Utility of Religion

For the serious discussion of weighty matters and worldly issues. No off-topic posts allowed.

Moderators: Azrael, Moderators General, Prelates

User avatar
Dogbert
Posts: 17
Joined: Sat Jan 31, 2009 2:31 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Dogbert » Tue Mar 24, 2009 4:48 am UTC

I'm with another reply, posted further up in this thread: "Religion", taken as one ginormous god-sized bite, is a topic too broad to be properly debated. As a result, we end up with a ton of off-topic posts that are more or less long enough to serve as their own "bibles".

"Religion" -- no specific version, flavor, or denomination -- is good for one thing: unity. This can be good, as Charlemagne would have attested to, since it helps to repel outside attacks; it can also be bad, since anyone who disagrees will generally be persecuted. A subset of religion is assumed to be morality, but frankly, a religion could state that there is no morality while still existing as a religion. See Epicureanism, and perhaps Stoicism.

Of course, this means that if multiple religions are competing, fracture is inevitable. Since that's the case, America specifically would be "better off" without religion, or at least without religious tolerance. It's simply not healthy to entertain too many religious viewpoints.

User avatar
Idhan
Posts: 319
Joined: Sun Sep 07, 2008 10:33 pm UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Idhan » Tue Mar 24, 2009 5:51 am UTC

Dogbert wrote:A subset of religion is assumed to be morality, but frankly, a religion could state that there is no morality while still existing as a religion. See Epicureanism, and perhaps Stoicism.


Hmm... I could maybe see Stoicism as a religion -- perhaps something on the borderlands between metaphysics-heavy philosophy and naturalistic religion, along with Theravada Buddhism or Unitarianism -- but Stoicism has a moral code, and at any rate I'd say that it lies on the philosophical side of the philosophy-religion border. Epicureanism doesn't seem to me to be a religion at all: it is, in many ways, a philosophical repudiation of religion, like Humean empiricism, Carvaka, Randian Objectivism, Carnapian logical positivism, etc. Then again, Randian Objectivism and Laveyan Satanism are fairly similar from my understanding, and I included Laveyan Satanism on my list, so...

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Tue Mar 24, 2009 8:58 pm UTC

Sorry it took me so long to back. Here's a collection of my responses to various comments. I had to cut out a lot because it was too long. After this I'll try another direction for my argument.

Bassoon wrote:Actually, homosexuality has been embraced by many different different through societies through a good chunk of the human timeline. Ancient Greece, Assyria, Rome, many ancient societies have openly embraced homosexuality at one time or another. The one thing that seems to stop this freedom, however, seems to be religion. When a new religion took over in, say, Rome, one of the first things that was forced to stop was the homoerotic tendencies.

What problems do you expect to come from a group of people living openly? What could the long-term repercussions that you're afraid of possibly be?

I don't know my history well, so sorry if I get this wrong. I was mainly speaking about gay marriage being on the same level as heterosexual marriage. I know some cultures have been more open about homosexuality, but I hadn't heard that they support monogamous, life-long, loving relationships between gay people on par with traditional marriage. If that's the case, then this really is something new in history, and that's what I was getting at with this example.

Having said that, I'm ready to let this one go and chalk it up as a loss for religion for the sake of this debate. If someone is curious about my view, point me to a more appropriate thread and I can expand more. (I really don't have much to say though, since I don't spend too much time thinking about it.)

Bassoon wrote:Wait, what exactly are you arguing? That religion is the foundation of all things moral? No. Just...no. Morals have always existed and they always will, so long as the human mind remains intact.

I'm not claiming that religion is the origin to morality (from a scientific point of view), but rather it has found a good solution as evidenced by it's sustainability.

Idhan wrote:I suppose that to me talking about the utility of "religion" seems like talking about the utility of "government" or the utility of "business."

This is a good analogy for how I'm trying to approach this topic. Another might be to consider when scientists study ant colonies and their intricate social behavior. Religion is so weighed down with the idea of absolute right and wrong that it's hard to be rational about it.

Nath wrote:
  • Many time-tested nuggets of wisdom and morality are actually harmful; like species, the evolution of ideas is based on survivability, not merit.
  • Religion does motivate people, but the motivation stems from a false premise*. This makes it much more susceptible to abuse or obsolescence than motivation derived from introspection.

For the first point, I'm actually looking at survivability as a piece of merit. In fact, I think it's related to other merits since happy, productive societies probably are more likely fit to survive.
For the second point, I agree that religion is irrational. But I bet you'd be surprised how irrational we really are. In fact, most of the decision-making happens in the sub-conscious and the brain slaps some rationality on it after the fact. (That's my layman's understanding.)

GoodRudeFun wrote:
MoghLiechty2 wrote: My main point is that self-deprivation of sexual pleasure is a positive ideal that is lacking from a societal or logical moral system.

What does that serve though? It seems to me to have little utility, if any at all.

To take this point more generally, learning delayed gratification is important. Humans are very short-termed thinkers (compared to our own self-image). If we don't get immediately burned, or better still, if it feels good right now, it must be good. This is why America is fat.

I believe part of what makes us so sophisticated is that society has provided mechanisms that allow us to be useful in the bigger picture. People make fun of "herd mentality", but I believe our biggest strength is our ability to get together to work on a problem. From my own experience, this is about the only way to get past our inherent biases. (Science realized this, hence we have a peer-review process.)

I think the solution to the problem of balancing the big picture with our own needs is really tough. But nature came up with a solution, and it's religion (among other societal structures like government, art, marriage, etc.).

Lemminkainen wrote:Of course, casualty might work the other way on this issue-- more development might reduce religious observance, for whatever reason, or high living standards and low levels of faith might be caused by a common source such as belief in science and societal openness. However, the figures do indicate that compassionate, peaceful, happy societies are perfectly capable of existing without religion, and furthermore, seem to be more prevalent when it's not there.

JoshuaZ wrote:Arguments about the utility for the religion are interesting but they fail when one looks at the empirical data. Western Europe for example is much less religious than the United States and has lower crime rates and is generally more prosperous. See for example this study. Now one, might be able to argue that there's a correlation v. causation issue here. It is possible that societies which are worse off turn to religion in response. But I don't know how to test that. At minimum, studies like that one make it difficult to argue that religion has major benefits to society.

I would suspect that most people have experienced (or at least are aware of) the idea that in dire times we draw closer to God, and in prosperous times we become more distant. I would bet that that's the mechanism for these results. But what's the long-term implication of this? Will the society still maintain itself without religion? The answer is not as clear from these statistics. I also don't think we'd have the prosperity to ignore religion if it weren't for religion in the first place.

sje46 wrote:Generic Protestant Christianity: -2
...
Satanism (LeVayan): 1

We have a very different world view. :) I'm a bit surprised you rated Satanism above Christianity, but I'm more shocked that you gave it a positive utility. Perhaps we have a different understanding of utility. I'm thinking in the long-term evolution of society sense. I believe that's the mechanism that created all this. Satanism (as I learned by reading wikipedia) is all about the self. Perhaps you could argue that it has a good personal utility (though I still wouldn't agree), but it certainly doesn't have a positive societal utility. I get the sense that they would scoff at the notion of suggesting that positive societal utility is even important.

I only expanded on this to give a better idea of what I mean by utility (perhaps I was unclear in my original post). I'd rather us not spend more time on assigning numbers to particular religions as that's not my point and could just open the door to a lot of distractions.

Dogbert wrote:I'm with another reply, posted further up in this thread: "Religion", taken as one ginormous god-sized bite, is a topic too broad to be properly debated. As a result, we end up with a ton of off-topic posts that are more or less long enough to serve as their own "bibles".

Perhaps I should have said "Utility of Mainstream Christianity in America" as my topic. That's my perspective. It's definitely helpful to have specific examples to work from. But I think the ideas here can be expanded to some extent to all the major religions. I can't defend that point as well because I don't know too much. But the simple point of longevity is significant. The fact that some religions are widespread and have a long lifespan is important, just as some it would be in the study of species through time.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

User avatar
Cryopyre
Posts: 701
Joined: Wed Aug 15, 2007 4:00 am UTC
Location: A desert

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Cryopyre » Tue Mar 24, 2009 8:59 pm UTC

Felstaff wrote: I actually see what religion is to social, economical and perhaps political progress in a similar way to what war is to technological progress.


That is a great summation Felstaff, you are a god among men.

Edit: And to provide an answer to the OP for Religion's utility, I would say that you've missed the mark entirely.

Religion today provides things that are easily replaceable because today, at least in today's Christian countries, everyone is well off. This wasn't always the case, and in the Middle Ages it was very necessary. Why? Religion enabled power over the people and allowed society to progress while still quelling the desires of the people by promising eternal reward. Hence, religion is oppression, even if its end result was a functional society.

Today religion exists only to separate us from each other, a community, probably the largest advantage of church-goers, would be a lot stronger if it were accepting to all religions.

Me and my friend discussed a time in the future, post great technological strides where religion will serve a new and final purpose, again in an oppressive way, so those smug Fundamentalists do have a reason to believe. Bastards...
Felstaff wrote:I actually see what religion is to social, economical and perhaps political progress in a similar way to what war is to technological progress.

Gunfingers wrote:Voting is the power to speak your mind. You, apparently, had nothing to say.

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Tue Mar 24, 2009 10:40 pm UTC

Alright, here's a new idea I just came up with. I'm going to use climate as an analogy for society.

Climate Analogy
Say I have a little device that fits in my pocket that can adjust the temperature right around me. It's some fancy device that can spit out unlimited heat and can sink unlimited heat. It's like a thermostat that will regulate the temperature for me. Other than the energy source, it will follow all the rules of thermodynamics (i.e. if I heat up my personal space, someone a few feet away from me will feel some of the effect). Please ignore the weird effects like using it as a source of infinite energy.

Adjusting my personal climate will have a positive utility for me--it will keep me warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I could defrost my car windows, melt the snow in my driveway, etc. There's a lot of cool things I could do.

Now suppose everyone on the planet has one of these. What happens?

It seems clear to me that if everyone does whatever they want, it will completely wreak havoc on the climate. If every body keeps the personal temperature at 75 degF, it will screw up seasons, weather patterns, crops, ice caps, all sorts of things. How do we manage everyone's ability to control their own micro-climate?

