Addressing the Utility of Religious Belief

Part 2

Another way to defend religion is to claim that religion is useful. I typically field these claims from religious moderates. Many moderates are aware of the clash between religion and science and have abandoned any interest in evidence. They reference meaning and the positive results of holding their beliefs. Social pressure, social proof and emotional attachment influence an appeal to popularity, common practice, tradition, fear, or consequence.

A Critique on Religious Belief and the Common Ways Believers Defend Them

In part one of this treatise I opened with a general critique on religious belief and focused on addressing claims of truth posited by believers. I feel it’s unfortunate the discussion needs to continue beyond seeking the truth. If there is no good reason to believe any of it, the conversation should be over, but we still find two more commonly used modes of defense readily employed by believers.

I want to provide some context before proceeding to the utility argument. There are rather obvious facts that need to be put on the table before we start talking about god being a source of goodness or morality.

Before reaching the age of 5, some 21,000 children die every day around the world. That’s 1 child every 4 seconds, 14 children per minute, 875 children per hour, just under 7.6 million children every year. By the time you finish reading this essay, it’s very likely some number of children will have passed away in horror and suffering.

Imagine the helpless parents of these children that are right now watching them die. It’s safe to say that most of these people believe in god and are praying right now for their children to be spared. They’re asking at this very moment for god to take them instead of their child. Their prayers will not be answered.

I cannot understand how someone will come to the defense of any god that would allow children by the millions to suffer and die in this way. A god that sits on the sidelines watching events like this unfold can either do nothing to help these children, or doesn’t care to.

The double standard used by believers to excuse god of all this evil represents a fundamentally unprincipled use of reason. Believers claim that god is loving, kind, just, and intrinsically good; but when faced with the quite obvious reality that god is cruel and unjust, because he imposes gratuitous suffering upon innocent people on a scale that we can’t even put into perspective, we’re told that god is mysterious. We’re told that we don’t have the cognitive software to understand god’s will; but this purely human understanding of god’s will is exactly what believers use to fabricate god’s goodness in the first place. When a believer prays and feels good or sees a positive change in their life, we’re told that god is good, but when children by the tens of thousands are torn from their parent’s arms and drowned in tsunamis and floods or crushed under buildings in earthquakes, we’re told that god is mysterious.

Taking into consideration all that this god doesn't accomplish in the lives of others, given the suffering being imposed on some helpless child in this instant, this kind of faith is narcissistically depraved. To reason in this framework is to fail to reason honestly or to care sufficiently about the suffering of other human beings.

Claims of Utility

Another way to defend religion is to claim that religion is useful. I typically field these claims from religious moderates. Many moderates are aware of the clash between religion and science and have abandoned any interest in evidence. They reference meaning and the positive results of holding their beliefs. Social pressure, social proof and emotional attachment influence an appeal to popularity, common practice, tradition, fear, or consequence.

These arguments are illogical for a few reasons. The first being that a usefulness claim is a complete non sequitur in relation to the truth of a claim. Even if religion was undeniably useful in every aspect of our lives, it wouldn't provide any reason to believe that there is a personal god or that anyone of our books have been dictated by him. The idea of Santa Claus is very useful for young children during the holidays, but that doesn't give the slightest reason to believe that Santa Claus actually exists.

We know that there is a dichotomous difference between a desire to believe something and having good reasons to believe it. We are well aware that wishful thinking has no effect on reality and simply wanting something to be true doesn't make it true.

Religion could be extremely useful and still be completely void of content. The placebo effect is a well documented phenomenon in science. Priming and expectations have a profound impact on our experiences. The more a person believes they are going to benefit from something, the more likely it is they will experience a benefit. We constantly see these illusory correlations working on our intuitive reasoning and attachment mechanisms with prayer (decoupled cognition), reports of miracles (hyperactive agency detection), and personal experience (minimally counterintuitive concept). This is why we have expressions like experimenter bias, self delusion and self deception. This is why scientists rely on double blind studies whenever possible and data is submitted for peer review. This is why scientists follow the evidence where it leads instead of bending the evidence to their assumptions. This is why doubt and skepticism are healthy and necessary when seeking the truth.

Other than the suppression of cognitive functions, there are other reasons to doubt the usefulness of religion. Many of these are attested to by constant wars, needless human suffering and the willingness of some believers to adopt a psychotic and psychopathic worldview, which is then disseminated to their children.

