September 26, 2007

Should religion be undermined?

Religion is such a ubiquitous phenomenon, so pervasive in all aspects of people's lives, that imagining life without it is very difficult. It is like asking an American teenager to imagine life without their cell phone. Not only are people extremely resistant to giving up the idea of god, they also resist giving up qualities they ascribe to god even if those qualities cause severe logical difficulties.

But if we think that belief in god violates reason, should religion be actively undermined? This question, raised by Corbin Covault in his guest post, is not simple to answer. Even if there is no evidence for god, does religion still play a useful role or have some value that makes it a worthwhile belief to support or at least not seek to actively undermine? Or is there something to be gained from actively working to discredit the idea of god, as has been the aim of current best-selling books written by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens? Or should atheists treat religion with benign indifference, the way we treat children's beliefs in fairies, as harmless illusions, not worth wasting time over, except in those instances where it actively does harm?

I can think of four arguments for the continuance of god and religion:

  1. God does exist and there is empirical support in the form of evidence.
  2. God does not exist but believing in god satisfies deep human psychological and emotional needs and that getting rid of those beliefs would lead to people feeling emotionally bereft of support.
  3. Religion and belief in god supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown.
  4. Religion is a useful tool for the ruling elites that enables them to maintain social order, by convincing oppressed people to accept injustice and inequality as part of a divine plan and defer their wishes for relief until the next life, where they are told they will reap great rewards.

Let me start out by saying that I think only the first reason is sufficient cause for keeping religion. If there is no empirical evidence for god, then we should unequivocally say so and work towards the elimination of such beliefs, just as we dismiss the claims of astrology and belief in ghosts and other similar phenomena. As soon as you start saying that some evidence-free beliefs need to be sheltered from criticism, you lay yourself wide open to special pleading by every charlatan, such as crystal-ball gazers, card readers, faith healers, spoon benders and others who take advantage of the shelter provided by the privileges accorded to religion to ply their trade. They too can say they provide services to meet the emotional and psychological needs of people, such as getting people in contact with their dead loved ones. If you are a person who believes in god, then I am not sure on what basis you can criticize these other groups since the kinds of evidence they invoke is of the same kind that religious people use.

Of course, people should be free to believe anything they want. But I am saying that believers should not feel that they occupy some privileged place in the space of public discourse where only genteel and mild criticisms can be made. I am not suggesting, of course, that such beliefs and the people who hold them should be subject to verbal abuse. What I am saying is that the only standard that applies to them is the same that we apply to any other beliefs, and religious beliefs, especially mainstream one, should not be granted immunity from very close scrutiny and sharply-worded criticisms. So if it is acceptable in public discourse to dismiss the beliefs of flat-Earthers as ridiculous, then it should be acceptable to do so for beliefs in god as well. If it is legitimate to campaign to discourage people from believing in astrology and astrologers, it is just as legitimate to discourage them from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and the like.

A curious thing, given the supposedly small numbers of atheists in this country, is the huge popularity of the recently released books that advocate atheism,. I suspect that many more people than we realize have serious doubts about god and religion but have been cowed into not saying anything against religion and god precisely because of this sense that to speak against religion is rude. The arrival of these books and the publicly declared atheism of many people must come as a relief.

What about the tone of the criticisms? It is argued that harsh criticisms are not effective in persuading people to change their minds, that one can 'catch more flies with honey than with vinegar'. It is often pointed out, for example, that Martin Luther King was effective in winning over many people because he did not speak in strong terms. Actually he did express strong views but his language was very measured and his example is often used to argue that tempered language is more effective than harsh.

As I have said before, this depends on whether one is discussing in the private sphere or the public sphere. In the private sphere (in the classroom or in social settings), I tend to not argue in strong terms and in fact do not actively raise the issues at all. During the dinner party discussion I wrote about earlier, I took a soft line, seeking only to explain why I was perfectly satisfied being an atheist. I did not subject my dinner companions' religious beliefs to a cross-examination.

But in the public sphere, one can make the case that opening up beliefs that have no evidence to harsh criticisms can be a very effective way of getting rid of them. For example, we know that most people's belief in Santa Claus does not survive past early childhood. Many are gently weaned away from it by their parents. But for those children determined to hold on to it, it would be an interesting study to see what effect the ridicule of their childhood peers has in getting them to abandon their belief in it.

There is another argument to be made in favor of having at least some people speak out harshly against religion. Take the case again of Martin Luther King, who is often invoked as someone who was successful because he was not abrasive. It must be remembered that King was not speaking and acting in a vacuum. At the same time Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, and other radical elements were making very strong attacks in very harsh language on the institutions of racism, and strongly criticizing the non-violent methods of King. King's moderate tone may have been effective with the white community precisely because they could contrast it with what King's rivals for influence in the black community were saying. Since he was seen as less threatening, they could thus warm to it.