First let's assume that someone comes up with a solution for exactly what everyone's personal thermostat should be set to and when. Once they propose this to the international community, they'll get accused of rigging the data to cater to certain groups. Even assuming it gets vetted, certain groups will say what they're allotted is unfair. Even if all the countries agree, the people within will only comply with spotty success.

I think each of these hurdles is insurmountable (including actually finding a solution in the first place), but any one solution has to pass all of them. The problem is the balance between the self and society. We focus too much on self. And if anyone else tells us they've found the perfect balance, we'll accuse them of rigging it for themself.

That's why the answer from the divine is so powerful. Assuming you can be convinced it's true, you can't argue with it. And beyond just getting us to comply, it get's us to want to comply. It's remarkably powerful.

Summary
I hope no one responds with the solution of "Have everyone turn the device off". :) The little box was supposed to be analogous to our behavior. Society has to balance more than just climate, but also happiness, productivity, population, education, limited resources, social welfare, etc. My analogy is hard to solve, society's problems are even harder.

My point is that we don't know what the solution to the long-term survivability of a society is. Even if we knew the solution, we'd have no way to get everyone to follow suit. Nature used a genetic algorithm to find the solution. It's very good at these sorts of problems. But the result is very complicated and very hard to understand. With life itself, we can at least set up experiments to see how the body works. But with society, it's nearly impossible to set up good experiments. It's a monumentally difficult problem.

So I really do think religion is part of nature's solution to this stuff. And I think we're the same creatures today that we were 2000 years ago. Whatever deficiencies that we had back then that made us need it, we still have today.

I definitely think society should change with time, but we can't know the repercussions of throwing away all of religion. We might make a list of the important things (don't kill, don't steal, golden rule, etc.) and make a secular code, but nothing in nature is as simple as a list. It's like taking an organ that has existed in every species since the first air-breather and deciding that we don't really need it. Replacing the lungs of one patient would take vast research, experimentation, and lots and lots of failure before success. How about a practical replacement for every person on the planet? (It's not a perfect analogy, but hopefully it's gets my point across.)

The other piece to my argument is that we're much less rational than people seem to think. People say they don't want to be controlled by a lie, but so much of our existence is a lie. As I mentioned before, romantic love is a lie. Morality itself is a lie. We are full of irrational things in our behavior that are holdovers from previous species. I won't expand on this now. Perhaps, I'll write about that another day.

Final Point
I'm not sure how my message is coming across, but I still very much believe that each individual should choose their own path (though clearly some paths are wiser than others). At a personal level, we need to be motivated to accomplish anything significant, and if you can't swallow the religion pill, then you probably won't get much out of it. At the big picture level, I also think it's important that we have people that do break the mold and try new things. This would be the social equivalent of genetic mutations. To adapt, we always need to be sticking out toes in new waters. And humans are remarkably good at adaptation.

My argument is mainly for people that are convinced that society itself would do better without religion. There's not enough evidence to support this sort of radical change to society. Nowhere else is it wise to propose such huge changes without really grasping the big picture and doing lots and lots of testing.
Last edited by guenther on Tue Mar 24, 2009 10:57 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

User avatar
Cryopyre
Posts: 701
Joined: Wed Aug 15, 2007 4:00 am UTC
Location: A desert

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Cryopyre » Tue Mar 24, 2009 10:53 pm UTC

While you are correct about that, this is our past. And there are plenty of repercussions for religion. Xenophobia being a major problem in my opinion. It is when someone can finally transcend the need for those religious shackles individually by embracing the good of religion without the middleman of a belief in god that religion should be discarded. However, this is on an individual's basis, and will not happen to everyone.

To sum it up, religion has a purpose, but this purpose can be achieved by far better means.
Felstaff wrote:I actually see what religion is to social, economical and perhaps political progress in a similar way to what war is to technological progress.

Gunfingers wrote:Voting is the power to speak your mind. You, apparently, had nothing to say.

User avatar
roc314
Is dead, and you have killed him
Posts: 1356
Joined: Thu Jul 24, 2008 12:48 am UTC
Location: A bunker, here behind my wall
Contact:

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby roc314 » Tue Mar 24, 2009 11:09 pm UTC

Cryopyre wrote:To sum it up, religion has a purpose, but this purpose can be achieved by far better means.
One of Bentham's dimensions of utility is propinquity, how long it takes for a good to be recognized. That is, all else being equal, a good that is immediate is better than one that would take a year to get.

Taking your quoted statement as a premise, if religion can fulfill its purpose with less propinquity than the better alternatives, then it is possible that religion has a greater utility. It may not be perfect, but we have it now and can get the benefits immediately. The alternatives would have to be much better in other respects to make up for the large time it would take to get their utility on a significant scale.
Hippo: roc is the good little communist that lurks in us all
Richard Stallman: Geeks like to think that they can ignore politics, you can leave politics alone, but politics won't leave you alone.
suffer-cait: roc's a pretty cool dude

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Tue Mar 24, 2009 11:16 pm UTC

Cryopyre wrote:To sum it up, religion has a purpose, but this purpose can be achieved by far better means.

Scientifically, I completely agree. But I don't think we've even begun to understand what those means are (hence my last post), and I don't think we're actually capable as a species of succeeding (though individuals might have varying success). We were designed with the crutch of religion in mind (metaphorically speaking) and we've been that way for a long time. Perhaps the machines in the technology singularity will have better success here. :)
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Tue Mar 24, 2009 11:23 pm UTC

guenther wrote:The problem is the balance between the self and society. We focus too much on self.

Let me clarify this briefly. I'm not saying that if we just realize what the balance is, we'll be good. It's not a problem that can be solved by teaching. The problem is that we will never have access to enough information to actually know what the balance is, and we'll never have the means to compute it fast enough. I believe our hardware just has a limitation.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

User avatar
zug
Posts: 902
Joined: Wed Feb 25, 2009 12:05 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby zug » Tue Mar 24, 2009 11:24 pm UTC

I guess I don't really understand the purpose of this argument. Regardless of its utility, religion develops in every society no matter the size. Native American tribes developed their own mythologies completely independent of other Native American tribes or any form of civilized society, just as Germanic tribes worshiped Norse gods and the ancient Romans worshiped their own (and sometimes the Greeks'). As yet undiscovered groups of people will always have a god story.

Religion is an absolute constant in the life of (wo)men, and it's only with the luxury of higher education that (wo)men decide to forgo it. I say this as an agnostic who would not be agnostic if raised in a lesser-educated church state, and not the USA. We are shaped by what we learn, and if I had never learned of the existence of evolution, or hadn't been taught that religion is optional, I know I would be religious right now.

It's not really relevant to discuss the utility of religion, in my opinion, because it's never going to go away. And anyone who is convinced not to be religious by a utilitarian argument wasn't religious in the first place.

edit: added some clarity
Last edited by zug on Wed Mar 25, 2009 12:07 am UTC, edited 1 time in total.
Velifer wrote:Go to the top of a tower, drop a heavy weight and a photon, observe when they hit the ground.

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Tue Mar 24, 2009 11:36 pm UTC

zug wrote:It's not really relevant to discuss the utility of religion, in my opinion, because it's never going to go away. And anyone who is convinced not to be religious by a utilitarian argument wasn't religious in the first place.

My point is to convince people to place a positive value on religion regardless of their personal religiosity. Some people seem to think it's a relic of the past like slavery. I disagree. As long as people are interested enough to bandy ideas around, I'm happy to reply. That is enough relevance to me. :)
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

User avatar
Nath
Posts: 3148
Joined: Sat Sep 08, 2007 8:14 pm UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Nath » Wed Mar 25, 2009 5:20 am UTC

guenther wrote:
Nath wrote:
  • Many time-tested nuggets of wisdom and morality are actually harmful; like species, the evolution of ideas is based on survivability, not merit.
  • Religion does motivate people, but the motivation stems from a false premise*. This makes it much more susceptible to abuse or obsolescence than motivation derived from introspection.

For the first point, I'm actually looking at survivability as a piece of merit. In fact, I think it's related to other merits since happy, productive societies probably are more likely fit to survive.

Wait, so an idea being survivable means it has merit or utility? But I can think of several survivable ideas that, to me, seem quite undesirable. I see no correlation between survivability and merit.
(Also, note that 'a survivable idea' is different from 'an idea that encourages a survivable society'.)

guenther wrote:For the second point, I agree that religion is irrational. But I bet you'd be surprised how irrational we really are. In fact, most of the decision-making happens in the sub-conscious and the brain slaps some rationality on it after the fact. (That's my layman's understanding.)

No, I wouldn't be surprised by how irrational people are. That doesn't mean it's useful to be more irrational, particularly when the irrationality in question is harmful.

User avatar
Idhan
Posts: 319
Joined: Sun Sep 07, 2008 10:33 pm UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Idhan » Wed Mar 25, 2009 6:55 am UTC

Okay -- let's suppose that people give up their religion en masse. What do you see happening? An increase in homicides? A reduction in charitable giving? A higher divorce rate? An increase in child molestation? Substance abuse? More illiteracy or innumeracy?

If you think that religion is a necessary part of society, I think it's only fair to ask how society would fare, in your view, in the absence of religion.

GoodRudeFun
Posts: 453
Joined: Mon Feb 16, 2009 9:42 am UTC
Location: The desert... is HELL
Contact:

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby GoodRudeFun » Wed Mar 25, 2009 7:15 am UTC

guenther wrote:To take this point more generally, learning delayed gratification is important. Humans are very short-termed thinkers (compared to our own self-image). If we don't get immediately burned, or better still, if it feels good right now, it must be good. This is why America is fat.

I believe part of what makes us so sophisticated is that society has provided mechanisms that allow us to be useful in the bigger picture. People make fun of "herd mentality", but I believe our biggest strength is our ability to get together to work on a problem. From my own experience, this is about the only way to get past our inherent biases. (Science realized this, hence we have a peer-review process.)

I think the solution to the problem of balancing the big picture with our own needs is really tough. But nature came up with a solution, and it's religion (among other societal structures like government, art, marriage, etc.).


There's a difference between delayed gratification and self repression. One involves critical thinking, while the other is just as short sited as instant gratification and isn't entirely healthy. While self repression is unhealthy to the individual, I can see how some might claim that it still has utility to society. The problem is that it has to outweigh the utility lost by the unhealthy side effects. On the other hand, delayed gratification is actually healthy in both society and personal life.

Religion can teach both, but its generally hit or miss and usually depends on the individual. If it does depend on the individual in some cases, one also has to question if religion is really responsible for that person learning delayed gratification, or if that person would have learned delayed gratification otherwise.

