I don’t really follow Twitter, but sometimes it makes news when a prominent person deletes a tweet, as when Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times’s 1619 project deleted several tweets, including one drawing a distinction between being “politically black” and “racially black.” That made news, as did the tweet below issued about two weeks ago by Steve Pinker and then deleted. This puzzled me as I didn’t really see anything wrong with the tweet itself, though I didn’t read the linked Washington Post article.
I found out about the deleted tweet from reader Ginger K., who sent me this article from the respectable-sounding American Council on Science and Health (click on screenshot to read), which says it’s a nonprofit advocacy group but, according to sources cited in its Wikipedia article, is heavily funded by corporations, and takes some bizarre stands that align with corporate sponsorship.
At any rate, the author, a microbiologist, took issue with Steve’s statement that religion is a malignant delusion. Apparently Berezow’s main beef is not that it’s a delusion, but Pinker’s claim that it’s a malignant delusion. But he clearly implies in the last sentence that the idea of an afterlife is also wrong (I’m betting Berezow is a believer, but at least, judging by his critical review of Faith Versus Fact in Forbes, he’s a “believer in belief”). Here’s the heart of Berezow’s beef, his rhetorical filet mignon:
The other day, Dr. Pinker made a rare and unfortunate misstep. In a tweet that has been since deleted (but is still available on Facebook!), he claimed that belief in an afterlife is a “malignant delusion” because it “devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier.” This is total nonsense.
Let’s set aside the debate on whether there is an afterlife or whether any religious beliefs are true. Religious people (who, in general, tend to believe in an afterlife) are happier and more civic-minded than non-religious people. They are also likelier to have better mental health. We appear to be evolutionarily wired for belief in a higher power, so even if religion is a bunch of hogwash and fairy tales, it’s still good for you and for society.
There’s so much more. Research published in the Journal of Medical Ethics shows that “doctors who described themselves as non-religious were more likely than others to report having given continuous deep sedation until death” and “having taken decisions they expected or partly intended to end life.” Yikes. One could easily expect the exact opposite. If a doctor believes in the afterlife, perhaps he wouldn’t be so worried if a patient made the transition sooner rather than later. But, counterintuitively, that’s not what the researchers discovered. It was the non-religious doctors who took actions to end lives.
On second thought, maybe it isn’t quite so counterintuitive. Have you ever noticed how many hospitals are named for Catholic saints? That’s because religious people in general, and Catholics in particular, have an obligation to tend to the sick and dying. During the plagues of antiquity, Christians famously put their own lives on the line in order to care for the stricken.
Simply put, Dr. Pinker’s claims are demonstrably wrong. Let’s hope he comes around to accepting this evidence-based worldview.
Note that Berezow says claims in the plural. That presumably means that religion is not just salubrious, but that there is an afterlife. And if you take an “evidenced based world view on that”, then no, you don’t have to buy heaven or hell.
There is no evidence here save the claim, which can be argued, that religion makes people happier, and makes doctors less likely to sedate people about to die (morphine overdoses and so on). Whether it’s better to prolong terminal illness or give morphine with the patient’s consent can also be argued, but I’d opt for the latter. Berezow’s whole argument hinges on religion being salubrious, even if it is wrong. I’d add, but I must be brief, that you have to take into account not just individual happiness but societal well being, and, as Steve argues convincingly in Better Angels, one of the main impediments to moral progress in the last several centuries has been religion, which is an obstacle not just to scientific advances but to rational thinking about morality. He reprises some of those arguments in his email below, and I’ve argued at length (in Faith Versus Fact, among other places), that true morality as we conceive of it today is not religious morality, but some kind of innate or secular societally-based morality. Plato demolished God as a source of morality (well, piety, really, but it’s the same logic) in his Euthyphro Argument.
And to claim that you should believe in something because it makes you happy and “civic minded” (like American evangelicals?) reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s quote about the “happiness of credulity”:
“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.”
I wrote to Steve asking why he deleted the tweet, that I had no issue with it, and added that I was just inquiring and had no intention of repeating what he said. But after he answered me, he said I was welcome to quote him on this site. So I am. Steve’s words are indented, and the quotes he gives indented further. To his credit, one of the reasons he deleted his tweet was because the article he quoted wasn’t as strong an argument as he liked. But read on for Steve’s whole email response (yes, this is the kind of emails he sends):
As you can imagine, the tweet triggered a flood of obscene and abusive emails. This would not by itself have led me to take down the tweet, but on re-reading the Washington Post op-ed that I linked to (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/20/whats-really-behind-republicans-wanting-swift-reopening-evangelicals/), I realized that the empirical case for attributing resistance to Covid shutdowns to belief in an afterlife was thin — the author cited just one quote from one Evangelical politician. Together with the fact that my tweet-length comment was more provocative than necessary given the space available to explain my views, the lack of data to establish the connection made me reluctant to keep the tweet posted. (With today’s polarization, I don’t think it’s a good idea to piss people off without a strong argument.)