In public sphere debates on contentious issues, the labels 'extremist' and moderate' are not absolutes but relative. When the range of opinions expressed is broadened, those who were once thought to be on the fringe now become mainstream. So subjecting belief in god and religion to critical scrutiny by some opinionated anti-theists (the 'extremists') may actually be very effective in widening the range of discussions. Such people are providing an opportunity for those (the 'moderates') who prefer to speak in more tempered terms to emerge from their silence and have a dialogue with religious believers. In the absence of the strong anti-theists, it is these so-called moderates who would have been the ones portrayed as 'extremists', and thus been cowed.

So Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are actually playing a positive role. By getting rid of a lot of the sacred cows prevalent in discussing science-religion issues, they are opening up the field for a whole lot of people to speak more openly about their own disbelief in god.

Next: What about that belief in god satisfies deep human psychological and emotional needs and thus has value?

POST SCRIPT: The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

Professor John J. Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Professor Stephen Walt (Harvard University) caused quite a stir with their article The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy. They now have a book out with the same name.

They will be speaking at 7:00pm TODAY (Wednesday, September 26, 2007) in the Ford Auditorium in the Allen Building on the CWRU campus, at the corner of Euclid and Adelbert. The event is free and open to the public. The event is sponsored by Case's Hallinan Center for Peace and Justice.

Although I have not read their book yet, I did read their article in the London Review of Books, and the more detailed working paper on which it was based.

I also wrote a four-part series on their paper and the aftermath. You can find the last part here, which has links to the earlier parts.

You can listen to a Fresh Air interview with Walt here.


Trackback URL for this entry is:



Not all religions have the concept of supreme deity/deities. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, Buddhism is non-theistic in nature, while Jainism is atheistic. The Sankhya school of philosophy among the Indian tradition (currently grouped under the Hinduism umbrella) is also atheistic.

While I understand that your background is Christian, it is better examine the arguments for or against god and religion separately. I agree with the direction of your position that only the first argument regarding empirical evidence for god provides sufficient cause for continuing with the concept. However, the lack of evidence for god does not invalidate the role of religion.

Therefore, I would formulate argument #3 as "Belief in god (within a religion or without) supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown."

I would also introduce a variant of #3, say #3a that addresses religion separately, "Religion supplies a foundation for morality, and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown."

The arguments for and against the aforementioned two constructs while similar, are not the same.

Posted by Thought Shaman on September 26, 2007 02:15 PM

Hi Mano,

I can't resist the temptation to chime in on this point. You've
covered a great deal of ground on this subject over the past several
weeks. I won't even pretend to address all of the issues that you have
thoughtfully written about.

To start, even though several of your postings lately have dealt with
``the problem of religion'', I have no interest in defending the
virtue of religion as a single concept. It seems to me that religion
``as a concept'', whatever that means, actually has very few defenders.
As you have pointed out, most religious people will consider defending
only a subset of one (their own) or more (if they value ecumenical
diversity) particular religious perspectives that they see as possibly
providing value. But this doesn't mean that they buy into the notion
that all kinds of religious perspectives are valuable and good.

Likewise regarding your list of ``four arguments'' for the continuance
of religion. I am not sure to what persons or groups these arguments
apply. What is the perspective from which these points are given? Is
this a list that is argued in the context of ``for the overall good of
society?'' Or is there some other criteria? In particular, Point 4
sounds more like an argument against the continuance of religion.
Also, I think your statement of Point 3 verges on a false dichotomy:
some religious perspective may well provide some people foundations
for morality, and in this way these perspectives may prove beneficial
to persons and society, but such a value may exist without
automatically implying that without religion there would be
``lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown''.

We've gone over this lack-of-evidence vs. inability-to-disprove-god
ground before, but at the end of the day I would argue that there is a
qualitative difference between the strength of an argument based on
presenting evidence that is in direct contradiction to observable fact
and a lack of evidence to support a particular viewpoint, and for me
this distinction sets the tipping point between claiming that
something is scientifically uncompelling vs. whether it is worthwhile
actively ``undermining'' all religious beliefs of others, even in the
public sphere. In my mind there is a bright red line between having a
belief that results in a testable hypothesis that can be measured and
potentially contradicted and having beliefs that generate no such

I think any person regardless of their own religious believes is free
to criticize any viewpoint that is demonstrably wrong regardless of
whether the viewpoint is clothed religion or in science or whatever.
Faith healers and others who are making particular claims of medical
efficacy that are demonstrably false. The earth is demonstrably not
flat. Astrologers who claim to have special knowledge to predict
likely future events can be proved false. Christian fundamentalists
to argue against evolution can be proved wrong in the lab. With
regards to criticizing these kinds of claims, please go to it, I'll be
glad to join you.