And again you equate one thing with another with herd mentality. There's a difference between a large group of people working together and contributing (as in scientific peer review) and everyone following a single idea. Sometimes, again, the two may coincide, but again one does not automatically imply the other.

I'm actually looking at survivability as a piece of merit. In fact, I think it's related to other merits since happy, productive societies probably are more likely fit to survive.
This argument assumes that its survivability is attributed to a happy healthy society, rather than pure enforcement, which christianity in particular partially (at least) owes its survival to.

The reason it was so wide spread, and so powerful in European based societies is because of Rome's expansion. Rome brought christianity with it, and forced many smaller societies to give up their own religions in favor of christianity. This happened again when european societies spread to the Americas. Native societies where forced to give up their own religions, as well as their cultures, by the enforcement and oppression of the American societies (which based from the earlier European societies (obviously)).

So really, the survival of a religion has nothing to do with its merit, but more with the growth and expansion of the society that it becomes a part of. Before you say that perhaps the religion gave the society the strength to expand I'd beg to differ. Rome was rather expansive long before christianity came into the picture. Some would say that Rome was healthier as a society before christianity came into the picture, though there's probably not any causal relationship in that. And the expansion of said European societies is in large part due to the romanization (is that a word? I thought it was, but its not recognized...) of those societies (it can be argued that if not for Rome, other European societies might not have expanded in the same way they have).

Dogbert wrote:I'm with another reply, posted further up in this thread: "Religion", taken as one ginormous god-sized bite, is a topic too broad to be properly debated. As a result, we end up with a ton of off-topic posts that are more or less long enough to serve as their own "bibles". {/quote] The utility of religion as well (i'm sure thats what you ment). I'm also going to have to suggest that the utility of any one religion is too broad.

The utility of any on religion has to be taken on a case by case basis. Its how the individual takes that religion, and what they do with/because of it that really determines the religions overall utility in the end. Of course, different religions can do different things to increase or decrease that utility, but it's still largely up to the individual.

Which leads me to think that religion doesn't play too large of a part in the social utility of an individual or a group, but it might play more of a role in how that utility manifests.

[quote= "guenther"]I believe that's the mechanism that created all this. Satanism (as I learned by reading wikipedia) is all about the self. Perhaps you could argue that it has a good personal utility (though I still wouldn't agree), but it certainly doesn't have a positive societal utility. I get the sense that they would scoff at the notion of suggesting that positive societal utility is even important.
One could argue that personal utility has an effect on the social utility of an individual. One could also argue a sort of utility capitalism, where people striving only for personal utility might end up having a positive social utility as well... I wouldn't but I'm sure it could be argued as a valid point of view.

Cryopyre wrote:Religion today provides things that are easily replaceable because today, at least in today's Christian countries, everyone is well off. This wasn't always the case, and in the Middle Ages it was very necessary. Why? Religion enabled power over the people and allowed society to progress while still quelling the desires of the people by promising eternal reward. Hence, religion is oppression, even if its end result was a functional society.

Today religion exists only to separate us from each other, a community, probably the largest advantage of church-goers, would be a lot stronger if it were accepting to all religions.
Wasn't at least a small part of the strife and slow progression of the middle age due to religion? Wasn't at least a portion of the progression and increase in function of the renaissance due to a lessening of the general populations devotion to religion? I may be wrong, so please correct me if so. Also note that I said partly, not entirely.

I also have to question how exactly oppression results in a better functioning society. Oppression can have a positive utility, but if one weighs the utility opportunity cost, wouldn't a more free society be a better functioning society? I'm sure there has to be a point of balance, but the oppression of the middle ages seems to tip the scales in that balance. The renaissance seemed to happen because of a lessening of oppression...

I have to agree to your last point though. While some denominations may be more accepting and more eclectic, most seem to turn away others because of differences in faith (or a lack thereof).

guenther wrote:My argument is mainly for people that are convinced that society itself would do better without religion. There's not enough evidence to support this sort of radical change to society. Nowhere else is it wise to propose such huge changes without really grasping the big picture and doing lots and lots of testing.
I do contend that society would be better off with a replacement. However, I do know that its nearly an impossibility. I also don't think any such change should be immediate, or that it should be enforced. I don't even feel that people should even be encouraged to drop religion. What I do think is that people should be educated on alternative options, or at least told that there are options. I also feel that indoctrination should stop, and that churches have an obligation (not legally, just morally) to accept and facilitate children who are curious about those other options. The alternative options I'm speaking of include both other spiritualities as well as secular philosophies.

quenther wrote:My point is to convince people to place a positive value on religion regardless of their personal religiosity. Some people seem to think it's a relic of the past like slavery. I disagree. As long as people are interested enough to bandy ideas around, I'm happy to reply. That is enough relevance to me. :)


I'll sum up by responding to this post.

I don't feel that religion has a positive utility, nor do I feel that it has an entire negative utility in and of itself. Its utility, to me, seems to be mainly neutral. The bulk of utility either produced, or prohibited by religion is largely dependent on the individual, with religion as a sort of vehicle of that function. Of course, some religions can lend more towards negative or positive, but the bulk of the utility rests on the shoulders of the individual.
Oh. Well that's alright then.

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Fri Mar 27, 2009 10:22 pm UTC

roc314 wrote:One of Bentham's dimensions of utility is propinquity, how long it takes for a good to be recognized. That is, all else being equal, a good that is immediate is better than one that would take a year to get.

I haven't heard of propinquity before. Thanks for sharing it!

Survivability -> Utility ?
GoodRudeFun wrote:So really, the survival of a religion has nothing to do with its merit, but more with the growth and expansion of the society that it becomes a part of.

(I'm assuming here you mean merit to mean social utility. In the next section I address merit as a combination of having social utility and meshing with our sense of decency. If that's the type of merit you mean, then perhaps my next section is a better response.)

Religion has survived. We can all agree on that. But did it ride along or did it aid in a society's fitness (i.e. positive utility)? Well, it exists in every society we know of. And it wasn't just at the edges or merely tolerated (like prostitution and slavery), it was the center of society. The culture was built around religion. So it doesn't just show up in history, it permeates. How can we possibly assume it just rode along?

Also, religion has to be the most powerful social force we have ever known. It doesn't take a backseat, it dominates (which is precisely many people's argument against it). How can we claim something so powerful, so pervasive just lucked it's way into every society we have ever known from the beginning of history to today?

I don't have much more to add to this argument. In my head this seems so compelling. And it's intuitive. A religious society was more fit to survive than a non-religious one. And more importantly, particular religions made some society's more fit than other religions. (I'm not saying religion is the sole fitness indicator, but it's not to be ignored.)

Utility -> Merit ?
Nath wrote:Wait, so an idea being survivable means it has merit or utility? But I can think of several survivable ideas that, to me, seem quite undesirable. I see no correlation between survivability and merit.

I wouldn't say one invariably leads to the other, but I bet there's a strong correlation. Nature gave us a moral code and a societal structure to enforce the moral code. There has to be a correlation.

I find I'm having a hard time thinking of a good argument because this one seems so intuitive to me. My guess is people see the negatives but take for granted all the positives. People say "community is nice, but look at all the problems!" I think this view misses the point that community is key. Religion creates our social fabric.

Perhaps I can flip it around and address the reasons why it might not have merit. People say it's oppressive and irrational. I'll try to address in my next post why I think these are actually necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for a social structure. Someone else mentioned that it creates divisions, which is true. But that might be like complaining about a light bulb because it creates shadows.

Do we still need religion?
I will discuss this more in my next post. Basically I think it's a good solution despite it's problems. And we don't have anything better.

Religion does more than just fill in our gap in knowledge. It's fundamental in our behavior and society. It creates a strong social fabric and helps find the self vs. society balance (both discussed below). We're the same people today that we were before, and having more scientific knowledge doesn't change our need, even though it clearly affect our motivation to be religious.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Fri Mar 27, 2009 10:23 pm UTC

The last post was mainly arguing that religion offered a good solution. This post is mainly about why finding another solution is hard.

Idhan wrote:If you think that religion is a necessary part of society, I think it's only fair to ask how society would fare, in your view, in the absence of religion.

That's a perfectly fair question, and a good one to ask.

I think people take for granted all the social structures we have in place. There an intricate social fabric that people largely ignore until something breaks. We never get a sense of how strong it is until some force comes along and tries to rip it apart.

To know the affect of people losing religion, we'd have to know the mechanism of the loss and what is replacing it. Perhaps we can assume that people are just becoming more prosperous and educated and start fading away from religion. Nothing replaces religion except our own personal sense of morality. I think this will be harmful to society in ways we don't fully realize.

Social Fabric
First the social fabric will weaken without us being aware. Just as our body can't operate well without a structure in place for each piece, the same is true for society. We might have this nice notion of why can't everyone just be happy and get along. It's not just about nice and getting along, but we need to mesh and work together. People say "Community is nice but look at all the problems of religion!". But they miss that community is key.

Undirected
Also, if we must process all personal decisions through our brain, we're going to make mistakes. Through evolution, religion has found some rules are important to make healthy societies. But perhaps we won't see the purpose (e.g. abstinence before marriage), so we make a personal decision to ignore it because what's the harm. But we don't know the implication of that. It's a shift that may or may not be healthy. And if every decision gets made like that in an undirected way, we will suffer.

Diet
Diet is about the best example I can think of for why a rational system will fail. We know exactly what the problem is, and we know exactly what the solution is. The choice to eat healthy should really be easy. We don't have to self-sacrifice at all; we just need to put long-term utility ahead of short-term utility. But we consistently fail because we're bad at the long-term stuff.

Operating in the social structure will be even harder. Not only do we have to balance short-term with long-term, but self with society. How successful will people at large be at trading short-term personal utility for long-term social utility? If you honestly believe there will be any success at all, you have a very rosy picture of humanity. :)

Challenges
And even if you have this sort of faith in humanity (which must be close to rivaling religious faith), we need to know the right trade-off before we know we've made the right choice. If people are just doing their own thing based on their personal view, where do we figure out the best trade-off? And even if we could figure it out, we're struggling to get people to buy into our climate model, can you really convince anyone to buy into a social model?

Here's four things that I think we need for a good social structure.
  1. Understand the social system
  2. Have a good solution
  3. Convince people it will work
  4. Have people reliably implement it
Evolution has taken care of 1 and 2. Religion takes care of 3 and 4. By moving away from nature's solution, we are completely unguided and aren't even on the charts.

