Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Great Religion Debate Part 3: Is the world better off without religion?

Religion is a notoriously difficult word to define. For the purposes of the Great Religion Debate I defined religion as "the belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny." Although it may be impossible to find a perfect definition of religion and many will find some issue no matter what definition is provided, this definition differentiates religion from things like philosophy, worldviews and politics.

Although every religion is a worldview, not every worldview is a religion. Under this definition Christianity is a religion, Judaism is a religion, and so is Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Scientology, and some forms of Buddhism and Confucianism. Political ideologies, theories and philosophies like liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, socialism and communism are not religions. Neither are naturalistic philosophies such as existentialism or determinism.

One of the best orators against the social effects of religion was the late Christopher Hitchens. He put forth four basic reasons in the beginning of his best seller God is Not Great indicting religion as a poison to the enlightened world. Religious faith he argued:

1) wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos
2) because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism
3) it is both the result and cause of dangerous sexual repressions 
4) it is ultimately grounded in wish-thinking

Many argue that it's not religion in and of itself that causes any harm, it's people acting wrongly in the name of religion that results in this harm. This is usually coupled with the view that it's only some versions of some religions that can be harmful, but that religion as a whole is not to blame. There is no doubt that we must consider nuance when dealing with a concept as complex as religion. I do not in any way think all religions are equally harmful. The term "religion" is like the term "sport," to use Sam Harris' analogy. Some are much more prone to harm than others. To think all religions are equally harmful (or equally good) is therefore naive.

I personally think that the most harmful religions are generally the ones that posit a god that issues dogmatic commands that produce harm and ones that promote harmful pseudosciences and superstitions. Most, if not all religions, have this to varying degrees. Islam and Christianity are perfect examples of religions with this. Deism, although technically a religion under the definition I used above, would be an example of the least harmful religion, because it emphasizes reason over dogma and divine command. So there is a scale of harmfulness that the world's religions occupy, with deism being the most rational and least harmful, and the fundamentalist versions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (along with many other theisms) leaning towards the least rational and most harmful end of the scale. In every case, the least religious the religion is, the less harmful it is.

The popularity of religion and its influence must also be factored into how harmful a religion is. Scientology is a very harmful (and expensive) religion, but its popularity and sphere of influence on the world scale is very small compared to Islam. If there were over a billion Scientologists around the world, the harm caused by Scientology would be greatly increased.

It is my view that whatever good can come from religion can be supplied without it, and whatever bad that can come from religion, in some cases, has to come from religion. But I'm against anything - religious or secular - that hinders intellectual and moral progress. It would be stupid and naive of me to think that only religion does this. So I would against stress that I'm not arguing that religion alone is the root of all our problems and evils. That being said, let me defend some of the points Hitchens made above.

1. Religious belief wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos
Religions were invented at a time when we knew virtually nothing about the true origin and nature of the cosmos and of humankind, and for that reason, every religion (with the possible exception of deism which doesn't have a creation story but still has a divine first cause) gets our origins completely wrong. Still today, nearly 40% of Americans think the earth is less than 10,000 years old and that we coexisted with dinosaurs. Similarly high rates of young earth creationism exist throughout the Islamic world, where some countries like Saudi Arabia ban the teaching of evolution in its public schools because it conflicts with the Qur'an. This is directly attributable to religion, which, due to its misrepresentations of the origins of man and the cosmos, helps foster scientific ignorance. The belief in a god increases the tendency to seek supernatural answers to scientific problems, and that's why religion and science are incompatible. This I argue is harmful.

2. Because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism
Virtually every religion posits human beings as integral concerning the telos of the universe, and this has the tendency to make humans self centered and to think we are the purpose of the universe, the earth and/or of existence. Aside from there being nothing humble about thinking this way, this mentality caused by religion increases the tendency to do nothing about things like climate change, because, "We were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth … for our benefit not for the Earth's benefit," as the conservative Catholic Rick Santorum said at an energy summit in Colorado. Now religion as I've defined it doesn't necessarily lead to this kind of thinking but it increases its tendency due to its innate solipsism. There is also a strong masochistic element innately found in religion, exemplified in the human desire to be a slave and to want to be told what to do, and to have all the hard decisions made for you. Some people find happiness in not having to think for themselves and would rather be told what to think, and religion comes from and helps spread this mindset and this stifles our intellectual and moral progress.

3. It is both the result and cause of dangerous sexual repressions 
Perhaps the worse and most glaring example of religion's mishaps is on human sexuality. Virtually all religions are sexually repressive, and virtually all of them treat women as inferior and treat homosexuality as a diseased sin. Religions get human sexuality wrong because they were invented at a time when we knew nothing of our true biological nature and the ignorance they perpetuate on sexuality still ruins the lives of millions of people today. Just look at the anti-gay laws and persecution of homosexuals in Africa and the Middle East today, and the extreme repression of women's equal rights in many Muslim majority countries directly caused by religion. The reason why in the West we've progressed on these issues is not because of religion, it's in spite of it. If we took Christianity literally we'd still allow slavery and we wouldn't allow women to have authority over any men. Advances in equality and human rights conflict with the moral system of every religion. Today, most Christians in the West thankfully don't take their religion literally. Their religious belief has been diluted by the steady hand of secularism - and that's a good thing. Where the world takes their religion seriously, like in the Middle East, we see how oppressive and harmful it is.

4. It is ultimately grounded in wish-thinking
Most religious belief is supported by the believer's desire for it to be true, not by any facts. It is wishful thinking and it shows. Many creationists for example don't like the idea that they're an evolved primate and they very much prefer believing they're instead created in the image of god. This kind of thinking leads to scientific ignorance. Many theists don't like the idea that death is final and they wish to go to a place to be happy forever after they die. The very idea of heaven encapsulates wishful thinking. (Hell is also due to wishful thinking. It's where you wish your enemies go when they die.) There is a strange relationship between the religious and conservative mindset, which usually go hand-in-hand. They both would prefer the story that they wish are true, instead of what the facts show. This religious mentality hinders scientific and moral progress. What matters are the facts, not what you wish to be true.

Different religions will have the four points above to varying degrees, but all of them, including deism, will increase the tendency to look for supernatural answers to scientific questions, and I argue this acts as a hindrance to our intellectual progress. The best scientists assume naturalism when in the lab and essentially check their religion at the door. Assuming any kind of divine intervention in the world when trying to explain it only stifles the scientific method. On the issue of morality, we would be better off without religion because religious morality is like freezing what you believed to be true when you were 10 years old so that you could never progress, no matter how much you learned. 

Religious moderation is obviously better for the world than religious fundamentalism as is clearly evident from the horrors perpetrated by ISIS, but a problem with religious moderation is that it keeps the door for fundamentalist interpretations of religious texts and beliefs perpetually open by sanctioning the religion's core beliefs. That said, I would be relatively fine with a world where all religious moderates became agnostics or atheists, and all religious conservatives and fundamentalists became deists or non-religious theists. I consider this a more practical goal, since religion in one form or another will be around for sometime, and maybe as long as humanity exists. But a less religious world is a better world. And that being said, I would really like to hear the religious make a case why religion is a good thing for the world, and why it shouldn't be argued against.

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