can talk about anything you want, or go off on any tangent you want.

188 thoughts on “Open thread

  1. I don’t really like hypotheticals. Religion is part of our history, good and bad. Why waste time twisting our brains trying to figure out all the “What ifs” of it not existing in the first place.
    The only thing I care about is that humans as a species move past religion or at least past its negative influences on our lives.

    1. I don’t really like hypotheticals.

      Can you imagine a world in which there were no hypothetical questions? 😉

    2. Human “What Ifs” led to religions, but also led to arts and sciences. I think “What Ifs” were a tool developed by evolving humanity. I don’t think we would have survived and progressed otherwise. If/when people stop wondering, imagining and testing “What Ifs”, they’re usually considered mentally deficient. Many of the questions on IQ tests are of the kind that require “What If” thinking by having the testee predict the next logical step in a sequence (not that IQ tests are the best way to determine intelligence of all kinds). “What If” thinking was/is an evolutionary advantage to humanity along with all the good and bad outcomes. One can look for and find, positive and negative consequences for religions and sciences or anything else that derived from humanity’s “What Ifs”.

  2. Yet another anecdote, probably not meeting the test of proof but persuasive to me: The suppression of Epicurus and Aristotle by the Roman Church. Epicurus was on the track of evolution by natural selection, and Aristotle was the first to lay down the rules of logic. Both were out of the picture for almost 1000-years, and I have to think that cost humanity dearly. Certainly, mankind would have had much less need for supernatural consolations.

    1. And the destruction, by the church, of knowledge. The Church of the Middle Ages let the people languish without science and let rot all the science that had been done by the ancients.

      The lack of truth or selective truth stance of religion at its best allows slow change while at its worst destroys new ideas.

  3. In the last thread I had described religion as bad, emphasizing the piles of dead that are the direct result of sectarian and interreligious violence. I stacked that against the good things that are inspired by religion, but I could not think of many cases where religion directly saved lives so the balance sheet seemed very unbalanced to me.
    Upon further thought I realized that that was superficial, but I am not sure how to correct the balance sheet. One could make a case that religion saves scores of lives if one includes the numerous hospitals like Catholic hospitals (are there equivalent medical institutions from other religions?). It is of course obvious that these would save lives. There are also large and well organized charity organizations that have grown out of the major religions. These extend real benefits in conflict areas and impoverished areas that must result in the saving of scores of lives. Consider for example any one of a number of famines that have occurred in Africa. Relief efforts for these crises are complicated, but part of the efforts are organized from Christian and I think Islamic organizations. The Red Cross and the Red Crescent are, I think, technically not examples of these, but I know that there are numerous Christian and Islamic organizations that to into disaster areas and extend real aid to the suffering.
    If one counts these things, then surely one could say that religion directly saves lives.

    1. It gets further complicated by the fact that many of these charitable organisations are to a large degree funded by governments.

    2. I think (without having read the previous thread; it’s end of semester, paper-grading time 🙁 ) that the question “is religion a *net* positive or negative?” is, as Jerry notes in the OP, an empirical question. I don’t have the data, so I don’t have a worthwhile opinion.

      My approach is a little different. Not a lot different, but different. Take all of the positive aspects of religion. Of course, we don’t really think there are many, if any, but take the ones religionists claim: social cohesion/community, hope, solace/comfort, meaning, truth, care for others, etc. My claim is “you can any have any or all of these without having to believe in any invisible and improbable sky fairy. Examples are easy to come by, and are left as an exercise for the reader. But none of the good things that religion is supposed to enable *require* religion. In logical terms, while religion may be sufficient, it is not necessary. Or, as Steven Weinberg so incisively put it, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”

      1. Some of those “positives” turn out to be really hypothetical.

        A friend of mine’s father died about a year and a half ago. It was a very long, drawn-out death, bad for him and everyone else around him. He was a long time church member, and my friend’s mother insisted on maintaining his monthly contribution to his church during this time.

        Not ONE single member of his “church family” came to visit him while he was dying. Not the minister, not anyone else. They couldn’t even claim that it was because they weren’t getting their money, because they were.

        Wow. L

        1. No arguments. I tried to qualify my statements about the supposed good religion does.

          However, that said, I do know of some unarguable good that religion has done; when I was a missionary in Haiti there were some people there who were providing medical care, solar panel installation, and water projects for free. That’s what they did, and they did it out of religious motives.

          My point was only that these can be done, and are being done (Doctors Without Borders, etc.) by secular people and, which is just as evil in fundamentalist christian eyes, by people of other, “wrong” religions.

          In addition to the good, of course, you also get the unavoidable evils of religion, the fear and the ignorance, which would not be present with analogous secular good works.

          1. Yes but…

            What are “religious” reasons for doing good? Just because your minister tells you to? Are there legitimate “religious” reasons besides gaining Paradise and avoiding Hell? Aren’t the vast majority of religious people who treat the sick, dig wells, etc. primarily doing so for the same motivation I would have, simple compassion? No god-belief required.

        2. Just to echo that. We have a very close friend who has MS who has very restricted mobility ( and getting worse) whose husband a couple of years ago came down with a brain tumour ( mercifully benign) which required major surgery. They are both C of E ( he is church warden) and when he fell ill, they were promised all the help imaginable. Until the time came when it was actually needed. It was left to an atheist and his wishy-washy C of E wife to do the hospital runs, taking our friend to the neurological unit. The sodding church never, when it came to the crunch, lifted a bloody finger ……

          (Friend’s husband is OK but has lost the hearing in one ear since the tumour had wrapped itself around the aural nerve)

          1. Coincidentally, I know someone who had a similar brain tumour. She was my manager at a job I had. Also benign & also caused loss of hearing in one ear. She got a transplant so she could sort of hear. Strange condition and I think she underestimated her recovery time. I still am in contact with her because she’s a great lady with amazing kids (one of whom is an astronaut while the other is a biologist I believe).

          2. And I know someone with the same thing as well! I once went birding with her and had to be reminded many times to stay on her “good” side so she could hear what I was saying.

          3. Reminds me of a producer I once worked with. He was deaf on one ear so he had to rock back and forth between speakers every time we listened to something.

            It looked kinda funny, but somehow he got the job done. 🙂

        3. That reminds me of why we stopped going to church (RC) when I was a child (primary school): After my grandmother died, the priest never visited my grandfather.

          One of the first steps in my path to atheism.


          1. Nothing could drive one away from a particular denomination or religion altogether than having clergy in the family. My paternal uncle was a Catholic priest, and a nastier man could not be imagined. At least I can be pretty sure he wasn’t shagging altar boys, though, because he was usually too soused on the sacramental wine.

      2. Ironically, we are in the same position in that I too had not read the previous thread in detail, and I am also playing hooky from grading papers. I may not be able to stick to this for long for that reason. We work 7 days a week, don’t we?
        Now, the issue that the social good that comes from religion does not need religion is of course a strong argument, but I think (without citing sources) that people make more donations to charity and do more community service when they are inspired by their religion to do so. So it seems to me that this certainly is a thing that does not strictly need religion to happen, but religion does cause more of it to happen.
        Of course that is only b/c religion gets people to give more $ and time because it is based on lies and false promises. People are good through religion b/c those falsehoods lead to a sense of obligation. They are coerced, in a sense. But could one argue that .. well … whatever works?
        “\_(“~ )_/“

        1. I would like to see churches and community service organizations go head to head data-wise on giving to others.

          I spent over a decade in a local Jr. Woman’s Club. Imo nothing inspires volunteering (time, money, effort) so much as a sign-up sheet passed around a large group. The vast majority either feel obligated to agree to do something relatively painless (“Okay, I’ll make a cake”) or notices that So-and-so is all by themselves on the Clean-Up Crew again and bites the bullet. Add this to a competitive spirit of coming up with a really worthy project to help the needy and I’m going to guess secular clubs beat strictly religious organizations (especially if ‘I’ll pray for you’ counts as ‘doing something.’)

          But this is an empirical question … set inside a virtual given.

          1. Each and any middleclass group works that way.
            Necessities to start:
            -selection for members who have time (those who stop pretending they live a financially secure life or have never lived one drop out/never belonged inside the group in the first place)
            The group functions of really poor people are different, they have to do with helping theirlike out on a very short time scale – as soon as you are better off (perfect example: a girl getting into a talented program) YOU ARE THE ENEMY. This is as much true in US black groups now as it was in RapeChildrenChurch in post-WW2-times.
            I cannot read Arabic, but the glimpses I had from AlJazeera point to Hamas´ social system being exactly the same.

          2. to sum it up:
            Each little reason for a group feeling that they are one (can be as big as outside definism of “race”, or as little as “WE” is this valley, and “the other” the next, each 20 humans), is suffiecient for one of the group definitions above.
            The fact that the middle class one can be USED by the ruling caste much easier than the poverty one is a direct measure of the image of ththe respecitve type of group.

