Author Topic: The usefulness of religious belief  (Read 967 times)

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Offline Bagheera

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The usefulness of religious belief
« on: January 16, 2013, 04:52:51 AM »
In a nutshell:

I have been told time and again by Christians that we cannot be "good without God". There are studies that show even the implication of being watched is enough to cause people to modify their behavior, to the point where increased illumination can have a deterrent effect on crime or other "deviant" behavior.

This is a powerful argument: that the usefulness of God trumps supersedes the question of whether or not it is, in fact, true. If placing a sign that says "This area under closed circuit surveillance" reduces the incidence of vandalism, for example, then should it matter that people walking through the area cant tell where the camera are located (or if they in fact exist)?

The argument has its support in clinical research, which supports the notion that people tend to act in ways more in line with what is seen to be moral, and judge others more readily, when being observed. Even having a poster of a pair of eyes on the wall can produce behavior that tends to align with socially acceptable morality.

For atheists:

Given this, and with what seems to be a predisposition  for imagining gods anyway, should we be attacking this useful and easily accessible tool for moderating the behavior of our species?

And for theists:

If the best method for ensuring "good" behavior is to convince people that they are under constant surveillance, real or imaginary, what does that say about humanity? Are we so ill as a species that only exploiting our paranoia controls our psychopathy?

Offline William

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #1 on: January 16, 2013, 06:21:14 AM »
If the best method for ensuring "good" behavior is to convince people that they are under constant surveillance, real or imaginary, what does that say about humanity? Are we so ill as a species that only exploiting our paranoia controls our psychopathy?

Looking around at humanity I share your dispair - but I think the root of the issue is quite basic.  We can't all be "silverbacks", either physically or mentally.

Most humans are born (genetically) to be followers - lower in the social pecking order and constantly needing of leadership to function in society.  Only a few can be natural leaders and even many of those will only rise to leadership when the position of leadership happens to fall vacant - they don't seek it.

The pleasure of thinking for oneself may not be biologically completely possible for all humans.  Religion (basically fear) does a good job of filling the void for many followers.
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Offline The Gawd

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #2 on: January 16, 2013, 07:06:24 AM »
the answer is simple. Put more signs up. They come with a lot less bagage and no dogma.

Offline Anfauglir

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #3 on: January 16, 2013, 07:06:59 AM »
For atheists:

Given this, and with what seems to be a predisposition  for imagining gods anyway, should we be attacking this useful and easily accessible tool for moderating the behavior of our species?

Any tool is only as useful as the person controlling it.  If ALL religion did was stop otherwise bad people from doing harm to others, then I may well agree with your point.  Unfortunately, in the real world, not only do unscrupulous people use religion as a tool or oppression, but also there is no agreement by religions on what is "good" in any case - and the non-religious have yet another opinion on that.

It's like.....it's not just that there are CCTV cameras placed in areas that will stop binge-drinking and affray, but also CCTV placed in certain aisles of the library (to deter people from reading certain books), as well as CCTV in your living room.  CCTV deters crime, and is a Good Thing....if we agree on what is "Crime".
Just because you've always done it that way doesn't mean it's not incredibly stupid.
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Offline pianodwarf

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #4 on: January 16, 2013, 08:43:41 AM »
This is a powerful argument: that the usefulness of God trumps supersedes the question of whether or not it is, in fact, true.

Actually, it isn't.  The question of whether usefulness overrides truth is ultimately self-defeating because, in order for a doctrine to be useful, it must be believed to be true.  This raises other difficulties as well, such as the fact that if doctrines are adhered to for their utility rather than their truth, then any inquiry into whether that doctrine is true must be suppressed, perhaps even to the point of persecution.

Bertrand Russell raises a number of other concerns as well, in his essay "Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?"

Quote from: Bertrand Russell
I think the contention, stripped of inessentials, is as follows: it would be a good thing if people loved their neighbours, but they do not show much inclination to do so; Christ said they ought to, and if they believe that Christ was God, they are more likely to pay attention to His teachings on this point than if they do not; therefore, men who wish people to love their neighbours will try to persuade them that Christ was God.

