Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Should You Convince People to Give Up Religion?

Early Sunday closing, over the course of its history, has presumably cost the economy untold (but quantifable) billions. A simple-minded (and yes, incorrect) estimate might be that we lose 1/7 of our GDP because we choose to shut down the economy for a day. This reduction of GDP will have led to a lower standard of living, which will presumably have resulted in a great deal of harm, including a fairly well defined number of deaths. Are there any other examples of easily measurable harm done by religion?

As a vocal athiest, I still struggle with the question of whether it's justifiable to claim that religion has been a net force for evil. Sure, religion is obviously incorrect, and that's why I don't believe in it, but I'd really like a more defensible reason for why it's the correct course of action to d-evangelise. Given humanities general lack of interest in truth, I don't see the fact that it's patently false as a knock-down argument; particularly if the person in question has built their life around their faith. Equally I don't see the converse as obvious, people don't simply have a right to be as stupid as they want, particularly when interacting with me (yep, that is referring to that).

Interestingly, the fact that I can ask such a question (whilst still being a vocal athiest) demonstrates that improving peoples life by converting them is not my primary objective. If pushed, I'd have to accept that this probably means that the debate over the reason for the existence of life - and the entire nature of the universe - is to give me the petty little opportunity to signal intellectual ability. Feel free to comment to get in on the self-aggrandising party.

[c/t andy]

EDIT: Just to be clear; I don't think this is the most important or valid criticism of religion. It's simply an effort to move the debate from unsupported assertions, that inevitably lead to circuitous arguments, to quantifiable numbers.


  1. Ha - long time no read.

    I'm sort of hesitant to comment, lacking the sophistication in my thinking to be able to say anything sensible about such statements as "religion is incorrect"... I'll confess I'm not even sure what that means :)

    So, then, honestly asking: how is it incorrect? How is atheism different? Isn't that just believing that there's no creator?

    As for the example you start out with: a mandatory holiday might look like a bad thing in our day and age, as we have a very civilised view of human freedoms, and the labour laws and such to back it up. But... before we had all that, perhaps the Church was the only thing protecting the peasant from being made to work every single day of his life by his cruel master?

    I don't know, so I guess I'm in the same boat here: it's not obvious to me that it would be a net force for evil...

  2. Wait, wait. You, of all people, arguing that a day off per week is a bad thing for humanity?!

    As an aside.
    There is an abundance of research in psychology and behavioural economics about the connection between happiness and wealth (example). Studies have been done about the correlation between the standard of living in the US and how happy people report they are. "Standard of living has increased dramatically and happiness has increased not at all, and in some cases has diminished slightly," said Professor Daniel Kahneman of the University of Princeton (here).

    So it is worth pausing for a moment to think about whether economic growth and the standard of living should be taken as unquestionable goals of human societies.

    Following this logic, we may ask: "If the population doesn't report being happier than it did 30 years ago, why bother with such long working hours, stress and its effects on health, family, etc?"

  3. YungChin, I wasn't really intending to debate the correctness of religion here. But since it's come up I'm happy to reply. Bear in mind that, since this is a comment, I haven't put in all the banalities that I might consider (then ignore) on an actual post. It may therefore come across as offensive. Read at your own risk:

    Religion claims to understand the creation and purpose of the universe.

    That is an extreme claim*; particularly as it was made 2000 years ago when almost everything humanity 'knew', be it the evolution of life, the stars and the galaxy, the constituents of matter or even disease, was completely, utterly, abjectly **wrong**.

    If you were to ask Jesus a question about any of those subjects, he'd reply in such a mind-numbingly stupid way that you would find it impossible to take him seriously. And yet you do.

    A claim that large would require an outrageous amount of evidence to support it. Since there is essentially nothing more than circumstantial evidence, I dismiss it as incorrect; exactly the same way that I dismiss fairies, goblins and father christmas as incorrect beliefs. Incorrect in this context simply can be read as "does not accurately correspond to reality".

    Atheism is not believing in nothing; it's with-holding belief until there's evidence. These are completely different, epistemilogically and pragmatically.