          3. I commonly see the claim that religious institutions do far more charitable work than secular institutions. Let’s assume this is true for a moment, even on a per person basis. A large amount of the “charitable giving” that goes into these studies are donations directly to a church or religious institution. Anyone here who has attended churches and is familiar with the frequent fundraising drives knows the vast majority of this money is not spent doing any charitable work with regard to helping anyone outside of that building. The funds go to utility bills, maintenance, staff salaries, etc.

            I suppose one could argue that the staff salaries truly are charity because it is providing a job for someone. Even then, the amount of money given here that is doing anything other than paying for the buildings they gather in amounts to a very small percentage. One metric for rating charities is what percentage of the money is spent on overhead. Churches fail miserably in this respect compared to say, the Red Cross.

          4. It probably doesn’t need to be pointed out, but religious affiliated charities in the US face far less red tape and regulations than secular charities do. So for people looking to start a charitable organization it actually is easier to get church backing. This often isn’t taken into account (or may sometimes be deliberately ignored) when someone compares secular and religious charities.

        2. The irony is even deeper than you mention; after all, we’re both named Mark. Religions have been founded on less than that!

          I understand your point, but don’t necessarily think it is correct. I seem to recall seeing a study recently showing that religious people were not necessarily more generous with respect to charity than were non-religious people.

          But, even if your statistics are right, and mine wrong, the foil that an increase in charity/service/compassion can also be caused by the wrong (read: different) religions is still sharp. For a fundamentalist christian, for example, good works by a muslim or hindu don’t count, and they certainly would never use the compassion and service of someone who follows a “wrong” religion as an argument that religion is superior to secularism.

    3. Because most of us believe all religion is man made, it’s very tempting to do a reverse no-true-scotsman and claim that the good done in the name of religion was due to the inherent good side effects of human nature.

      So I guess the question is to think of good deeds directly sanctioned and inspired by religious texts.

      1. There is no difference between a good deed inspired by a Harry Potter novel, one from a Wilde play, or the Torah. It’s all fiction inspired goodness.

        1. The end result is still real, though.

          A fan of belief could argue that religion functions as a catalysator of human nature and that it still makes the best of a bad situation.

          Or to paraphrase Steven Weinberg: “With or without atheism, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for evil people to do good—that takes religion.”

      2. “Good” by their definition might be very different than by ours.

        Keep in mind that this is the 650th anniversary of the official start of the witchhunts. The estimated executions from that run between a low of 900,000 and a high of 250,000,000. The people doing the executions thought that every one of them was “good”. Many of the people watching agreed. There is even a vestige of that attitude today, so that some Catholics (and others) would defend the mass murder as “good”. L

          1. Why haven’t you started? Don’t you think focusing on your task is an example of something ‘good’ and would be a ‘better’ use of your time than whining about getting others to do your work. Maybe you should start with a definition of ‘bad’ and work backwards. ‘Good’ luck with that too.

          2. Dear Mr. Cook.

            Your transaction of £1000 has not yet been received.

            Search for common good suspended.

            Awaiting further instructions.

            Yours truly,

            J. B. Pedersen.

      3. I don’t think it does constitute a No True Scotsman. The only way the altruistic side of our own human nature wouldn’t be the ultimate source of good deeds is if there really were gods.

        You might argue that the construct of religion sometimes helps bring out this nature, but it is not the source.

        1. Absolutely, this is where the binary nature of some beliefs comes into play.

          But to a believer or a fan of belief the emphasis/focus could be on the bad sides of human nature. And thus it makes sense to view religion on the whole as a good thing for humanity.

          Original sin and all that.

    4. So, speaking of Catholic hospitals, here’s an item from the Guardian about Irish hospitals using the barbaric symphysiotomy procedure from the ’40s through the ’80s for difficult births, because of a “Catholic aversion” to Caesarian births. Not just “untimely pluck’d from the womb” — the reasoning was that since medical advisory then was that women should have a maximum of three Caesareans — after which contraception or better, sterilization, was recommended. That was in the developed world of course, but Irish Catholi dogma held it better to destroy a woman’s pelvis than a Caesarean that might make her need a diaphragm or tubal ligation later!

    5. (are there equivalent medical institutions from other religions?).

      Certainly there are Jewish hospitals, and there’s at least one originally Presbyterian-sponsored one (in Pittsburgh, formerly Presbyterian-University Hospital until the CEO, having no grasp of the basis of a hyphen, removed it; it’s now commonly referred to as “Presby”).

      But there’s also a Swedish Hospital in Seattle, so I think what this shows is that tribes build hospitals, presumably for their own, at least in the beginning.

      1. And what does “Swedish” mean, exactly?
        Do they do abortions, as Swedish law allows?
        How about painkillers and end-of-life care?
        (Sandinavian countries are much better in providing opiates than Germany, although they do not have an official “suicide is out of the penal law” situation, as Germany has (still, worsening in the making)

  4. I see the culprit as one’s unwillingness or inability to accept life as it comes and do the best they can with it.

    In particular, how we deal with the unknown, ours in particular. Religion can be characterized in many way. One is imposing a deity requirement, which I do not.

    The problem seems to be people. If they didn’t exist, the problem would disappear, which the ignoring of planetary changes — population growth, wealth inequality, global warming, hence dramatic climate change, etc. — may alter.

    As one on the off ramp in life’s freeway, I wish everyone the best. See ya!

  5. I think it’s patently obvious that many horrible things have been done (and continue to be done) to humans by other humans because of the way that religions affect the thought process. What we cannot say is what the world would look like if there had never been such a thing as religion. However, as I wrote in one of my blog posts a few weeks ago, just as the intentional advancements of medical science and the conscious improvements in our sense of ethical responsibility to one another have interrupted (or at least affected) the blind processes of evolution, so too should the development of our intellectual faculties and increasing understanding of the causal mechanisms underlying our behavior interrupt and give new guidance to shaping our cultural and social institutions. This is how we make true moral and cultural progress – it is a clear as anything that religions and religious thought has never contributed directly to such progress, but has ever only worked against it.

  6. I’ve just written a series of articles for the German RDF website, reflecting on Christianity’s occasional hostility towards art, that is, art deemed improper or dissenting.

    I came to the conclusion that yes, in this field things have improved, now that Christianity has a much weaker hold on society than it used to have, because Christianity like most religions can not tolerate plurality of opinion.

    However, I’d be hard pressed to decide if it would have been better had Christianity never existed. For instance, they badly neglected the literary heritage of the Greeks and Romans (more than just compelled by the shortage of resources during the middle ages), but gave us western music.

    1. They also neglected the science of the ancients and we plunged into a long Dark Ages. If I think about the progress we have made, especially with medicine, I can only conclude that it would come very slowly or not at all under a religious government. Look at how, even today, religion opposes stem cell research, abortion, assisted suicide for terminal, suffering patients!

    2. Humans are intelligent and creative. I cannot imagine that creative individuals would’ve stifled their creativity simply because religious institutions weren’t there to commission music.

      Music would’ve happened anyway.

      Also, what precisely do you mean by “gave” us western music? How so? There is an awful lot of completely secular music populating the western canon.

      1. Yep, I was a bit vague there. Yes, of course music would have happened anyway – some kind of it. But as far as I’m aware, and please correct me if I’m wrong, true composition, instead of some general instructions on how to play, is unique for European music (or was before it got globalized). A text on the history of music I read claimed that this European style of notation was developed by monks to ensure their hymns were reproducible. So it might not have happened without the Christian religion.

        But of course that’s the whole question here – we can’t really weigh what might have been against what is.

        Another example: Greek tragedy and comedy grew out of festivities for the god Dionysus. Something like it would have happened even if all the ancient Greeks had been atheists, because there were fermenting social issues and writers would have had the urge to reflect on them. But it might not have been Greek drama. Are we better off then because they had religion, and gave us things like King Oedipus?

        All this is pretty much a theological discussion: Enough room for endless debate, but not settable by proof.

        1. Well, musical notation systems that pre-date xianity did exist in non-western cultures. They were not as comprehensive as the current western system, but chant notation was not as comprehensive as the current system, either.

          True, we can’t say with certainty what the counterfactuals would’ve been. But it seems very doubtful to me that, in the absence of religion, humans would not have conceived and then improved over time a notation system.

          1. This is tangential to the thread, but here goes:

            This morning I was listening, as I usually do, to the early program on SiriusXM’s Symphony Hall. It is hosted by Martin Goldsmith (a musician and an author), whose lovely voice reassures me of civilization’s persistence every time I hear it.

            Today he played a version of ‘In Dulci Jubilo,’ at the end of which he noted, ‘I’m a Jew. I’m an atheist, pretty much. Yet when I hear this music I sometimes get a prickle on the back of my neck’ (close paraphrase).

            This is a lovely example of the truth that music is made by humankind, for humankind. Music will emerge from religion, as equally from atheism and from all points in-between (assuming a continuum rather than polarities).

            Soon the light will return, beautifully announced by music.

