Friday, September 28, 2007


I found an entry over at Town Hall on Benefits of Religion Even a Skeptic Should Acknowledge.

The benefits, according to the article, spring from the observed fact that theists tend to more often report that they are 'happy' than theists.

There are, of course, two things wrong with such a study.

First, if a person were to take a poll comparing slaves in the early 1800s to their masters, chances are the masters will report more happiness. Also, it would not be unreasonable to expect that whites in the 1900s expressed more happiness than non-whites. One of the things that atheists have to put up with is the fact that they live in a society that constantly denigrates them and dismisses their accomplishments, insults them, and categorizes them as the 'anti-American'. They put up with daily rituals that intend to separate and ostracise them. Even when looking at a coin, they are reminded that they are outsiders and "We" are people who trust in God.

Second, happiness is not the only measure of value. I have written several times about imagining a person in an 'experience machine' where electrodes attached to the brain feeds one images. This person gets to believe that he is doing 'great things' when he is actually laying in a vat of goo being fed false beliefs about the world around him. He may be happy. However, this does not imply that he has a good life.

I have also used an example where a person is given two options:

Option 1: The option to believe that your child is healthy and happy while your child is, in fact, being mercilessly tortured.

Option 2: The option to believe that your child is being mercilessly tortured while your child is, in fact, living a healthy and happy life.

The first option will make a person happy, but no moral person would recommend to the world, "Okay, everybody, Option 1 is the morally best option."

Religious people are far more likely to develop thankful personalities not only because gratitude and praise for the Creator plays a role in nearly every literature but because people of faith know whom to thank.

People of faith do not know whom to thank. They thank an imaginary creature for the work of real human beings, without thanking the real human beings. When my wife went to the hospital with a 106.7 degree fever and left 10 days later with a pace maker, I knew who to thank - the doctors and researchers and scientists who spent their time studying the human body and discovered how to repair this type of damage. I know full well that the quality of my life depends a great deal on the contributions of those around me, and that the quality of their lives depends on me. That is why I am here writing this blog. People around me know full well that if they should do a good deed or show an act of kindness that I am going to thank the person who is truly responsible for those actions - and not give the credit for their good deeds to somebody who not only had nothing to do with it, but who doesn't even exist.

Traditional religions lay down useful, supportive standards – along with mechanisms for winning forgiveness when (not if) you fall short.

It is simply wishful thinking to say that religion offers any type of consistent standard. Even if one decides to believe in God the questions remain, "Which
God? Which scripture? Which interpretation of scripture?" A theist has a billion different interepretations of God's will to choose from.

More importantly, every one of those interpretations is nothing more than the wishes of those priests. Scriptures represent the prejudices and opinions of largely ignorant people, and gets as many moral facts wrong as it gets science facts wrong.

Indeed, one of the great failures of most religions is that they teach people to be content (happy) performing actions that are, in fact, immoral and unjust. They buy their happiness living a life where they do harm to others while feeling good about it, because they can convince themselves that the harms they do is God's Will.

Regardless of how boring religious services can sometimes seem, they provide one incontestable blessing: they provide a framework every week (or sometimes even more often than that) for people to establish the neighborly ties that constitute community.

This appears to be more of a function of finding others with which one can communicate as equals - who do not look down their noses with condescention at you. The larger the percentage of a population deny the existence of God, the easier it will be for those with this belief to form communities. Sweden, for example, is about 85% atheist and non-believers. Yet, I do not hear of any particular problems with Swedes being unable to form a community. There communities are simply centered around things other than church.

If happiness counts as one of those rewards —based on the gratitude, behavioral standards, and neighborly connection that religion promotes – maybe even cynical unbelievers ought to reconsider the advantages provided by participation in faith-based communities.

Happiness counts - but I would rather be a good person living a good life than a 'happy' person living in an exerience machine disconnected from the real world, and in particular with the real-world effects of my actions and the real-world benefits and harms that I might cause others.

I enjoy happiness - but not at the expense of truth, and not at the expense of others. The happiness found living in an experience machine doing harm to others while deluding oneself into thinking that it is 'good' is not at all tempting to me.

No comments: