Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Badness of Religion

Over at An Apostate's Chapel there is a post on What's So Bad About Religion.

The article, in attributing badness to religion, makes some mistakes.

For example:

. . . acting on the basis of false beliefs can lead to ill-conceived, even harmful, behavior and decisions.

This is true, and I have made this claim myself. We seek to fulfill our desires, but act so as to fulfill our desires given our beliefs. False beliefs often thwart our desires (by recommending actions that will not, in fact, fulfill our desires).

However, this is not always the case.

For example, it may well be the case that a person in a stressful situation, who believes that he has a 5% change of survival, actually has a 5% chance of survival. However, if he believes that he has a 50% chance of survival, the extra effort might actually increase his chance of survival to 10%. This is a case in which a false belief can be better than a true belief.

There is also the case that it is better to use a simple (though less accurate) model of a system than a highly complex, though more accurate, model. Our understanding of the universe around us is Newtonian - that is the system we use to explain and predict the events we experience every day. However, it is not accurate. Still, even though Newtonian claims are false, they are close enough to the truth, and the benefits we gain from speed and simplicity far outweigh what we lose in terms of accuracy. Again, an example in which it is better to go with false beliefs than true.

There are other beliefs that are simply neutral. The proposition, "A god exists", by itself, tells us nothing about what we should or should not do. It is a neutral belief. There are other false beliefs (many not having to do with religion) that are far worse than this one, and far more worthy of our attention.

False beliefs about global warming, for example.

In short, this proposition tells us something wrong with some religious beliefs, but not what is wrong with religion.

Consider . . . a man who was suffering from mental illness heard the voide of God telling him to slaughter his family.

We seem to be being told that, in a purely atheist community, in which nobody believes in God, that nobody suffering from a mental illness will slaughter their whole family. Actually, I doubt that this is the case. In an atheist society, mentally ill individuals will not interpret their voices as 'the voice of God'. Instead, they will interpret those voices as an intuition, or even 'see' evidence, of a conspiracy against the common good.

And if the mentally ill person says, "I believed my family was genetically inferior and I needed to kill them before they further corrupted the genetic fitness of others," would the writer see this as evidence of "what is wrong with belief in evolution?"

I doubt not.

The conclusion does not follow from the premises. The author merely sees a connection because the author has adopted the position that there is something wrong with religion, and is seeking evidence - the way that a person who believes that God exists will seek evidence, grasping on to whatever will support the desired conclusion.

I do no write in terms of "what is wrong with religion."

I write in terms of specific arguments and propositions. "This argument is invalid", "That proposition is false".

Many religious propositions are false (and all religious propositions that are strictly religious are false). Of those false claims, some are far worse than others, and a person does not have to be religious to have false beliefs.

Many religious arguments are invalid. Of those invalid arguments, some are worse than others, and a person does not have to be religious to have an invalid argument.

What I am asking for here is simply some focus on specific propositions and arguments and avoid the sweeping generalities. At the same time, I would like to see less of a tendency to accept an argument as valid merely because, if others accept it (and they might), those others will share the reader's animosity towards some target group.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Actually there is a story about Wellington convincing one of his friends that he was insane (the man he was talking to was crazy). If faith isn't a valid reason to believe something, then it might be possible to get people to relize they are insane (except for conspiracy theororists- then you are part of the conspiracy). It probably doesn't always work though.

My memory could be playing tricks on me though- I couldn't find the story (although there were alll of crazies that Wellington had to deal with).