The objections to this kind of argumentation are so many that it is difficult to know where to begin....

http://wordofman.blogspot.com/2009/10/can-religion-cure-our-troubles.html
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Offline Bagheera

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #5 on: January 16, 2013, 04:31:18 PM »
Looking around at humanity I share your dispair - but I think the root of the issue is quite basic.  We can't all be "silverbacks", either physically or mentally.

Most humans are born (genetically) to be followers - lower in the social pecking order and constantly needing of leadership to function in society.  Only a few can be natural leaders and even many of those will only rise to leadership when the position of leadership happens to fall vacant - they don't seek it.

The pleasure of thinking for oneself may not be biologically completely possible for all humans.  Religion (basically fear) does a good job of filling the void for many followers.

Thank you. You reminded me of another reason why religion and belief in god is so universally acceptable/appealing. We are social creatures that intrinsically value hierarchy as an integral way of organizing our social structures. I will have to add that to my list.

Theory on the popularity of religion:

1. It provides a perceived 'escape' from death, one of the most powerful biological drives we have.
2. The 'escape' is reinforced by causal perception: "I cannot conceive of not existing. Therefore, I will always continue to exist."
3. Every living adult was cared for by a more powerful being since birth, unconsciously reinforcing the idea that there is someone more powerful than us all the time.
4. Humans require a social structure with leadership; theistic religions allow us to always have a semblance of that leadership.

We have found ways to imagine that we always have the things we need in our social structure

Offline Bagheera

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #6 on: January 16, 2013, 05:10:49 PM »
It's like.....it's not just that there are CCTV cameras placed in areas that will stop binge-drinking and affray, but also CCTV placed in certain aisles of the library (to deter people from reading certain books), as well as CCTV in your living room.  CCTV deters crime, and is a Good Thing....if we agree on what is "Crime".

That's the beauty of it: the person who feels that they are under surveillance will decide what is crime all by themselves!

Essentially, you tend to act in a more "moral" way consistent with what you believe others would consider to be moral. So if you think having sex with a rottweiler is something that your neighbors would soundly condemn, you wouldn't do it if you thought you were being observed. No one is actively telling you "don't do [X]". You decide that for yourself.

It's perfect.  :-\
« Last Edit: January 16, 2013, 05:13:20 PM by Bagheera »

Offline Bagheera

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #7 on: January 16, 2013, 05:14:42 PM »
Quote from: Bertrand Russell
I think the contention, stripped of inessentials, is as follows: it would be a good thing if people loved their neighbours, but they do not show much inclination to do so; Christ said they ought to, and if they believe that Christ was God, they are more likely to pay attention to His teachings on this point than if they do not; therefore, men who wish people to love their neighbours will try to persuade them that Christ was God.

The objections to this kind of argumentation are so many that it is difficult to know where to begin....

http://wordofman.blogspot.com/2009/10/can-religion-cure-our-troubles.html
[/quote]

Thanks, Pianodwarf. I will have to give this a more leisurely read before I can make any comments on it.

Offline Quesi

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #8 on: January 16, 2013, 05:37:43 PM »
Does anyone really believe that people behave either more morally or more ethically because they think Santa Clause is keeping tabs on whether they've been naughty or nice?

Most sects of Christianity seem to have come up with a way to get around the inevitable "sin" anyway.  Catholics confess.  In some protestant sects, all you have to do is accept Jesus as your personal life coach, and I'm guessing you chat with him about your sins, and he understands.  In still other sects (which might overlap with the latter) we are ALL sinners and it is not our fault, and it doesn't really matter in terms of having an excellent eternity.  All that matters is accepting the lord. 

The folks who seem most worried about sin seem to spend most of their time pointing fingers at gay people or low income women seeking an abortion, I suspect, just to make themselves feel better about getting a hard on when passing a Victoria's Secret billboard. 

And then there is the whole prosperity gospel, which promotes business practices that encourage the faithful to try and screw other people out of money, and if you get the money, it is because god wants you to have it. 

I've worked with a lot of religious people on refugee issues, and they genuinely believe that their faith is inspiring them to help others.  But I think that they would be dedicating their lives to helping others if they had been raised by atheists or Taoists or 7th day Adventists or practitioners of Santeria. 

They are just good people, who care about the welfare of others, and value life. 


