January 25, 2006

The Elvis of Religion

Oops, make that: the Evils of Religion. Sorry about that.

Am I alone in thinking that the question of whether or not Religion (qua religion) is "bad" or "good" is a rather frivolous one? Is Politics "good"? Or is it, on the other hand, "bad"? And what about Art? Good or bad? Well once we find the answer, we can just eliminate the bad categories of human experience and keep the good ones, and life will be much more pleasing, aesthetically and morally, with no more annoying religious people getting in the way of our good time. Is that the idea?

In reality, though (if I may use the term) even if Richard Dawkins were to make the bestest TV show in the whole world, this new improved version of humanity would still be quite unlikely to emerge. Who's being irrational here?

On the other hand, I recognize the value and pleasure of harrumphing about this and that. I do a lot of harrumphing myself. I hate everything, but not really. Everything is bad and should be eliminated, my inner harrumpher is always going around saying. Not that I think it'll change anything. Harrumph away, my fine anti-whatever friends, and I shall do the same.

I'm not saying the argument doesn't have its moments. For example, if you like, here you can observe two very, very smart people sparring over the goodness or badness of Religion: Norm portrays the atheist who is too broadminded to take his own side in an argument, while Ophelia, seeing through the lies, would rather have an accelerated program of deculturation. A world without faith and hope: what a beautiful dream.


UPDATE: Just to add: I think Norm wins, for whatever that's worth. But then I would, wouldn't I?

But here's an extraordinary comment from Ophelia's comment box:

It's not going to be easy to use, but I think we [people who hate religion qua religion] have the upper hand, and for one very simple reason: I think we can understand their reasons for belief better than they can understand our reasons for non-belief. They have had to blinker themselves, limit their mental horizons, artificially restrict their capacity for real thought, in order to be able to continue to believe. It isn't a question of out-arguing the other side. Their weapons to promote belief are less effective on someone who is already doing his own thinking. Or, to put it another way, we possess more rational tools to understand what lies at the root of their beliefs. I consider that a strategic advantage.
What is this, the regional division play-offs? Go team! Posted by Dr. Frank at January 25, 2006 05:48 PM | TrackBack

Well, Dr F, I do take my own (atheist) side in this argument often enough. But I don't see any necessity, in taking that side, to deny that there is any good in religion.

Posted by: Norm at January 25, 2006 06:09 PM

Oh, I know, Norm. I was trying to be, you know, pithy and trenchant and provocative. As one does.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at January 25, 2006 06:24 PM

I don't think that the question is frivolous. I just think it's asked in the wrong way. I try to think of it like, is it good/bad that religion exists rather than is religion itself good/bad. Does that make sense? I'm not referring to annoying religious people and whether or not it's good that they exist. But, I do think it's good that there is something out there for people to latch onto if they feel they need to.

So, I guess I'm probably the type of person who is too broadminded to take my own side in an argument, but it that really a bad thing? I just think that religion should be a discussion rather than an argument because there's no point in arguing about it. Religion is based on things that can't be argued against because it's a person's own belief and faith that makes it what it is. I mean, arguments happen. I know I've let myself get caught up in them. But it's the arguments that I view as frivolous, not the subject.

Posted by: Amy 80 at January 25, 2006 06:31 PM

If people want to believe in religion and a heaven and hell then let them for what harm is it doing you. If somebody wants to believe there is no such thing then let them and when the time comes they will either repent or wallow in the depths of hell.

I believe the Old Testament says that you should tell people of the Lord and the gospel. If you tell them of it and they refuse to believe or accept then you are not responsible for their sins, but if you do not tell them about the Lord and the gospel then you are as damned as they are.

Posted by: Zaphod at January 25, 2006 07:49 PM

Zaphod's first paragraph is one of the funniest things I've ever read.

Personally, religions (all of 'em) scare the bejeebers outta me. I like churches though. I guess that goes for mosques and synagogues and sacrificial altars located deep within the woods too, if only for bringing the local community together.

If it weren't for church, my sister would have almost no social life outside her husband and kids.

If it weren't for the local sacrificial altar buried deep within the woods, my buddy Charlie...

Actually, Charlie's no longer with us.

Posted by: Tim at January 25, 2006 11:18 PM

a little harsh at first there Zaph,but I like your latter thoughts. But then again that brings up a thought,do you mean responsible or accountable? I believe we're all acountable for our own doings and non-doings in life.

two other things:

1.if you're doing anything for the sake of something to "latch onto" its definately bad.

2.no frank,you had it right,quite plausibly it can be the elvis of religion. i now all you hip kids prefer deriving everything '65 and up but i prefer everything before.

Posted by: just me at January 25, 2006 11:29 PM

Alas poor Charlie...once he started playing D&D, it was all over.

