True or False? Helpful or Harmful? The Two Different Arguments About Religion

There’s something I’ve been noticing lately about the ongoing, increasingly-robust religion/ atheism debate. And that’s that it’s really two debates. Very different debates… which sometimes get confused and conflated.

By both believers and atheists.

There’s the debate about whether religion is true or false. God, the immortal soul, mystical spiritual energy — do they exist, or do they not exist? Is religion an accurate hypothesis about the world, or is it a mistaken one?

Or, to be more accurate, since the God hypothesis can’t be definitely disproven: How plausible is it that God exists? Is it a reasonable hypothesis supported by evidence, or is it a self-contradictory myth that requires a metric shitload of circular defense mechanisms to support it?

And then there’s the debate about whether religion, on the whole, has a positive or negative influence on the world. Does it provide comfort, hope, social cohesion? Does it promote gullibility, intolerance, the rejection of reality in favor of dogma? If both, then which is more common, or more important? Can the good things done in the name of religion really be chalked up to religious belief itself, or would people have done them anyway, and religion just gave them the inspiration? What about the bad things done in the name of religion, ditto?

In this debate, one side typically lines up Gandhi, Martin Luther King, charities and hospitals run by religious groups for centuries, etc. The other side lines up the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, witch burning, 9/11, and so on. And these avatars for religious evil and religious good all duke it out on the Internet, like some wild, absurdist multi-player computer game. (The Simpsons episode where Homer’s hallucinations and Mr. Burns’s hallucinations get into a battle in the ski cabin comes to mind…)

The thing is, these really are two different debates. Religion could theoretically be correct, but still overall be a harmful influence on human society. And it could theoretically be mistaken, but still overall have a beneficial effect. (Although… well, we’ll get to that in a moment.)

But I’ve noticed that these debates tend to slop over into each other. People will be arguing over whether some piece of religious doctrine is plausible… and then someone will start going on about Martin Luther King or the Inquisition.

The reverse also happens, of course. People will be debating whether religious charities and social movements outweigh religious atrocities and intolerances, or whether it’s the other way around… and then someone starts saying, “But it doesn’t matter, because my religion is the Truth, inspired by the True God, and all the religious atrocities in the world aren’t an argument for why it’s false.” Or they start saying, “But it doesn’t matter, because religion is a mistaken theory about how the world works, and all the charities in the world aren’t an argument for why it’s true.” The slopover happens from both sides.

And that makes for some very muddled, meandering, frustrating debates. It is worth remembering that each side could theoretically be right about one of these questions and wrong about the other. Again, religion could theoretically be correct, but still overall have a harmful influence on human society. And it could theoretically be mistaken, but still overall have a beneficial effect. These really are two separate arguments, and I think we might be better off keeping them separate.


See, here’s what makes this even more confusing. Here I am, arguing that these are two separate debates, and that in the interest of clarity we should try to keep them separate.

But I also think they’re connected.

Because if religion is mistaken — and I think that it is — then that makes it harmful.

By definition.

Basing your life on a false premise is going to lead to you bad decisions. It’s the old “garbage in, garbage out” saying about data processing. You can see this in very mundane, practical areas of life. If you think fish are poisonous and inedible, you’re more likely to starve and die out when you move to an island nation. If you think malaria is caused by unhealthy vapors in the atmosphere, you’re more likely to make bad decisions about public health policy. Etc.

Of course this applies to religious premises as well. Possibly even more so. If you believe in a rain god, you’re more likely to make bad decisions in times of drought. If you believe that God will be on your side in all battles because he wants your people to conquer the world, you’re more likely to make bad decisions about military strategy and foreign policy. If you believe the Apocalypse is coming in the next century, you’re more likely to make bad decisions about the need to prevent global warming.

And when the premise is not only a false one, but one that actively resists correction the way religion does — one that actually has an elaborate system of defenses against correction — the “garbage in, garbage out” problem is compounded.

In particular, the idea that religious faith (i.e., believing in something for which there is no hard evidence and can be no hard evidence) is in itself a virtue, something that makes you a good person… this idea leads both individuals and societies not only to a resistance to reality that contradicts their faith, but to a general gullibility. It makes people extra-vulnerable to faith healers, charlatans, frauds of all stripes, from Jim Bakker to Richard Roberts. And that’s harmful for very obvious, very pragmatic reasons.

So in other words:

Even if there were no religious intolerance or oppression; no Spanish Inquisition or 9/11; nobody burned at the stake for being Protestant or Catholic or insisting that the earth moves around the sun… even if none of the awful shit that happens in religion’s name ever happened, or had ever happened in all of human history, I think religion would still, on the whole, have a harmful effect.