          2. I can relate to this. I have an album of Gregorian Chants that often helps quiet a worried mind and soothe me to sleep, although I understand not one word of course and have no belief that it’s from the gods or carries any wisdom beyond the beauty of it — just made by humans for humans, as you say.

    3. … but gave us western music.

      What??? This is a good thing??

      Oh, wait. I thought you meant “country and western music.” Never mind.

  7. My gripe is the damper religion has placed on intellectual progress. Religions consider themselves to already have the answers to so many questions and shut down dissenting ideas.

    This isn’t a problem only with religion because we also see it happening with certain non-religious organizations as well. But almost always, those organizations either have strict dogma or are a cult of personality…things they have in common with many religions. So, in a way, they are pseudo-religions. And just as bad.

    But religion has been a major bad actor in this.

    1. Indeed, if there really were a just God, It would prohibit the religious from using the science It so obviously wants them NOT to learn.

      Let them ride burros, like their savior. No Tesla for you! If only…the one and only Soup God.

  8. “One person I talked to said that New Atheist books like The End of Faith or God Is Not Great were meant not to show that religion in its net effects was harmful to humanity, but instead to emphasize that there were some bad effects of religion that had been overlooked.”

    What do I think? I think the person you talked to hadn’t read those books.

  9. I found it interesting that, on the same day that Professor Ceiling Cat is due to arrive in India, PuffHo announced the launch of HuffPost India.

  10. When I get into this conversation, I put it this way; religious beliefs are inherently irrational, have little self-reflection on reducing harm, so what little good they do is more accidental than intentional. Helping strangers is good, but doing it to get into the candyland-in-the-clouds is disconnected from the reasons it should be encouraged.

  11. It’s probably impossible to assemble empirical data on the cost/benefit of religion in total, but there’s another way to approach it — look at one of Jerry’s favorite examples, the largely irreligious Scandinavian countries. Sweden, Norway, and Denmark have for the most part abandoned religious belief, but they score very high in social well-being, education, health, prosperity, and happiness. The putative benefits of religion are present without religion, so religion is unnecessary at best. When we consider the clearly bad things that religion brings to the table (and I don’t have to list them here), religion becomes a net negative.

    It could be argued that the religious history of these countries set the stage for these social, political, and economic conditions, but that begs the question. These countries without religion are empirically better off than most if not all countries where religious belief is strong. Religious belief is strongly correlated with poor social conditions. Correlation may not prove causation, but it’s evidence for causation.

  12. Prof. Ceiling Cat asked:

    “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.”

    Voltaire replies:

    “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

  13. It seems to me that religion is, in a sense, a natural phenomenon that arises as a result of how our brains work in the absence of data. To wit, our brains have a tendency to make up stories to fill gaps in our knowledge in order to make sense of the world.

    To posit a world without religion, I think you’d have to assume a very high level of empirical knowledge about the “mysteries” of the universe much, much, much earlier in our evolution as a species. In that event, it is, imo, likely that we’d live in a much better society since I’m convinced that most of our problems begin with ignorance. Religion is not so much a cause of the problem as it is the result of the problem, i.e., ignorance.

    Now, religion has a built-in vicious cycle that fosters and propagates ignorance in the service, I think, of self preservation. So it becomes a negative force even as provides a framework for community that is, in many ways, positive. If we had a world without religion, I believe, we’d still find a framework for our community.

    Why? Because we have to have one. Religion is our creation. It addresses needs, fills gaps. It is an intellectual tool. Unfortunately, like a poorly designed tool that causes repetitive motion injury, religion deforms our society even as it forms it. If we’d had the wisdom, as a species, to design a better tool for community building, we’d be a lot better off.

    1. “It seems to me that religion is, in a sense, a natural phenomenon that arises as a result of how our brains work in the absence of data. To wit, our brains have a tendency to make up stories to fill gaps in our knowledge in order to make sense of the world.”

      Agreed. In Temple Grandin’s book, Animals in Translation, she includes an account of some people who were deaf, did not use language to talk, and were illegal immigrants. They had a very religious way of thinking-when they would find green cards to show to the police, they considered it a gift from a supreme godly being. They even created a shrine to honor the “god”, complete with green cards piled up around it. The book then went on to suggest that animals might also have some religious thinking about their world an what goes on in it as well.

      I find that religion is a way to explain the unknown, and to figure out how things work within a set order. Of course, deviate from that set order, and you end up under attack (e.g. If you’re mentally ill, prayer should work, but if it doesn’t, then you’re to blame.) It’s a good system for starting out, but like all things for starting out, you can get rid of it once you have certain things set in place. So had there been no religion, I think a lot of things would have been better, or improved on (for example, there would be no homosexual-bashing or hating people because they are not religious) but at the same time, I do believe that that kind of a society, starting out, would be near impossible to keep going, if only because any kind of rules could eventually turn into a religious doctrine, especially since if a new society is starting, there is presumably not a lot that one knows in it, and anything that seems to be for the good of the populace can turn out to be not a good thing, due to a lack of knowledge.

      I think I went off in a weird direction…if it’s unreadable, I apologize. (I’m sick and my mind’s not 100%) but basically, what I’m trying to say that a would without religion would be different, probably better in some ways. Yet, it would be hard to have such a society in the first place, seeing as how the human mind is so prone to mysticism, and how almost any set of rules to help run a society effectively can turn into a “religion” over time.

    2. As a ‘religious’ practitioner from earliest memory — Methodist to UU to humanist — you have said it well. If we divide comprehension into the known and unknown, then divide that into the knowable and unknowable we have a tripartite model of comprehension (thoughts):
      known|knowable|unknowable. Science addresses the first two and fails when it ventures into the last. Religion is a view of the last two and fails when it ventures into the first.

  14. How do we know that if there never had been religion, it would be a better world? Kind of like asking if there had never been malaria would it have been better. The first answer would be to make two lists – one listing all the evil and bad things to come from religion and the second to show all the good. The second would be a much smaller list by far and this is true in part because many things that some would throw into that list really have no justification for being there.

    Saying – all the religious affiliated hospitals is a good is not logical. You would have to prove they would not be built otherwise and you can’t do that. Getting into the hospital business was a business decision anyway, not a thing done for any other reason. If it was to do good lets provide the care for free. Even saying – oh look at all the charity, is a lame and defective idea. Where did they get the money in the first place. People could give directly to charities and the charities would be getting much more. After the church takes all their cut, what is left for actual charity? You don’t need religion to tell you to give to charity. I give plenty and have always been atheist.

    If we must find a real and solid reason that proves no religion is better, my example would be the establishment of the United States and the initial creation of our government. After the revolutionary war with England was over things were in pretty bad shape in the so-called new world. Individual states were going their own way and it was a mess. The Articles of Confederation were mostly useless. So a group of people met in Philadelphia in 1787 to do something better. They did a lot of compromising and please remember – these guys were a very secular bunch. That is why no religious stuff was included in the thing. It got done and was ratified after holding conventions in each state the following year. It was a close call all the way and please note, the Bill of Rights was not in this thing at this time, so again I remind you…no religious stuff.

    Now, imagine doing this today, in the religious environment of today. If you think this possible you are in a dream world. Our current government cannot even agree to accomplish simple individual things. I don’t think they even agree to break for lunch. The two parties don’t even eat together. Just add religion and see what gets done….nothing.

    If someone wanted to measure the good vs bad by adding up all the deaths caused by various popes and other religious leaders verses Stalin for comparison – this does not work either. All those pope related deaths were religious causes but Stalin was not killing because of a religious belief or because he had none. Stalin killed to keep the people in line and because he liked it.

  15. If it’s empirical evidence…well, let’s just look at European flavors of Christianity as but one sample. And there, we’ve got the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Conquistadors, the Holocaust, and the modern African AIDS genocide, all the direct responsibility of just that single form of religion. Plus all manner of lesser horrors, including a private child prostitution racket for church leadership and the Hussite wars and witch burnings and plenty more.

    One could argue that none of that is the fault of religion…but, then, what is the religion FOR!? It certainly did nothing to stop all that evil.

    It’s really just a re-statement of Epicurus’s Riddle. Plainly, just as there are no gods of any power who have humanity’s best interests at heart, there also aren’t any religions of power that have humanity’s best interests at heart — else said religion would have long since put an end to all this nonsense.

    Another way to look at it: Christianity took over the reigns of the decaying Roman Empire…and made Rome and Europe thoroughly Christian. And this time was not an age of peace and enlightenment, but rather, literally, the darkest period in European civilization in the past ten thousand years. And it was the rejection of religion that led to the Enlightenment and our escape from the Dark Ages.

    If religion — especially Christianity — was a force for good, the end of the Roman Empire and the start of the Christian Empire would have been the start of the most golden of golden ages. It was instead the exact opposite. Say what you will about the Romans…at least they weren’t Christian. And the decline of influence of the Church would have caused an even more precipitous decay in society, rather than lead to its rapid recovery and advance.