Rationality
Our brains are primarily emotional. Every great groundswell of community involvement was based on emotions, not rationality. Emotions inspire us to do great work, not logic. Our rational mind is really very limited. We can approach some topics quite well with our rational mind, but there's an ever-changing emotional bias that we can't see past. It can only do so much. A rational system of social structure would demand way too much.

Conclusion
So what happens when we turn away from religion? I don't know exactly what will happen, and I don't think anyone else really does either. But I think it will be bad.

I think we're social by nature and we form groups by nature. If we don't have something strong at the larger level holding us together, we'll form it in smaller groups. And then instead of religious nations fighting against each other, we'll have small micro-tribes fighting.

I think science is a pandora's box. I love it personally and I can't get enough. But I think it can make us too confident in our own abilities even when we've been given example after example of how we fail. We succeed as a group, so we need the group to succeed.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Fri Mar 27, 2009 10:26 pm UTC

I think I've used up all my arguments. I shouldn't have to do any more big posts. :) I'm still happy to discuss what you guys think and I'll try not to repeat what I've said too much.

Has my arguments made any progress on anyone yet? I thought of this stuff on my own, and of course it sounded good in my head. :) But I wanted to see how it fared with others. I'm getting that at least a few people haven't been convinced (no problem with that :)) but I'm curious if there's some people lurking that feel I'm making sense.

If you quadruple post you will have officially used up all of my patience.

-Az
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

GoodRudeFun
Posts: 453
Joined: Mon Feb 16, 2009 9:42 am UTC
Location: The desert... is HELL
Contact:

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby GoodRudeFun » Sat Mar 28, 2009 5:36 am UTC

guenther wrote:(I'm assuming here you mean merit to mean social utility. In the next section I address merit as a combination of having social utility and meshing with our sense of decency. If that's the type of merit you mean, then perhaps my next section is a better response.)

Religion has survived. We can all agree on that. But did it ride along or did it aid in a society's fitness (i.e. positive utility)? Well, it exists in every society we know of. And it wasn't just at the edges or merely tolerated (like prostitution and slavery), it was the center of society. The culture was built around religion. So it doesn't just show up in history, it permeates. How can we possibly assume it just rode along?

Also, religion has to be the most powerful social force we have ever known. It doesn't take a backseat, it dominates (which is precisely many people's argument against it). How can we claim something so powerful, so pervasive just lucked it's way into every society we have ever known from the beginning of history to today?

I don't have much more to add to this argument. In my head this seems so compelling. And it's intuitive. A religious society was more fit to survive than a non-religious one. And more importantly, particular religions made some society's more fit than other religions. (I'm not saying religion is the sole fitness indicator, but it's not to be ignored.)


Religion wasn't the reason why Rome spread, expansionist culture was. Yes, the religion infested the entire culture and became integral, but that does not mean it was better off because of that religion, or that it was what gave it "strength". As I said Rome expanded long before it adopted Christianity. The expansionist culture was decided and made long before Christianity, and Christianity had nothing to do with it, it simply changed to fit the idea. Whats more you assume that that this was strength, that it was good for Rome and its successors to destroy other cultures while Christianity destroyed other religions and forced itself into their place. Thats an entirely arbitrary view, a bias of civilization and religion.

Your idea that religion holds together the social fabric seems to hang around the idea that there is only one religion, and there is not. It holds together the fabric of the communities it creates, but those communities do play a large enough role in society to hold it all together. Look at the middle east, there is one dominant religion, and yet the social fabric is almost in shreds. If a common religion could hold together a society as well you seem to think then this counter example would not exist. It shows that religion alone is not what is holding society together. It also shows that religion alone doesn't have a positive utility. For it to be powerful enough to hold together the weave of the social fabric, it must be enforced, it must be the only option people have, and even then, as the counter example shows, that doesn't exactly do anything helpful. Another counter example is the middle ages where religion was just that: so powerfully enforced that no one had a choice. Do we really need to look at how unhelpful the middle ages were?
Oh. Well that's alright then.

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Sat Mar 28, 2009 3:13 pm UTC

Thanks GoodRudeFun and everyone else who's still participating. I probably ramble on too much sometimes, and I appreciate people who still read what I write. :)

GoodRudeFun wrote:Religion wasn't the reason why Rome spread, expansionist culture was. Yes, the religion infested the entire culture and became integral, but that does not mean it was better off because of that religion, or that it was what gave it "strength". As I said Rome expanded long before it adopted Christianity. The expansionist culture was decided and made long before Christianity, and Christianity had nothing to do with it, it simply changed to fit the idea. Whats more you assume that that this was strength, that it was good for Rome and its successors to destroy other cultures while Christianity destroyed other religions and forced itself into their place. Thats an entirely arbitrary view, a bias of civilization and religion.

I don't know my history well, so I can't debate with you too deeply here. I wouldn't say my view is arbitrary, but it is very likely biased. But it does fit my intuition. Is there evidence that Christianity didn't help Rome? Could it be that the previous religious system couldn't support such a large society? As they grew larger they needed more/better social glue? I'm speculating since I haven't studied this stuff at all.

Your idea that religion holds together the social fabric seems to hang around the idea that there is only one religion, and there is not. It holds together the fabric of the communities it creates, but those communities do play a large enough role in society to hold it all together. Look at the middle east, there is one dominant religion, and yet the social fabric is almost in shreds. If a common religion could hold together a society as well you seem to think then this counter example would not exist. It shows that religion alone is not what is holding society together. It also shows that religion alone doesn't have a positive utility. For it to be powerful enough to hold together the weave of the social fabric, it must be enforced, it must be the only option people have, and even then, as the counter example shows, that doesn't exactly do anything helpful. Another counter example is the middle ages where religion was just that: so powerfully enforced that no one had a choice. Do we really need to look at how unhelpful the middle ages were?

My thought is that social structurse are like species: there are many different types, they all have different strengths and weaknesses, and some are more adapted to certain conditions than others. All have share a component of religion, but the religion varies quite a bit. There probably isn't a one-religion-fits-all solution. Probably Rome needed a different social structure at it's infancy expansion compared to at it's highest expansive period.

As for the middle east, religion is powerful but it isn't the only factor in a society's success. Another big one is the style of government. Probably an oppressive regime tied closely to religion provides some short-term utility, but it's not sustainable. I really don't have the knowledge to diagnose the middle east too much. :)

The middle ages might be similar. Tying Christianity to government probably provided some short-term gain. But then they found out that society and technology need to progress, not be stuck. Actually the middle ages is a good argument for Christianity. If it was the problem, it would have died with the middle ages. But instead the interplay between religion and government changed so Christianity could survive.

A response to myself
A quick note about what I wrote. I realized that I was a bit fatalistic. I do believe that religion is a good solution and that replacing it would be challenging in the extreme, but I have no idea if it's really impossible. We shouldn't underestimate human's ability to innovate.

We can compare it to the environment. We know that whenever we build some large industrial structure, we must do an environmental study to know the impact. With study, we can progress in a more conservative fashion, preserving nature's balance. Similarly with proper study, we might be able to progress beyond the structures of religion to something else.

I still believe a completely undirected move away from religion (especially at a time where we have overpopulation and limited resources, something that will certainly test the social fabric) will be bad like undirected industrial change on the environment. While it would be very hard and take a very long time, it might be possible with careful study and intricate guidance. Then perhaps we have to look at propinquity of the solution.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

User avatar
Idhan
Posts: 319
Joined: Sun Sep 07, 2008 10:33 pm UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Idhan » Wed Apr 01, 2009 12:05 pm UTC

I think that the terms in which Guenther is positing the benefits of religion are what ye olde school Popperians would call "unfalsifiable."

In talking about the consequences of a societal abandonment of religion, the terms used are ones like the social fabric weakening, people's lives lacking direction, people being overwhelmed by the demands of reason without non-rational guidance, etc.

Here's the picture I'm getting. We send two time travellers from the present to this post-religious society. One is religious and conservative (call him Leon) in the here and now. The other is rationalistic and liberal (call her Martha) in the here and now. The two spend a day looking around this non-religious society, talking to people, etc. At the end of the day, they meet at a restaurant to discuss what they've found.

"It's awful," Leon says. "The social fabric is shredded. People's lives lack direction. Religion no longer serves as an authoritative guide to action. Science has gone awry, and people no longer accept mortality and seek to evade natural law and death. We have been transported to an age of spiritual death, a time of anomie, decadence, and nihilism."

"I don't see why it's so bad," Martha says. "In fact, from what I've seen things are all pretty nice. People set their goals according to rational beliefs rather than superstitions; no one says that we can ignore damage to the environment because the rapture will be in a few years anyway anymore, for instance. Overall, it seems to me that people are freer, more reasonable, and less prejudiced than before."

I should note that Martha and Leon are not being transported to two different visions of a post-religious society, with Leon going to a bad version and Martha going to a good version. Rather, it's that they're just looking at the same society from different perspectives.

Now, if there were a prediction of something more concrete -- say "if we all abandoned religion, the homicide rate would increase 50%, because many people would no longer feel constrained by religious morality and just do whatever they wanted," or "if we all abandoned religion, the homicide rate would decrease 50%, because people would no longer believe that voices in their heads telling them to kill were actually god, or they would no longer engage in religiously-inspired violence such as honor killings," then we could say that religion is either good at keeping people from killing each other or it gets people to kill each other.

So long as the discussion of the social benefits of religion is on such "unfalsifiable" terms as "weakening of the social fabric," so that Leon and Martha can look at the exact same society and not tell whether the changes wrought by lack of religion are good or bad, then I think that claims about the social benefits of religion are really not going ot persuade anyone who isn't already persuaded.

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Thu Apr 02, 2009 11:14 pm UTC

Idhan wrote:So long as the discussion of the social benefits of religion is on such "unfalsifiable" terms as "weakening of the social fabric," so that Leon and Martha can look at the exact same society and not tell whether the changes wrought by lack of religion are good or bad, then I think that claims about the social benefits of religion are really not going ot persuade anyone who isn't already persuaded.

First, I am not relying on subjective bad like "No one believes in Jesus so everyone is going to Hell." My claim is that both Leon and Martha would find bad consequences they agree on (though they likely wouldn't agree on the cause). Or more likely, they would find that society has made many false starts but never progressed past religion.

Second, I wouldn't say my argument is "unfalsifiable", but rather "hard to falsify". I am basing my argument on scientific concepts which theoretically could be proven, we just lack the knowledge and technology to do so. Similarly, string theory people make claims that are hard to falsify with today's technology. Perhaps we need a Large People Collider. (I'm not really trying to compare the rigor of string theory with my theory, I just wanted imagine a LPC. :))

Third, your case seems harder to make than mine. Demonstrating that society can progress past religion is equally "hard to falsify". And you have zero sustainable areligious societies to point to as an example of success. (In about 100 years, we might have evidence if the more areligious societies mentioned in a previous post continue that trend and maintain their level of "happiness" or whatever the metric was. We need to see that this new structure of society can be successfully transmitted from one generation to the next.)

So short of offering proof, I'm trying to make reasonable arguments. I thought my zinger was the dieting example. As I said before, we know the solution. And there's no self-sacrifice involved with dieting, just trading off small short-term gain for bigger long-term gain. This should be a home run for rational people. If we can't succeed at diet, how could we succeed at something more complicated?

Another example is lottery tickets. It's really not hard to make a very strong, rational case that they're a complete waste of money. But there's a large segment of society (including very smart people) that buy them and won't stop no matter how rational an appeal is made.

Religion has nothing to do with the irrationality of lottery tickets and the failure of diet systems. How do you explain this and still claim that we can live by a rational moral code? My answer is that religion comes from our irrationality, not the reverse.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

alexh123456789
Posts: 165
Joined: Wed Jul 02, 2008 3:56 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby alexh123456789 » Fri Apr 03, 2009 1:10 am UTC

guenther wrote:Religion has nothing to do with the irrationality of lottery tickets and the failure of diet systems. How do you explain this and still claim that we can live by a rational moral code? My answer is that religion comes from our irrationality, not the reverse.


Overeating and gambling addiction are problems because they trigger a strong response in the brain which tries to stop us from quitting. On the other hand, living by a moral code is something that our brain does easily - most people have consciences that stop them from doing things they consider immoral, as many atheists have demonstrated.

guenther wrote:Also, if we must process all personal decisions through our brain, we're going to make mistakes. Through evolution, religion has found some rules are important to make healthy societies. But perhaps we won't see the purpose (e.g. abstinence before marriage), so we make a personal decision to ignore it because what's the harm. But we don't know the implication of that. It's a shift that may or may not be healthy. And if every decision gets made like that in an undirected way, we will suffer.


The problem is that these things "we won't see the purpose" of actually don't have purpose other than control, and talking about what may or may not be healthy, do you think that the repression and guilt that religion causes in some people to be healthy?

User avatar
Idhan
Posts: 319
Joined: Sun Sep 07, 2008 10:33 pm UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Idhan » Fri Apr 03, 2009 1:30 am UTC

As of the 1995 census, South Korea was 50% non-religious. There are significant populations of Buddhists and Christians, but the non-religious are the largest group.

The alternative to living without religion (and failing to find reason entirely sufficient as a guide to life) is not some hypothetical religion which perfectly complements the gaps in our rational abilities with ideally suited non-rational guidance. The alternatives are actually-existing religions. If a religion is like a regimented diet, and being non-religious is equivalent to just eating what you want, then it doesn't follow that religion is necessarily better, even if your eating habits when not on a diet are not perfectly healthy. Maybe the diet will help you lose weight, but its benefits are outweighed by causing or accelerating arteriosclerosis more than the lost weight retards it. There are, after all, a lot of bad diets around -- nor are the best diets always the most successful in pervading the popular consciousness.

Similarly, if you find a religious code that forbids you from buying lottery tickets, but has you spending more than you'd spend on the lottery on, say, ceremonial offerings to your ancestors, then you don't end up any richer.

You're right, of course, when saying that we can't act perfectly rational just by taking away religion. Someone irreligious still has only limited capacities for calculation, acts on imperfect information, etc. It is certainly conceivable that there's some sort of problem we face that our rational minds address worse than some existing religious dogma. Yet what about the cases where our rational minds, even acting imperfectly and uninformedly, address an issue better than that same religious dogma? Cost-benefit analysis always makes something look good if you get rid of the "cost" side of the leger.

Your general view seems to be that the concept of the non-religious society should be held guilty until proven innocent -- because we can't point to a large society that is thoroughly non-religious and has been for, say, five centuries, we should presume religion is necessary. Perhaps this sort of precautionary principle would be wise if there were a switch that we could flip which would suddenly turn everyone non-religious, and we were debating about whether to flip that switch. In that case, I think that the precautionary principle is wise, but obviously there is no such switch, so it seems to me that our discussion need not be biased in favor of the status quo and against deviation from said status quo out of fear that upsetting things might make them worse.

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Sat Apr 04, 2009 4:04 pm UTC

alexh123456789 wrote:Overeating and gambling addiction are problems because they trigger a strong response in the brain which tries to stop us from quitting. On the other hand, living by a moral code is something that our brain does easily - most people have consciences that stop them from doing things they consider immoral, as many atheists have demonstrated.

What percentage of America is overweight? Are you claiming that everyone who can't maintain a diet has some sort of brain imbalance? Even if it were true, then why would they be better at a moral code? It's probably not true, and is more likely indicative of people being bad at making choices. Same argument for lottery.

Second, not doing something immoral is different than doing something moral. Loving your asshole neighbor, the guy that cut you off on the road, the rude clerk at the store does not come naturally for the brain.

The problem is that these things "we won't see the purpose" of actually don't have purpose other than control, and talking about what may or may not be healthy, do you think that the repression and guilt that religion causes in some people to be healthy?

Let's take abstinence before marriage as an example. Where's your evidence that it doesn't have a purpose other than control? Who's controlling whom? I'm not actually arguing for abstinence before marriage here; rather I'm saying you don't have anywhere near enough evidence to make that claim matter-of-factly.

Also, how big of a problem is repression and guilt for the religious? Have you seen studies showing some sort of widespread issue? Conversely, how big of a problem is depression? Did you know religious people on average were more happy than non-religous?
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Sat Apr 04, 2009 4:04 pm UTC

Idhan wrote:As of the 1995 census, South Korea was 50% non-religious. There are significant populations of Buddhists and Christians, but the non-religious are the largest group.

We'll watch it and see how it goes. :) How culture is transmitted to new generations is as important as how it relates to today's generation.

The alternative to living without religion (and failing to find reason entirely sufficient as a guide to life) is not some hypothetical religion which perfectly complements the gaps in our rational abilities with ideally suited non-rational guidance. The alternatives are actually-existing religions. If a religion is like a regimented diet, and being non-religious is equivalent to just eating what you want, then it doesn't follow that religion is necessarily better, even if your eating habits when not on a diet are not perfectly healthy. Maybe the diet will help you lose weight, but its benefits are outweighed by causing or accelerating arteriosclerosis more than the lost weight retards it. There are, after all, a lot of bad diets around -- nor are the best diets always the most successful in pervading the popular consciousness.

If we were robotically good at following systems, your doctor could provide you a diet that is perfectly healthy (balanced diet, portion control, exercise). The problem is that we're bad at diets, so people come up with all sorts of stuff to make it easier.

Diet is an example of a rational system. We have faith in diets because of the science behind them and lose faith when we learn they're backed by bad science. The problem with rational systems is that we try to skate the slippery slope. We rationalize that eating one extra snickers probably isn't that bad in the context of your whole life. But then we use that justification too often and wind up failing.

Religion has no basis in science. The rules come from an infallible divine source, and this is what makes religion so powerful. Religion doesn't permit rationalizing a sin or two. But not all religion is equally good. The rules need to be able to sustain a society. We can look at the spread and longevity of a religion to get a sense of how good it is at that.

Similarly, if you find a religious code that forbids you from buying lottery tickets, but has you spending more than you'd spend on the lottery on, say, ceremonial offerings to your ancestors, then you don't end up any richer.

Well, some ceremonial things probably do things to strengthen the community. Certainly there are examples of excess. In Christianity I'm not aware of spending requirements like this. They do, however, ask us to tithe, which is much better than lottery.

You're right, of course, when saying that we can't act perfectly rational just by taking away religion. Someone irreligious still has only limited capacities for calculation, acts on imperfect information, etc. It is certainly conceivable that there's some sort of problem we face that our rational minds address worse than some existing religious dogma. Yet what about the cases where our rational minds, even acting imperfectly and uninformedly, address an issue better than that same religious dogma? Cost-benefit analysis always makes something look good if you get rid of the "cost" side of the leger.

I agree with you on cost-benefit analysis and actually thought of bringing it up myself. :)

I think religion needs to grow and adapt to the changing times. Religion certainly contains some artifacts that were useful at one time, but not so much today. Tolerance of other religions is probably a big area. To have a society dominated by one religion was probably very useful at one time. But now we cover so much of the globe and are so interconnected that today it's detrimental to expect to dominate. (Peacefully pushing for converts is fine of course.)

So people caught up in too much religious dogma certainly make foolish choices. But I think it's easy to neglect how much the Judeo-Christian background has helped make America so successful. Society is complex and I think we don't give religion enough credit.

Your general view seems to be that the concept of the non-religious society should be held guilty until proven innocent -- because we can't point to a large society that is thoroughly non-religious and has been for, say, five centuries, we should presume religion is necessary. Perhaps this sort of precautionary principle would be wise if there were a switch that we could flip which would suddenly turn everyone non-religious, and we were debating about whether to flip that switch. In that case, I think that the precautionary principle is wise, but obviously there is no such switch, so it seems to me that our discussion need not be biased in favor of the status quo and against deviation from said status quo out of fear that upsetting things might make them worse.

I think anything radically new should be held ineffective until proven effective. As I've tried to make a case for, society is complex. I firmly believe that we need a complex social structure to thrive. In rational systems, we try to skate the line too much because we think we have enough understanding. Religious systems require more obedience and thus are more successful (again assuming that the particular religion has effective rules to follow).

People moving away from religion aren't replacing it with a different system, but rather no system at all. There's nothing to hold them together as a bigger group. They'll probably fracture along different lines. Perhaps there's a rational system that could come up here, but it will be a very slow process and will have much failure before success.