When I replaced "belief(s)" in the comment from Ophelia's box with "harumph(s)," it was a funner read. And actually, Dr. F, your entry really brings up another point: is there really any "good" harumphing or "bad" harumphing?

Posted by: sheckie at January 25, 2006 11:32 PM

I don't know what makes someone think that everything around them is so real that they can only latch onto that. Why not pray and believe and have faith in something good even if it is a stretch. Whadda ya got to lose? Just don't knock on my door with the literature.

Posted by: matty at January 25, 2006 11:42 PM

Matty, that's exactly what I meant. I think that too many people view those who latch onto religion as bad thing. What's so wrong with wanting to believe in something more? It gives people hope and motivation. Honestly, I'd much rather talk to someone who is passionate about something they believe than talk to someone who doesn't want to believe in anything. I can respect a person's views, but it doesn't make things very interesting.

I like the points that Ophelia brings up because I completely agree with her. Most people who don't buy into religion have a better understanding of the need for it than those who do. But, I don't think that's a bad thing. Their beliefs may limit them but not believing can limit people just as much. My family is full of people on the extremes of each end of the religious spectrum. They argue and accomplish absolutely nothing. I say, believe what you want, I know I'm not losing any sleep over it.

Posted by: Amy 80 at January 26, 2006 12:21 AM

there's nothing wrong with it in a sense but in the words of Ben Weasel "i don't want just something to believe in". I go to church but not just for the sake of going or having something to believe in,I think there's to many people that do that. I mean,I guess if its between that and jumping off a bridge okay,but there's got to be a breaking point where you do it for a reason.

Posted by: Just me at January 26, 2006 01:02 AM

I think the Athees lost the regional playoff with that last quote. Blech.

This is the same debate as the "Democrats are smarter than Republicans" one from last year, except possibly marginally lamer.

True believers and true non-believers both don't really get involved in such discussions, as they have little to prove. And in my book both sides are approaching the same answer.

Posted by: Wesley at January 26, 2006 01:48 AM


Posted by: Mike at January 26, 2006 02:01 AM

Zaph -- I don't recall the Old Testament saying anything about the "gospel," but then, it's been months since I read the Old Testament.

Theists who can't respect atheism or atheists who can't respect theism -- I'm really not sure who, on balance, are smugger or more grating.

I guess I'm of the view that theism -- at least insofar as you think of it as of as some kind of openness toward the transcendent -- is not entirely unlike sexuality: It can lead to a lot of harm. But then, if you accordingly want to get rid of it altogether, it'll tend to come back in some sort of fucked-up way.

At any rate, as much as I've known too many unreasonable religoids in my few years, I have to take exception to this: "Most people who don't buy into religion have a better understanding of the need for it than those who do."

Oh? Maybe anecdotal evidence suggests this more or less convincingly depending on who you hang out with. But this is way to cozy an assertion for me ...

Posted by: John Gould at January 26, 2006 05:19 AM

You're very entertaining. You should write a book or something.

Posted by: Mitch Clem at January 26, 2006 08:42 AM

Hey Frank, for real, I'm not interested into discussing a so wide and complicated issue
which would risk to cover the pages of your blog for the next 10 years (and I bet the issue will not be solved!).... Anyway, from a reading of your words, a question for you has arisen in my mind: are you perhaps a person so broadminded to take your own side in an argument?

Posted by: lucarock at January 26, 2006 09:33 AM

You're right John, I was in error. The 1st mention of the gospel was in Matthew 24:14

Posted by: Zaphod at January 26, 2006 01:56 PM

The problems of religion aren't with religion per se, but are the same problems that can exist with any belief that people dedicate themselves to. People are hard wired for loyalty to their world views which are developed early on in life. Specifically we might be hard wired to simply believe what adults tell us as children. Perhaps also to put trust in the oppinions of "experts". Sure our beliefs can change, but it often takes more than rational analysis. Recent biopsychological studies have demonstrated that we think more critically when disecting opponents of our prior convictions and we actually take joy (biochemical rewards in our brains) in cognitive dissodence when viewing contridictions in our own priors. The type of thinking clearly had and probably still has its evolutionary advantages. Specifiac religious views are clearly had memetic advantages in the past, although the specific teachings of Catholicism might be vestigial in light of our current state of knowledge. There is still the memetic advantage of Church society. Studies have shown that churches can function as a form of private social insurance. In places with large welfare states religion becomes less important, or conversely in places where religion is less important large welfare states develop. Of course, any meme, whether it is called religion or not, that gets a lot of people to believe that "Zero" is evil is probably a bad thing, but no more so than trying to convince people of counterfactuals such as "the rich get richer while the poor get poorer."

