Because They Say So

In a comment to a recent post, reader Greg Estren raised a question that has been implicit here for quite some time. Should we encourage religious belief, even if we think religion’s claims are false? We asked this same question, regarding the notion of objective moral truths, back in September: are these beliefs genuinely necessary in order for us to lead worthwhile lives, or are they, as Daniel Dennett has suggested, more like Dumbo’s magic feather — a helpful fiction that helps us learn to fly, but which we can let go of once our skills have matured?

Readers will not be surprised to know that I favor the latter view; there are already examples aplenty showing that humans can live decent and compassionate lives without relying on faith in the supernatural. Sweden, for example, is the least religious nation on Earth, with 85% of its population declaring their unbelief, and they hardly seem in danger of descending into violent and immoral chaos.

But so deeply entrenched is the taboo against criticism of religion that to do so is seen not as “seeking the truth”, or “just trying to get to the bottom of things”, but as both a grave social transgression and a direct, personal affront to those whose views are in question. Lawrence Auster, in this comment, remarks that once upon a time in America “Attacking other people’s religion wasn’t done, because it would lead to mutual hostilities that would destroy social peace.”

But look at some of the assertions made by Christian believers: that an omnipotent unseen Being is responsible for the creation and moment-to-moment maintenance of the entire Universe; that this Being knows all our thoughts, and is attentive to everything we do; that the Universe, contrary to all the physical evidence, is only a few thousand years old; that this Being embodied itself a few centuries back in a man who performed fantastic miracles and then then came back to life after having been tortured to death; that this controlling Being loves us infinitely, but nevertheless shears away its admirers in countless and gruesomely imaginative ways even as they sing its praises; that if we fail to believe any of this we ourselves will be tortured for all of eternity, and so forth. Meanwhile, dozens of other religions offer tableaux no less fantastic, and equally unencumbered by any evidence whatsoever — all believed with the same confidence and fervor, and all quite contradictory. All but one must be false. People like me just happen to think the one left over probably is, too.

In any other area, if I were to make such far-fetched and unsupportable claims, nobody would feel any inclination to hide their understandable skepticism, if not their outright scorn. And if I threatened them with “hostilities” in return for suggesting my ideas were false, I’d end up in jail. But not when it comes to religion.

I can only assume that this grossly restrictive prejudice is due to another arbitrary (and, ultimately, religious) belief, namely that belief in religion is itself necessary for the continued existence of a civil and productive society. In other words, even if you don’t believe, you are supposed to believe that people ought to believe. But this assumption itself is quite unwarranted, as the example of societies like Sweden (and, I will add, millions of decent nonbelievers, such as your humble correspondent) amply demonstrates. It is simply another of religion’s magnificently designed defenses.

It is one thing to ask for religious tolerance. It is quite another to argue for the suppression of free public debate and intellectual criticism, and we should begin to call attention to this pernicious habit, whenever we see it.

That ought to keep us pretty busy.

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  1. I’m all for open debate . . . though I’m often short of time for it. But I can offer a perspective on religion that might make sense of it. It’s about ultimate meaning for people’s lives.

    You are right, Malcolm, to note that people often die in horribly gruesome ways, e.g., the family murdered just the other day by that man dressed as Santa, or some of the individuals horribly burned in the 9/11 attacks and who sat in stairwells suffering extreme pain until the entire structure put an end to their misery by collapsing and thereby also killing hundreds more who were still uninjured and hoping for rescue, or my grandfather, whose leg was crushed by a log broken loose from its chain and who died weeks later, out of his head with of blood poisoning.

    The list could go on . . . with or without God.

    Without God, none of this has intrinsic meaning. With God — at least with certain conceptions of God — these horrible events nevertheless fit into a meaningful universe.

    Thus, one has a choice, perhaps, between an absurd, existentialist world in which human existence has no intrinsic meaning and a world in which meaning is assured.

    In both ‘worlds’, precisely the same events unfold, but one world offers absurdity, the other meaning.

    Undoubtedly, this dichotomy could be better expressed, but perhaps you see my point. I can foresee some counterarguments, but I lack time to explore them.

    Jeffery Hodges

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    Posted December 27, 2008 at 5:39 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    But here’s the rub, Jeffery — for any of that to work, one must actually believe it, no?

    Posted December 27, 2008 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  3. Right, it’s not an abstract argument for the existence of God, nor an attempt at persuasive reasons for belief, but rather a point about that crucial need for meaning in life that religion can satisfy in a world that is otherwise existentially meaningless and often tragic.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted December 27, 2008 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Well, Jeffery, as noted, if the whole thing just rings false — as it does for people like me — then it isn’t going to work. Arguments of the form “X must be true, because it would just be awful if it weren’t” don’t really carry any probative weight, as you acknowledge.

    Also, for some of us, the idea all that the meaning and purpose of our lives is simply to be imposed from without by an all-powerful, all-knowing authority figure — one who must be propitiated and appeased, under pain of eternal torture — is not such an attractive prospect either; it seems more appropriate to a child’s relation to its parent than something a supposedly free adult would yearn for.

    Yes, the world is tragic, and mysterious, and also exquisitely promising and beautiful. This life may be all we have; let’s make the most of it while it lasts. My own seems full of meaning — indeed, I think we are highly evolved meaning-making machines, and have invented religions primarily to buttress and justify the meanings and intuitions we already have.

    Posted December 27, 2008 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  5. Granted, Malcolm, that many of the concepts of God that people have are highly problematic, would there be any concept of God that you would find appealing?

    Or is your position, ultimately, that even the best-possible conception of God founders on the presence of massive suffering because such suffering forces us to conclude that we don’t have that best-of-all-possible gods and that the God that we might have would have to be either incompetent or evil?

    Jeffery Hodges

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    Posted December 27, 2008 at 4:16 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Or indifferent.

    Is there any concept of God that would appeal to me? If so, it’s hard for me to imagine what it could possibly consist of, and anyway I feel no need of it. But the problem of evil is only part of the difficulty; it’s really just that the whole thing seems rather obviously made-up to me, and it puzzles me no end that anyone can actually believe it. More than puzzling, in fact — it seems quite surreal to me sometimes, and more than a little disturbing.

    Posted December 27, 2008 at 8:24 pm | Permalink