I want people to be free to choose what they want for themselves. But in the cost/benefit analysis, I think some neglect important benefits to religion without realizing it.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

alexh123456789
Posts: 165
Joined: Wed Jul 02, 2008 3:56 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby alexh123456789 » Sun Apr 05, 2009 5:35 pm UTC

guenther wrote:
alexh123456789 wrote:Overeating and gambling addiction are problems because they trigger a strong response in the brain which tries to stop us from quitting. On the other hand, living by a moral code is something that our brain does easily - most people have consciences that stop them from doing things they consider immoral, as many atheists have demonstrated.

What percentage of America is overweight? Are you claiming that everyone who can't maintain a diet has some sort of brain imbalance? Even if it were true, then why would they be better at a moral code? It's probably not true, and is more likely indicative of people being bad at making choices. Same argument for lottery.Second, not doing something immoral is different than doing something moral. Loving your asshole neighbor, the guy that cut you off on the road, the rude clerk at the store does not come naturally for the brain.

It's not a brain imbalance, it's the brain doing what it's supposed to do. When your caloric intake drops, the brain thinks it's a famine and makes you burn less calories and feel hungry.

My main point was that there are certain things that the brain will and won't do easily, and that generally most of the proposed advantages of religion are things that the brain will do easily and naturally, such as being a nice person, helping other, not killing, stealing, or cheating on people, and so on. We can find proof of this by looking at atheists, who generally do all of the above. The problem is that religion does these things, things that would have happened anyway, while also adding on needless restrictions and time wasters.

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Sun Apr 05, 2009 9:09 pm UTC

alexh123456789 wrote:It's not a brain imbalance, it's the brain doing what it's supposed to do. When your caloric intake drops, the brain thinks it's a famine and makes you burn less calories and feel hungry.

Ah. I misunderstood what you were saying.
My main point was that there are certain things that the brain will and won't do easily, and that generally most of the proposed advantages of religion are things that the brain will do easily and naturally, such as being a nice person, helping other, not killing, stealing, or cheating on people, and so on. We can find proof of this by looking at atheists, who generally do all of the above. The problem is that religion does these things, things that would have happened anyway, while also adding on needless restrictions and time wasters.

So this is where we have the fundamental disagreement. You can't show proof by holding up a good atheist or two. I imagine there's probably lots of them. We need to see overall how non-religious people behave. I bet studies would show that Christians in America are generally happier, give more money, and give more time. (I single out Christians because that's what I know; other religions might perform just as well.)

This is a key piece of my argument. If I'm wrong on this, my position is seriously weakened. I don't have time to look up studies now, but I'll try to when I get the chance.

Here's why I believe this is the case. We have a capacity for selfishness and for empathy. The empathy is what makes us such social creatures and it does come naturally. But I think our brain turns this off very easily when we think the other person doesn't deserve it. As in my earlier example, it's hard to empathize with the asshole neighbor and the jerk on the road, etc. Once we lose this empathy we no longer are able to balance properly the self with the group. And when people are in a situation with limited resources that must be shared, the selfishness kicks into high gear and the empathy starts getting turned off.

Religion certainly does this too; it can cause people to break their empathy with others. But more often those lines are outside the community and get drawn between communities. There's certainly problems with this too. I don't have a detailed understanding of this all, but that's my view on it based on what I've seen.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

User avatar
Rinsaikeru
Pawn, soon to be a Queen
Posts: 2166
Joined: Wed Aug 27, 2008 5:26 am UTC
Location: Toronto
Contact:

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Rinsaikeru » Mon Apr 06, 2009 12:48 am UTC

Churches often organize charitable activities for their members to participate in, while atheists, having no comparable social structure often individually participate in charities (many atheists also participate in theistic societies in addition to secular ones such as the Red Cross). Again, I know through my own personal experience in volunteer work that many atheists do participate in charity. The only difference is that we don't do it because we are atheists. We don’t need to get on our atheistic high horses and loudly proclaim this fact to the whole world. We feel that things like these simply needs to be done for the well-being of our fellow humans, not for the benefit of getting ourselves into an imaginary paradise.

http://www.evolvedrational.com/2008/06/fundie-claim-13-atheists-and-charity.html


How on earth can you claim that Christians are more charitable than athiests with NO numbers and yet demand numbers before you'd believe otherwise?
Rice Puddin.

User avatar
Nath
Posts: 3148
Joined: Sat Sep 08, 2007 8:14 pm UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Nath » Mon Apr 06, 2009 1:07 am UTC

While I agree that giving to please your imaginary friends isn't as nice as giving for its own sake, the numbers I've looked at do seem to indicate that religion is a predictor of giving in the US. Granted, these numbers were in newspapers and such rather than peer-reviewed journals, so treat them with due caution, but it wouldn't surprise me if there was something to it.

(The Wikipedia page on charity has a few links if you'd like to see the numbers yourself.)

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Mon Apr 06, 2009 5:45 am UTC

Rinsaikeru wrote:
Churches often organize charitable activities for their members to participate in, while atheists, having no comparable social structure often individually participate in charities (many atheists also participate in theistic societies in addition to secular ones such as the Red Cross).

This is my argument actually. Religions do a better job of creating community. This community is the social fabric and it encourages people to support each other within it. This creates a stronger community that is more fit to survive than the non-religious community. And I don't think this social weave comes naturally at all; in fact without some social structure maintaining it, it will unravel.

Also, my arguments are very generalized and I try very hard not to have it reflect on any one individual. Just as we know men are taller than women, there are some very tall women. Same with this. In fact, I'm happy to think that everyone I'm debating with is taller than every Christian I know. :)


That's an interesting site, one I hadn't seen before. I particularly like the quote "Religion exploits unpatched vulnerabilities in the human mind." However I disagree, and I think we are the biggest perpetrators of exploiting our own human minds. We're amazing liars to ourselves. The reason is that it's often quite useful. But the downside is that we do a terrible job at predicting what will make us happy. (I mentioned Stumbling on Happiness before; it's a great book and talks of this.)

How on earth can you claim that Christians are more charitable than athiests with NO numbers and yet demand numbers before you'd believe otherwise?

A quick word in my defense. Truly I have no capacity to demand anything on xkcd, and I am not trying. I simply stated my opinion. In my postings in this thread (understandable if you haven't read them all since I ramble a lot :)), I've relied very little on arguments that require evidence mainly because I don't have the time to research it. Instead I've tried to make reasonable arguments that I can defend through examples and thought experiments.

In my last posting, my reference to studies was in response to another unsubstantiated claim about the brain easily doing good regardless of religion. I could have let it go, but instead I decided to respond with my opinion while recognizing that I should produce some statistics. In hindsight, I should have delayed posting until I had done my homework, and I'm sorry for that.

Nath wrote:While I agree that giving to please your imaginary friends isn't as nice as giving for its own sake, the numbers I've looked at do seem to indicate that religion is a predictor of giving in the US. Granted, these numbers were in newspapers and such rather than peer-reviewed journals, so treat them with due caution, but it wouldn't surprise me if there was something to it.

(The Wikipedia page on charity has a few links if you'd like to see the numbers yourself.)

Thank you for demonstrating that doing my homework wouldn't have been as hard as I imagined. I should have done the work myself.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

MoghLiechty2
Posts: 629
Joined: Sat Jan 24, 2009 8:55 pm UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby MoghLiechty2 » Mon Apr 06, 2009 6:38 pm UTC


I'll do my best here to go through this site and respond to what I see as an angry, rambling self-rationalization done by someone who has no experience whatsoever inside the world of religious charity.

If religious people (for my purposes here, Christians in the U.S.) do in fact contribute more to the material needs of the world, it's not a big deal, secularists. I, for one, aren't going to go around touting this evidence as a reason why you should convert. It's merely a statistic. So:

Quoted from the link above:
When Christians do good deeds solely for the sake of their religion, they remain forever on the lowest stages of moral development. As Kohlberg puts it, they are simply slaves to doctrines that they follow because of fear of eternal damnation and their wish to suck up to their sky daddy. Therefore, they remain infantile, lacking the ability to think for themselves. Such Christians often claim that their religion makes them incredibly moral, but what they don’t realize is that their moral development has been stunted by their blind adherence to Christian doctrine.

What's more important here than the authors misguided view of Christian motive, (and his unsupported tangent into moral subtance), is raw numbers. But I'll get to that later. This characterization of Christian charity as an institution whose only goal is indoctrination into a belief system is an outright lie. While "conversion to a religion" is often a sort of goal of a missions type trip, it would be wrong to say that the people who go on these sort of trips would be satisfied with simple conversion. They are more interested in the raw physical and spiritual needs of the people, rather than the fruitless contentment of putting a checkmark on a piece of paper saying they converted one more person to Christianity. See mission statements for AIM and SIM for example. From my experience, these essentially selfless trips don't conform to this flawed notion some people have of a bunch of Christians standing around a bunch of starving Africans handing out Bibles. The goal is rather different: To satisfy their physical needs by providing whatever physical aid we can provide, and to satisfy their spiritual needs by providing whatever spiritual aid we can provide.

Churches often organize charitable activities for their members to participate in, while atheists, having no comparable social structure often individually participate in charities (many atheists also participate in theistic societies in addition to secular ones such as the Red Cross). Again, I know through my own personal experience in volunteer work that many atheists do participate in charity. The only difference is that we don't do it because we are atheists. We don’t need to get on our atheistic high horses and loudly proclaim this fact to the whole world. We feel that things like these simply needs to be done for the well-being of our fellow humans, not for the benefit of getting ourselves into an imaginary paradise.

That may very well be, and it is admirable to be charitable for the sole sake of charity. But I defy this author to find a quote from a Christian who has devoted his life to charity and then finds it necessary to flaunt his selflessness while riding a moral high horse. For goodness sake, it's not like atheism automatically makes any person less likely to be prideful in his charitableness.

So, reguardless of motive, doctrine, or what have you, what about result? What pure utility does religion, particularly Chrisitanity in the U.S. (since this is what the auther seems to be so angry against) provide to charity? According to here (See "Giving and volunteering, by the numbers"), quite a lot. Not only do Christians in the U.S. give three times the average annual amount to charity, they also are more likely to give to secular charities than secular people themselves (!!). This also is a direct refutation to the claim by our first author that religious people give solely in line with their doctrine:

Could you even imagine any Christian doing the same for an opposing religious institution, let alone to an atheist charity organization such as the Council for Secular Humanism’s SHARE? The idea alone is laughable.

The author is either unwilling or incapable of drawing a distinction between what is imaginable and what is actually the case.

