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Posted by on Jan 19, 2009 in Is religion dangerous | 26 comments

“Religion is false, but useful!” Comment on Matthew Parris on religion

Following on from the previous piece, which was a response to Matthew Parris’s piece “As an Atheist, I truly Believe Africa Needs God”, a few more thoughts on using religion as a social tool.

Perhaps the right way to think about religion as a tool is as a catalyst. It does seem to have a supercharging power. Take our tendency to strive to improve our collective lot, to be benevolent and caring, etc. Add a pinch of religion, and the tendency is magnified.

However, the catalytic power works just as well with negative tendencies, such as the desire to dominate and exploit. Take the subjugation of women, mix in a few drops of the heady brew of religion, and watch how much more entrenched and hard-to-shift the subjugation becomes; add a few drops more, and watch how some become sufficiently intoxicated to start flinging acid in the faces of young girls who dare to attend school. Add a dollop of religion to homophobia, and suddenly the attitude becomes far more difficult to shift, grounded as it now seems to be in holy scripture. Mix some religion into an oppressive regime, and watch how its domination is magnified by the thoughts that God is on their side, that God has ordained them as leaders, that those who reject them are the enemies of God, etc. Take one slightly dodgy but charismatic leader, rub on a bit of religious snake-oil, and watch as he – it’s almost always a he – takes on the irresistable persuasive powers of a David Koresh or the Reverend Jim Jones.

The catalytic power of religion is, in and of itself, morally neutral.

Yes, Parris can point to its application in positive ways, and can note how effective it has been in magnifying the positive. Dramatically effective.

But then, it has, often as not, magnified the negative. Dramatically.

Moreoever, once evangelical religion has been introduced into a community, it’s a bugger to deal with when things start to go wrong. Attitudes can metamorphize fairly quickly, so that what started out as benign can quickly become highly toxic. And now you’re really in trouble, because, being evangelically religious, it’s now going to be very hard for any rational arguments and objections to reach them.

Introducing evangelical religion into a situation where there is already a great deal of corruption, homophobia, misogynism, etc. and yes, you may get some good impressive short-term effects. More dramatic effects than you could get by other means. But, boy, you are playing with fire.

Secularist, humanist views combined with a rational rather than a faith-based approach to problems may not have the short-term positive effects of evangelical religion. I admit they probably lack the dramatic impact religion can have.

But, over the long haul, such views are, I’d suggest, far more constructive and beneficial. And far less risky. I point to how Western civilization has gradually improved over the last 400 years since the Enlightenment.

Of course these are largely assertions, not here backed up by evidence, etc. But I think they are plausible claims and put them up for discussion (n.b. I know some religious folk will at this point start banging on about how the Holocaust was the fault of such Enlightenment-inspired secular views.)


  1. So many times I hear the argument from theists about secularity being complicit to Hitler and the holocaust.They fail to see that it’s not a legitimate argument against secularism itself, but that it is an extremely good argument against irrationality and prejudice. Both of which are actively promoted in religion.

  2. Atheists need to start combating religion’s claim to monopoly of the moral highground. We need to promote our good deeds (and, more importantly, our desire to carry our good deeds) and the fact that we don’t need the promise of heaven or the threat of eternal damnation to do good. In fact, by promoting charitable works carried out in the name of atheism we can reinforce the argument that superstitious beliefs are irrational (it’s hard to believe there is an argument on that score).

  3. “The catalytic power of religion is, in and of itself, morally neutral.”I find it difficult to accept.The power in large part seems to derive derive from the suppression of critical thought. This must be bad surely.

  4. If you will permit a humble submission from a troll who has been waiting under his bridge for exactly one night.“Scientists use time to measure space, size and weight,Theologians use markers to measure faith, hope and charity,It’s not that the two never shall meet,It’s just that their differences generate heat!”It’s nearly time for me to disappear again. Thank you all for being such sports. Please don’t mention to anyone that you have seen me, it spoils the fun if people tell you where they get their knowledge from, goodbye!?

  5. wombat – you are right about that. I was trying too hard too be even-handed.

  6. You must be right Stephen, why else would I want to live the life of a troll?

  7. Ok, it’s time for me to go now. Tomorrow on my blog I am demonstrating two new types of counting: pencil counting and string counting. If you think these new ideas may be of interest please feel free to drop by.