    *(also arrogant but that certainly has no bearing on whether it is correct)

  4. Aida, I think that it would only require the rotation of holidays from work through the week rather than necessarily working more.

    I think it's also true that happiness is strongly correlated to GDP below a certain threshold. We might be well past that point now, but we certainly weren't for most of the last 2000 years. Therefore the 'harm' still stands.

    Also, if your argument is correct then why aren't we reducing the working week further? Have we chanced into the global optimum - i think i'd need some evidence to support that.

    Although, how many religions have sabbath type concepts? If it is essentially all of them, then it could be that the sabbath is just religion reflecting inherent human preferences. That would count as weak evidence that your argument might be correct.

  5. Hey Marc, thanks!

    I wasn't looking for a debate, but I had truly never had the opportunity to quiz an atheist who really thought about this before (the most articulate atheists I knew before would just refute the Genesis stories and leave it at that...), so it was an open question, nothing else implied.

    What you're saying is quite enlightening, I appreciate the time you took to type it up. Mostly not offensive either, although... fairies and goblins? :) Anyway, now at last I see why you might want to get people to give up religion.

    ... that gets us back on topic :)

    By taking away religion, would you really take away the nasty stuff that people do in the name of their respective gods? Or would they now do the same crazy stuff for their country, their club, their ideology? I'm thinking of animal-rights terrorism, football hooliganism, stalinism...

    On the other hand, would you be taking away good things? I need to find a better way of formulating this, but: it seems to me that Western law is deeply rooted in Christianity. By that, I'm not suggesting that atheists would not know good and bad, but their sense of good and bad still stems from a religious culture.

    What happens when you remove religion? You still have laws, but the guiding principles by which they were originally formulated are now missing. Is that a problem? I'm not sure, but my gut feeling says it may be...

    Thanks, YC

  6. Presumably christian morality is specified in the bible; which has stayed pretty constant for 2000 years. Since society is continuously updating its morality; just look at the improving attitudes to other races, genders and sexual orientations - it's fairly obvious that modern morality is not derived from religion. If anything religion lags behind the curve.

  7. Hey Yungchin

    I've been holding very similar views to yours for a long time until at some point, I've weirdly reached a slightly different opinion. Let's deal with religion as a supply of moral code/foundation. The scandals in the Catholic Church for instance has definitely lead to questions over moral behaviour. Especially in those paedophilia cases, many must feel that it should not happen in an institution such as the Church. So it is not too crazy to say that the authority over this moral code has diluted with time because too many people working within the institution do not adhere to it. Possibly other theistic religions also struggle with similar issues. Also our society has become more secular (ok, this is arguable), diverse and globalised. So perhaps religion as a moral code is no longer practical because people nowadays have very different culture, believe in different things and end up with very different moral principles. In order to have a morality that is suitable for all where everyone believe in and would happily adhere to, we have to inevitably move away from the religion arena. Some scholars have been working on adapting a code of morality that is free of theological dogmas, for instance Aristotle's ethics. On this point, I'd disagree with what Marc. Philosophy on morality is fairly atemporal. Many of Aristotle's ethics 2000 years ago is as valid and applicable as Kantian ethics in the 19th Century.

    As on people's fanaticism, which I think partly stems from our tendency to believe in things irrationally, and few will question what they believe in. So I totally agree that it has nothing to do with the ideologies themselves but rather a fundamental fraud of humanities. That said, religion somehow encourages that way of thing. Blind faith demands people to believe without questioning. I'm not able to tell whether religion is a good or bad thing. Some suggest it plays an important role in our group evolution. I don't know...

  8. Yay, looks like a virtual coffee break here - hello all! :)

    > Presumably christian morality is specified in the bible; which has stayed pretty constant for 2000 years. Since society is continuously updating its morality; just look at the improving attitudes to other races, genders and sexual orientations [...]

    I'm not sure; at least Roman catholics aren't always such close readers of the Bible. Perhaps if I would look in more detail I'd find you're right, but for now I can only say that it never occurred to me that racial/gender equality were at odds with Christian teachings. As for sexual orientation - true, but I'd submit that the position of the Church seems inconsistent with their general message of tolerance, so perhaps that will peter out over time.