Moving on:
A Christian who does good deeds only because he wants to earn points with in heaven or to advertising his faith is arguably is acting from purely selfish motives. On the other hand, an atheist seeks to improve the lives of other human beings who are in need without trumpeting a particular set of beliefs. Think about it, and decide who the truly compassionate one really is.

Interestingly, according to Christian doctrine, one who does good deeds for the sole purpose of receiving rewards or to gain praise deserves neither rewards nor praise. Apparently, wanting people to think you're special isn't limited to Christians or atheists.

Would we be better off without religion? Put plainly, religion is like a parasite that causes humans to invest time, energy, money and resources in building and maintaining institutions devoted to ignorance and superstition. Think about it: For every church or mosque built, how many hungry mouths could be fed? How many hospitals could be built with the money that is wastefully squandered to build the biggest, grandest looking church in town? Can’t all the money that is spent on the likes of, say, the Vatican be used to actually contribute to the betterment of humankind?

This is an argument that could be applied to anything. It could just as easily be said, "How much money is wastefully squandered to build the biggest, grandest university in town?" To which the author would reply, "At least the people in those university do things that are actually useful to the starving people of the world!" to which MoghLiechty2 slaps his forehead, stares at the ground, and moans. And I won't comment on the excesses of the Vatican or the American church, other than to say I agree that such materialism is repremandable both by the Bible and by society.

The previously cited article also makes a lot of other good points, which I'm not going to summarize. Give it a read, and I'd like to hear other people's opinions of it as well.

User avatar
Pez Dispens3r
is not a stick figure.
Posts: 2079
Joined: Thu Dec 04, 2008 3:08 am UTC
Location: Australia
Contact:

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Mon Apr 13, 2009 10:56 am UTC

When Christians do good deeds solely for the sake of their religion, they remain forever on the lowest stages of moral development. As Kohlberg puts it, they are simply slaves to doctrines that they follow because of fear of eternal damnation and their wish to suck up to their sky daddy.
I agree with Mogh on this, and point out that most religious people who participate in charity don't do it for heaven points. Further, charitable atheists are often informed by humanitarian ideology, which often becomes a deity in itself. People often talk about human rights as something inherently good and true, with little justification for that belief. Consequently, they take the concept to absurd extremes where you get things like animal rights and PETA.

Atheists and theists do not have significantly different motivations for their charity work. Both unintelligently slot coins into tins when confronted by collectors in shops. Both organise fund-raisers and publicity stunts. Both form inefficient international aid agencies and NGOs that source their workforce and materials from First World countries. Both can be motivated by guilt or ill-conceived ideas of justice, both can be naive and insensitive to the needs of those they aim to assist. Both can be motivated by a higher being or ideology that doesn't actually exist. Both are capable of producing hard-working, intelligent, resourceful, dedicated individuals who suffer the worst of humanity in the attempt to make the lives of others better for no hope of reward and no end to their work in sight.
Mighty Jalapeno wrote:I feel like you're probably an ocelot, and I feel like I want to eat you. Feeling is fun!
this isn't my cow

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Sun Apr 19, 2009 3:37 pm UTC

I just heard a show that talked about this very issue! Until now I hadn't heard anyone else make this case before.

The show is Quirks and Quarks (Canadian science radio show). Here's the link to this segment. There's a link to download the mp3, it's about 25 minutes long.

There's two segments, where we hear two different scientists' ideas about why religion is so prevalent and why we might have a bias towards it. In the first, we hear Dr. Barrett's theory that religion is just a byproduct of other human features. For example, our ability to look at the world and see how to make tools, gives us a perspective that the world itself has a design. I thought this was interesting, but it didn't line up with my view very well.

In the second segment, Dr. Wilson theorizes that religious societies have a Darwinian advantage over non-religious societies. Basically, religion allows for superior social organization particularly in times of limited resources where cooperation and sharing is key.

Dr. Wilson also mentioned the costs of religion (religious wars, forced conformity, devaluation of scientific truths, etc.). But overall it seems like he would agree with the premise that religion has had a positive utility to societies. He doesn't take the argument as far as me though. He didn't clearly state that religion still has a positive utility, and he certainly didn't claim that it will be the most effective way to organize societies for the future.

He did make two other interesting points. First, religious fundamentalism seems to be particularly advantageous in more chaotic times when people compete for limited resources; secularism grows in stable societies where our liberties are better protected. This seems important as we're moving into a time with global warming, unbalanced ecosystems, dwindling resources, and growing populations.

The second point is about morality. If you ask people to name characteristics of a very moral person we get answers like unselfishness, kindness, trustworthiness (I forget all the examples in the show). Basically these are all focused on society and others, while amoral things are focused no the self. So morality is really a mechanism to push us to help the group over ourselves.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

User avatar
Enuja
Posts: 1576
Joined: Tue Apr 14, 2009 9:40 pm UTC
Location: Chicago, IL
Contact:

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Enuja » Sun Apr 19, 2009 7:17 pm UTC

No-one is planning on creating a society from scratch. We aren't going to take a bunch of kids and have them raised by machines programmed to create a specific societal structure. I agree that religion has historically provided some utility to human societies, and that some religions have found some good moral values. There is no reason to throw out that received wisdom when you throw out religion. Non-religious societies don't have to create a moral system from scratch: they simply start with the moral system they have, and then modify it. Guenther, you keep saying that it takes time to figure out which moral systems work for societies and which don't, but this argument doesn't have anything to do with religion versus no religion. It's an argument to pay attention to the consequences of changing moral standards and to use any and all available new evidence to structure society. You don't need religion to slowly change moral and societal rules and expectations. To me, the question of whether religion has utility should instead be "can other societal structures provide equal or better utility than religion?" The question is completely untested, so comes down to individual opinion. As time goes on, the question will be tested as we compare different sub-groups of society. Only the future will tell if non-religious societal structures have a more positive utility for future human societies than religion.

Because I, personally, see more flaws in religion than advantages, I think that religion introduces more flaws into society than advantages. Whether the advantage is individual restraint, altruism or external emotional support, you must convince people both 1) that the value that religion takes is good and that 2) religion is the best way to propagate the value. It's harder to make two arguments than one, so it is harder to convince people that religion is a positive societal value than to convince them that it's an individual moral good. In other words, stick with trying to convince people that religion is a moral good: you can't convince people who think that religion is morally neutral or negative that a society with religion is better than one without.

One argument that non-religious people sometimes make about the positive values of religion is that it gives strength to weak people. Guenther included the argument in the first post (and subsequent posts), and Ixtellor made the argument from an agnositic's perspective. It's an argument that's really cynical and doesn't respect religion or human nature, so I'm surprised to see it as a part of a pro-Religion argument. Doesn't this argument say that people who are happy and successful without religion are better people, because they have more self-control and inner strength? I guess it's possible that this argument is true, but I'd prefer to try to make people happy and society good without crutches than to go around making everyone walk with crutches because we're worried that their legs might break. If their legs break and crutches help them get around, I'm not going to try to convince them to get rid of their crutches. I am going to try to come with as many ways as possible to keep people from breaking their legs and to return them to function if they do break their legs (societal systems that benefit individuals and society as a whole), instead of assuming that everyone needs the external support of the concept of a God whether or not they can stand on their own. I'm also not going to assume that everyone who is religious needs a crutch; in other words, I think it's horrible thing to say about religion that everyone who is religious needs it be content or to be a good person.

Trojan Hamster
Posts: 4
Joined: Mon Apr 20, 2009 9:08 pm UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Trojan Hamster » Mon Apr 20, 2009 10:30 pm UTC

Enuja wrote:I guess it's possible that this argument is true, but I'd prefer to try to make people happy and society good without crutches than to go around making everyone walk with crutches because we're worried that their legs might break.

I don't think the OP was trying to support pushing religion on everyone, rather showing the utility of it. The fact that so many people today walk with "crutches" shows that there are a lot more broken legs out there than your analogy might imply. That said, good governing and social programs can only go so far. There will always be emotional and spiritual challenges in people's lives and despite not being religious myself if someone wanted my advice on how to deal with such things I would sooner point them towards religion first than the brave new world of antidepressants that seems to be well under way.

Enuja wrote:I think it's horrible thing to say about religion that everyone who is religious needs it be content or to be a good person.

I don't think all religious people need religion, many are part of it for more cultural reasons than anything. If someone grows up as part of a religion and still feels attached to that religion as an adult, you can hardly fault them for staying part of it.

The utility of religion though, at least in this day and age, is largely about offering crutches to those with broken legs. A pretty noble cause, and if they finally separate themselves from useless political furor over issues I highly doubt Jesus or Mohammed would give a damn about anyway, they might just continue to be useful in the generations to come.

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Mon Apr 20, 2009 11:10 pm UTC

Enuja wrote:There is no reason to throw out that received wisdom when you throw out religion. Non-religious societies don't have to create a moral system from scratch: they simply start with the moral system they have, and then modify it.

I understand what you're saying, but I'm claiming that modifying it is hard, especially for a system we don't fully understand. Would you feel comfortable with us taking control of our climate today assuming we had the technology? We'd probably royally screw it up because we don't understand it enough. I would argue that society is even more complex and more difficult. And it's harder still when every individual is deciding for themselves how to modify it rather than planning at the group level.

And the other challenge is transmitting it to the next generation. If the collected wisdom must all be evaluated by our rational brain, then our kids will just assume the old folks lived in a different time and their rules don't apply. It's harder to argue with an all-knowing God (though people still do it).

Enuja wrote:To me, the question of whether religion has utility should instead be "can other societal structures provide equal or better utility than religion?" The question is completely untested, so comes down to individual opinion. As time goes on, the question will be tested as we compare different sub-groups of society. Only the future will tell if non-religious societal structures have a more positive utility for future human societies than religion.

I agree it comes down to opinion. I'm just sharing my pessimism for purely secular systems. :)

Enuja wrote:Whether the advantage is individual restraint, altruism or external emotional support, you must convince people both 1) that the value that religion takes is good and that 2) religion is the best way to propagate the value.

I think #1 is a more important case to make (and where I started this discussion). We can't actually change whether religion will exist or not, but I might be able to convince people to respect it more because we're stuck with it.

I've become more convinced with #2 since I've been writing in this thread, but I certainly don't have a lot of evidence for it. It's just my best guess based on reasonable ideas I have. And I stil haven't heard convincing arguments against my claims.

Enuja wrote:Doesn't this argument say that people who are happy and successful without religion are better people, because they have more self-control and inner strength?