  8. I also think that religion seems to show far greater catalyst potential when it comes to bad things. I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure how to make a strong enough case for this gut feel.Perhaps a starting point would be to look at countries where religion plays a dominant role versus countries where secularism plays the larger part. Problem with this is that we may have to include the communist nightmares as “secular states”. We could amend the definition to exclude them, but this might look a little like special pleading.On the positive side, the equation is just as hard to prove on the opposite side: it isn’t at all obvious that religion is on balance a beneficial force. Given that it is surely also false (as Matthew Parris believes) then there doesn’t seem to be much point promoting it. Additionally, promoting what you believe to be false is (i) condescending and (ii) faintly immoral.

  9. I suppose this all depends on how one “introduces” religion, and what the point of it is. Throwing religion at Africa willy-nilly is merely using it as a form of escapism and false hope. In a country where rational thought, science and Democracy doesn’t run free, I would tend to agree that it leads to fanaticism. The sort of religion that thrives in free nations is obviously different then the sort of religion that thrives in others. Religion might give one hope in desperate times, but it would seem accurate to assume that people would use it as justification to do whatever is necessary to secure freedom. Hope without freedom would seem to equal potential fanaticism. Freedom without hope leads to complacency and a jaded view of things.

  10. What would an atheist or humanist say to people in Africa? What about “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”?Clearly not, but it would be nice to start to hear more substantial stuff from atheists. Now that Dawkins et al have made their case against religion it would be good to hear them receiving publicity for world views they hold and which inspire them to engage in humanitarian action.Also, do we know whether people experiencing profound deprivation would actually survive without some sort of hope born of religion? Would people make any attempt at all to intervene without it? I don’t know and I wonder what the evidence suggests. I’ve a feeling that assuming they wouldn’t is quite patronising. On the other hand, I think I read somewhere that religion is a protective factor against suicide.I dare to suggest it, but perhaps hopeful beliefs in ‘some’ contexts might themselves be unreasonable or irrational? Although we value critical thinking immensely, it’s hard to see how unreasonable ‘hopeful’ beliefs could emerge from a critical or truthful appraisal of some situations. Perhaps people shouldn’t be encouraged to have such false hope, I don’t know.I’m certainly not suggesting a religious world-view is correct or rational (and as Stephen points out it’s a fair old Trojan Horse…). But what if, for some people in some situations, it’s a necessary one?

  11. I’ve argued before that faith itself is a moral failing. Insofar as faith stands by its very nature in direct opposition to justification, and insofar as it is reasonable to think that immoral actions are more difficult to justify than moral actions (keeping in mind the difference between genuine justification and mere rationalization), then faith’s “catalytic power” as you call it is far from morally neutral.Pointing to Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot is no defense against this argument because Aryan supremacy, Communism, and other dogmatic ideologies are as much “faith-based initiatives” as any religious crusade or purge. There is neither any need nor any justification for treating religious faith as if it were substantially different from dogmatic, evidence-ignoring adherence to non-supernatural beliefs: In the argument I’ve advanced (link above), it is not the content of the belief but the basis for belief – faith – that is the source of the problem.

  12. In what country do rational thought, science, and democracy run free? Certainly not the UK.And how does religion deter people from suicide? It preaches that the next, heavenly, world is so much better than this one that the logical thing for believers to do would be to move on there as quickly as possible. But of course, believers aren’t logical.

  13. anticant – … But suicide is a SIN. Which leads to eternal roasting somewhere by definition much worse than any earthly situation.Perfectly logical.And for the difficult cases there’s purgatory….

  14. jeremy – “I also think that religion seems to show far greater catalyst potential when it comes to bad things.”Perhaps the asymmetry is due to the active discouragement of criticism. Ideas and practices which would otherwise be shown up as bad or inconsistent escape examination.

  15. “And how does religion deter people from suicide?”I’m not saying it should, but I think there’s some evidence suggesting it does.Perhaps because of fear of eternal damnation but maybe also because it satisfies certain existensial needs (nobody likes to think we’re just pushing boulders up hills). I suppose a relationship with God might also mitigate against isolation and loneliness. Again, I’m not saying this is rational or, bearing in mind one of Stephen’s earlier posts on the meaning of life, that religion has the upperhand on atheism in such matters. For argument’s sake, let’s say religion infuses some unhappy lives with meaning and purpose and stops them ‘giving up’, so to speak. Whether religion ought to stop them giving up is of course debatable, but let’s assume it does. Is it really the case that facing the truth is or ought to be more important than survival?

  16. Believing nonsense brings awkward consequences, not only for oneself but for others.Can you look around the world today and deny the harm that religion is doing?

