Monday, November 23, 2009

"The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful" Part Three


In my previous two posts, I addressed The Top Ten Reasons I Don't Believe In God , as a lead-in to discussing The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful by Greta Christina, my favorite atheist writer. Here, finally, is my direct answer to "The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful"

The heart of Greta's thesis is this: "I'm realizing that everything I've ever written about religion's harm boils down to one thing. It's this: Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.

It therefore has no reality check.

And it is therefore uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self- correction. It is uniquely armored against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality ... and extreme, grotesque immorality."

She correctly notes that religion is not unique in having true believers- any institution does. But, she argues, other intuitions have a reality check: does it work? Communist countries adopt capitalism to increase wealth; capitalist countries adopt socialist policies to better serve the public, etc. But, she says, "Religion is different. With religion, the proof is emphatically not in the pudding. With religion, the proof comes from invisible beings, inaudible voices. The proof comes from prophets and religious leaders, who supposedly hear these voices and are happy to tell the rest of us what they say."

The flaw in this argument is in the difference between "religion" and "faith" They are separate things, and the difference is crucial.

"Faith" is what people believe. It is in fact "...ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die." Faith changes little, if at all, over the centuries. Faith has no objective reality check. But faith is NOT religion.

Religion is not what we believe; religion is what we do. For example, the Catholic faith can be communicated in the Bible and the catechism. But the Catholic religion is much, much more. Nothing in the Bible tells you how to conduct a mass, how to organize the hierarchy, how to ordain a priest, or what color smoke to use when you pick a Pope. Or even whether you should have any of those things. The Bible describes a church as "Wherever two or more are gathered in his name"- it gives no instruction on how to build a church, or whether you should have a standing church at all. It doesn't tell you whether you should be led by elders, or by elected leaders, or whether you should just sit still until the spirit moves someone. The Koran tells us to be modest; whether that means wearing a space suit or just "For God's sake, will you put a shirt on already?" is a matter of culture, not faith. Religion is a culture.

Faith doesn't deal with these things. Faith tells you how to retain your humanity in the face of pressures that could break you. Faith gives you a reason to go on when you are despairing. Faith is about what you are.

Why is this important? Because cultures ARE subject to reality checks. Cultures DO evolve. You may decide that your religion requires celibacy. Reality check: last I heard, there were only four Shakers left on earth. Faiths are directed by doctrines that only change, if they do, by new prophets and revelations; religions are directed by rules, habits, and traditions that may be admittedly hard to shake, but are, in the final analysis, recognized as such and changed as necessary. This is why Greta is also wrong when she says, "Yes, Even Moderate Religion Still Does Harm". Moderating the behavior of a culture is a good thing- and as I said, religion is a culture. Saying that moderate religions, even if not so bad themselves, are bad because they perpetuate bad institutions reminds me of the anarchists and communists of the last century who fought against social reforms because they would perpetuate the system.

God is not the problem. Belief in God is not the problem. In the final analysis, everyone is devoted to something larger than themselves. A secular humanist is devoted to humankind- that's why atheists are as moral as theists. But that, too, is an irrational devotion; no one has ever presented me with a purely logical reason why I should give a damn about my fellow man. We're both irrational- why claim that your irrationality is better than mine?

9 comments:

Yewtree said...

Greta Christina has clearly never done a course in study of religions, or anthropology of religion, or sociology of religion, or even psychology of religion. If she had, she would realise that Christianity and Islam are unique among the religions of the world in making belief the test of membership. All other religions are primarily about practices and values (sure, their adherents hold some sort of personal philosophy or belief - not necessarily to do with invisible beings/influences, but these aren't the main requirement).

Anonymous said...

I started reading this thinking I was going to argue with you. Your points are excellent--and none that I would argue or articulate. I was thinking things like "what about poetry and why do things have to be rational and logical all the time." Your argument is much better framed to be received by those who argue as a form of religious practice. Thanks

Steve Caldwell said...

Joel -- I saw that you posted a link with your reply on Greta's blog. For your readers who want to read her complete article that was originally posted on AlterNet, it's available on Greta's blog:

The Armor of God, or, The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful
http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2009/11/armor-of-god.html

Regarding Yewtree's comment about Greta never studying religion, Greta writes on her blog about being a religion major in college.

So ... it's possible that she has studied religions, knows something about, and simply came to different conclusions based on her examination of the data (do a search for "religion major" on Greta's blog).

It's pretty easy to dismiss the conclusions of others that one disagrees with by saying they are ignorant on the topic. This approach is commonly used towards critics of religion and has been described through a parable called "The Courtier's Reply":

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharyngula_(blog)#The_Courtier.27s_Reply

Joel Monka said...