I submit to you that if a belief is completely unjustified, you should not consider it to inform your worldview, let alone attempt to build an ethical argument from it. If you’re not interested in what’s true, or you’re tempted to start making things up, it would make sense to at least foster a positive attitude that enables progress and enhances the well being of others. It certainly wouldn't make sense to postulate divisive dogmatism, anti-intellectualism, tribalism, fear mongering, to pretend that this world doesn't matter, or that death is an illusion. If these beliefs are to be entertained in a modern system of ethics you would expect to only find an outlook of acceptance, equality, cohesion, compassion, psychological well being, adherence to fact and evidence, the free flow of information, and the autonomy of children. Hold that thought while I ask you to contemplate the following examples of usefulness.

How useful is the restriction of information and overt scientific ignorance typically coupled to religious insulation? How useful is it that people are organizing their moral identities around religious affiliations that claim exclusive validity? How useful is it that believers are labeling, brainwashing, and lying to their children while tacitly supporting the religious divisions in our world? How useful is it that members of the clergy earn their living by lying to children? How useful is it that people aren't willing to think for themselves and choose to rely on someone completely unqualified to evaluate scientific claims to make up their mind for them? How useful is it to be so emotionally hijacked by your beliefs that you cannot have a rational conversation about them?

How useful is it that we are constantly being pummeled with the idea of intelligent design and that our neighbors want superstition, mythology, and magic taught alongside science in schools? How useful has the sexual anxiety and cultic obsession with virginity been these past 70 generations? How useful is it to demonize the sexuality of women and to regard them as morally and intellectually inferior to men? How useful has the hatred of gays, the marginalizing of homosexual children as pathologically sinful by their parents, and the objections to marriage equality been? How useful are the suicide bombing and genital mutilation communities that are completely faith based? How useful is it that otherwise good people are brought to hideous acts of violence and neglect when they believe that god is on their side?

These are only some of the more explicit examples that have retarded societal progress at every turn. Every religion is making claims about how the world is. These ideas might be amusing if they weren't having such detrimental consequences on society. This view of the world doesn't represent a temporary societal departure into psychopathology. These ideas are perfectly reasonable if you believe the books.

Considering the complete absence of evidence available to support the existence of god, and that no logical argument has ever been presented to warrant a belief in god by a thinking person, any detrimental effects on society are not only completely unwarranted and avoidable, but morally reprehensible.

I feel that the usefulness of religion can be argued against. Religion motivates people to do things for bad reasons, when good reasons are readily available. The deeper principle to notice is that religion consistently motivates people to do horrible things that they would not have done, but for a belief in god.

Moral Argument

Religion as a basis for morality

Morality and human well being are now being explored in the context of science. There are objective facts to be learned in regard to the human condition; these are facts that science can study and understand. We will see that it’s possible to value the wrong things. We will be able to understand higher experiences in consciousness. This is a very good thing. This terrain is worth exploring.

Morality is defined as the principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. Morality is doing what is right, regardless of what we are told. Compare that to religious dogma and doing what we are told, no matter what is right. Morality and ethics must depend upon personal responsibility. Moral accountability is not blindly following orders in hopes of evading punishment by a totalitarian dictator that you must compulsively love and simultaneously fear.

Before we even entertain this claim, please be aware that this is a non sequitur in relation to the truth of a belief. Even if religion had a profound impact on our morality, this would not constitute evidence for the existence of god or validate any entangled doctrinal propositions. The totality of this argument is based upon presuppositions that have been relentlessly eroded and conclusively discredited.

People that blend the truth and usefulness of religion will generally claim that religion offers us the best foundation available for morality. They fear that something elemental would be lost if a belief in god was removed from society. Believers pretend that a belief in god automatically makes you a good person. Atheists are framed as being fundamentally incapable of possessing a coherent system for morality and ethics. Believers say this while acknowledging that they are themselves atheists in regard to every other god but their own. This abusive ad hominem has been used repeatedly by believers to influence mistrust in atheists in an increasingly godless America.

An attempt to poison the well while relying on irrational psychological transference underpins a large part of the argument.  Believers posit that a materialistic worldview gives no explanation of reason or morality. Human knowledge doesn't know of any other worlds and because atheists admit this and don’t automatically default to lying to ourselves, we’re called arid, solipsistic, non spiritual, or coldly calculating. The materialist red herring is once again not an argument. Atheists are not making claims about reality or pretending to know things that they do not know. Atheists are comfortable not knowing. An explanation on the side of atheism is not necessary or relevant in regard to the truth of a believer’s explanation. Begging the question while attempting to shift the burden of proof in no way makes your position valid.

