Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Costs and Benefits of Religion

On the National Catholic Register website, there is an article in a series of posts allegedly providing answers to atheists. This specific article, Religion Does More Harm Than Good attempts to answer the objection that religion is a net cost to society.

In one sense I agree with the author. The argument that religion is a net cost to society lumps several things called 'religion' together that can easily be separated. The argument that medicine can be considered a net harm if we lump all of the bad medicine (including the ignorant and superstitious practices) in with the good medicine is telling. We can, in fact, separate different aspects of religion as we can separate different aspects of medicine. The question is not whether religion is a net harm or benefit, but whether an identifiable subsection of religion can be a net benefit.

Still, whether we are talking about all of religion, or any subset of religion, the accounting system typically used to argue that religion is a net benefit is one that no business or economist would accept.

I made this point in a posting called, Melvin Konner: Hope, Benefit, and Prohibiting Religion from the 2006 Beyond Belief conference. If somebody comes up to you with a business proposal saying that, if you accept his proposal, he can return a profit of $50 million, this certainly argues that his project would be a net benefit. However, what if you could devote the same resources to a second investment which, in turn, could deliver $200 million in revenue in the same time period? Now it is not enough to argue that the first option provides a net benefit. The question is whether the first option prevents you from making an investment that is potentially even more valuable.

If we had taken all of the money spent on religion, and all of the time spent studying scripture and teaching people to adopt religious beliefs, and spent that time instead on scientific research, teaching science, and getting people to understand how the real world really works, what would the benefit of that have been?

If the value is higher than the value of what religion provided with the same commitment of resources, then this would argue that religion is a net harm. It does not matter that religion did good. The real question is whether we could have done even more good with those same resources committed to another purpose.

If we could have done so, then the 'cost' of religion is the benefits we gave up by investing in religion instead of a more productive alternative to religion.

Yet, still, as I said, it is a mistake to say that all religion is alike. The fair question to ask is whether there is any subsection of religion that provides a better rate of return than anything else we could have done with the money. Insofar as we think it is permissible to spend money on dining out, sports, computer games, and other wastes of time and effort, religion does not need to prove itself to be particularly beneficial to prove itself to be a legitimate way for people to spend time and effort.

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