Steve- I'm sure you're right about simply coming to different conclusions. She and I have different data; we're bound to put different weight on different arguments.

J said...

"a purely logical reason why I should give a damn about my fellow man."
I am nice to people because I want people to be nice to me. As a young child I learned through experience that if I hit somebody they were probably going to hit me back but if I shared my ice cream I would probably get a piece of that yummy cookie. I know this is very simplistic but that seems to be a very obvious and logical reason to give a damn about my fellow man. Their well being or lack there of affects mine.

Joel Monka said...

That's a good reason not to be a bully- the worm will eventually turn... but it's scarcely a good reason to go out of one's way, giving to charities one will never use oneself. Anyone with the moxie to build an organization like Salvation Army could have become a millionaire by focusing on their own good rather than other's... corporations that donate their aircraft to Angel Flights (who rush organs and patients around for emergencies) aren't indigents, and will never need the free service... Doctors Without Borders spend their own time and money helping people in third world countries who will certainly never be in a position to recipricate... most of the money given to the homeless is given by people who do not for a split second believe they will ever need spare change from strangers themselves. Again- what logical reason is there for such behavior? What logical reason is there not to adopt "never give a sucker an even break" as a motto?

I frequently hear as a logical objection to such self-centeredness "But what if everyone behaved that way?" This rational does not bear close examination- everyone won't be that way- there will always be sheeple trying to live their lives by playing fair and doing good; it seems to be hardwired within us. Why shouldn't I stride like a predator among them? What logical reason is there to be devoted to anything larger than myself?

Devotion to God is NOT required to be altruistic; that is not my claim. Secular Humanists are devoted to mankind, and are involved in all manner of good works. My claim is that devotion to mankind is no more logical than devotion to God. No one who speaks of sacrificing for the good of mankind has any business looking down their nose at any other illogical belief.

David B. Ellis said...


But that, too, is an irrational devotion; no one has ever presented me with a purely logical reason why I should give a damn about my fellow man.


I don't see how you come to the conclusion that loving others is a form of irrationality.

Love is intrinsically worthwhile. Anyone who's experienced it with any depth and whose thinking isn't irrationally distorted can see that (based on that comment, if you're acquainted with metaethics you'll probably not be surprised to hear that I consider ideal observer theory the best approach so far proposed to such issues).

Calling lovingkindness irrational assumes a far too restricive view of what constitutes rational thinking.

Archaon said...

I realize this is an old post, but in case you feel like responding, and for those who like me come across it in the future:

Your primary argument is essentially semantic. To paraphrase, "Christina says that religion is bad because it doesn't change, but she mistakes faith for religion, religion is really the culture and it does change."

While I would argue that the vast majority of the time someone says "religion" they're thinking of some essentially faith based construct, it doesn't really matter. If religion is culture then it falls under the auspices of what Christina refers to as "community. Charity. Social responsibility. Philosophy. Ethics. Comfort. Solace. Art." And her entire argument shifts to what you choose to label 'faith', of which all you say is 'faith is useful and good' and then jump back to religious culture.

Further, when you address moderate religious institutions, you ignore the primary thrust of her argument, which is that a) they ARE still dangerous, and b) the minority. That they give legitimacy to extremists was somewhat tangential.

Finally, "But that, too, is an irrational devotion; no one has ever presented me with a purely logical reason why I should give a damn about my fellow man."

Altruism and cooperation are selectively advantageous and evolutionarily sound. With a 2 minute search:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v425/n6960/abs/nature02043.html

http://www.jstor.org/pss/2941024

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2009/06/05/could-human-altruism-have-evolved-because-of-war/

http://discovermagazine.com/2008/jan/chimps-show-altruistic-streak

http://discovermagazine.com/2011/jan-feb/03/

http://discovermagazine.com/1993/may/forgivenessmath212/

Joel Monka said...

Archaon- "Further, when you address moderate religious institutions, you ignore the primary thrust of her argument, which is that a) they ARE still dangerous,..." Yeah, groups like the Mennonites, who recently switched from opening sporting events with "The Star Spangled Banner" to "America the Beautiful" because our official anthem is too violent, are really scary.

"Altruism and cooperation are selectively advantageous and evolutionarily sound." Every one of those links, and every argument I've heard, all presuppose that species survival is the ultimate good. The very use of the word "evolutionary" presumes that, and for lower animals who are driven by instinct, it is. But how do you convince someone who places their personal good as the highest goal that they're wrong? Why must I, one of six billion, put myself in harm's way for another? Can you make a case for altruism that doesn't presume that the greater good is better than the personal good? Or can you prove that sacrificing for the greater good benefits the person being sacrificed? Can you prove to an individual that they matter less than the madding crowd?