September 27, 2007

Does god and religion satisfy other human needs?

In the previous post I listed four possible reasons why religion should not be undermined:

  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.

Of the four, only the first argument really justifies preserving religion but it does not hold up. There is no convincing evidence at all that god exists and the only rational thing to do is to give up the belief.

All the other arguments are purely utilitarian, essentially claiming that even if religion is based on a false belief, it still has social value that makes it worth preserving. I hear this argument surprisingly often, so it is worth examining.

As for the second argument, if there is no god, then maintaining a belief in it for emotional psychological reasons makes as much sense as not eventually telling children the truth about the falsity of Santa Claus and fairies because we don't wish to harm them psychologically. Getting rid of childlike illusions is part of the growth to maturity and it is not clear why religious people need the crutch of god for emotional stability even into adulthood. Surely they would be psychologically stronger for facing up to the world as it is than in believing in something fake? An adult who grows up still believing in Santa Claus is much more vulnerable emotionally, and doomed to perpetual disappointment, than someone who grows up realizing that there is no mysterious gift-giver who is periodically going to give them what they want. As George Bernard Shaw: "The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than a drunken man is happier than a sober one."

The third argument, that religion and belief in god supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown, has been countered so often and so effectively by others that I will not address it again. I described some of the arguments against this position earlier.

The fourth and final reason for upholding religion is that it 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.

This is the most crass and is completely indefensible and will be rejected by well-meaning religious believers. But I think that it is the real reason why religion has survived so long in the face of overwhelming evidence for its falsity. State patronage has served religion well. Rulers realized long ago that you cannot rule forever using just force and fear alone. People have to accept that a few are meant to rule and that the majority has to accept being ruled by the minority. People have to accept that their ethnic group/tribe/nation is special and that it is morally right to subjugate and exploit other groups/tribes/nations. The god idea serves this purpose exceedingly well. If people can be convinced that everything is according to god's plan, that it was meant to be that their rulers were destined to rule, then half the battle is won. Those at the suffering end of this arrangement are pacified by being told that they have the consolation of rewards in heaven. In fact, the greater their suffering in this world, the greater the supposed reward, which is a very useful idea for exploiting people even more.

I have written about the useful role that belief in god has played in maintaining systems of oppression here and the cynical way that some non believers support such beliefs to achieve their political ends here.

It really comes down to this fact: If the kind of god most people believe in does not exist, then there is no reason to believe in such a god. It really is as simple as that.

POST SCRIPT: Boneheads on TV

Have you noticed the people in the background on live TV who try to get noticed by doing weird things? Apparently the name for them is "boneheads". The Australian TV show The Chasers (which has become one of my favorites) challenges Chas to see how many bonehead appearances he can make during an awards show.


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I'd like to suggest a 5th reason not to undermine religion, that is a possible correlate of reason #2. Religion does give people a reason to socially regard others as in their "in group", i.e. to identify and empathize individuals who share their religious beliefs. It also provides a method that a new member of a community can become part of the "in group" by converting to the local religion, going to church, following the rituals, etc. It is possible that religion assists in creating a social cohesion among believers and communities as well as a mechanism for outsiders to join and be accepted by those communities. If a community is using religion as a mechanism of social cohesion, it may be destructive to the community and to the individuals to undermine the religion without at least considering how that particular community would function afterwards.

Posted by Greg on September 27, 2007 12:54 PM

Sorry for the long post, but this got me thinking. As with so many Christians, I stayed a Christian for a long time after I became an atheist. Such a large part of what my church did still really worked for me. Going to church on Sunday basically consisted of 3 actions.

1) Socializing and entertainment (seeing my friends, singing hymns, eating etc.)
2) Discussing morality and ethics, and doing service (the vast majority of this stuff would be completely in line with their secular counterparts)
3) Hearing about theology and miracles (the only part I ever had a problem with)

I've put together a back of the envelope calculation. Sunday school and the service were about equal thirds. (And less magic for older students.) The church lunch was half entertainment and half ethical discussion. And we did service projects fairly often. The weighted averages work out like this:

1) Social/Entertain: 29%
2) Ethics/Service: 55%
3) Theology/Magic: 15%

I'm sure this varies wildly by religion and by church. (Urban Methodist in this case.) But by my calculations that's 85% of my Christianity in practice, not in theory, I never had any problem with. Of course, the magic 15% in Christianity is accepted as the most important part. So I couldn't really keep going without getting into some serious lying.

So while it's absurd to want to keep a false authority figure to keep people in line, I can see some benefits to replacing the parts of Christianity that actually exist with a secular equivalent. And I think a lot of people are not atheists sheerly because of the lack of these things. Self-designed weddings, political activism, and secular volunteering opportunities are great. But still, are there any non-religious places where you can take your kids to get instruction in day to day ethics with a high teacher to student ratio with various members of the community once a week for free? Not that we couldn't have a secular equivalent. I really think we could. I also think we could still build pretty buildings and have community parties, classes, and sing-a-longs in them if we wanted to. No God required. But I don't think people are used to thinking that way.

Posted by Cindy on September 27, 2007 10:18 PM


You raise a good point that I am planning to address in a posting next week.

Posted by Mano on September 28, 2007 04:37 PM

Hi Mano,

I'm not sure I find your argument against "Reason Number 2"
particularly compelling. When you say:

"Getting rid of childlike illusions is part of the growth to
maturity and it is not clear why religious people need the crutch
of god for emotional stability even into adulthood. Surely they
would be psychologically stronger for facing up to the world as it
is than in believing in something fake?..."

What evidence do you have to support this contention? Do you have any
evidence to support the notion that religious people are
psychologically weaker than non-religious people?