Simply because it is mistaken.

What’s more, I agree with the point Daniel Dennett made in “Breaking the Spell.” He argues that, because religion isn’t based on actual reliable evidence but only on tradition and personal experience and other stuff people made up, and is in many cases flatly contradicted by both evidence and reason, this actually makes people cling to it harder, defend it more passionately… and behave more oppressively and intolerantly towards non-believers and infidels and others who put chinks in the armor.

Obviously there are exceptions to this rule. There are individual people and individual faiths that are tolerant and ecumenical, towards people of different faiths and towards people with no faith at all. But alas, hostile intolerance toward those who don’t share the faith appears to be the rule in religion, not the exception… so much so that it seems to be, not a foundational cornerstone of religion exactly, but one of its most natural and common consequences. Intolerance towards doubters and outsiders is one of religion’s primary defense mechanisms, one of the main ways that it stays alive.

So back to the actual topic at hand:

I do still think that, as a general rule, the “true or false” and the “helpful or harmful” arguments are different arguments, and that the religion debates would be more productive if they were kept more separate.

But I also think it’s worth remembering this:

A mistaken idea is pretty much always a harmful idea.

Just by definition.

True or False? Helpful or Harmful? The Two Different Arguments About Religion
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22 thoughts on “True or False? Helpful or Harmful? The Two Different Arguments About Religion

  1. 1

    Because if religion is mistaken — and I think that it is — then that makes it harmful.
    By definition.
    I was starting to get worried there for a few paragraphs. You began even-handedly – a bit too even-handedly – and *gasp* I thought “Is GC about to make the Golden Mean fallacy? No way…”
    But, alas, just as I was about to jump right to the comment box to write “BUT – if it’s not true, if it’s a myth, then it can’t be good for society by any rational measure. (BTW: Speaking of measures – being a science guy I tend think in metric and then have to convert. “…or is it a self-contradictory myth that requires a metric shitload of circular defense mechanisms to support it?” *snickers again*)
    I agree with everything. In particular, I argue all of the time that the general gullibility associated with people who would accept any unfounded belief system – not just religion but also astrology, etc.) – leads to many poor long-term, big picture decisions.
    As usual, dead-on.

  2. 2

    Excellent discussion! Makes me wonder about the sanity of bothering to participate in my own idiotic religion. Oh by the way I mentioned you in today’s Demented Diary entry.

  3. 3

    Hello Greta,
    I really like this post… but not for the reason you might think. I’d like to write an entry on my blog debating the points you bring up. I would probably have it up by Wednesday. May I have your permission to debate this with you?
    Namaste – er… I mean Thank you.
    – John.

  4. 6

    John, you’re welcome to post whatever you want on your blog. But I can’t promise to debate it with you. I will if I have time, but these days that is a big, hairy “If.” (To give you an idea: When friends ask me how I find the time to do all the writing I’m doing, my usual answer is, “Sleep deprivation.”)
    I’d certainly be interested to see your reply, though, even if I may not have time to debate it.

  5. 7

    Greta, you wrote that so well.
    Over the last couple of weeks I have been trying to formulate my thoughts on just this topic for a post, because I think it’s important, but dammit, yours is so much better than what I was trying to work on.
    Best thing I can do right now is post a pointer (I doubt I have readers you don’t, but just in case).
    Wonderful stuff.

  6. 8

    Just to play Devil’s Advocate here (a mixed metaphor if ever there was one), there are plenty of false theories that are still useful.
    Newtonian mechanics and dynamics is simply wrong. It leads to contradictions if you try to use it near the speed of light. Nonetheless, it will get you to the moon, and let you do lots of other useful things.
    Admittedly, this is helped by the fact that we understand in considerable detail how much it is wrong, so we know when to use a more complete theory, but it’s also “good enough for most real-world applications”.
    Likewise, I also think a lot of moral “rules” are similarly not quite correct, but close enough to be getting on with.
    Unlike fundamentalists, I very much think that such rules should be studied, because there may be extreme situations in which they are dangerously incorrect. And the present is very much a novel situation for a meme that evolved in an agriculture-dominated feudal society.
    I just want to point out that “right” and “wrong” isn’t an entirely binary division. “Almost right” can be useful, particularly if you understand the “almost”.