    Like I said, I can't pretend to understand much of these matters. But it's not obvious to me that modern morality is not derived from religion. "Love your neighbour like yourself" (or however it reads in English) seems to still be a moral foundation. The problem I see in a godless world is more or less this: if not for your god, for whom would you do that - loving your neighbour - if you weren't a particularly loving person?

    > [...] So it is not too crazy to say that the authority over this moral code has diluted with time [...]

    I guess I didn't mean to say that the Church (or any church) can claim authority over our moral code, but only that having a god to back up that code makes things easier.

    As another sign of my ignorance, I've always felt that "the good" of Aristotle, or "the soul" that Plato/Socrates said should be kept pure, are devices not unlike a god: at the end of their line of reasoning there's a need to plug in some guiding principle. Are they really not theological?

    > That said, religion somehow encourages that way of thing.

    I'm not sure people need much encouragement. But religion provides an excuse. Same thing with the paedophilia cases you mention: this is about taking advantage of ones authority to get away with a crime - but it's not only priests that may do this, but also social workers, psychotherapists, etc etc. Still the grand majority of them are good people...

  9. (I've got this strange feeling that there's a logical fallacy in my argument, but I hardly ever do this stuff, so I can't quite put a finger on it... I've been meaning to read a book called Informal Logic, which I gave to a friend as a present, saying I was going to borrow it back later... maybe now's the time :))

  10. Accidentally I've found this interesting blog (I am trying to investigate different views regarding faith), so I've decided to comment:

    This part is interesting:

    -As a vocal athiest, I still struggle with the question of whether it's justifiable to claim that religion has been a net force for evil.-

    Aida, do you believe in God? I see huge struggle in you, but not that kind of struggle you explained above. It seems you moved to the dark side (much Darth Vader like scenario), there is much anger in you. If my assumption was right, I have another question, but if it's wrong, sorry to bother. Just tell me do you believe, or have you ever believed in God?


  11. Sorry, for the mistake, I adressed the question to a wrong person. The author of this article is Marc, so the question is adressed to Marc.


  12. It's fine to ask.

    I was brought up a catholic, was baptised and took my first holy communion, but, thinking about it, I don't actually remember ever truly believing. Although I presume that, at some point, I must have done. I do not believe in God now, and have been completely clear about this for the last decade.

    I'm not quite sure what you mean about 'the dark side' though.

  13. Thank you very much for your answer,

    The Dark Side is the metaphor, referenced to Star Wars movie and Skywalker's life cycle from white to dark side, and at the very end back to white. My theory is similar to that, I think all people with a struggle about faith will return at some point to believe in God.



  14. The same applies to Father Christmas.

  15. @Marc (up a few posts)

    Not all religions have the sabbath. To the best of my knowledge, Muslims don't have a mandatory day off per week; there is the Friday prayer at noon (about 1 hour), which is the time when usual trading stops because the prayer itself is mandatory.

    As for proposing that religion reflects inherent human preferences in some aspects - probably both religious and non-religious people would agree with this statement in some version.

    In the spirit of keeping to published studies and quantitative evidence, here is a story about how talking about deep topics affects us (NYT link - h/t Amila for sharing).

  16. Ed - That's true, but presumably you're assuming that continuing to believe in father christmas is a bad thing. I don't think you can take that as a given.

    For it to mean anything in this debate you'd have to show that there were negative consequences to believing in father christmas, consequences that carry through when we make the analogy with religion.

    For instance, I can see that there's social embarrassment in continuing to believe in father christmas - but that doesn't exist with religion. Most people are happy to 'respect' other peoples religious belief in a way they would never do in other domains.

    Aida - I did see that paper, but, as far as I remember, I was a little underwhelmed by their definition of deep conversation, and they didn't really do anything to figure out cause and effect. Of course, the authors were very explicit about this, and it's not a criticism of the work (research has to start somewhere); it's just that i'm cautious extrapolating too much from their results.