Or are you simply arguing that you yourself cannot see why someone
would prefer this choice? And if so, how is this an argument against
this idea that at least some religious people claim that their
religious perspective gives them tremendous psychological value?
Just because you do not see the value yourself doesn't mean that
it does not exist for others.

I have heard people says that their religious beliefs allow them to
avoid despair, behave altruistically, and feel a sense of personal
worth and the value of others. I am not saying that a religious
perspective is required to obtain any of these things, but if a person
says that his or her religious perspective provides these things, then
isn't that perspective providing real and significant value to that
person? And isn't this so regardless of the fact of whether or not
god exists and whether or not you or anyone else can appreciate this

Likewise with the argument of Bernard Shaw. This sounds like an
argument that seems to discount the value of "mere happiness" (not
that I have seen many happy drunks, actually.) But in the past you
have argued in this blog that one of the consequences of your atheist
viewpoint is that each person should feel encouraged to pursue
happiness in whatever form they find it. You have defended the value
of the life lived now in pursuit of happiness (in this life vs. the
afterlife in particular) in the case of homosexuality, for example.
Sounds great. But if a particular person makes what sounds to me like
a similar argument that their religious perspective provides great and
deep happiness, and assuming that this person is not behaving in a way
that that results in harm and is not advocating claims that can be
directly disproved, then why not tolerate that persons perspective?
Why act to undermine it? It seems to me that there are many paths to
happiness and fulfillment in life. Without offering any evidence I
would like to suggest that just as there are those who feel that their
identity is associated with a particular sexual orientation or a
particular culture, perhaps it is the case that there are people who
likewise associate their identity with a religious perspective. And in
each of these cases, I would ask, who are we to undermine this? Who
are we to suggest that what is right and good for ourselves is also
right and good for others?

Posted by Corbin on October 6, 2007 10:59 PM

Indeed the religion issue is somewhat similar to issues of cultural
diversity and the two things get intertwined. What is important and
what people find valuable and what will lead to happiness varies quite
a bit from culture to culture, and I would argue that there is a
defensible moral imperative to tolerate and even encourage this kind
of diversity. This is not to say that one should not be free to stand
up and criticize activities or policies that one finds objectionable
in other cultures, but I can criticize those things without
criticizing the entire culture. We tolerate cultural differences not
only because this allows people to pursue happiness in their own
context, but also because as a society the range of cultural views can
enrich our perspectives. Likewise, it seems to me that we can
criticize particular objectionable religious policies or behavior
while acknowledging that in a pluralistic world tolerating a range of
religious views that provide value to individuals as well as providing possibly
helpful alternative perspectives and understandings
that arise from diverse points of view.

Posted by Corbin on October 6, 2007 11:04 PM


My point is that we should shine the light of reason and evidence on religious beliefs just the way we would on any beliefs, including astrology, faith healing, etc.

It is not a question of tolerance. Of course, people have the right to believe what they want, and to find happiness wherever they can, as long as they are not harming others. But are you saying that we should extend this to say that they have a right to be shielded from arguments that challenge their beliefs, and that those who think those beliefs are wrong should not be able to why they think so?

The analogy with culture is not quite apropos. Culture is a broad amorphous thing comprising many elements. It is quite unlike something specific like belief in a god who can and does intervene in everyday life. But we should be free to criticize concrete manifestations of a culture that we think to be wrong. If a particular culture accepts torture and human sacrifices, we should point out why we think it is wrong and try and change it.

Your premise seems to be that religion is harmless so why bother with it? But it hard to make the case that religion is truly harmless. I have addressed this before and will address it again tomorrow (Tuesday).

Posted by Mano on October 8, 2007 10:24 AM

Hi Mano,

No, I do not believe I have ever argued that people who have religious
beliefs should be shielded against having these criticized. That's
not what I was trying to say here. I am a strong proponent that
people should be able to express such criticisms. But of course this
doesn't mean that I will find any particular criticisms to be
compelling or not.

Also, I'm not really arguing that "religion is harmless" either. As I
mentioned before I have no interested in defending "religion as a
concept". I was trying to defend the idea that some religious
viewpoints are valuable to some people and that this value
might be significant and important, and worth defending in it own

I'll still try to defend my culture/religion analogy, although I see
your point. It's not a perfect analogy. Yes, culture is perhaps a
broader idea, but you can pick any aspect of it, like religion, and
talk about how it impacts a persons day-to-day life. Ethnic diversity
is good. Musical diversity it good. Political diversity is good.

The value of diversity, be it in cultural or religious perspective is
similar to (but, admittedly not the same as) the value of diversity in
a bio-system: You want biodiversity in a ecological system to have the
best opportunities for that system to respond positively to
environmental stresses, you want the cultural diversity there to help
you find ways to deal with problems that you cannot anticipate, and to
help you see and understand the perspectives of others who are not
like you. I value the cultural viewpoints that I do not share, not
because I simply want to be tolerant, but because this perspective
might show me a way to solve a problem that I would not have otherwise
considered. Likewise, I value the religious perspective of others
because their views might provide some insight into the consideration
of problems that have not been fruitfully solved by any other methods
(such as scientific ones) that I might have already attempted to use.
Admittedly, I have no evidence to directly support my argument here --
but my preference is to live in a world where there is a range of
different viewpoints on this particular issue, and I suspect that in
the long run this will be healthier for society.

Posted by Corbin on October 9, 2007 04:31 PM


I see the value of diversity, but we don't encourgae diversity at all costs. Would you extend your diversity of ideas argument to not try and discredit the claims of astrologers, card-readers, spoon-benders, psychics, and the like?

Even when we talk of biological diversity, we sometimes seek to deliberately eliminate some things such as harmful disease causing viruses.

Posted by Mano on October 10, 2007 08:36 AM