Offline ParkingPlaces

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #9 on: January 16, 2013, 05:57:09 PM »
I'm short of answers, but I thought I'd point out another aspect of religion that might be deemed useful. Groups. We humans seem to like to group up under a common theme, and religion offers that experience, oft times more readily than many other social institutions.

Added: One of Bagherra's previous posts mentioned social structure. Groups like churches (and clubs, fraternal organizations, etc.) tend to be a smaller version of large social structures. And hence the individuals involved often feel a bit more empowered/involved because of the smaller group size.
« Last Edit: January 16, 2013, 06:01:06 PM by ParkingPlaces »
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Offline Quesi

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #10 on: January 16, 2013, 06:26:57 PM »
I'm short of answers, but I thought I'd point out another aspect of religion that might be deemed useful. Groups. We humans seem to like to group up under a common theme, and religion offers that experience, oft times more readily than many other social institutions.

Added: One of Bagherra's previous posts mentioned social structure. Groups like churches (and clubs, fraternal organizations, etc.) tend to be a smaller version of large social structures. And hence the individuals involved often feel a bit more empowered/involved because of the smaller group size.

I agree.  I think one of the great benefits of organized religion is the community that it creates.  Community and cooperation are good. 

Offline kcrady

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #11 on: January 16, 2013, 11:45:07 PM »
On the other hand, when it comes to measures of societal health, like crime rates, unwed pregnancy, literacy, etc., highly secular nations like Japan, Sweden, and Norway strongly outperform religious nations.  In the U.S., less-religious "blue" states outperform highly-religious "red" states.  Even if religion does have some beneficial effects as a Noble Lie, it doesn't work nearly as well as good education and a comprehensive social safety net.  Which are, naturally, the things religious conservatives will fight tooth and nail to keep from being established in the U.S..
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Offline ParkingPlaces

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #12 on: January 17, 2013, 12:03:27 AM »
^^^Good point kcrady. What religion offers are stop-gap measures to keep things sort of under under control, whereas actual social reform, in areas such as universal health care, full employment, sex ed, actual education and treating criminals more humanely would go far further in creating a fully functional society than the games christians (and other religions) play.
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Offline Spit

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #13 on: January 17, 2013, 12:42:51 AM »
Religion promotes non-violence historically.  :blank:

Offline Spit

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #14 on: January 17, 2013, 01:09:13 AM »
^Wait. That's not right. I guess I can't think of anything then.  :blank:

Offline Bagheera

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Re: The usefulness of religious belief
« Reply #15 on: January 17, 2013, 04:52:11 AM »
Bertrand Russell raises a number of other concerns as well, in his essay "Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?"

http://wordofman.blogspot.com/2009/10/can-religion-cure-our-troubles.html

I read Bertrand Russell's essays, and although I should probably re-read them so I don't mistakenly miss his message there was something that I thought worth discussing:

Quote
What the world needs is reasonableness, tolerance, and a realisation of the interdependence of the parts of the human family. This interdependence has been enormously increased by modern inventions, and the purely mundane arguments for a kindly attitude to one's neighbour are very much stronger than they were at any earlier time.

What the world needs, and what it can achieve, are not necessarily one and the same. People desired everlasting life and the knowledge that those who violated deeply-held mores would be punished, and religion gave them both. Religion as a way of moderating and modifying human behavior en masse is arguably very successful. So we remove religion, which uses a fundamental facet of human nature (the unconscious desire to act in accordance with social mores when it perceives itself to be observed) in the name of truth.

But. . .human behavior  not as thoroughly governed by rational thought as some would hope. So do we rely solely on awareness that specific acts detrimental to the common good are frowned upon and punished if caught? That knowledge is always with us, yet this knowledge is more effective when coupled with the belief or feeling of being observed,  to the point that even an environment that has poorer lighting will have more instances of misbehavior than one that is well lit. 

If the feeling of being watched is enough to deter crime, and the religion which was used to instill the feeling of being watched erodes, that particular control is no longer effective. How do we replace it? Do we put up posters of eyes everywhere? Statues? Fake security cameras? Or do we simply accept that the price of truth and being free from religion comes with a price tag of increased civil disorder and decreased personal safety?