      1. Indeed, that one right there set back not only science but the public understanding of science literally by millennia. William Lane Craig would be universally be considered an incomprehensible babbling idiot were it not for the constant religious flogging of Aristotelian metaphysics and its derivatives. We’re talking four elements flat Earth geocentricism incomprehensible…were it not for religion.

        Instead, his position seems intuitively obviously sensible to the vast majority of his audiences.


      2. The problem with Christians promoting Greek philosophy is that they treated it as Holy Writ. The philosophers themselves — including Aristotle — understood that the most important aspect of their philosophy wasn’t their conclusions, but their method. They asked and answered questions in an atmosphere of skepticism.

        Christianity gutted the heart out of this process and promoted what they thought of as revealed wisdom, the “facts.”

        1. Yes and that putting things into doctrine habit is what Galileo in so much trouble. I think a lot of our arguments that religion is back centres around this and is central to Christianity, Islam and some Judaism (but not all since I know atheist Reform Jews and you are encouraged to question – for years I couldn’t figure out why I felt comfortable in Reform synagogues and finally concluded that they were probably mostly atheists in there).

          So then I have to wonder if all religion is bad or just those that encourage bad thinking which perhaps most of them do. Now I’d want to figure out which ones in the world do this.

          1. The more humanistic a religion is, the better it is. There’s more emphasis on reason, science, human rights, and living in this world. It’s less ‘religious’ than other religions.

            Some people seem to think that this exculpates religion in general — because look at how reasonable they can become. Other people appear to believe that this damns religion in general — because look at what it takes to become a good example.

            Me, I’m in that last group.

  16. How is “religion” to be distinguished from the love of imaginary constructions that are not religion? for instance pick any other stories like Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, etc. that can help people understand the world and their place in it etc.

  17. Question for the wisdom of the group:

    What is the evolutionary history of the opossum? I’m wondering how it managed to be the only marsupial in North America.

    I can’t imagine that marsupials evolved twice (of course, I could be wrong). And, it seems to me that North America and Australia have been separated long enough that it wasn’t a case of a population being geographically divided and going their evolutionary separate ways.

    So, can anyone tell me how this situation came about? Thanks in advance.

    1. Marsupials evolved once on a continent that no longer exists but included what is now Australia and South America so the old fossils are marsupials but in South America the new fossils are mostly placentals.
      This is because the continent of South America drifted until it collided with North America at Panama. The opposums walked north over the new bridge.

      1. A little more complicated than that — marsupials very likely evolved in the northern hemisphere,were in NA and Eurasia in Eocene, dispersed [?island hopping?] to South America while latter was connected to Antarctica/Australia, became extinct in northern Hemisphere, finally returned via Panama…

          1. Yes, Paleocene at latest. The old lineages in Eurasia and North America are ‘stem-marsupials’ (Metatheria, but not crown-group Marsupialia), but there were true marsupials in South America in the late Cretaceous (e.g. here) and they dispersed across Antarctica to Australia either after or just before the K-Pg event. The fossil record in Patagonia is very good but not so much in Antarctica and Australia. Oldest marsupials in Oz are from the Tingamarra fauna at about 55 mya (we usually say early Eocene but it could be late Paleocene) – a fauna that the authors at that first link thought was much younger, for no good reason. The Drake Passage (S-Am/Ant) split happened much earlier than the final separation of Australia from Antarctica, so there could have been various animals of ultimate American origin only reaching Oz much later, after traversing Antarctica. Snakes from the Tingamarra fauna are very close to late Cretaceous species in Patagonia, while the marsupials (evolving faster in the teeth than snakes in the vertebrae) match Paleocene Patagonian forms.

          2. (Text of comment still in moderation due to 3 links*, might be a while with Jerry away)
            Yes, Paleocene at latest. The old lineages in Eurasia and North America are ‘stem-marsupials’ (Metatheria, but not crown-group Marsupialia), but there were true marsupials in South America in the late Cretaceous (e.g. here*) and they dispersed across Antarctica to Australia either after or just before the K-Pg event. The fossil record in Patagonia is very good but not so much in Antarctica and Australia. Oldest marsupials in Oz are from the Tingamarra* fauna at about 55 mya (we usually say early Eocene but it could be late Paleocene) – a fauna that the authors at that first link thought was much younger, for no good reason. The Drake Passage (S-Am/Ant) split happened much earlier than the final separation of Australia from Antarctica, so there could have been various animals of ultimate American origin only reaching Oz much later, after traversing Antarctica. Snakes from the Tingamarra fauna are very close to late Cretaceous species in Patagonia, while the marsupials (evolving faster in the teeth than snakes in the vertebrae) match Paleocene Patagonian forms.
            (the two links omitted here were to papers cited in the third, which is mine, ahem)

          3. Cool stuff! I have some reading to do, if I ever finish grading the final exams…

            Thank you!

  18. The question : “how do [we] know that if the world had never had religion, it would be better than it is now?”

    1. Define “religion”.

    2. Based on Pascal Boyer’s work, I would say that religion is only the domain of mental representation about supernatural agents (belief about these agents and relation to these agents).

    3 With this definition, can we say that this is bad? Not really. Is it good? Meh. I can only say that some belief about supernatural agent are more dangerous and harmful than others, so somne religious groups are more harmful than others, exactly like politics. Can we say politic is bad? What if we never had politic? That’s just plain impossible. Not having religion in the past is just as impossible (I cannot say for the future, but I believe religious beliefs will be less appealing – if we educate people correctly).

    4. If the world had never had religion, then I don’t know if it would be bad or good – in general – because I know that there would be no human in this world : an organism like a human that have no religion is NOT a human like us, it would be another form of homo-dude-without-religion, so without all the cognitive structure that governs religion thoughts like “pattern-seeking and “intentionality-seeking”.

    So i repeat the question : what if humans were not in this world, would it be better or worst?

    I would say it doesn’t matter, but personaly, I found that the evolution of homo-dude-with-religion is something so beautiful that it would be a shame for a world full of life to not have an organism with so much intellectual power.

    Religion is not a thing to be afraid of. Like Spinoza said :

    “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”

    1. The analogy between religion and politics is I think a poor one because there must always be some sort of governing system (even if it’s ‘anarchy’) but there need not be a representational domain of the supernatural. Perhaps ‘philosophy’ and ‘politics’ as similar categories, with ‘religion’ holding a place analogous with ‘divine kingship.’

      “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”

      Those need not be separate activities.

      1. You think the analogy between religion and politics is a poor one “because there must always be some sort of governing system (even if it’s ‘anarchy’) but there need not be a representational domain of the supernatural”.

        Represent yourself 10 000 years ago, and your father and mother just died. You believe they are still inside you. That’s supernatural, that’s intuitive and adaptive (mental health).

        If you have dying people in a community, you maybe have 95% chance of having some kind of thought about the dead, living in another realm. So Yeah, I agree, politic is 100%, but the analogy is still totally fine with 95% 😛

        Thinking of supernatural agent behind events is just natural for us (I’m an atheist agnostic, just saying).

        Have a good day

        1. I think you misunderstand my point. I’m perfectly willing to grant that supernatural/essentialist thought processes draw on intuitions and instincts common to humanity. So do totalitarian systems like ‘kingships.’ They’re both “natural” and “normal” in the sense that we can trace their antecedents and appeal back to human nature and the way our brains work.

          But they are not inevitable: we can learn better philosophical beliefs and better political systems because there are also “natural” and “normal” human drives in more rational directions. It takes more work, yes. But discovery and progress, while not inevitable, is possible.

          And have a fine and lovely day yourself.

          1. Hi again,

            you said that religion and totalitarian system are not inevitable. I have to clarify my perspective on this.

            They are universal context-dependent, so if the correct context is there, then they ARE inevitable. Totalitarian systems, for example, are created by some kinds of social conditions, they don’t just emerge from any social context. So if the context is there and all the conditions are there, then it is inevitable.

            I believe that religion was inevitable between -3 500 (personnaly, I would say – 100 000 at minimum) and 1900 (random dates). My point was that every conditions are there for religion to grow (and I’m not talking about a religious “group” here, but only religious thoughts – to really believe a dead parent is present with you, a god or an animal spirit).

            I believe that “modernity” (scientific understanding of the subjective reality – because how could we know the objective reality without our subjectivity?) is giving ourselves the chance to detach ourself from every kind of religious thoughts.

            A secular society is also context-dependent, and I also believe that it is inevitable if the conditions are all there.

            Our minds all have a similar structure, they give rise to similar social-pattern in similar environnemental conditions.

  19. If there was no religion human nature would make up another story to explain what we do. If I could wave a magic wand and eliminate religion at its historical roots then history would have been completely different in every detail but would still look exactly the same. Evil would just have different ‘rational’ support.

  20. I think we don’t have empirical data to support “the claim that religion is on the whole a bad thing for humanity.” Not the way that first of the two questions is constructed.