  7. 9

    Wow! Great post. And good comment, too, Eclectic. But what if we say that Newtonian mechanics is helpful to the extent that it is mostly accurate, and harmful if we insist on holding it in situations where it isn’t accurate? Does that bring things back into line with Greta’s point?

  8. 10

    I was discussing with someone not to long ago why I can’t date anyone who believes in any kind of supernatural deity, religion, whatever. He wanted to claim that many pagans are much more tolerant and have more of a live and let live attitude about atheists and other religious ideas. While I agree that I get into less arguments with pagans, I have to include them in the “don’t date” category. The reason is because their belief in a “mistaken” idea spills over into their decision-making process, regardless of how tolerant or accepting they are.
    As you pointed out, someone who worships a rain god will make bad decisions in times of drought because they are operating under a set of assumptions that will not accurately predict the future.
    Someone who has any sort of belief in supernatural events will make decisions that fundamentally conflict with my idea of the “right” way to conduct a relationship and life in general.
    I wish I could remember some of the examples I gave during that discussion. They had to do with how their religious beliefs ultimately caused them to do things to or believe things of *me* that were contrary to promoting a loving relationship. I think I’ll start sending people to this entry the next time someone starts in on me for being “close minded” about dating outside my “religion”. Bah.

  9. 11

    Hi! I recently found you, and I’ve been reading you dialy since then.
    I think your post is really, really interesting, so I wanted asked if you mind if I translate it on spanish and put it, with credit and a link, of course, in my journal.
    There a lot of people I know, who are not able to read in english, but could found fascinating this.

  10. 12

    Sorry Eclectic, but that is one of the silly BS concepts that get dredged up when talking about this. That “moral codes” is the same thing as religion. They are not. Its possible for the basic moral precepts to be right and the religion 100% wrong, and in fact, one could argue **likely**, since there is very little general deviation from those codes between different religions. Yeah, there are relatively minor ones, like what sort of sex lives (if any) you are *allowed* to have or if you should kill only outsiders, or no one (and its only certain modern versions of some religions that even try to claim the later either. The OT was hardly a book full of examples on how you shouldn’t kill *anyone*, instead of just not your own people.)
    Trying to claim that moral values = religion is just conflating the argument into not two separate arguments, but three. I.e.: 1. Is religion true or not? 2. Is religion harmful or not? 3. Are the moral codes we follow right now ones that make sense?
    The answer is imho, the same as Greta has stated, its hard to imagine religion being *right* at this point, if it is wrong, then its harmful by definition, and one of the ways that it *is* harmful is that it distorts moral codes, such that you get double standards and excuses for who they codes apply to, or even *if* they apply at all when deciding how to deal with someone that doesn’t believe the same as you.
    Case in point. These people think they are right to push the whole idea of eternal damnation and salvation via Jesus on everyone, *but* the first thing they did when disaster struck was start praying for people to be hurt, scared and gullible enough to go to them to *find* that salvation, instead of praying that those people would not be hurt, or anything else just as useless, but more ethical/moral:
    This is what Greta is talking about. Religion, or one could argue, if you don’t want to call all of them wrong, the “wrong” religion, distorting the very “moral rules” you think are so useful, into something undeniably evil, and the people following them being completely blind to the fact that they are, precisely because they choose to equate what is the right thing for them to do under the circumstances with what their “religion” tells them, instead of what imho most people’s conscience would suggest instead.
    As its said, evil men will do evil, good men will do good, but it takes religion to make good men do evil (and more to the point, convince them its actually good they are doing instead).

  11. G

    Although you discuss this tangentially, I think that it deserves more emphasis: It is not merely that religious beliefs are mistaken that’s the primary problem. The problem is that the particular kinds of falsehoods embraced and promoted by religion are exactly the sort that magnify errors – making them more frequent, more severe, and less correctable.
    My own take on this is that faith is not only an epistemological disaster, it is also a moral failing. At some point this will be the topic of a scholarly-type paper, but I’ve already written a short essay about it that Ophelia Benson kindly published at Butterflies & Wheels. See
    if you’re interested.

