My take on religion and its role in society, circa 2004

My take on religion and its role in society, circa 2004

Back when I first read Sam Harris’s THE END OF FAITH, published 2004, and later books by Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, I took notes on the books but also wrote down my general take on the appeal of religious faith and how I thought religion functions in society. These sum up my attitudes about the subject over my early life, beginning in my middle teenage years when I politely declined to continue attending church with my family, up until publication of those books (and some websites) led me to consider the issues more closely.

  • One idea I haven’t seen discussed (I wrote in 2004) is why most people, who assume religion to be a good thing per se, thereby are much more disrespectful of atheists than of people who follow different religions from their own. You’d think if someone believes their own religion is the only truth and all others are mistaken and whose believers are condemned to hell, that those of other religions are just as wrong as those who follow no religion. Yet the disregard most people express for atheists isn’t consistent with that. My own interpretation of these circumstances is that people assume religion—any religion—is a good thing per se, because it signals a degree of social conformity and tribal identity, without which (as in the atheist’s case) a person is an unpredictable ‘free agent’ representing a greater risk to society or oneself than anyone subscribing to any religion. A person following a religion has ‘submitted’, in just the way the literal term Islam indicates.
    • This is perhaps why it doesn’t seem to bother most people that the particular religion they follow is merely that which they were born into. It was never a matter of considered choice. It doesn’t matter, in some sense; any religion will do. (A curious example, in a sense, of ‘relativist’ thinking, that believers worry about in the absence of religion.)
    • It’s also the case, I think, and this is something Harris at least doesn’t allow for (but Steven Pinker in his later books does), is that *most* people who say they are religious do *not* in fact believe as literal fact all the details of what their religious books say. Or even *know* what those books say. In fact, most people haven’t made deliberate study of what to ‘believe’, because following the example of their family or community doesn’t require them to. If pressed, I suspect most US Christians, for example, would disavow the many harsh passages of the Bible, while insisting on adhering to the general spirit of a God-focused universe and a Jesus-centered regard for humanity. (I suppose these are the ‘moderates’ Harris does speak of, in his first book.)
  • Another idea the religious themselves don’t appreciate the easy way any talk of ‘god’ conflates to the same ‘god’. For example, a common ‘proof’ of god is that of the first cause: everything has a cause, the universe exists, it must have had a cause, etc. Even if you accept this, how does the idea of ‘god’ as first cause presume that any particular idea about god, any particular religion, is thereby justified? But religious defenders do this all the time. It’s very sloppy thinking.
  • Elementary illustrations of how events are recorded in history, from the accuracy of the daily paper to childhood games of ‘telephone’, not to mention how tales grow in the telling, become folk tales, and change over generations, should make anyone skeptical of the veracity of any ‘holy book’. Is this how people assume all those *other* holy books came to exist, perhaps?
  • Harris does mention a profound irony in the way religious defenders accuse scientists of being arrogant, when in fact it’s the scientists who happily admit what they do not know, and the religious defenders who presume that the creator of the universe has particular interest in their own daily lives. Human religions are, in the broad sense, a reflection of the natural but naïve notion that humans are the center of existence, all that matters, and everything not known can be disregarded.
  • Another idea I haven’t seen anyone suggest, or put forward [I later collected many such examples and even formulated 10 Provisional Conclusions, not the same as commandments but similarly structured]: what rationalists/atheists/whatever need is some very simple, easily listed, set of precepts that would serve as a counterpart to the ’10 Commandments’. Here again religionists claim that without such precepts, there’s no basis for morality, etc. (As if, without checking the list in the Bible, no religious person would ever guess there’s anything wrong with stealing or murdering.) It should be easy to come up with a set of (non-religious) principles that would in fact serve as an easily-agreed to basis for morality. (Starting with the Golden Rule)
  • The central issue about religion is—why believe that particular unverifiable myth as opposed to any other? What is the reason? It’s easy to understand the existence of this ancient text or that holy book on purely historical grounds, and based on easy-to-imagine primitive rules of social conduct and naïve speculation about the nature of the universe. Such justification entails no basis for accepting the content of said book as true. Why is God or Allah any more plausible than Zeus or Ooga-boogah the Rain God?
  • Because of social tradition and community or personal circumstance? That seems to me like the best possible answer. I understand that most people who subscribe to a religion don’t do it because for whatever reason they’ve signed on to every article of its faith—every verse of the Bible or Koran, as the word of God. But so many, so many social habits have been adopted, without thinking, because of tradition, and personal exposure at impressionable ages, and subservience to community standards. None of them have anything to do with the reality that would still exist if human history started over, or the reality that would exist for an intelligence arising on another planet. Real reality can be rediscovered from itself. There is no Christian reality, vs Islam reality or Catholic reality.

Later Refinements

Over the past 15 years I haven’t substantially changed my thoughts on any of these points, but let’s see if I can add a few refinements.

  • In science fictional portrayals of the far future it is routine to ignore religion and/or assume that society has matured and left behind such irrational belief systems. Some works by Arthur C. Clarke (I’m recalling Childhood’s End) state this decline in religion explicitly, and statistics do in fact show that the better-educated and wealthy a nation is, in the modern world, the less religious they are – think northern Europe including England. Suggesting that as the world grows more wealthy and peaceful, the trends Pinker detects, religious faith will dissolve away. The US, as in so many things, being an exception that proves the rule. Because of those statistics I still find the idea of a future global society, one that has overcome poverty and improved education, plausible, if such threats as resource shortage and climate change can be solved. On the other hand, religion endures not because of its epistemological plausibility but because of its social function; it’s a way of bonding social groups, and the nominal acceptance of the tenants of any particular religious is a way of signaling loyalty to the group. The more outlandish the tenants, the better, for this function. That’s why, given so many ways humanity might slip back from modern culture, I’m sure religion will never go away.
  • At best—and this is my provisional conclusion of recent years—the understanding that religion’s supernatural claims about reality are obsolete is largely a private, individual project. Educated, well-read people easily perceive the contingent nature of religious belief, and its social functions, and will disregard its presumptions to identify cosmological truth, not only because of the rival claims of thousands of other religions, and the way their claims arose from the traditions of primitive tribes, but also of course because of the systematically discovered and tested discoveries of science in recent centuries and decades. But you still don’t casually mention this in public. The nature of social grouping, especially in physical small towns or neighborhoods, makes this difficult to acknowledge of speak of. Conversely, any number of virtual social groups, or groups bound by profession, do support this understanding, at least in the way no members of these groups would ever imagine their fellow members were among the faithful. But the individual has to find them. Charles Mackay, 1841, in “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions,” wrote “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
  • Studies show that casual believers know less about the content of their holy books than atheists. The best way to create an atheist, I think Isaac Asimov once said, is to actually read the Bible. Or the Koran. And see how they reflect the superstitions and values of desert tribes who lived thousands of years ago when people had no knowledge of the world beyond what they could see the horizon. How history was written by the winners.
  • Religious faith is an abjection of intellectual honesty. Humanity has compiled more information about the nature of the world and universe than ever before, and it is all available to anyone, easily. Those of us who accept this understanding see those inside religious faith who deny or ignore this see the obvious special pleading and psychological motivations. The faithful can’t accept the reality of the physical universe and so ignore it, but we rationalists out here completely understand the motivations of the faithful to deny or ignore reality.
  • Religion is to be respected only the extent it gives people something to do in the way of bonding themselves to their neighbors, serving as social groups analogous to those for sports fans.
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