    However, there is also no empirical evidence that for “the claim that religion is on the whole a good thing for humanity.”

    There is a consensus among the WEIT community, and I suppose among atheists in general, that the good claimed by religion – social cohesion, lawful behavior and general sense of contentment, happiness – are also not supported by empirical data. Since these are states of mind and behaviors achievable by non-believers, there is no reason to conclude that belief-without-evidence is itself the magic wizard sauce that makes bad people into good.

    Many commenters also acknowledge that the bad associated with religion – oppression, discrimination, submission to unjust power, rejection of science and reason – are similarly human conditions which don’t necessarily require belief in a supernatural power to have come to be.

    It seems we are not entitled to make the blanket fact claim that “religion on the whole is a bad thing for humanity.”

    Is that claim the necessary predicate to the rejection of religion, faith or belief? It is not. For me, there are a handful of social issues – sexual and reproductive choice, acceptance of science, military aggression – on which “the other side” is comprised of religious people and church doctrine. To Friday’s the first question, there is no empirical proof that regressive movements would not exist but for religion, yet the empirical data do show us religiosity directly correlates with taking positions that are bad for humanity.

    You don’t need empirical support for the claim in question 1 to justify fighting religion on individual social issues.

    Many commenters expressed a dislike for hypothetical questions, but the first question was not hypothetical. In the second question, we were asked to consider whether belief should be supported or evinced if there were empirical evidence that belief were proven to be beneficial. I concluded that you could either claim to want the best overall result for humanity, or you could promote non-belief despite empirical evidence, but you could not do both at once.

    We do not live in that hypothecate universe, though.

    1. Many commenters also acknowledge that the bad associated with religion – oppression, discrimination, submission to unjust power, rejection of science and reason – are similarly human conditions which don’t necessarily require belief in a supernatural power to have come to be.

      Then what is religion FOR!?

      The religious love to repeatedly declare that their gods are the source of all that is good, that there can be no good without their gods, that all moral authority rests upon and is granted by their gods and on and on and on and on.

      If the actions of the religious aren’t merely untempered by their religious beliefs but, observably, made far worse by them (the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust, the Conquistadors, etc., etc., etc., etc.), then how can one even pretend a positive effect from religion?

      Religion is the homeopathy of sociology. At its absolute theoretical best, it’s but a placebo…and, in the real world, it’s universally a scam whereby its salespeople profit handsomely whilst the marks suffer needlessly because they don’t get what they really need.


      1. I don’t know! I read your earlier comment, and I do not disagree: if people are not any better or worse for believing, that’s fine – yet in the world as it is constituted, all the things we think of as bad are rooted in religious dogma.

        Jerry’s question, though, is what is the empirical proof that religion is bad for humanity. When the question is that narrow, I don’t think the assertion is supportable – but I also don’t think the assertion is required. Is religion on the right or wrong side of issue x? This is enough to make up a worldview I think; I don’t think it’s necessary to make sweeping generalizations.

        1. Which reminds me of a thought I had while reading these two posts and the comments: supposed the world were constituted in such a way that religion was not the cause of any of the effects – good or bad – one side or the other might point to.

          Suppose the world were made up of people with mixed spectra of inclinations – toward tolerance or intolerance, generosity vs greed, peacefulness vs violence, etc. – through some combination of nature and nurture. And they have various degrees of intelligence, mental balance, physiological health, etc. And a range of sociological and other circumstances.

          But, in that world, the one thing scientists know is that religion is not the cause of dysfunction, but rather a framework people were attracted to because of the fit to their pre-existing state. Many of these people are involved with the religion because it is their parents’ religion, and whether a given child grows to accept that religion, convert to another or reject religion altogether – is again based on the fit to their psychological makeup, independent of any influence per se of the religion itself.

          I don’t think that world would look any different from the world in which we inhabit, apart from proof that religion is the result of human social function and dysfunction, not the cause.

          I think believers would live exactly as they do now (because they don’t care what scientists say anyway), and atheists would maintain the same position against belief because credit and blame for events in the world are not really the issue.

          Knowing what is true versus not is the issue. Working to have a better vs worse world is the issue. To the extent belief is on the wrong side of those, it’s something to point out and fight against.

          I feel strongly that the evils committed in religion’s name are such that they poison the whole proposition – but that is opinion and emotion, not empirical evidence. Lots of people are perfectly happy to reject the supernatural and still go to services and pray and fast – I used to be one of them!

          Jerry asked “how do you [being we] justify” asserting religion on the whole is bad, empirically. Seems not to be possible. I wonder how many other assertions we make which should not be presented as fact claims? Its’s worth reflecting upon!

  21. Regarding the Inquisition and the Crusades – to somehow think that these events are not directly and specifically the result of religion is just false. The catholic church and specific popes called for the Crusades. Some of the guys going to fight sewed crosses on their clothing.

    Inquisitors were picked out by the pope and sent out to do the good work of torture and killing. And who else but religion comes up with witches.

  22. I just finished reading a magnificent book:

    Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Harari, Hebrew University,

    who argues that in order to survive in groups larger than ~150 people, where gossip was like a glue, the tool used to know “who was who” and “who slept with whom”, humans had to invent imagined realities.

    If we are a group of 100,000 human beings and we all believe in the same god, we trust each other and can live together even though we don’t know each other personally.

    Nowadays, if we are a more than a million, we can live together if we trust our system, government, currency.

    I highly recommend this book.

    1. Some version of the late Levi-Strauss?
      This ethnologist defined society as glue between males on the (literal) bodies of women, who, just like cattle (but he never said as THE FIRST version of cattle, if the idea works) had to enlarge the group by being given from father to son-in-law, forced to give borth until each dies.
      Sums up organized religion pretty well, a.f.a.i.k.
      The history of ideas inside this pattern would break if a percentage of people do no longer believe it. Must look this book up.

    1. Agreed, but.

      Jerry’s question in the OP, if I’ve understood it correctly, is “Has the effect of religion on humanity been a net plus or a net minus?” Use for units, as you seem to suggest, lives saved vs. lives destroyed. Yes, one life destroyed by religion is one too many, but the question is, how many more (or fewer) lives would have been saved (or destroyed) in the same situations, had religion not existed? If religion destroyed a million lives, but saved two million, whereas in an analogous situation on a parallel earth with no religions, in the same situation a million and a half lives were each saved and destroyed, one would (disgustedly) have to conclude that religion had been a net plus for humanity. Of course, we’ll never have anything like even a partial approach to data that conclusive, so in effect we’re just doing a sociological thought experiment at best; theology at worst. Good suggestions earlier in the thread point out, though, that we can get a general idea by looking at religious vis-à-vis non-religious societies; as always, Scandinavia provides a useful data point.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally down with what Steven Weinberg says, “I think that on balance the moral influence of religion has been awful,” and suspect you are too. I’m just trying to be fair, a personality defect I had when I was religious, and which apparently has carried over into my atheist life.

      1. To be honest, I was being lazy. QED seems to be my default response whenever the ramifications of piety are enumerated.

        I fleshed my position out a little more “computationally” via comment #37 — at least from an arm chair perspective.

    2. Agree. It’s totally undesirable-like a new airplane model that crashes only 5% of the time but does get the vast majority of passengers to their destinations. Or a newly developed drug helps thousands with their arthritic improve their lives but kills only a few dozens..
      Just because a something have more positive effects doesn’t mean it’s automatically desirable.
      Imagine if mankind never knew religion and is only now introduced to(any)concept of religion, I think we would never agree to its negative effects whatever its positive effects offers.

  23. I think this question might be better elucidated if we substitute “faith” for “religion”.

    The problem with religion is that it entails faith, and who can seriously argue that faith is a reliable means for mapping a path to achieving any kind of goal, good or otherwise?

    It would strike me as a strange request if one were to ask for empirical evidence that trying to cross a busy street with your eyes shut and your ears plugged is dangerous. I think logical consideration alone is enough to demonstrate it.

    But I guess the best shot we have at treating this question empirically is, as Ben above suggests, to open a history book.

    1. (Of course, we know that depriving ourselves of sensory input is dangerous in such a situation because of experience, but what I mean is that, in a practical sense, we don’t need to withhold judgment about the value of faith in any given circumstance. I’d say that having reliable information is better than remaining ignorant has reached the level of being axiomatic.)

    2. The question might also be better elucidated (nice word!) if we substitute “belief in the paranormal” for “religion.”

      The distinction between the supernatural and the paranormal is simply one of emphasis. There are entire cultures which have been profoundly influenced by or still follow ancient pseudosciences like astrology or modern superstitions like the ‘Law of Attraction.’ So how do we parse the benefits from the drawbacks?

  24. In the event of it somehow being shown that religion was on balance a force for good for humanity, would it be the right thing to act to increase its influence?
    It seems to me that it would still be wrong to do so, and its influence should still be fought because in the future it will be better for humanity to act according to what is true than according to what makes people happy (or have greater ‘well-being’). Analogously, in poker it is still better to bet according to statistics than gut feelings even if in the last hand the ‘gut feeling’ happened to be the better choice.

