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Religion is Useless

Entry 1990, on 2019-07-16 at 12:39:22 (Rating 3, Religion)

Recently I have seemed to be concentrating more on political commentary than other subjects, and it has been a while since I did one of my infamous anti-religion rants, so maybe it's time to restore some balance and launch a no doubt futile attack against religion. I say "futile" because it doesn't matter how many good, or even indisputable, points I make, religious people will go on believing anyway. But this blog is as much about arguing my own thoughts with myself as it is trying to persuade others, so here goes.

The title of this post "religion is useless" is probably a bit too strong, because my argument is that there are no aspects of religion which aren't better handled by other forms of human endeavour, rather than religion having no benefits at all. But using that same argument you could say religion has negative value, because it is used as a substitute for those other forms of knowledge, which would give better results if they were allowed to prevail over religion. In that case you might also say that "religion is useless" is too weak!

If things are still a bit unclear, please be patient. I will now list what I see as the main functions of religion, what I suggest as an alternative, and why those alternatives are better...

1. As a source of knowledge about, and explanation of the real world. This has traditionally been a major reason for religion existing. People couldn't explain why the world was the way it was, so invoking a god as an explanation was not only a simple explanation, but also made some sense. Because humans created complex objects and looked after crops and animals, it made sense that the world was made and maintained by an intelligent entity too.

So asking how the world started, when you have neither the knowlege nor the techniques for examining that question objectively, naturally lead to the idea that it was created by someone, and that level of creation required a god.

But as more information became available that idea became more and more doubtful, and as science took over from religion as a source of knowledge about the physical world, especially during the Enlightenment, the role that religion had for acquiring this sort of knowledge became redundant.

If we want to know something about the real world we don't turn to religion any more - at least most of use don't, because there are still relics of a bygone era, such the creationists - we use science instead. Religion has been superseded for this function, because it just makes sense that the methodology of science (hypothesise, test, revise) is better than the methodology of religion (read an old book or listen to a religious leader, mostly uncritically). Plus, science gets results, as clearly shown by modern technology.

2. As a source of moral guidance. Many people still see religion as the only, or at least the best, source of instruction on how we should behave. What is morally right and wrong is less obviously a question for science than other, more tangible, questions like "what is the Sun made from?"

Some people say that science can be used to establish moral standards, but even a science advocate like myself, has some doubt about this. For example, we could establish utilitarianism as the best way to say what is "good", and then go on to measure the happiness of people as we manipulate actions on how society works.

But there are numerous issues with this approach: first, what methodology do we use to support utilitarianism as the correct framework to begin with? And what factor should we optimise? Should it be happiness, or pleasure, or lack of suffering, or wealth? And how does lack of a positive measure factor into the situations where that measure is maximised? For example, does one really happy person balance out two who are moderatley unhappy? And, even if we can get past these issues, is there a good way to make a quantitative evaluation of them?

You could make a case to say that all of these criticisms might be aimed at other ways of dealing with the problem, too. But there is another system which is arguably better suited to such a task, and it isn't religion. It is, of course, philosophy.

If the moral laws of religion really did come from a god, a case could be made to say they should be obeyed. But , if they (as really seems to be the case) were created by humans and just claimed as being divinely inspired, then they have no ultimate authority at all. And even if they did come from a god, there are numerous philosophical and practical objections to blindly following them.

For example, there is the classic question of whether a law is automatically good because god says it is, or whether god imposes laws because they are already inherently good. The automatic acceptance of religiously imposed laws breaks down in both circumstances (which I don't have space here to go into in detail, unfortunately, but I discussed in a blog post titled "A Fool's Game" from 2015-01-11).

So I would claim that issues such as this are better handled by philosophy, which does have some formal methodology and checking, than religion, which tends to deal uncritically with "revealed truths".

3. As a source of social advantages. I see two major reasons for religion being accepted as a useful thing, even by atheists and other critics. The first is that there are numerous religiously inspired organisations which do good in the world, through charitable giving or unpaid work in communities. And the second is that religion provides a useful social core to many people's lives.

But, as you will probably gathered by now, I think these can also be better provided by other mechanisms. As well as religious charities there are non-religious ones which do as good a job, or a better job in many cases. For example, the philanthropic work of Bill Gate's charitable organisation is driven by a real evaluation of what can do the most good, where many religious work is more based on tradition or optimal public exposure.

And there are many social mechanism where people can build a sense of community without religion, although I do admit that my case here is less strong than in the other areas I have already covered.

So, there you have it: that's my argument is that religion really is useless.

The task of replacing religion in category one above is basically already complete, with only a few misfits, such as creationists, hanging on to the old way of looking at things. No religious knowledge about the physical world remains in any meaningful sense. Even people who ostensibly reject science in favour of religion don't really act that way. They use the products of science and accept they work even though that contradicts their dismissal of the same scientific theories which the devices they use are based on.

In category two the task is well advanced, because while many people still claim our laws and moral standards are based on Christian morals, they really aren't . Sure, many religious ideas happen to coincide with laws (don't murder, steal, etc) but that is more because the religious morals and the societal rules are both based on basic human social norms. I do admit that some laws from the past came directly from religion, but only those that suit more modern standards have been allowed to remain, and I could find far more moral rules from the Bible which have been ignored than those which have been followed.

Category three is less well advanced and many people still get value from either simply identifying as religious, or in actively participating in religious practices. This is also changing as more and more countries become dominated by secular customs and beliefs, but religion is far from finished in this area, although the end result seems inevitable.

If or when religion disappears completely will the world be a better or worse place? Well, that is debatable, and even I would feel that something has been lost, even though I think my argument for alternatives is sound. But, it's not going to happen any time soon so I guess the question is moot. I guess I'll accept religion as a part of society for a bit longer, even though it is useless!

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Comment 1 (5054) by Anonymous on 2019-08-01 at 19:49:07:

Wait, let me guess this right. You are saying that the religions that billions of people believe around the world are useless. So much credibility, OJB!

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Comment 2 (5056) by OJB on 2019-08-01 at 21:12:12:

Well you could make that point, but popularity does not imply quality. To make a (rather obvious) comparison: at some point in the past almost everyone thought the Earth was at the centre of the Universe. We now know it isn't. Ideas change, and it's important to critically examine ideas, even if they are popular. And look at the trends: in many places (even the US) religion is quite rapidly declining.

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