It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of atheists are humanists that stress the value of every human being. They seek rational solutions to solve human problems, free of shaming with the concept of sin or the spread of dogma, magic or fairy tales. Humanists are some of the most accepting and moral people you could ever hope to meet. Humanism is a necessary ideology that I would hope we can all arrive at eventually.

The most atheistic societies in the world (Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands) are also the most moral. They have far lower violent crime than our own and are more generous both within their own population and to the developing world on a per capita basis.  We observe this within our own country as well. Religiously conservative red states have higher divorce, crime, teen pregnancy and abortion than blue states.  If you’re looking for a state model of christian charity, the most atheistic societies demonstrate this better than our own.  Religion is not a perfect advertisement of ethics and morality.

In regard to morality, believers again just assume they've chosen the correct religion and attempt to argue in its favor in an effort to rationalize a just god; but since we cannot determine what god is the one true god, this implies that we may never be able to know what’s truly right and wrong. With the wealth of knowledge that we now have, one can readily reject this claim on it’s face. For example: we naturally recoil at cruelty. This touches on the core of our ethical intuitions. If you don’t already know that cruelty is wrong, then you’re certainly not going to discover it from reading the bible. We bring the truth testing to these books and we decide what events are good.  We are our own internal witness. Religious morality has also changed over time in accordance with our own “interpretations” of scripture. The psychopathic idea of eternal punishment for not believing in an invisible being that has never appeared or given any reason to do so is also entertained as sane.

A more alarming observation is that believers tend to rationalize the horrible and immoral practices that god has either engaged in himself or commanded others to do, such as global genocide, ethnic cleansing, sexual slavery, and the murder of children. The conditioned reaction is to engage in mental gymnastics in an attempt to explain away things that rightly make them uncomfortable. This is a terrifying detachment from the real suffering over other human beings. A belief in god is not only unnecessary, but is itself a source of moral blindness.

This suggestion is that we need a belief in medieval superstition to make us act accordingly. We need to keep the ignorance of our ancestors alive in modern society or everything will fall apart. This unsubstantiated appeal to consequence implies that if we were shown that religion was fabricated, the stories were just myths and that it’s all been made up, all of our restraint would disappear. We would abandon our family values and enter a completely hedonistic way of living. We would dissolve our ties to one another and visit indiscriminate and gratuitous violence at will. We would lie, cheat, and steal with no concern of being brought to justice all while allowing others to do the same. If it all could be shown to be a complete fraud, as it can be, we’d look at each other differently. We would all of a sudden not know the difference between a right act and an evil one. There may be some people that are fearful they would act in this way, but I can’t say that I believe the majority of them. Perhaps I have more respect for them than they appear to. I've never met a single person that reasons in such a masochistic manner. To believe something like this is to show an amazingly low level of respect for yourself.

What is a higher moral foundation? Looking out for the well being of others, helping the poor, feeding the hungry, defending the weak because you have a concern for their suffering, or doing it because god wants you to do it? Doing it because you've been threatened with eternal damnation or because helping others is the right thing to do? What kind of morality is it to follow orders within a self dedicated desire to escape damnation? This idea of ethical egoism seems to completely bypass the idea of what we mean by morality, which is an actual concern for the well being of other conscious beings. The claim essentially is that we need to lie to ourselves and to our children to help them form concerns of compassion and empathy and that we can’t teach our children the golden rule or other ethical precepts without pretending to know things that we do not know. This again shows a tremendous lack of self respect when you say that you need divine permission to love your children and friends and to collaborate with strangers.

Some of the most abhorrent acts imaginable have been carried out by people who believe that they have divine permission. Violence that is motivated by, or in reaction to religious precepts, texts, or doctrines have been ubiquitous throughout history and continues today. The violence against religious institutions, persons, and objects never ends. Religion allows people to believe by the millions what only a psychopath could believe on his own. People that are otherwise morally normal can start saying and doing horrible things when they believe that god is on their side. People find themselves doing things that a morally normal unbeliever would not imagine doing. I’m not referring to everything bad that has ever been done by a religious person.  I’m referring to things that could have only been done in the name of religion. It is shockingly easy to recall such events in which they could only have been done by someone believing in a god.

Religion gets it’s morality from human beings. It seizes our cognitive mechanisms related to empathy, guilt, obligation, alliance, commitment, intention, and order. All societies at all times, well before the advent of monotheism, have forbidden certain acts by it’s people. Unfortunately religious change typically comes from the outside by way of secular conversation, secular politics, and common sense. A definition of secular morality isn't needed here. Referring to an unresolved philosophical debate does not provide an argument for the existence of god.

