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.
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.