  25. …most readers feel that the question can be resolved not with data, but with logic or from first principles.

    but… but this is philosophy, not science. If we are to ‘do’ science to find out ‘facts’ then we either have to take observations of existing data or construct ethical experiments to generate data. If this were easy it would already have been done.

    Which leaves us with a third option, simulation. Unfortunately I think we are some way off understanding enough about people, societies, and their thoughts to create a convincing simulation.

  26. Convincing empirical evidence will be hard to come by, because you can’t do the controlled experiment with a society that has never had religion. It is no surprise to report that humans who have been steeped in religion for 5000 years behave better when they stick with their religion.

    What you can do is ask whether the belief in a deity is a necessary element of that, or whether just the culture of religion would suffice. Santa Claus is a nice addition to western culture, and does not require actually believing Santa Claus is real. Religion can work the same way.

  27. Apologies if someone has already said this but I haven’t read all replies because I’m trying to get rid of a headache which can me more aptly called a face ache.

    As I lay in bed with a heated “magic Bag” on my head, I looked at my bookshelf and saw my Great Big Book of Horrible Things. As most of you probably know, the time of the world wars to the death of the great dictators: Stalin, Mao, Hitler and is called the Hemoclysm. This is the deadliest in history. What I also read is where the author notes interesting things he sees in the data. One peculiar outlier is India which doesn’t record megadeaths. He supposed this could just be that the Hindu population didn’t bother to record such things but this seems peculiar given that we found deaths from other cultures like the Aztecs who didn’t record much either.

    So, this leads me back to seeing religion as part of a bigger issue which is faulty thinking. The willingness to accept things in faith,not suppress questioning and to remain closed off and in accepting of others: other people or other ideas. Stalinism or Maoism is no different. There are religious exceptions but not many. I’ve heard Bill Maher call Stalinism or Maoism state religions but I see it in reverse in that religion and state authoritarianism is just suppressive dogma. If you inoculate yourself against dogma by being a critical thinker that demands evidence than you are resistant to religion and state authoritarianism. Dictators know this. This is why they kill educated people and teachers first and it is why they use religion often to justify their rule and to control the people.

    Karl Marx was onto something I think.

    1. Well said, Diana, & I agree with you.

      I don’t believe every person is equipped to be a critical thinker, though.

  28. I agree that Harris’s and Dawkins’s books were primarily against religion. The former (EoF) more oriented toward the harm to humanity in forms of violence, and the latter more because it’s irrational to believe in supernatural phenomena of any sort.

  29. I think the books “God is Not Great” and “The End of Faith” and “The God Delusion” were all written to make the point that religion is WAY more of a bad thing than a good thing for humanity, and I think those three books successfully make that point — at least, they (along with history and current events) persuade ME (for one) that religion is WAY more of a bad thing than a good thing for humanity.

    It is simply incomputable (a preeminent non sequitur) to me that deeply committed belief in, worship of, and service to an uncaused, immaterial, cognitively willful supernatural creator “being” (God) whose existence is utterly empirically intersubjectively UNdemonstrated could even possibly (in principle, let alone in practice) be more of a good thing than a bad thing.

    Legions disagree with me of course, but there it is.

    1. “I think the books “God is Not Great” and “The End of Faith” and “The God Delusion” were all written to make the point that religion is WAY more of a bad thing than a good thing for humanity…”

      And I think “Faith vs. Fact” will soon join those three, nailing down the point from yet another angle. We have our new 4th horseman.

  30. I do not see how you can go at this question via the scientific process. Maybe we think we must because the answer requires back up or data, not just opinion but we study and get pretty good answers to some types of questions by other means.

    Religion has been around as long as humans and the main branches we talk about go back 2000 years or less. I am pretty sure history is the best bet. After all, if you were asked to identify the reasons for the Civil War, I don’t think you do this with experiments and observations.

  31. Jerry asked whether the benefits of religion outweigh its costs and pointed out that opponents of religion haven’t measured both so have nothing to say about the question. He’s right, of course.

    There’s another harder way of looking at the question. Instead of estimating costs and benefits, compare the state of an hypothetical world without religion with the one we live in. The standard way of constructing a counterfactual conditional in biomedical research is to set up control and treatment groups, ideally with replicates. We have only the world we live in so can’t compare with the same (we hope) world without religion. We also can’t construct a country with religion and a parallel country without it. Expensive and requires experimentation on human subjects. Funding and approvals will be hard to get. Replicates are even less possible.

    An alternative way sometimes used by econometricians is to instantiate a model and ask it what will happen if religion is set to zero. In principle this can be done if we can find situations with different levels of religion so that we can estimate partial derivatives of measurable things of interest with respect to religion. This also doesn’t look practical. I’ve modeled economies, can’t see where to insert religion in them. Perhaps someone more capable than I am could find a way. Perhaps.

  32. Haven’t read the comments yet so apologies if I repeat others.

    I asked readers to tell me why, in the absence of data, they were so sure that religion was bad for the world. That is, how do they know that if the world had never had religion, it would be better than it is now?

    I think those are two slightly different questions.

    Consider the distinction between saying that totalitarian dictatorships are bad for the world vs. the world would be better than it is now if there had never been any totalitarian dictatorships. That second one gets very complicated, partly because some dictators were historically responsible for what turned out to be progress. But the first conclusion could be unaffected by that.

    That would seem to be an empirical question, resolvable only with data. Yet as far as I can see (and I haven’t read every comment), most readers feel that the question can be resolved not with data, but with logic or from first principles.

    I think both philosophy AND science weigh in on this one. Certainly data showing that secularism doesn’t lead to nihilism or wickedness is extremely important. Thus the empirical aspect of the answer with the surveys and charts.

    But in my opinion we really shouldn’t neglect the significance of how the question is framed — and must be framed in order to be a fair question — and the enormous advantage this grants to atheism and atheists. The criteria for “better off” and “worse off” are secular. We are measuring good and evil by benefits and harms in the world which count the same regardless of whether someone believes in God or not.

    Humanism sets the common ground by mutual consent. This is a huge freakin’ deal.

    Virtues which are strictly religious aren’t included in what we are assessing. The amount of faith, prayer, church attendance, correctly-performed rituals, tithing, proselytizing, fasting, etc. is all irrelevant.

    Unless then the empirical evidence surprises us with a result which would be unexpected given this — religious populations are routinely better at meeting secular standards than secular populations — the philosophical advantage pretty much sets it for us. Every time religions inspire its adherents to do things which make sense it counts as humanism. Every time religions inspire its adherents to do things which make sense only to the religious they either gain nothing (minutes spent praying) or lose (minutes spent praying instead of helping OR slaughter the infidels.)

    In support of this I’ve seen the religious get very pissy about how unfair the criteria are when the data show that you don’t need to believe in God to be good or happy (as usual they’d be damn glad to accept a scientific result which goes the other way.) “But the most important virtue is worshiping God!” they whine. “How could the scientists not include that in the whole picture? It’s like it’s stacked against us!”

    Yes. It is. Our philosophical position regarding the standards of living in the world is inherently stronger.

    1. It occurs to me that Jerry might not have found this argument satisfying in the other thread because he might be looking at the question as a potential data point to be used in arguing against the existence of god: if a benevolent deity exists, (the correct) religion should be a force for good. If religion isn’t a force for good then that would count against the benevolent deity hypothesis.

      But your argument, an insightful argument I agree with, assumes we’ve already concluded that there is no god, ie, that “good” must be defined in secular terms because, well, there is, in fact, no other option.

  33. Statistics correlating dysfunctional societies with an increase in religiosity demonstrates that religion is the cultural equivalence of a psychological anodyne that perpetuates disempowerment (since none of the societies have “on the whole” improved because of an increase in religious adherence)– thereby supporting the null hypothesis. This can only mean that the net effect of belief is harmful because it has no realistic utility value for addressing long-term social problems while often making them more embedded.

    If you want an experimental algorithm, just look at the Middle East.

    1. An easier way to think about this is to ask if prayer, as a means of intervention, is good or bad for the world. Because time is a non-replenishable commodity, prayer wastes time. Wasting time is not an effective intervention and will likely cause harm given the degree of urgency and context of need.

  34. I know there are many readers here from Australia. I would like to ask how many of them have actually seem lyre birds in the wild and how many they have seen.

    I saw my fourth wild lyre bird on Sunday evening at about sunset up on the kakoda trail at “The Thousand Steps”. It was on a section without any steps. I was running down and some other runner was running up.

    The lyre bird was caught between the two of us but saw the other runner first and headed in my direction. It ended up right at my feet before hurrying off into the scrub.

    That was my closest encounter with a wild lyre bird and, unlike the others I’ve seen in the wild, this one was entirely black.