I don’t see this line of reasoning as even remotely cogent. The fact that a conversation on ethics is even needed contradicts the idea of a theist’s version of god. An all powerful, all knowing, and all loving god would not create us with a flawed sense of morality. Citing free will in this context is irrelevant. Having the freedom to follow our moral intuitions remains the same regardless of our knowledge of what is right and wrong.

Moral Law

A secondary claim is that moral law requires a law giver and that moral precepts are unchanging or universal. An equivocation on the term law completely sidesteps the notion that we are always changing laws or that it is possible to implement a bad law. (See the euthyphro dilemma) A delusional framework from which to excuse god of all wrongdoing in all situations is also available. (See divine command theory) To claim that human beings wouldn't intrinsically know that an act like rape is wrong without the ability to worship a god, or that we’d actually think it’s good if god said so, borders on insulting to our species, but I've heard this a lot and I think it’s worth addressing.

Notice that identical claims have been made throughout history and still are made today in regard to emperors and dictators that are considered living gods by their followers. People worried that without direction from their rulers, they’d have no idea what was right or wrong. This is astride the argument from ignorance or personal incredulity that believers sometimes fall back on when stating that they can’t see or imagine an alternative foundation for moral values outside of god. They don’t know or can’t imagine or understand it, so god did it. This line of reasoning (god of the gaps) has never been valid. Magic has never turned out to be the answer. We can easily reject this claim.

The claim is that if god does not exist, then morality does not exist; morality exists, therefore god exists. This would be a deductively valid argument if the premises were true, but it is inherently circular, self refuting, and tells us nothing. Many believers and nonbelievers alike have rejected the first premise. It poses and argument from authority that can easily be countered. Believers ignore the logical conclusion that even if objective moral values and duties were proven to exist, it wouldn't provide evidence for a god or that your god has implemented them.

This claim undermines us in our most basic integrity in knowing right from wrong. We all repudiate this claim that we don’t have an innate moral discrimination of good and evil. Morality is ingrained into us far before the time we've heard of supposed gods. Extensive research into developmental psychology supports this.  Some of us have inferential moral systems that come online as early as age 1.  Toddlers that are 18 months old will try to comfort others who appear upset.  We know that cruelty is wrong well before we are able to read holy books. Religion merely recruits our moral systems that are linked to commitment and solidarity mechanisms in an effort to lend credence and plausibility to whatever god they’re selling.

The claim that we get our morality from a higher being has been oversold to us and is clearly false. Believers that are unwilling to accept the specific scientific principles that challenge their presuppositions will then rely on an argument from ignorance or an argument from personal incredulity in regard to the evolutionary underpinnings of group selection and morality; but facts remain the same whether you believe them or not. Our ability to cooperate with one another and negotiate selective social relationships can be explained through evolution. There are survival, reproduction, and security advantages to living in cohesive hunter gatherer groups. We've evolved the faculties to find one another’s emotional lives contagious, as have chimpanzees and monkeys. Many social animals such as primates, dolphins, and whales have been shown to exhibit pre-moral sentiments. The motivation to reconcile after disputes is by no means exclusive to the human species.

There are evolutionary advantages to altruism. All social animals have had to modify their behaviors for group living to be successful and worthwhile. The human response to unfairness evolved to support long term cooperation within groups. Taking care of each other, whether reciprocated or not, can be a tremendous source of happiness and fulfillment. Morality may have evolved as a means of social control, conflict resolution, and group solidarity. Given how gregarious primates are, it is not a surprise that evolution would have chosen for a variety of concerns and ethical instincts. A sociobiological explanation of morality is not necessary. Having a moral compass and the ability to do what’s right when no one is looking is not an intimation of god.

Finally I want to say that I’m not discounting the prosocial adaptive value of religion within human societies. The expanding of social scrutiny and individual behavior by religion has been an effective strategy to restrain selfishness and foster cooperative groups. Altruistic punishment is crucial to social life. Coupling the idea of a morally competent witness to one’s actions motivates people to do extremely selfless and noble acts for each other. I do not deny that there is something at the core of the religious experience that is worth understanding. I do not deny that a belief in god provides undeniable motivation and fulfillment for people. The endless cataloging of such facts would still not begin to suggest that god actually exists though. The perceived usefulness of religion and the fact it can be a terrific motivator for good, is not an argument for truth. It is more cognitively challenging to not believe. The fallacy of sunk cost, emotional attachments, and the interest of maintaining one’s faith and enjoying the benefits generally dissuade believers from dispassionately evaluating whether or not it is actually true.

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