Religion: the world’s biggest white lie?

I have very little doubt in the soundness of the logic underlying my decision not to believe in any religion. I have spent a lot of time reading and listening to a variety of people making arguments for belief, and also a variety of atheist arguments to the contrary. The atheist arguments aren’t perfect — I have definitely read blog posts that used very bad logic, even though I agreed with their conclusions for other reasons. But in general, the atheist arguments tend to make sense. The pro-religion arguments universally do not. Most of them are just nonsensical semantic games. Some are absolutely false statements about historical evidence. Many are blatantly obvious logical fallacies. A select few (general philosophical arguments in favor of a generic Deist view) actually require a little thought to refute, but those are few and far between and even then are refuted easily enough. In short, I’m extremely convinced that religion is false.

But every once in a while, someone decides to challenge me on a different level. “Of course it’s all nonsensical lies,” they say, “but the bottom line of all the lies is that you should be good. So why fight it so much?” I have to say, this one actually makes me think. It is not, I should be clear, a remotely good reason for why I should actually believe religion. But it is a plausible argument for why I should stop wasting my time blogging or having discussions with friends or reading books about the issue. Maybe I should allow people their delusions, because it motivates them to be nice. Do I really prefer that they give up that motivation?

Let’s set aside for a moment the huge amount of suffering that’s been caused by religion or, if you prefer, religiously-minded people. Religion has been the backdrop to many wars and atrocities in human history. But the people making this particular argument are focusing on the good sides of religion, and there are plenty of sects and denominations out there that I agree probably won’t start the next Inquisition. These versions of religion spend a lot of time telling people not to cheat, murder, and steal. They encourage charity. They provide emotional support for their members. And many of these people (as they insist to atheists, time and time again) really don’t think they have reason to be charitable, peaceful, and friendly without an omnipotent being watching them and ordering them to do so. Maybe we should view religion as the world’s biggest “white lie” — something that we atheists should just let go, for the good of everyone else.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t think so. I do see plenty of ground for reasonable disagreement — unlike the question of whether religion is logical in the first place — but I think religion as a concept is net harmful and worth working against in its entirety.

First, I don’t think it’s possible to meaningfully separate the harmful variants of religion from the less harmful ones. There will always be some people who take a set of beliefs extremely seriously, and some other people who believe but don’t put so much stock in those beliefs. If we were to somehow convince all the people currently in the former group to switch the latter, it wouldn’t stem the flow of people in the opposite direction, like the Reform Jews who find their identity by becoming Orthodox.

But the more important question is, on what basis could you convince someone to switch to a more liberal sect of their religion? All these variants are based on the same flawed assumptions, and once you make those assumptions, regular logic breaks. I mean, I’m pretty confident in my ability to explain that massacring a village of people of another nationality is a bad idea. But once you assume that morality is determined by a magical sky-being, how are you supposed to argue against the massacre? The Bible and the Qur’an both praise war crimes committed against other tribes and/or nonbelievers. I could try to argue for different interpretations of those passages, ones that don’t support fundamentalism and barbaric violence, but I’m not sure those interpretations are correct and I see no reason why they should be more compelling. I’m not even sure these texts are coherent enough for “correct” interpretations to exist. And even if we talk about religion more abstractly, where maybe there are religions with entirely different holy books or traditions, how can I argue that you should believe those religions instead of the common religions of today? It all boils down to a shouting match of “my god said so (according to my understanding of my god)!” Once you’ve accepted that as a legitimate form of argument for one point of view, how can you dispute its validity for an opposing one?

What we need to do, then, is go after the fundamental social assumptions and stigmas that make religion so common. The taboo on subjecting views to normal logical scrutiny just because someone attaches the word “religion” to them, for example, is very harmful. And when everyone goes around saying they believe in God and the Bible, that creates a baseline that makes otherwise crazy-sounding things seem normal, even if most people don’t believe them. We need to make the argument about the basic issues fundamental to all religions — which means we don’t get to carve out exceptions for the people we think are mostly harmless.

