Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Is religion the problem?

Should we try to eliminate religion entirely? Deconvert the world?

These are the big questions making the rounds of the atheist community these days.

I say it depends on what your goals are. Let's say for the sake of argument that the goal is to leave a human-habitable planet with a sustainable human society on it for our descendants. Preferably a free and open society, and not some bizarro soylent-greenish solution like "okay we have enough resources for everyone to live happily until they're thirty, then we have to eat them..."

Given our current globally-interdependent world, creating a sustainable human society/lifestyle will require a great deal of cooperation among all of the peoples of the world.

(This post will be full of unsubstantiated claims and opinions like that one -- please feel free to dispute any or all of them in the comments.)

I think religion can hinder cooperation and understanding among peoples, but I don't think it's necessarily the primary obstacle. And setting out with a goal to eliminate religion can interfere with more important goals.

Consider the goals of freedom of/from religion, separation of church and state, and a free society with a shared secular public sphere. Consider the goal of high-quality public education, which is what allows people to recognize the difference between actual freedom and the slogan "freedom" (and vote for the former in a democracy). All of these are goals where lots of believers can get on board with us.

There's one thing to keep in mind about believers who are political moderates: Just because they're not violent/dangerous/insane, that doesn't necessarily mean they're not attached to their faith. If they get the impression that the ultimate goal of science education (and/or freedom of religion) is to eliminate religion, many will feel threatened and start to sympathize with the theocrats. There's no reason to alienate our allies like that. Keeping crap-masquerading-as-science out of the schools is not some sort of stealth evangelizing for atheism, and it benefits the whole society. People of differing worldviews can coexist and interact in a free society as long as they agree to do so.

Some say that if there were no religion there would be no war. After all, it's easier to convince people to go out and kill other people if they think it's God's will. God kills people all the time, and carrying out his will is -- by definition -- good. And it's easier to convince people to risk their own lives if they think martyrdom leads to paradise, not to true death.

Still, I think that -- even without religion -- the root causes of war would still be there. War is fundamentally about competition over resources.

People who feel confident that they will see their children grow up to be successful adults have little to gain and lots to lose from violence. The most dangerous people are those whose prospects are so bleak that they're better off taking resources by any means, including killing and risking death. I talked about this in my fertility, mortality post. Any human community can be persuaded to get along with any other human community -- regardless of religion -- as long as it's in their interest to do so.

I would argue that the converse is also true: That (regardless of religion) any human community can be persuaded to kill any other human community if it's in their interest to do so. Humans have a remarkable ability to stereotype and make assumptions about any human community they see as "other." It's weird, but while you naturally see that your own community is full of all different types of people, it's nearly impossible to avoid mentally flattening different races and nationalities into cartoon caricatures. Even educated people who know intellectually that foreign societies have the full spectrum of human qualities still have a difficult time feeling on a gut-level "they're more like us than they are different." Actually living in a city where you're surrounded by people of different origins (or living in a foreign society) seems to be the only way to see that people are the same, and even then it's not clear whether you're learning that "people everywhere are just people" or whether you're merely expanding your own community.

The problem (as well as the "adaptive" value) of mentally simplifying other groups is obvious. The belief that "they're like that, they're not ordinary people like us" is what paves the way for the belief that "they can't be reasoned with; we have no choice but to kill them."

I think that the meta-strategy for peace and sustainability is to see to it that the children of every country have a real opportunity to grow up healthy (again see fertility, mortality for details). See to it that every parent has the expectation that all of his/her children will live to adulthood, which makes it so that investing themselves completely in raising a few treasured children well (and not a quiver-full of disposable warriors) is the most attractive strategy.

How does religion play into this? Regardless of what is written in any official holy book, most people are going to act in their best interest. When it's time for war, those who like the scriptures about God killing all the infidels will rise to power, and when it's time for peace, those who prefer the passages about God loving everyone will rise to power. I figure we might as well make friends with that latter group and compare notes with them. They're the ones who are in a position to sway the (political) opinions of the average believer.

Let's look at this in terms of strengths and weaknesses: The advantage that the fascists, racists, fanatics, and theocrats have is that they enjoy lockstep, unswerving, unquestioning obedience from their followers. Their disadvantage? They can't get along with their closed-minded counterparts in any other racial/ethnic/religious group.

For those who want a free, open, secular/pluralistic society it's the opposite: Everybody has an opinion, nobody will unquestioningly follow the leader through right and through wrong. So our weakness is that most of the time we're marching in a bunch of different directions at once. But our strength is cross-cultural cooperation. Every race, creed, and culture has its open-minded people, and by definition their superficial differences aren't a barrier to working together.

If we can agree (atheists as well as people of faith) on meta-strategy, we can start to make progress on how to carry it out. It's easier said than done at every step of the way, though, so we'll see...


JohnR said...

Amen, Sister Hanson!

Seriously, though, I appreciate this emphasis on cooperation between atheists and theists towards shared political goals. It's a refreshing alternative to the voices I hear from many believers and prominent unbelievers who discourage cooperation by painting caricatures of each other.

I completely agree with your assessment that religion is a complicating or exacerbating factor in conflict, rather than THE root cause. Humans are very good at justifying killing one another with or without religion.

Ultimately, while I'd like see the spread of atheism and greater acceptance of atheists, I think that the spread of a secular society which encourages the tolerance and coexistence of a wide variety of belief systems is a higher priority.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks JohnR!!!

That's exactly the point I was trying to make!!! :D

Eric said...

I agree with you that a sustainable, beautiful future for humanity cannot be built without cooperation between both sides of the religious debate. Considering our genetic propensity to believe and the unfortunate fact that secular education (1) is not available to a large portion of humanity and (2) in most cases isn't effective in erasing a faith-based upbring, there will always be religious societies viewing politics between the lenses of their holy books.

It is important that we establish a common dialogue based on shared moral values. This has been started by a few great thinkers (e.g., The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth by Edward O. Wilson), but I think most fundamentalists still exclude themselves from the debate. After all, since the Second Coming will occur within our lifetimes (okay, maybe my kids'), why worry about global warming or overpopulation?

I should state at this point, since this is my first comment, that like you I was raised Mormon and attended BYU, where I became a geologist. (Yes I know, I was asking for it!) The incompatibilities between my science and faith have led me to secular humanism (I also like the term friendly atheist you champion). :-)

In my case, at least, being a moral atheist requires a fair amount of mental discipline. Coming to terms with mortality is not for the faint of heart! While it is certainly possible to be moral and atheist, it requires a bit more thought than many people are willing to invest. I think religion will continue to be the easiest source of morality for the bulk of humanity. And these are the people we need on our side.

As you and johnr suggest, we should focus our efforts on (1) improving education, (2) raising healthier children, and (3) reducing poverty. Educated people of all creeds tend to make better economic and social decisions, healthy children make healthy societies, and affluence improves both factors (1) and (2).

Sideon said...

Snark altert, but I'm with Jesse Ventura on this one when he said:

"Religion is for the weak."

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Eric -- exactly!!!

Hey Sideon!!!

That may be true, but that doesn't mean we can't work with them. ;^)

Rebecca said...

Soylent green is peeeeooooople!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post chanson - I agree it's important to emphasize moderates/moderation.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rebecca!!!

Yeah, that's the main reason why I decided to reject that strategy...

Thanks Aerin!!!

Anonymous said...

Respect, I think, is a good basis for a begining.

If someone does not respect the other person's viewpoint, why sohuld anyone else respect them?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Matt!!!

Interestingly, that point is sometimes controversial (i.e. Why should I respect a worldview that is pure wickedness / inspired by Satan / pure stupidity?). Yet to have a constructive two-way dialog requires a certain amount of mutual respect.

Catherine said...

Fantastic post. Thanks.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Catherine!!!

Anonymous said...

I have been studying a lot about the issue of cooperation on the meta-scale (political and religious). One of the more valuable resources I've found is Altemeyer's studies on Authoritarianism.

People who are authoritarians in personality and practice gravitate toward religions with very strong structure and punitive rules . . . until they eventually take that (or those) religion(s) over.

Authoritarians believe so much in their own authority and in a black/white rules-oriented life that they see no possible room for compromise. Therefore they approach other people with other views without any compassion, but instead as competitors who are wrong, evil, or misguided.

Eliminating religion wouldn't eliminate these people because religion doesn't create them as a rule, they are simply attracted to religion like insects to sugar.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey CV Rick!!!

That is an excellent insight!!!

There are a number of human qualities that are enhanced by religion but not entirely caused by religion. Authoritarian personality is one of them. (Another negative one is feeling fear and disgust regarding sexuality and sexual expression.)

beatdad said...

It reminds me of an incident between my then 7 year old son and another boy he was playing with. They had been arguing about the existence of god. They came in to ask me who was right. My son stated that he did not beleive in god and his friend, a Baptist, did. Without taking sides I asked them if they could respect each other; they said they could. They ran off to continue playing Star Wars or something.....

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wayne!!!

So cute!!! That's a great way to handle the situation!!! :D

Anonymous said...

I don't think religion is the root of the problem. I still view atheism as a form of religion, just with a lack of a diety. While it would be a nice thought for theists and atheist to ultimately get a long and at least work toward common proactive and beneficial goals, I still feel that the human race will ultimately destroy itself and we will be replaced by whatever incarnation the mathmatics will calculate into existence. As to Eric the former Mormon, even a his Mormon friends should be concerned about stuff like global warming and such. Because, would not the Mormon God judge them by how they treat the gift of this planet that he has given them? But, like I said, we'll kill ourselves off eventually anyways.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Cybr!!!

You're probably right about the human race eventually killing itself off, but I still think it's worth the effort to try to steer people away from making that fate a reality too soon...

Anonymous said...

Well, billions of people seem to think it's worth the effort to believe in a deity and to steer others to their idea of good. I'm beginning to think that both are a waste of effort.

Anonymous said...

The ultimate problem I see with the idea that we aren't trying to destroy religion is that even without specifically trying to get rid of it the end result of giving us the full equal rights that we are trying to get which includes the right to criticise will cause the end of religion since it will force religions to compete on their merits (which they really don't have, though I'm sure the followers of those religions would disagree) instead of on how many people their followers can point swords (or AK47s) at.

Things would be especially bad for religion were the proposal to have child indoctrination classified as child abuse to actually become law although even without it enough people leave religion for us to grow in number anyway.

There wouldn't be any need to persecute religious believers (some of the moderates probably wouldn't mind all that much if atheists became a majority as long as we don't go around killing them) and there probably would still be a religious minority.

The only deaths would be the natural ones as the remaining theists age and die off whilst their children and grandchildren become more atheistic (there isn't really all that much conversion within a generation).