Likewise, I do not see why the same kind of logic cannot apply to
moral arguments, religious and otherwise. For example, you made in an
earlier post regarding the religious training of children, which you
give this as an example of how religion as a concept is a bad thing.
You say "...Once you concede the validity of religion, what argument
can you use to say that these people are wrong?" Well, why should any
religious person automatically concede the "validity of religion" as a
concept? It seems to me that a person can defend any particular
religious moral perspective whilst fully criticizing any other that
they find morally objectionable. Why can't any person, religious or
not, point to this example and say, "Hey, teaching people that
genocide is okay is a Really Bad Idea." Why can't religious people
with integrity argue -- just as atheists such as you have argued --
that such harmful teachings have no right to defend themselves on the
basis of simply being religious?

For me the issue is whether or not a particular religious perspective
makes claim that lead to specific and measurable consequences. Not
every religious perspective that you might come up automatically makes
a bunch of specific belief claims about the nature of god or anything
else in particular. For example, in my view when Stegler sets up his
eight-point list, even though he has backed off the most extreme
fundamentalist views, he is still setting up a straw man. For
example, I find it rather easy to imagine a ``liberal
Judeo-Christian'' religious viewpoint where precisely none of
those eight points would be granted, or at least not as phrased by

Indeed this gets to the difficulty of the fact, as you point out, that
getting religious people to agree on the properties of god is just
about hopeless. You ask your religious readers to provide a list of
the essential properties of god that they agree with. It's sort of like
asking ``What are the essential properties of government?'' or ``What
constitutes an acceptable government?'' Well the answer to these
questions have evolved with history and will vary with culture, and in
a diverse and pluralistic society you will get a great deal of
disagreement over what might constitute a ``proper'' or ``good''
government. But you do not need to be an anarchist to argue against
particular governments or types of governments.

One last point, regarding item 4. on your reasons list. You have
asserted this view in past postings that there is a "basic philosophy
and modes of practice of religion that supports the exploitation of
people by discounting the value of this life (the only life that we
are sure we have) and shifting their focus from justice in the here
and now to dubious rewards after they die. It also encourages feelings
of helplessness by asking people to put `ones faith in god'. This is
exactly what Martin Luther King pointed out...."

I find this particular argument rather uncompelling. This idea that
religion encourages people to "sit still and put up with all kinds of
grief on earth because you will be rewarded in heaven..." is in my
view a caricature of a viewpoint put forth by some fundamentalist
Christians and Muslims -- and perhaps arguably by the more
conservative elements of the Roman Catholic church. It is hardly a
universal "basic philosophy" of all religious viewpoints, at least not
in modern times. In this day and age, I cannot imagine many oppressed
people sitting still for this kind of thing, whether they belong to a
church or not.

For example, I recently had the good fortune of listening to a
presentation by Ivan Abrahams who is the Bishop of Methodist Church of
South Africa. The whole of his presentation was an discussion of the
negative impact of globalization on the poor people of his country.
This person is a substantial figure within this particular
denomination, and he is consistently -- that is to say invariably and
without exception -- calling for action and change. He arguing to the
people of his country to reject what he calls the "new slavery" of the
exploitation of "the two-thirds world" people by those who profit
hugely from globalization. And he argues to the people of the world,
and to the people in his denomination in particular, especially from
the US and Europe, that tolerating this kind of exploitation is the
moral equivalent of slavery and that governments, churches, and
individuals need to do more to make a change in the system. During
his entire presentation, he did not mention heaven, or patience, or
anything like this. Quite the contrary, it was clear he was calling
for direct action to make the world a better place. Whether you agree
with him or not, his words and his action had an impact on those who
heard them.

Posted by Corbin on September 27, 2007 01:38 AM

Thought Shaman is right.

Mano deifnes "Religion" as "Belif in God", which isn't what rleigion is defined as.This conflation fo terms is absurd.

Simply rejectign the existance of God doens't disprove religion as a whole. Hell, even Humanism is a religion. I am aware that modern Humansist say they arne't a rleigion, but the Humanist Manifesto 1 was very clear that it was.

A religion is not defined as beleivign in God, or , more spacificlaly, an inteventionist God. (In anothe rpsot Mano decided that Distss and Pantheists whren't rleigious).

