Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Emotional Comfort From Religion

Some people argue--sometimes even atheists make this argument--that religion is a good thing and should be left alone because it provides emotional comfort to believers.  To that I ask:

"Isn't that true of all delusions?  Isn't that also true of racism?"

First, the argument is analogous to arguing that machine guns should be legal because they would make some people feel safer.  I don't doubt that there are some people who would feel safer if they were allowed to own machine guns.  But, the obvious danger outweighs whatever psychological benefit these people feel like they are getting.

Second, people don't actually need religion.  People do have a strong need to understand the world and their place in it, but that is not the same thing as needing religion.  This can be expressed succinctly:

"People need a worldview, but it doesn't have to be a religion."

Other societies have survived and prospered without religion--notably Asian societies populated by Taoists and Confucians.  I know these are considered religions by many, but I have a hard time seeing a religion where there is no belief in invisible friends with agendas.  In fact, those societies did noticeably better than the ones with other religions based on invisible friends.  That is because those supposed religions are merely philosophies and thus are a system of values--and not a system of false factual assumptions.

Such non-supernatural philosophies usually have no (or very few) false factual assumptions.  They are value systems, not factual claims.  Thus, they are far less harmful than religions that make false claims about reality.  Take a look at Jared Diamond's book, Collapse, and you will understand why I say that incorporating false beliefs into your logic is very harmful.

Religion has been so prevalent because, until recently, there were no competing worldviews--except in Asia.  People today are usually still clinging to the view passed down to them from the time when other opinions were banned.  They seem to need religion because that is what they have trained to need just as they have been trained to believe in it without evidence.  (Not to mention the systematic and horrific persecution of non-believers for centuries.)

A science based worldview would substitute quite nicely for religion--with the caveat that the science incorporated has to include all fields, not just the hard sciences.  Criticisms of a science based world view are usually based on an assumption that this will lead to actions based solely on the implications of the hard sciences without consideration of morality or the emotional or social implications.  And, it is true that sometimes one sees examples of such coming from those who have trained so hard and long in chemistry and physics that they have almost forgotten that there is more to science than that and that our understanding of humanity is still growing.

Those few examples, however, do not prove that religion is needed for morality.  In fact, I think they prove the opposite.  I think such instances occur precisely because religion has so suffused our society and thinking that even people who have adopted a more rational viewpoint still have implicit assumptions about the sources of morality.  Those who behave immorally because they follow science rather than religion do so because they think, falsely, that religion is the only source of morality--even if they do not consciously realize that is what they are doing.

In fact, of course, religion is not the source of morality.  As I have pointed out elsewhere, people in a society choose their morality based on a combination of reason, empathy, and community standards, then religion takes the credit after the fact.

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