  12. 14

    Actually, the issue can be divided into any number of valid sub-issues. Not only “does god exist” and “is religion a good thing”, but also “is faith a good thing”, “does non-belief in god equal non-belief in ANYTHING”, “do people need religion for morality”, and many more.
    The problem is, people who never learned how to discuss – yes, it is a skill – jump from one topic to another. You have to be careful in any discussion not to allow either side to inadvertently jump topics like this.
    But yeah, religion is bad. 🙂

  13. 15

    Hello Campbell.
    Funny you should mention that – I just argued the same exact thing in my response to Greta’s post. Hopefully you will find that my response doesn’t jump from one topic to another. 🙂

  14. 17

    Greta –
    Thanks for the mind-working posts. I don’t agree with some of your positions, but appreciate the skullsweat your ideas and writing inspire.
    I don’t agree that mistakes are always damaging. Accidental discoveries are mistakes, after all, and the huge number of accidental discoveries we humans have come across boggles *my* mind at least, especially compared to the numbers of discoveries that were the end product of directed research.
    I would also posit that fiction is potentially a useful fallacy. It allows for creative mind-stretching in ways that bare fact can quite often fail to address. Of course, it can be abused, but what can’t be abused? *wry grin*
    Does that make religion more or less damaging to society? I don’t know – I’m not that smart. I’d just like to point out that not all work on mistaken ideas turns out to be detrimental.

  15. 18

    I posted this to the Unitarian’s blog.
    AFAICT you seem to be saying that (1) religion minus claims of Truth = Practices and values, and (2) the practices and values can be beneficial, even if the associated story is fiction. So, for example, one could live like a Narnian even if there isn’t any Narnia. (I have a fondness for Valdemar, myself.)
    Though a longtime atheist myself, I once proposed deliberately creating a false religion designed to give the sorts of comfort that religions do, while implying and teaching the sort of ethics that would do the most good and the least harm. I suspect that the founder of the Bah’a’i Faith was making his best effort to do just that. My own effort was much simpler: Sequential Reincarnation; the doctrine that when you die your soul goes to the back of a line, and when you reach the front of the line you go into the next available human body. This, I hoped, would allow folks to deny the reality of death, which they so desperately want to do, and motivate them to try to make this Earth a good place to live for everyone in all lands, in a way that could last indefinitely, a Just and Sustainable society.
    You noted that Zen (and perhaps other forms of Buddhism) can be entirely naturalistic is also to the point; but IMHO any philosophy of life that is entirely naturalistic does not qualify as a “religion”. That is, I think, the defining difference between religion and philosophy, that religion makes at least some supernatural claims. It would be unusual (unheard of?) if any religion made supernatural claims WITHOUT those claims having some relevance to the ethics and practices that they teach.
    My major complaint about religion is that it (typically) teaches a false theory of ethics, that ethics consists of conforming to the Divine Will, obedience to the Divine Mandate, however that may be expressed. This (a) makes ethics a matter of obeying some Authority, which consequently prohibits applying reason to ethical questions, and (b) severs ethics, to at least some degree, from concern for the consequences to real people in this world.
    If ethics and practices are based, in any degree, upon false stories, thay are likely, to that degree, to be bad ethics.

  16. 19

    John: (I have a fondness for Valdemar, myself.)
    Oops, you just exposed the flaw in your “useful fictions” argument. I like Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series myself, as fantasy… but the basic appeal of the series is exactly what makes it a fantasy: It offers a world where “the gods” not only exist, but they’re paying attention, and occasionally providing direct assistance.
    Remember too, that Valdemar is ruled and administered by a corps of people chosen and chaperoned by direct servants of their gods — which is much of why the series occasionally drifts into “Mary-Sue Nation” territory. 😉
    That’s exactly what we don’t have in reality! somebody claiming to hear from God can’t prove it nohow, and in practice, they’re unlikely to any more moral (often much less) than someone who makes no such claims. And that leads back to Greta’s point that believing and acting on untruths can be remarkably dangerous.

  17. 20

    About 2360 years ago, the philosopher Plato in his dialogue “Republic” recognized that truth vs. falsehood and good vs. evil are separate issues; he proposed that his Republic have an official religion which he called a “royal lie”. And there are others who have had similar viewpoints over the centuries; it’s like saying that the religion business is desirable as the opium of the people.

  18. 21

    It’s appropriate time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I have read this post and if I could I want to suggest you some interesting things or advice. Perhaps you could write next articles referring to this article. I wish to read even more things about it!

  19. 22

    Because these things don’t fit into the fantasies of a lot of women? It’s nice that 90%+ of the stuff out there meets your personal tastes, but there are many of us who have different tastes and would like to see more stuff that speaks to us. I don’t read fantasy so that the author/illustrator can remind me of one of the most obnoxious problems in my real life, that as a woman I’m societally expected to be (and to want to be) a submissive sexbot. My fantasy world is one where it’s a given that men and women have equal claims to power, autonomy, and active desire. Unfortunately that seems to be almost as rare in fiction as it is in real life.

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