Vanity thought #1515. Is religion good or bad?

It’s a fairly popular question and it naturally follows the debates like the one between Chopra and Dawkins I have been writing about this whole week. Frustrated with the inability to find any common ground between two sides people try a different approach and instead of asking whether religion is right or wrong they want to know whether it’s good or bad. The assumption here is that it could be wrong but as long as it’s good then it doesn’t really matter.

Atheists and believers have their own answers, of course, but it’s the common folk who is the target here – can they be converted or not, can they be persuaded by the promised good or will they be warned off religion by its “inherent evil”? This leads to axillary questions about the place for religion in modern society, to its authority, to its relation with the secular state and so on. These are practical questions meant to extract the most good while filtering out all the bad. And then people negotiate the exact terms with each other, and the assumption here is that there’s no one right answer.

What is our position here? Is it practical? What should be our public position? But let’s start with Chopra-Dawkins.

The debate went into overtime but this question was one of the preconditions for participation and the moderator was obliged to ask it. Chopra went first and chopred up a little more of his word salad. He is more into consciousness based science of self-awareness than in worshiping any particular God so in his view as long as religion allows for this kind of self-realization it’s okay, and various excesses committed in the name of God is just collateral damage, can’t have an omelet without breaking eggs, sorry for disgusting metaphor. Chopra only prefers and recommends vegetarian diet, btw, he hasn’t publicly declared that he is a vegetarian himself.

We can’t really expect anything more from Chopra and “spiritualists” of the same persuasion. Absolute Truth for them is their topmost realization – universe, consciousness, self etc. They won’t take Kṛṣṇa as God unless they know Him personally, and whatever is said in the Vedic literature is not authoritative enough for them. They do not disapprove of our worship as long as it brings results they can appreciate – sense of unity with the universe, sense of epistemological humility, mysterious non-symbolic awareness etc. Devotion itself is not on the list but they’ll take it if it leads to those “higher” forms of realization. If we were to choose between these spiritualists and atheists we know which side to support but, if possible, we should avoid association with both because they are non-devotees and, therefore, asuric by nature. There’s a nice śloka to support this point but I don’t want to bring it today, it deserves a post on its own.

Dawkins, for his part, used a few of typical atheist tricks and I think we should be aware of them because they are being rehashed over and over again. I don’t know what would be the good answers to them but at least they shouldn’t confuse us by their simplicity.

Paraphrasing: “The question is not whether individual people who happen to be religious or not religious are good or bad, the question is whether religion itself is”. Posing it in this form immediately disassociates totality of individual behavior from religion and I don’t think there’s justification for this. It is certainly possible to discuss it under this condition but there will be too much loss in this approach and therefore I don’t think it should be acceptable. Let’s look at it closely.

The assumption here is that on their own and on average people are equally moral regardless of their stance on the religion. Their individual good or bad behavior, therefore, should not be attributed to religion or atheism, and neither should be the totality of the individuals who make up the society. I happen to strongly disagree here. What makes religion good or bad is the sum total of all the individuals practicing it. Every time their religion urged them to do the right thing should be counted as a point for religion. Equally, every time people’s atheism encourages them to act morally should be counted towards atheism. I’m talking about situations where people actually contemplate their course of action and are tempted to do a less moral thing, and I’m also talking about habits and reflexes.

It is impossible to calculate the value of religion this way, simply because there are billions of people of all kinds of faiths out there, but this is the only valid measurement. We can try to approximate it but we can’t substitute it with measuring anything else, as Dawkins proposed here.

For religious people the answer is self-obvious, they are usually aware of their sinful selfish nature and they attribute all their conscious moral decisions to influence of God and no one else. Atheists say they also act morally and give their own reasons, and they sometimes say that if religious people don’t rape women just because God forbids them to then there’s something seriously wrong with them. I don’t think there’s a simple answer here but let’s propose this one – religious people are in the clear and overwhelming majority in the world and they say religion makes them good. The argument that if they were all atheists instead they would just as much good is hypothetical. In their own experience relying on arguments other than religious prescriptions often leads them to committing sins. So, if they say that if not for religion holding them back they’d commit sins more often we should probably trust their judgment.

Dawkins’ approach, OTOH, discounts religion’s practical effects on individual behavior and offers to talk about blind faith and using religion to justify people doing bad things. Why is it even an issue? How big of an issue it really is? How important is it if put next to countless good deeds performed by every religious person and attributed to their religion?

“Many many good and righteous people … have done terrible things precisely because they believed that they are doing it for their god.” How many? How many of roughly six billion religious people currently living on this planet are doing terrible things because their religion tells them so? How many of them are doing bad things PRECISELY because their religion tells them so and not for multiple other reasons? I’m confident Dawkins can give a few examples but how should they stack against the six billion doing good things all the time? I mean his argument might be valid but not that important in the overall scheme of things.

Dawkins then added another reason – religion teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding, satisfied with pseudo explanations which are not really explanations at all. I suppose that happens, but I, personally, don’t know any devotee who is satisfied with not understanding. I don’t know any Christian who is satisfied with not understanding either. It’s a rather bad caricature of the religion. In fact, I’d argue that there are far more people who are perfectly satisfied with not understanding science, even grade school math. No one chases them for the rest of their lives berating them for not doing better at school and calling them stupid. Why is Dawkins singling out religion here? Shouldn’t he try and fix far bigger problems with understanding in his own camp?

As for pseudo explanations – sometimes it happens. Actually quite a lot, if you read students exam papers. It probably happens in religious communities, too, but, overall, I’d say that the standard of knowledge as measured in their own community is higher among Christians then among atheists. Christians all know the Bible and can offer all kinds of quotes on a variety of subjects. How many formulas an average atheist can recall on the spot?

The pseudo part that Dawkins had in mind is different, of course, but how much of that can be put down to ideological disagreements that can’t be reconciled simply by reasoning? Natural selection looks like a pseudo theory to creationists and creationism looks like a pseudo theory to Darwinists. Dawkins shouldn’t use the label “pseudo” for the cases where it is still disputed and where he can’t prove it to the other side. I suppose he can use it in cases where simple trickery is being passed as miracle making but how many of those are out there? How many religious people abandon all skepticism when they hear about miracles? How strict is the Catholic church in examining those claims? Are they really satisfied with what could be easily determined as pseudo explanations? I don’t think so.

Dawkins also talked about explanations that appeal to one’s emotions but I don’t see religion as being the main culprit there. Everyone is abusing people’s emotions these days for all sorts of reasons. In many cases, like in politics, the perpetrators are aware of what they are doing but they argue that they manipulate people’s emotions for the greater good. How’s that different from religions controlling their flock by hook or by crook?

The last bit was a veiled personal attack on Chopra and I don’t want to comment on that, as well as on Chopra’s partying statement that these two are very unlikely to talk to each other ever again. It’s the common arguments against religion that I want to remember today – excluding individual behavior of religious people from the debate on the value of religions, seriously overestimating terrible things done in the name of the religion, the false statement that religious people are satisfied with not understanding things, and labeling religious beliefs as pseudo knowledge in cases where atheists can’t prove it to anyone but themselves.

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