Buddhism, and several other forms of Eastern religion, cleslry labled as such and even self identified as such, are either Neutral on the matter of the eixstance of any gods, or else Atheistic in principle.

And as noted, Humanism is "A religion".

Religion is simply defined as a worldview, a system of beelifs used to udnerstand the world.

Not theism.

Also, it gets tirign hesrign how " beleiving in god is irraitonal, as it creates logical difficulties". It doesnt create logical difficulties, and the argumetn son this blog I've read so far ar emroe illogical than simply saying " I beleive in God".

But thats another matter.

Posted by Zar on October 8, 2007 12:58 PM

I agree with COrbin. But the real problem with Mano's presentaiton is the whole ocncept behind "New Atheism". THe Harris/Dawkins/Hitchens approach is to make religion into a great evil that must be defeated. After all, if rleigion is not evil, why fight it?

THerefore, religion si always given negative traits, such as that it encoruages one to sit back and accept abuse in this life withthe promise (Presumed false) that an afterlife will eb better. No, Even findamentlaist and COnservitive Christains, who are far too oftne villinised, don't say this. But, if you get enough people to think all rleigions make peopel placid to oppression, you make it look liek a tool for oppresison, and peopel readily dismiss it as such.

Or how about how Religion is Anti-reason as it asks you to ebelive things on faith, whch is beelif withotu evidence? This raisn tyou nto to htinka nd to ignroe the evidnece. At leats this is the claim made by "NEw Atheism". But Faith was nevder defined as Beleif withotu evidnece in the writtings of theologians and isn't udnerstood as such in most rleigious contexts. But it certainly makes rleigion look bad to make it Anti-Reaosn, so the arugment is promoted.

Or how about the argument that Religion causes division, warfare, and hartred? Ignored is all the good doen int eh name of religon, and if it is broguth up, it is dismissed.THose peopel where good anyway, btu it took religin to create terrorism. Any good doen int he name of religion is swiftly and assuredly said to tbe the resutl fo Humanist principleds and genuine goodwill of people, dispite their religion. Any evil doen int he name of religion, though, was direlcty cause dby religion, and proves religiosn capability to cause evil and desturciton. THis of coruse simply acts as a way to depict religion as violent since all violent acts doe by a rleigous adherant is automaticlaly used as evidence for the premise and any good is ignroed as evidence agaisnt.

How abotuthe usual "Socnece VS Religon" Canards, Mano himself has stated that Religious peopel critisise Sicnetists for not takign their arguemtns for God seriously. THis creates the Illusion that Scientistss always argue againt Gdos existance, and no religiosu perospn is a sicneitsts.Its a clear contrast between the teo camps. But ti snto true, and there are Numerous Scentistss that happen to be Religious.

The above argument is a lie. Religion has int he apst, and even in our world today, acted as a motivator and vehicle for social reform. It does not just tell its adherants to sit back and accept abuse, and there are many who are galvinised into acting agasint tyranny and oppression absed on there rleigous faith.

Today, in Zimbabwe, ther eis an Archbishop who is callign for an end to Tyranny in his cougnry, based upon his Cahtolic Faith.

Martin Luther Kings social reforms where boudn to his Baptist Faith.

Ghandi was obviosuly a SPiritual leader.

Albert Swietzer was za Unitarian.

And look at hte numeorus benificial Charities doen under the banner of rleigious faith. The Red Cross, Salvaiton Army, St. Judes Chldrens Hosital, ect...

Can anyone relaly look at the owlrd and think that Rleigions always teahc Pasivity agaisnt oppression and the hardships of the owrld, and never act to iprove our world?

Mano prefers the arugment because it gives him a smug satisfaction that rleigion is not only worhtless, btu dangerus, but it isnt relaly a vlaid argument since rleigions often do promote social activvism and improvement, and all one needs to do to prove this is to visit a Church-run Homeless shelter.

No, religion doesnt simply offer you an afterlife and ask you to sit idley by and accept torment in this life.

Sayign so is just a stupid argument, tat lacks any foundaiton.

Posted by Zar on October 10, 2007 08:51 AM

It shoudl be added also that the claim that Rleigious claism are universlaly held withotu evidence is Spurious. Even thoguh Harris and Dawkisn and the liek pretend Faith is "Beleif withotu sufifcient Evidence" the truth is that most rleigions woudl offer evidence.

And critisism of a rleigion is not critism of beelifs that lack evidence.

Nor has it proven as effective as Mano seems to want to pretned it would be.

Posted by Zar on October 10, 2007 08:54 AM