    1. I saw them a number of times near Katoomba and Fitzroy Falls, on walks along south-facing slopes close to the edge of big gorges, in the 70s and 80s. I haven’t been on any such walks in the last 20 years, but I hope it’s not yet unusual to meet them on walking tracks in such places.

  35. Steven Pinker’s book “The better angels of our nature” has data on the worst atrocities he could find. There is a table in this interview:

    Some are religious most are not (as far as I can tell). But we see a decline in violence.

    This decline correlates nicely with an advance in liberty, human rights, science and secularization. And a lot of other things.

    1. Steven Pinker used The Big Book of Horrible Things for some of his research. After reading The Better Angels, I put some of his books he used on my reading list. This one (Big Book) is quite good and interesting. I highly recommend it.

  36. Here’s my two cents regarding a world without religion.

    Religion is a form of superstition, and it’s my personal belief that a world with less superstition is more desirable than one with more superstition.

    That’s all.

  37. Is it possible to take a rational egoist approach to the question of religion rather than a utilitarian one?

    From that point of view difficult factual questions about net harm or benefit can be ignored. If religion is a threat to me and the things and people I care about, and the collective interests of communities I identify with, then religion must be diminished in influence.

    And please notice that this is not an argument solely from first principles. Factual questions about benefits and harms oneself and one’s group interests are quite relevant.

  38. I’ve always taken the approach that religion has its origins in our personal need for authority.

    As infants we learn the authority of the parental figures, as we get older, we seek higher authorities. Until you end up with an omnipotent, invisible deity figure who knows everything that you do and will punish you if you don’t follow a certain set of rules.
    These rules are standardised over generations until they become religious laws and no one ever questions them. The adherents get a sense of security that their god is the ultimate authority and they can work to maintain a lifestyle within that comfort.

    So ultimately, religion is the adult equivalent of thumb-sucking.

    1. So ultimately, religion is the adult equivalent of thumb-sucking.

      No argument there. Whatever it might once have been, religion now, 400+ years after Galileo, is a toxic combination of infantilism, anti-intellectualism, tribalism, and fear of the unknown, completely unworthy of a thinking adult human being.

    2. Or is it more a means of justifying authority? An older sibling claims authority over younger as derived from parents. Employees derive authority from a chain of bosses. Junior officers derive their authority from higher officers. When blame needs to be placed, it can always be foisted on the higher-ups. It’s just that clergy had to invent the figure from whom they derive their authority and justify their depredations.

  39. One more new topic for this open thread (I love open threads!):

    I just ran across a very wonderful, very short story by Ken Liu, and wanted to mention it to you all. You can listen to it in less than 8 minutes here.

    Or read the 984 words here.

    Anything details would spoil it; so I’ll just say it’s about the meaning of life, and completely secular.

    1. Liu does have a way with evocative and beautiful imagery, here.

      But…although I like the story’s message, I’m not sure if I’d actually be very keen on reading the Tome of Tourmaline. Give me something I don’t already know about!

      1. Yes, true, but those of us who didn’t learn until age 50 or so that we were allowed to live our own life, and not have to let others live it for us, *didn’t* already know about it.

        1. Maybe I’m interpreting the story differently.

          **SPOILER ALERT**

          I thought the overall message of Liu’s story was that, yes, you get to be the author of your own destiny. Well, as much as is possible, anyway, given determinism. 🙂 But it seemed to me the Tome itself was simply a chronicle of your life.

  40. I’ll argue from first principles that religious belief is a pernicious habit of humans for two reasons. First, religious practices, teachings and beliefs are antithetical to the development of critical thinking skills. In the spirit of the holiday season, imagine how absurd it would be if all of us who spent our earliest years believing that a jolly man dressed in red would shinny down the chimney in late December to deliver toys and other treats perfectly suited to our personal tastes maintained those fantastic beliefs throughout our lives. Belief in Santa Claus seems to me a harmless bit of fun, largely because in nearly all cases such belief is dispelled early in life. Not so with religion and religious cultures wherein attempts to dispel equally silly myths are shunned and loudly shouted down—or worse.

    I see a direct connection between the religiousity of US society and the fact that so many citizens vote against their best interests and vote for candidates who spout evident lies—tax cuts bring prosperity, torture breeds respect, and unregulated capitalism is the ONLY sensible approach to governance. Each of those hypotheses have been tested empirically in many trials over the course of my lifetime (issue date 1960) and shown convincingly to be false—and have yet to be discarded. I can’t help thinking that if our children and students were raised in a more evidence-based society that those outcomes could have been/be avoided.

    My second “first principle” argument is founded in my view that the near-universal promulgations by organized religions of an eternal and blissful afterlife reduces the need for believers to care all that much about the here and now. Provided that one is interested in such things, I suppose that the promise of 72 virgins awaiting you after a suicide mission may be appealing. Somewhat less absurd—but absurd, nonetheless—is the notion of spending eternity in the company of family and friends. I sorely miss my parents and others, but the prospect of spending an eternity with them doesn’t do much for me, I would prefer to spend my energies making life just a little bit better in my lifetime and can’t help but think that our world would be just a little bit better if others thought the same.

    The proven success of the scientific method and the clear-headed approach to life afforded by a rational mindset seems to me the foundation of a sound society. I’m not saying it would necessarily be happy times for all, the world we live in isn’t inherently kind to our kind; but it would be nice if we could collectively face such adversity with at least a nod towards evidence gained from past experience.

  41. My answer would be that the question is neither empirical nor resolvable with logic from first principles, because it implies an objective standard whereby such terms as “bad,” “better,” and “harmful” can be defined. No such objective standard exists. At best, one can identify the consequences and then decide whether they are “go0d” or “bad” based on one’s personal subjective whims. As long as it is clearly understood that my reply is based on that standard, I would say that religion is “bad.” It is “bad” because it promotes belief in something that must profoundly influence how we live our lives and the nature of our most cherished goals, and is at the same time false. I do not think it would be “good” for me to waste my life chasing a mirage, no matter how comforting and consoling it might be, nor does it seem to me that I have somehow acquired a right to decide that it’s good for other people to chase the mirage, whether for their own imagined good or mine.

  42. “god is not Great” and “The End Of Faith” were without a doubt written to show that not just religion, but belief in a god, is bad for humanity. The subtitle of “god is not Great” is “How Religion Poisons Everything” and “The End Of Faith” illustrates how religious belief is predicated upon the suspension of reason. Alan Dershowitz, in the first quote on the back cover, writes that the book “demonstrates how faith…threatens our very existence”.

    I got all the proof I needed that the catholic religion is bad for me when Father O’Keefe told my 9th grade homeroom, in an hour long lecture, why masturbation was a mortal sin punishable by eternity in hell unless confessed to a priest like himself. I already knew that many of the priests who taught in my high school were pedophiles (though I didn’t use that word) and hell on earth to me was confessing something like that to any one of them. I chose to take the chance that hell doesn’t exist. I know I haven’t proven to anyone but myself that religion is bad for the world and always has been, but it sure seems logical to me that it can’t be good for most people to believe in something that doesn’t exist yet tells them what to do.

  43. Science has made the necessity for religion obsolete it is not a matter of whether religion has been good or bad. I like to think
    it is simply and old cart whose wheels have fallen off.. it goes nowhere any more.
    There is lots of evidence as to it’s role, beneficial, destructive effects etc, just like political systems, we could measure it’s impact by counting the dead, contribution to music the arts, hospitals, orphanages to name a few.
    After these considerations I start having a problem, how do we make a measurement? the variables are so immense it becomes an exercise in frutility e.g. my pain is acute and long lasting, yours is mild and short lived, work that out over centuries and millions of misery hours deducted from hours of happiness, correlated to all religions.

    Alan Turing, how do you measure his loss? we will never know, let alone his own personal suffering. High profile example but you could also ask, what of all those unseen lost in the religious graveyard of history, near and far on the time line. What did they have to offer?

    Humanity has outgrown religion by way of empirical science and critical thinking. Education, freedom and certainly technology,
    has taken us forward where we can safely acknowledge religion for it’s triumphs and it’s failings, for now as religion is in it’s death throes, we have bigger issues to deal with.
    For many it would be, a meaningful existence without it but I would hold, the deeper you delve with reason and a drive to understanding your place, yep, there is a personal value, non static and very sustainable.

  44. Religion is probably a necessary, if painful and sometimes brutal step toward Enlightenment ideals. Societies grasp at understanding truth and morality while mired in ignorance. They make up all kind of crazy shit. It’s called religion. As knowledge increases, as science progresses and reason takes hold, much of the crazy shit is chucked overboard, but at least some of the moral code of religion remains and is incorporated into a secular world view.

    When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
    1 Corinthians 11

  45. So how about Aquilops, the oldest horned dinosaur found in North America? Big implications for ceratopsian biogeography.