  17. The belief in the afterlife and the soul can have horrendous results on one’s actions. I think the Catholics oppose condoms in Africa because they think: the more people born, the more souls they can save, regardless if they die early of AIDS, malnutrition, war crimes, etc.Speaking of beliefe in an afterlife, religion doens’t always descourage suicide. Islamist suicide bombers – need I say more? However, with that notable exception, I don’t see why suicide is always such a bad thing? Certainly, there are some fates worse than death. I would count being forced into prostitution in Sub-Saharan Africa to be one of those.

  18. “religion doesn’t always discourage suicide”And then there’s refusing that life saving blood transfusion or simply refusing to convert to a different religion when asked to do so by someone in authority ( usually vested in them by virtue of possessing a sharp sword or perhaps a burning torch).

  19. Ok, I’ll take it from your responses (correct me if I’m wrong) that you hold that people ought not to believe in religion even if it means they give up.I remain unsure of your reasons here though. Is it that because mainstream religions cause overall harm, no-one should believe in them even if that means some individuals lose hope and lose the ability to endure their suffering?Stephen relates religious belief to nuclear power; another possibility is to view it as a treatment. A treatment with high risk of serious side-effects for the individual (including threats to autonomy including rationality) and one that should only be used by the individual as a last resort. However here it seems the treatment offered may also confer a high risk of serious harm to others.In the decision about whether to take or indeed offer the treatment, I honestly don’t think the discussion ends with consideration of possible ‘side-effects’ such as risk to self or others – although you may disagree. Although these are very important, I think we should also consider the potential effectiveness of the treatment in reducing distress, the potential consequences of not administering or taking the treatment and threats to the autonomy of the individual (as the treatment may involve deception, not least by oneself).

  20. “Add a dollop of religion to homophobia, and suddenly the attitude becomes far more difficult to shift, grounded as it now seems to be in holy scripture.”And Jesus gets mixed up in it too. Jesus didn’t say anything about it…or Jesus would be made unhappy by it…or Jesus thinks the whole idea is totally disgusting and would throw them all into hell. Jesus is an adaptable kind of totem.

  21. Paul – Nice analogy. I was struggling with something along the lines of an industrial process which kills you slowly (like making hats with mercury) but the “medicine” seems more apt.It is not so much that I think its worth letting people “lose the ability to endure their suffering?” as that I think we ought to be able to offer them something better. In the past I have proposed an edited version of the Bible – take out the OT, all the factually dubious stuff and the references to the supernatural. Probably end up with something like “Love your neighbour – You’ll feel better for it.”

  22. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”- Karl Marx

  23. I love the implied tension that exists between the notions of condescending, faintly immoral and logic. It’s a great idea. So it is probably wrong to patronise, would be my own spin.The corollary to religion being false and useful is surely that mythology is true and useless, so I could never agree with that. Somewhere today there was a perfect moment of peace located between my house in Watford and the crowds of adulation in Washington DC. Obama will never look for it, but he will be drawn by a force stronger even than he can imagine. I hope there is a sensible outcome, well entertaining at least.

  24. One of the things that I find confusing in this whole debate is the interchangable use of the words GOD and RELIGION. To say that Africa needs GOD is not the same as saying Africa needs RELIGION.GOD either is or isn’t. GOD is a being, if He exists.RELIGION is our response to the idea of God. Different repsonses are different religions. You can worship a chair if you want. That can be your god. But that does not change who the ultimate God is, if He exists. To blame God for the problems or to claim God as the solution is something different (to me) than to claim religion is the problem or the solution.Wombat reponds to “The catalytic power of religion is, in and of itself, morally neutral.” He finds that hard to accept. So do I. Perhaps God is morally neutral, but religion is not.”How does religion deter people from suicide?” It does and it doesn’t, depending on the persons response to what they believe about God. Just having a religion exist will not stop suicide. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”I could respond with a hearty AMEN to that. But still, the issue of RELIGION and the issue of GOD are two different things.

  25. Where does the notion that a metronome stops swinging when it has reached its most “upward point” come from? Gravity shoot straight down and always has done, a simple wobble-omitre constructed of down (heavy), springy (squidgy), and string (pencils) will that water diviners” etc. have been trying to show us this for centuries.What I don’t get is why all the greasers, get to shove everyone else around, the British model (wolf-whistle if you can at this point), is to grow up when your young, kick-around with your “muckers” as a teenager, the grow old disgracefully as vicar in Brighton. If someone can’t show me a better model, I’ll look up the dress of his wife, she could probably do with a good shag, and shake his hand later, if he is a gentleman. “Concrete” concrete my arse, is about as likely as a working Liberal Democrat, or a compassionate tory. So stick that in your peace pipe, Tony Blair, and smoke it!

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