When you get right down to it, though, I also don’t think there is such a thing as a non-harmful religion. I’m not even sure how we could go about doing the weighing to assess a religion’s net effect, in the way these people who see religion as a white lie seem to think we ought. How do you compare some people’s sense of community from their church to the huge cost (in money, time, and effort) that keeps those churches running? How do you weigh the moral structure that comforts some people against those people’s odds of harassing and assaulting people who don’t conform to a strict interpretation of that structure? I’m inclined to see more bad than good in these comparisons, but I can’t point to any numbers to back up my vague sense of unease. And ultimately, you still have the problem of misinformation endemic to all faith-based (rather than evidence-based) belief systems. When people have false information, they are more likely to make bad decisions. There are plenty of reasons to make good choices (like being charitable, and not murdering people) that are based entirely in the real world, and if people are in touch with those reasons they can get the good outcomes without the many risks of bad ones.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: some religious sects might have positive effects on their followers. But as long as they promote faith and unreason as the path to “truth,” they’re clearly worth arguing against.

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  1. Do you equate faith with unreason? Or I guess I should ask what you mean by faith, to begin.

    Also, I’m understand the gist of what you’re saying, but I’m not sure I subscribe to all of the underlying assumptions that you’re asserting.

    Really, though, I agree that there’s no use in religion as a white lie. Either it’s true or it isn’t, and if it isn’t, then it’s no more useful to humanity than Goldilocks. And since, from your line of reasoning, it isn’t true, that’s where we are.

    Keep writing and sharing your thoughts – love hearing (reading?) them!

  2. Thanks, Adrian. 🙂

    Most religious people I know use the word “faith” to mean something like “belief without evidence.” You’re supposed to “take it on faith,” etc. For Christians, I’d cite Hebrews 11:1 as consistent with this view. (There is another meaning of the word that’s something more like trust, e.g. faith in a coworker to get their part of the project done, but this is not what I mean. I’ve occasionally heard religious folks say that this is what religious faith is about — having faith that God will help you out, and so on — but then I ask, “Why do you think that about God?” and we’re back to the first kind of faith again.)

    Essentially, if there was good evidence for supernatural claims, you wouldn’t have to believe them through faith, and they wouldn’t be “supernatural.” They’d be natural, and the study of them would be science, not theology.

  3. Well said. Greta Christina writes well about this, too, with an analogy:

  4. That’s fantastic. I would say I’m sorry for repeating what’s already been said, but I don’t think this point can be made often enough … and if Greta Christina and I are thinking along the same lines, I should take that as a compliment. 🙂 Anyhow, QFT:

    So yes. If you’re volunteering at a homeless shelter twice a week, you’re doing better than the person who shoots every redhead who gets on the 9:04 train.

    But if you’re getting your ideas about reality and morality from a household appliance… then you’ve got a problem.

    And if you’re getting your ideas about reality and morality from an invisible being who nobody can agree about and who you have no good reason to think even exists… then you’ve got a problem.

  5. Ubi Dubium

     /  January 3, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    As I read your article, it was Greta who jumped to my mind too. It might have been the same article, where she pointed out that the problem with religions, even the moderate “nice” religions, is that they have no reality check. That point has really stuck with me.

  6. So is the problem with religion or with beliefs? Or do you see them as synonymous? I would agree that evidence-based belief systems are better in that they are less prone to misinformation–or rather, generally more open to being questioned–but people can still be pedantic without following a faith-based system.

    As a little background, I am a former Christian, now non-theist, just trying to find some balance between extremes I see in some forms of atheism and theism. I enjoy these sorts of discussions. Thanks.

  7. James: Nice to “meet” you! Thanks for joining in the discussion.

    Obviously everybody believes things. My problem isn’t with “beliefs” if that’s what you mean. My problem is with faith-based methods of determining what to believe and what to reject. (I see this as synonymous with religion.) You’re right that people who try to base their beliefs on evidence aren’t perfect, but I do think that an evidence-based approach is the best one out there.

  8. NFQ: Thanks for the explanation. I just like to know what people mean when they use the word “religion”. I’m not out to defend religion by any means, I just think we can often use the term as a catch-all to mean “belief” when, to me, it could also just mean just following certain traditions and practices regardless of one’s beliefs. But I understand what you mean and agree with your assessment in general.

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