I do strongly suspect that belief in an afterlife encourages a lack of rational concern for societal problems. A similar argument was made in a more recent article in The Spectator https://spectator.us/eschatology-stupid-christianity-coronavirus/ , with a telling quote from Hulk Hogan, though still without data. And we have good reason to think that belief in God’s goodness abets climate change denial — the 2000 Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship addressed the “so-called climate crisis” and other environmental problems by affirming that “God in His mercy has not abandoned sinful people or the created order but has acted throughout history to restore men and women to fellowship with Him and through their stewardship to enhance the beauty and fertility of the earth.”
We also know from Philip Zuckerman and Gregory Paul’s correlations (and additional ones I conducted for Enlightenment Now) that more religious countries and states do more poorly on just about every indicator of societal well-being, even (in the case of my analysis) holding GDP statistically constant. But in comparisons across political units, many variables are intercorrelated, we could use a good data scientist, statistician, or econometrician to squeeze causation out of the correlation matrix and show that religious belief per se leads to policy complacency. I would bet it does.
In addition to societal inaction, there are, of course, even more malignant implications of belief in an afterlife. As I noted in explaining the death toll of the Crusades and Inquisition in Better Angels:
Institutionalized torture in Christendom was not just an unthinking habit; it had a moral rationale. If you really believe that failing to accept Jesus as one’s savior is a ticket to fiery damnation, then torturing a person until he acknowledges this truth is doing him the biggest favor of his life: better a few hours now than an eternity later. And silencing a person before he can corrupt others, or making an example of him to deter the rest, is a responsible public health measure. Saint Augustine brought the point home with a pair of analogies: a good father prevents his son from picking up a venomous snake, and a good gardener cuts off a rotten branch to save the rest of the tree.[i] The method of choice had been specified by Jesus himself: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (John 15:6).
Once again, the point of this discussion is not to accuse Christians of endorsing torture and persecution. Of course most devout Christians today are thoroughly tolerant and humane people. Even those who thunder from televised pulpits do not call for burning heretics alive or hoisting Jews on the strappado. The question is why they don’t, given that their beliefs imply that it would serve the greater good. The answer is that people in the West today compartmentalize their religious ideology. When they affirm their faith in houses of worship, they profess beliefs that have barely changed in two thousand years. But when it comes to their actions, they respect modern norms of nonviolence and toleration, a benevolent hypocrisy for which we should all be grateful.
And then there are the suicide terrorists…
There have been a couple of other replies to my tweet, including one from the conservative blogger and radio host Dennis Prager:
https://www.arcamax.com/politics/fromtheright/dennisprager/s-2366593?fs and the online edition of Newsweek: https://www.newsweek.com/authors/lee-habeeb-0
(I wrote to Prager offering to debate this with him, but have not heard back.)
These articles recycle the usual secular arguments for religious belief: the religious give more to charity, and so on.
I’d add an additional point in response to the secular argument for religiosity, which I noted in Enlightenment Now:
It’s long been known that churchgoers are happier and more charitable than stay-at-homes, but Robert Putnam and his fellow political scientist David Campbell have found that these blessings have nothing to do with beliefs in God, creation, heaven, or hell.[i] An atheist who has been pulled into a congregation by an observant spouse is as charitable as the faithful among the flock, whereas a fervent believer who prays alone is not particularly charitable. At the same time, communality and civic virtue can be fostered by membership in secular service communities such as the Shriners (with their children’s hospitals and burn units), Rotary International (which is helping to end polio), and Lions Club (which combats blindness)—even, according to Putnam and Campbell’s research, a bowling league.
Just as religious institutions deserve praise when they pursue humanistic ends, they should not be shielded from criticism when they obstruct those ends. Examples include the withholding of medical care from sick children in faith-healing sects, the opposition to humane assisted dying, the corruption of science education in schools, the suppression of touchy biomedical research such as on stem cells, and obstruction of lifesaving public health policies such as contraception, condoms, and vaccination against HPV.[ii] Nor should religions be granted a presumption of a higher moral purpose. Faitheists who have hoped that the moralistic fervor of Evangelical Christianity might be channeled into movements for social improvement have repeatedly gotten burned. In the early 2000s, a bipartisan coalition of environmentalists hoped to make common cause with Evangelicals on climate change under rubrics like Creation Care and Faith-Based Environmentalism. But Evangelical churches are an anchor faction of the Republican Party, which adopted a strategy of absolute noncooperation with the Obama administration. Political tribalism carried the day, and the Evangelicals fell into line, opting for radical libertarianism over stewardship of the Creation.[iii]
Similarly, in 2016 there was a brief hope that the Christian virtues of humility, temperance, forgiveness, propriety, chivalry, thrift, and compassion toward the weak would turn Evangelicals against a casino developer who was vainglorious, sybaritic, vindictive, lewd, misogynistic, ostentatiously wealthy, and contemptuous of the people he called “losers.” But no: Donald Trump won the votes of 81 percent of white Evangelical and born-again Christians, a higher proportion than of any other demographic.[iv] In large part he earned their votes by promising to repeal a law which prohibits tax-exempt charities (including churches) from engaging in political activism.[v] Christian virtue was trumped by political muscle.
And from Professor Ceiling Cat: I’d add that a lot has happened since 2016 to support Steve’s argument that evangelical Christians haven’t improved America, and it can be encapsulated in a five-letter name that starts with “T” and ends with “p”. The malignancy of at least extreme Abrahamic faith as a termite in the foundations of American society is obvious.