Anyway, all of that was a convoluted way of me saying "what are you gonna do." Singling out religion as a whole is pretty arbitray, when the root cause effects the way we think about the whole world. People will continue to believe experts and defend their own beliefs on everything from Ford vs. Chevy, to whether the Universe needs a creator, even when specific beliefs about those issues are demonstrably false. Um,.. so let's party! (I'm alright, don't nobody worry 'bout me. Why you gotta give me a fight?...)

Posted by: josh at January 26, 2006 03:17 PM

Also, I think I should point out that memes such as Zero being evil tend to die out (although they can do some damage while they last) while religion as ceremonies and community and self-identity tend to survive for what thats worth.

Posted by: josh at January 26, 2006 03:25 PM

The huge ego of the anti-religious crowd has to be the biggest reason. As a punk rocker studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood I'd have to say what got me out of the whole I know the mind of the dumb believer was realizing that my mom and dad weren't actually dumb, nor were St. Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Therese of Liesieux, or....I could go on.

G.K. Chesterton wrote the true madman celebrates democracy and rejects tradition when the two seem to go hand in hand. To embrace the egoism of many moderns seems to reject any wisdom that came before which is obviously a more repulsive error than most errors religious types make. You can't say that an ideology was fine for a genius like St. Thomas Aquinas but then say we're too good for it. It's an intellectual dead end that most of your readers seem all too prepared to drive into.

Posted by: Punkers27 at January 27, 2006 01:00 AM

"A world without faith and hope: what a beautiful dream."

Ah, but that's not what I want or argue for at all at all. But (as so often) it depends on how you define 'faith'. It's faith in the dogmatically asserted existence of a supernatural (hence unverifiable) being that I argue against - not any and all kinds of faith, let alone hope.

I said only the other day, that if religious 'faith' were actually a hope rather than a truth-claim, a modest speculation rather than an insisted-on assertion, I would never breathe a word against it. But it so seldom is either of those.

Posted by: Ophelia Benson at January 27, 2006 06:20 PM

Ophelia -- It seems to me that you're getting into the presumptive business of micro-managing the human heart here.

So, "modest speculation" is okay but "insisted-on assertion" and "unverifiable truth-claims" are not?

Or is it alright if I actually do *believe* in something unverifiable -- that I experience this belief as genuine belief rather than just as *speculation* -- so long as I don't *assert* it to anyone?

Posted by: John Gould at January 27, 2006 07:15 PM

John Gould,

You mean presumptuous?

Anyway, I don't see why that follows. I said if religion were a hope and so on that I wouldn't breathe a word against it. Now, how does that consitute micromanaging 'the human heart'? I didn't say if religion were a hope and so on that I wouldn't keep on locking people up for being religious. Do you take criticism of religion to be coercive? To be tantamount to interfering with people's right to believe what they like?

And why are you asking me what is okay and what is all right? To imply that I'm attempting to exert some kind of force, right? But where do you get that idea?

Posted by: Ophelia Benson at January 27, 2006 07:43 PM

No, I meant presumptive.

Nor was I being literal: I understand that you don't want *literally* to micro-manage the human heart. And I certainly didn't suggest that you want to coerce anyone.

My point would be that people experience the transcendent in all kinds of ways which, themselves, interact in all kinds of ways. These can include hope, or love, or even *belief*. Which is to say, it can involve "unverifiable truth-claims." This is simply part of many people's spiritual lives, and to bracket it out as epistemologically illegitimate -- as you do -- is I think spiritually stultifying in a way I was trying to get at with my little attempt to turn a phrase.

I am asking you what's okay and what's alright because you have very clearly articulated positions on what's a good way to think, feel, and believe about the transcendent and what is not.

Posted by: John Gould at January 27, 2006 08:41 PM

Another question for you, Ophelia: why should it matter, with regard to the thing being speculated upon, whether that speculation is modest or otherwise? If I have read your posts correctly, your objection is that the very notion that there is something upon which to speculate is a "lie." The fact that people who disagree can express themselves in an obnoxious manner seems a bit beside the point. Or is it, in the end, merely a matter of temperament after all?

Posted by: Dr. Frank at January 27, 2006 09:16 PM

Well, no doubt it is spiritually stultifying, but on the other hand, to claim that 'faith' is a perfectly sound way to know facts about the world is stultifying in other ways.

No, I do not think that the very notion that there is something to speculate on is a lie. Just for one thing, I spend a good many odd moments trying to figure out exactly where the Big Bang happened, and what there was before that. I mean, was the Big Bang resting on a table before it was the Big Bang, or what? Where was this lump of matter that exploded into the known universe? I want to know! And I can't. Of course there's something to speculate on.

(the thing about the table is a joke)

Posted by: Ophelia Benson at January 28, 2006 01:30 AM

Ophelia -- Who claims that faith is a "perfectly sound" way to know "facts about the world"?

Posted by: John Gould at January 28, 2006 05:45 AM
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