          1. Found it. Thanks🐱. Had some internet issues on the road yesterday with my iPad ( w 3G) and when I called the FREE # for tech support, was charged $24 +$26 for the two calls – lost signal in the mtns. Called Rogers when I got home ( both cell and iPad through them) and got my $50 back. Thank CC for small favors…

  46. New topic: Ayn Rand

    Has she been as influential on U.S. attitudes as this article suggests?

    She is often cited in lists of notable atheists. Is that an embarrassment to (gnu) atheists? Is it beneficial anyway, as Rand’s atheism might make atheism more acceptable to those more politically aligned with her (i.e., the “Christian” Right)?


    1. Is that an embarrassment to (gnu) atheists?


      Is it beneficial anyway, as Rand’s atheism might make atheism more acceptable to those more politically aligned with her (i.e., the “Christian” Right)?

      Is an African American who favors disbanding the NAACP and repealing the Civil Rights Act beneficial to African Americans because they might seem appealing to the Tea Party?

        1. It’s not embarrassing that she’s an atheist. It’s embarrassing that she’s someone people immediately think of when they hear the word. She’s not someone I want to have any association with except as opposition.

          1. I dont see why her unsavory philosophies should cause me any embarrassment at all. That’s (well, was) her problem. You wouldn’t say British people should be embarrassed by Jack the Ripper’s British-ness, would you?

          2. It’s interesting that über-Catholic Paul Ryan (aka Eddie Munster’s evil twin) was a wholly devoted disciple of Ayn Rand, even to the point of making her drivel required reading for all of his staffers (what does he think he is – a cat? Staff? That’s not for the likes of him) until it was pointed out that she was an atheist; then he denounced and renounced her. More religious hypocracy.

          3. Concur. The idea that she’s promoted as a laudable example of “an atheist” is galling to me. And, in some ways, she’s almost the straw-man atheist that some theists “believe in”; selfish, immoral/amoral, &c.


          4. Yeah, and her resemblance to that straw-atheist is pretty ironic given that the religious right have embraced her philosophy (minus the atheism, naturally). Just mentioning the name Galt is enough to get them all Randy. Their shenanigans are going to give me an Ayneurism.

            But as much as some know-nothing claiming she’s representative of atheists would also gall me, I’m not embarrassed by the fact that she was an atheist. I had nothing to do with that.

        2. It’s interesting that über-Catholic Paul Ryan (aka Eddie Munster’s evil twin) was a wholly devoted disciple of Ayn Rand, even to the point of making her drivel required reading for all of his staffers (what does he think he is – a cat? Staff? That’s not for the likes of him) until it was pointed out that she was an atheist; then he denounced and renounced her. More religious hypocracy.

          1. Sorry about the duplicated post. That was a browser glitch. Apparently Firefox can’t hire competent programmers.

    2. Has she been as influential on U.S. attitudes as this article suggests?


      Every time I see a new AlterNet piece I realize why I stopped reading there long ago. It’s nothing but a tabloid.

      “Not only did Rand make it “moral” for the wealthy not to pay their fair share of taxes, she “liberated” millions of other Americans from caring about the suffering of others, even the suffering of their own children.”

      Huh? Citation, please. For every callow college freshman who fell for her tripe there were ten times as many who couldn’t get past the first chapter of Atlas or Fountainhead.

      I much prefer this recent article:

      “New ‘lost’ Ayn Rand novel will bring her crimes against literature to new generation of jerks”

      It was once wryly observed by author John Rogers that “(t)here are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

  47. I agree that these questions, while interesting, are meaningless. I do think it is an inevitable thing that we have had to progress through a long period when humans sought to explain the world around them as best they could, & it seems to me that lacking modern understanding we HAD to pass through that phase.

    We just have to slough it off now…!

  48. Yeah, no,I’m not falling for that trap. Everybody knows how those “talk about anything you want” threads end, and you are probably well aware of the current griefs in the wider community, so I’ll make it brief:

    Alicja’s best friend has been staying at our place since Saturday, and for some reason our kitties have decided that she was the new queen of the house. They snob us and just cuddle with Natalia. And they’re not even that cuddly at the best of times!

    Where’s the world coming to, I ask you? There might be a shortage of kibbles for certain cats in the next few day…

    1. Intriguing. (Although the article doesn’t set itself up very well when it claims that the Copenhagen interpretation is the “orthodox view of quantum mechanics”; it might have been once, but it’s now widely regarded as unsatisfactory.)

      But perhaps this question is better asked over on Sean Carroll’s blog. 🙂


      1. The orthodox interpretation (where “observer” is taken subjectivistically) is provably wrong, and yet is naively taught still, partly because residual realism and such do inculcate physicists (except when on “philosophical holidays” [Bunge]) against taking it seriously.

  49. As other people on this thread have said, I don’t see any empirical way of answering this question. I come to this issue from a particular position, which is that I live in a country (Ethiopia) that is saturated with religion, mostly Christian (Ethiopian Orthodox). It is also near the bottom of the global development index, though rising slowly. Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is probably as close as you can get today to mediaeval Catholicism in Europe, even to the point of conducting its services in the equivalent of Latin, a language called Ge’ez, which only priests are taught to speak. Although translations of the bible exist in Amharic, most people rely on the priests to tell them what the bible says, as was the case in mediaeval Europe. The above should give you a good idea of what it is like –authoritarian, arrogant, venal, corrupt, ritualistic, wilfully ignorant. On the subject of the thread, however, there are three points I would like to make:

    1. Despite all these religious failings, in a country that is 85% rural and based on subsistence agriculture, the only sense of holiday leisure that much of the population ever experiences is on a holy day. The big religious festivals still play the same role here (at least outside the capital) that they probably played in mediaeval Europe. The church here may not be a force for good, but it is the only game in town. This has probably been true ever since human beings shifted from hunting and gathering to agriculture. In the rich world, we have found other things to do with our holi(y)days, but here (and to a lesser extent in other countries in Africa where I have spent time, though I suspect that Ethiopia is distinctive in that it has never been colonised), the importance of religion and religious holidays, and the pleasure they bring, are apparent in people’s demeanour.
    2. Strangely, despite everything we know about Catholicism and the Catholic Church, in Ethiopia I would say that it is broadly a force for good. Most of the best educated Ethiopians I know were taught in Catholic schools. I live opposite the Catholic school in my town (Bahir Dar) and know the sisters quite well. Native Ethiopians, they are pious in quite a simple sense (they have no doubt about the daily occurrence of miracles), but they teach a broad curriculum including basic evolution and, to the best of my knowledge, keep religion out of the classroom, making no attempt to convert their pupils from Ethiopian Orthodox to Catholicism.
    3. My third point is about the power of religion in general. I’m sure most of us are familiar with Steven Weinman’s remark “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion”. I would add another possibility: “for people to do exceptionally good things, that takes religion.” I know an American woman here, another Catholic, who at the age of 18 received “a call” from you know who, telling her to go to Africa. She did so, ended up in Ethiopia, set up a small charity to provide childcare for single mothers so that they could work to feed their children. She now has an orphanage and a primary school, employs about 40 women, has adopted four children and has three more of her own with her Ethiopian husband. The point I want to make is not that because of religion she is an exceptionally “good person” (no doubt the psychological forces driving her are as murky as anyone else’s), but that her absolute belief that she is in the hands of a higher power gives her the strength to do exceptionally good things and overcome obstacles that those of us without such belief would balk at. The broader point is that this perhaps makes religion adaptive, in a sense that Dawkins rejects, that belief gives people the strength to do things (good or bad) that those without it could not, or to put it differently, belief acts as a booster to self-belief. Of course, this would have to be demonstrated to have a genetic basis (i.e. that the capacity for powerful belief is transmissible in some ways). In addition, of course, the counterargument is that the capacity for powerful belief can be highly non-adaptive, leading young men (in particular – and catholic celibacy is of course non-adaptive for both sexes) to sacrifice themselves before passing on their genes. However, if I understand the theory correctly, a trait only has to be slightly adaptive to be persist…

    1. The problem with your idea that religion is necessary for exceptional good is that it implies religion has something on offer that no secular system has. Given that the supernatural claims have zero evidence, “the call” this girl received likely has a natural cause, not a theistic cause. As a counterpoint to your example, Google the story of Pat Tillman, an atheist who gave up the fame, fortune and comfort of the NFL and wound up dying in Afghanistan. No religion necessary for him to take up a cause he deemed bigger than himself.

      1. Believe me, I hold no brief for religion of any kind. And I was not suggesting that the woman I wrote about truly “received a call”. As a materialist, I assume that receiving a call is an event in the brain like any other. I’m just saying that this event in the brain gives some people the ability to persuade themselves that they have the personal support and assistance of the creator of the universe, and this makes it possible to do things that are difficult (though, of course, not impossible) for the rest of us to do, whether it be cold-bloodedly decapitating a fellow human being, or devoting one’s entire life to a particular good cause. More than that, it perhaps gives psychological resources that are not generally available to most people without that capacity for belief (or, if you prefer, self deceit).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *