Friday, February 4, 2011

Superstitious Apes and the Utility of Religion

A number of conversations, as well as a few snatches of back-to-reality moments, have given me some thoughts about religion lately.

I have stated before that I don't believe religion will be gone anytime soon.  In fact, I think the majority of the world will always be religious.
From what I know about human beings, religion is built into us.  Every culture in the world has religious beliefs that developed with it.  We are very superstitious apes.

You can argue for the spread of atheism and agnosticism in modern, educated society, but it's still not that much.  The nation in Europe with the highest fraction of its population admitting no belief in god or a higher power is France, at 33%.  And only 4 nations of the 32 studied are above 25%.  That means that at least 2/3 of the populations even the most godless nations in the most godless continent believe in a higher power beyond the reaches of rigorous human science.
 You could argue for China, but studies vary from 20% to 70% of the population being religious.  It is hard to measure behavior in places where a specific belief system is forcibly imposed on the people, because those who believe differently are better off not to admit it openly.

And imagine what would happen if something disastrous seriously upset the global economy, throwing the former first-world nations into poverty, famine, disorder, and misery.  There is no doubt that at some time this will happen, disasters are too common to expect otherwise.  Will people turn away from god?  Some perhaps.  But the world is full of people who have lost so many of their friends and family, whose lives have gone from opulent to desperate, and most importantly, whose modern society with all its science and technology has failed them.  In times like this, people turn to whatever they think or hope or even just wish could help them.
 I don't think these facts will change unless the human race makes some biological (not just sociological) shift.

But what if we could abolish religion, right now?  Gone, somehow, in a day, or a year, or something.
My wife asked me a potent question about this scenario: Would drug abuse and suicide rates go up or down?
I had to admit that they may well go up.  People take a lot of comfort in religion, and not everyone can handle the idea of no higher power, afterlife, etc.  Sometimes I don't think I can handle it.

So though I still don't believe in a higher power, I would not advocate the abolition of religion.
I would, of course, limit the political power of religion.  I would love to quell the more violent and bigoted aspects of certain religions.
But if the whole world moved steadily toward a new-age feel-good "god loves everybody" kind of religion, would it be so bad?  Tolerant religion without political agendas.  It can exist, I think.  Strong adherents of religions with strict doctrines scorn these religions, but I think I like them.

So, my policy now is that I don't want to actively persuade people not to believe in god, but rather I'd like to point out the arguments against the hell and damnation and strict Victorian morality aspects of religion.
Seems more realistic, in any case.


  1. When I believed in God, I was a lot more depressed/conflicted/angry/whatever. I heard so many stories of God helping people, and I wondered why He never helped me. Why I never got those kinds of stories happen in my life. I came to the conclusion that either (1) God hated me, or (2) God knew I was destined for damnation, so didn't need to expend any effort. I was miserable whenever I thought about God. I was occasionally suicidal when pondering the subject.

    Then (to make a very long story short), I stopped believing in God. Now I'm happy and reasonably well-adjusted. My marriage is stronger than it has ever been, my family is closer, and my life is better in every way I can think of.

    I'm not trying to prove your argument wrong; I'm just offering another data point for consideration.

  2. --And I do not doubt the reality of your situation! I know a lot of people who feel the same way. But, I don't think ALL people would be happier without religion, so maybe it's best to let it be as long as it can embrace tolerance and abandon violence.

  3. Atheists are less violent? Stalinist Russia? Communist China?