Who is the religious person really relying on for self-control and inner strength if you don't believe their God exists? I would argue that he is relying on himself, but tricking his rational mind to do so.

Did you know that athletes do the exact same thing? They tell themselves that they are better than everyone else, when in reality they have no rational basis for the claim. And studies have shown that the athletes that lie to themselves perform better than those that don't. (See Lying to Ourselves from Radiolab, which is a great science podcast.)

Self-deception is very powerful in certain circumstances (but we can't be aware we're actually deceiving ourselves) and can make us achieve better results than we thought possible. I think religion is a good example of that. Trying to compare who's "better" after taking away self-deception is silly since it's one of the tools in the toolbox. Instead we should compare results.

Trojan Hamster wrote:I don't think the OP was trying to support pushing religion on everyone, rather showing the utility of it.

Correct; I have tried very hard to not extend the case to "everyone", but rather people in general. I'm happy to believe that many individuals will lead a happier life without religion.

Trojan Hamster wrote:The utility of religion though, at least in this day and age, is largely about offering crutches to those with broken legs. A pretty noble cause, and if they finally separate themselves from useless political furor over issues I highly doubt Jesus or Mohammed would give a damn about anyway, they might just continue to be useful in the generations to come.

I agree completely. I'm not arguing that religion should be infused everywhere, or that religion is without fault. For example, I am convinced that the GOP in the US should abandon the hard-core religious base to get more people on board with the financial conservative principals. But that's a separate debate. :)
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

User avatar
Enuja
Posts: 1576
Joined: Tue Apr 14, 2009 9:40 pm UTC
Location: Chicago, IL
Contact:

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Enuja » Mon Apr 20, 2009 11:41 pm UTC

guenther, your weather analogy is flawed in that we already have control over religion and social rules, and religion doesn't keep us from changing religiously-based morals, as you've mentioned with the homosexuality example. We can't stop playing with the rules, so that's not the question. The question is Does religion make those rules better or make those rules easier to transmit?

guenther wrote:And the other challenge is transmitting it to the next generation. If the collected wisdom must all be evaluated by our rational brain, then our kids will just assume the old folks lived in a different time and their rules don't apply. It's harder to argue with an all-knowing God (though people still do it).
As someone who was raised an atheist, I don't think it's at all difficult to transmit morals without religion, as I had some hugely powerful morals stamped into my brain without God. I've thought about some of them since, and played with altering a very few of them, but most of them are completely intact in my brain.

Enuja wrote:Whether the advantage is individual restraint, altruism or external emotional support, you must convince people both 1) that the value that religion takes is good and that 2) religion is the best way to propagate the value.
guenther wrote:I think #1 is a more important case to make (and where I started this discussion). We can't actually change whether religion will exist or not, but I might be able to convince people to respect it more because we're stuck with it.
I just looked at your original post again, and I don't see that. There is nothing in your first post about homosexuality, or sexual restraint, or any other specific examples. There is just the sense of right and wrong. The discussion about sexual restraint in this thread appears to me to be a tangent. I think that questions like "is sexual restraint an individual or societal advantage" stand on their own and should be discussed separately from "does religion provide utility to society". As others have said several times, different religions have different values, so the large scale question is quite powerless when you are speaking of specific values.

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Tue Apr 21, 2009 12:13 am UTC

Enuja wrote:guenther, your weather analogy is flawed in that we already have control over religion and social rules, and religion doesn't keep us from changing religiously-based morals, as you've mentioned with the homosexuality example. We can't stop playing with the rules, so that's not the question. The question is Does religion make those rules better or make those rules easier to transmit?

The weather analogy is not about whether we have the ability to change it, but whether we know how to change it. I think both society and climate are too complex to just analyze and figure out a new solution. We have to take baby steps and see what happens. If we step too far, we'll get catastrophe. We can imagine the climate problems we could make for ourselves. And we can look at Communism as practiced by USSR, China, North Korea, etc. to see examples of secular ideas going terribly bad.

Religion doesn't make change easier (the opposite actually), but it is an existing, stable solution (for some religions). And it has shown it can successfully transmit itself quite well.

As someone who was raised an atheist, I don't think it's at all difficult to transmit morals without religion, as I had some hugely powerful morals stamped into my brain without God. I've thought about some of them since, and played with altering a very few of them, but most of them are completely intact in my brain.

Anecdotal evidence only goes so far. You could be an unusual case, or you could be an unreliable source for how well the ideas were transmitted. I make no claims about you since I don't know you. But science needs studies of many individuals to see how secular-based morality gets transmitted.

Enuja wrote:
guenther wrote:I think #1 is a more important case to make (and where I started this discussion). We can't actually change whether religion will exist or not, but I might be able to convince people to respect it more because we're stuck with it.
I just looked at your original post again, and I don't see that. There is nothing in your first post about homosexuality, or sexual restraint, or any other specific examples. There is just the sense of right and wrong. The discussion about sexual restraint in this thread appears to me to be a tangent. I think that questions like "is sexual restraint an individual or societal advantage" stand on their own and should be discussed separately from "does religion provide utility to society". As others have said several times, different religions have different values, so the large scale question is quite powerless when you are speaking of specific values.

I'm not sure I completely follow what you're saying, but I'll try to respond. For better or worse, I have tried not to go too far into specifics because I didn't want to derail the overall discussion. I'm not trying to ask in particular if, say, sexual restraint is important to a stable social structure. Rather I'm asking if religion as a whole has a good system for a stable social structure. From there we can dive into particular examples like Christianity and sexual restraint, but we need to keep the context of the bigger debate, rather than focusing too much on one example.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

User avatar
Enuja
Posts: 1576
Joined: Tue Apr 14, 2009 9:40 pm UTC
Location: Chicago, IL
Contact:

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby Enuja » Tue Apr 21, 2009 12:50 am UTC

What is your evidence that religion makes societal rules change more slowly? Limiting yourself to 1000 year old plus religions isn't making a meaningful comparison, and things like Unitarian Universalism used to be Christianity not very long ago. It's quite possible that the evangelical power of religion actually destabilizes societal rules. I don't think we know.

Communism is not an example of secular ideas going bad. Some communist countries could be example of problems with swift changes in societal rules, but just because communism carried some atheistic ideas does not mean that atheism is bad or creates bad societies. Also, one can coherently argue that China's economic and social system are actually working very well.

guenther wrote:Anecdotal evidence only goes so far. You could be an unusual case, or you could be an unreliable source for how well the ideas were transmitted. I make no claims about you since I don't know you. But science needs studies of many individuals to see how secular-based morality gets transmitted.
What about Confucianism? You are assuming that religion does a better job of transmitting ideas and requiring evidence from me to prove otherwise. I gave an anecdote to show that it's at least not obvious that religion does a better idea of transmitting ideas. Again, I strongly suspect that we simply don't know either way, and it's completely possible that non-religious systems transmit social rules better.

guenther wrote:For better or worse, I have tried not to go too far into specifics because I didn't want to derail the overall discussion. I'm not trying to ask in particular if, say, sexual restraint is important to a stable social structure. Rather I'm asking if religion as a whole has a good system for a stable social structure. From there we can dive into particular examples like Christianity and sexual restraint, but we need to keep the context of the bigger debate, rather than focusing too much on one example.
And I'm trying to say that the question is completely and totally unanswerable on the large-scale because the utility of religion depends on the utility of the rules that religion enforces (in addition to on how well religion enforces those rules). Different religions enforce different rules! Therefore, the question "Does religion have utility?" is meaningless. It is too much of a generalization to have an answer.

guenther
Posts: 1840
Joined: Sat May 17, 2008 6:15 am UTC

Re: Utility of Religion

Postby guenther » Tue Apr 21, 2009 10:37 pm UTC

Enuja wrote:What is your evidence that religion makes societal rules change more slowly? Limiting yourself to 1000 year old plus religions isn't making a meaningful comparison, and things like Unitarian Universalism used to be Christianity not very long ago. It's quite possible that the evangelical power of religion actually destabilizes societal rules. I don't think we know.

I'm surprised that this is something I'd have to defend; I thought it was self-evident. At my church, they would not look fondly at me if I came in with a new way to interpret the bible according to today's world. They have the desire to teach the words of Jesus just as he spoke them 2000 years ago. That's not a philosophy that invites change (though they do welcome new ways to teach the old messages).

From some quick googling, Unitarian Universalism is much smaller than Christianity. We'll always have offshoots of religion, but that's in direct opposition to the teachings of the religion, hence they try to slow the affect as much as they can. Having a gay bishop in the Episcopal Church caused quite an uproar, and that really is only a minor change in doctrine.

Communism is not an example of secular ideas going bad. Some communist countries could be example of problems with swift changes in societal rules, but just because communism carried some atheistic ideas does not mean that atheism is bad or creates bad societies.

I'm specifically cautioning against swift changes in societal rules. But secular systems seem interested in engineering everything to fix the immediate problems we see today. But where's the restraint from stepping too far? Perhaps secular moral systems are at their infancy in the big scale and need to crash the car a few times before learning to stay on the road. Perhaps, but I'm not optimistic about it. :)

What about Confucianism? You are assuming that religion does a better job of transmitting ideas and requiring evidence from me to prove otherwise. I gave an anecdote to show that it's at least not obvious that religion does a better idea of transmitting ideas. Again, I strongly suspect that we simply don't know either way, and it's completely possible that non-religious systems transmit social rules better.

Religion does a good job of transmitting values; I hope we can agree on that since we have thousands of years of examples. Secular systems just haven't had the same success. Perhaps Confucianism is an example, but it seems more of an exception. The modern systems haven't been around long enough to know. Perhaps they've got the problem licked, but we won't know until a generation or two passes. But since I've heard nothing about addressing this challenge, I suspect it's not being addressed and it probably won't happen on it's own from serendipity.

Therefore, the question "Does religion have utility?" is meaningless. It is too much of a generalization to have an answer.

An irrational belief system setting up moral standards and social structures is very powerful and is largely ubiquitous throughout history. Why is it meaningless to talk at that level? At the social system level, religion does some very important things, and I've tried to address that in this thread and what a secular system would need to handle if it wants to take over.

And I'm not alone in this view:
Evolutionary Psychology of Religion
Cognitive Science of Religion
Evolutionary Origin of Religions
Darwin's Cathedral
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.


Return to “Serious Business”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 14 guests