Within the atheist community many argue that religion is always evil and has not done any good; that religion is an impediment to rational thought; and that if religion had never come along the world would be much more advanced and a much better place than it is now.
My take in regards to religion is a bit different though. I would agree that religion can be and often is an impediment to rational thought, however I do not believe that it has to be so. Given the number of contributions to both science and secular government made by theists, including some saints, I feel my position is well supported.
I agree that religion has done much that is evil, however I do not believe it to be all evil; indeed, I would argue that it has also done much that is good.
I also am not so certain that a world without religion would have been better. Of course, there has not been many opportunities to see what would have happened in an atheist friendly world, but the few times that atheism has been the official position of the government (Soviet Russia and Communist China) things have not worked out well for either science, civil rights, or morality.
I know that many atheists will then chime in with the fact that all of these lapses were not done in the name of atheism but were politically motivated, or that the ideology of communism functioned in the same way as religion in regards to creating moral and intellectual blinders; and I won’t totally disagree with that.
However arguing this rather misses my point – which is that atheism is the belief that god does not exist. It does not espouse any other ideals or ideology. To live, to make decisions, to create a purpose for your life – these require something more than just a belief that god does not exist.
Communism was one try at providing such an ideology. Others exist too, some good and rational, others not so much. And that is my point when I bring up Soviet Russia and Communist China – atheists, when they try to fill up the void left by not believing in a religion are just as likely to latch onto an irrational ideology as they are onto a rational and moral one. Or, at least that is a very real possibility.
Given that, and given the mixed bag of our human nature, the claim that getting rid of religion would have improved the world seems to be very questionable.
I mentioned earlier that I believe that religion had done much that is good. One of the most basic of these actions in the good column is that I believe that religion allowed the creation of larger social groups – that they facilitated and allowed the transition from societies based on family groups to the larger groups that consisted of many different family groups that came about at the time of our discovery of agriculture.
I have recently been in a lengthy debate about this subject on a certain atheist facebook page. Now, judging by the responses generated during this debate, mine is very much a minority opinion within atheism (although due care should be taken with this statement since this one forum does not represent all atheists), but I was not a minority of one. A couple of other atheists supported my views during this debate, one actively, another with the good old thumbs up like- both of which were appreciated.
Now, I thought it would be fun to copy my posts from those debates here in order to outline some of my thinking about religion. I realize that while I have done many posts on why I do not believe that God exists or that an afterlife exists or on why God and religion are not necessary for the creation of morality – I have never really dealt much with what I thought about religion. And given that many theists believe that all atheists hate God and hate religion, I thought that it might interest and enlighten any of my theistic readers about the broad range of thoughts and feelings atheists actually have in regards to religion.
From that post, slightly edited
It seems that several of you are taking issue with my argument that religion was necessary for the development of larger social groups. Because of this, and because the questions are being asked on at least two different threads, I have opened up a new one that mentions all of ya’lls names.
Part of the issue here may be my choice of the word necessary. To clarify a possible source of confusion, I would like to distinguish between an absolute necessity and an historical one.
An absolute necessity would be one in which something is required and without which a process could not have happened. . In the case of religions an absolute necessity would be that religion always has to be present in order to form larger social groups. That is, without religion larger social groups cannot form and there is no possible substitute for it.
That is not my argument.
My argument is more one of historical necessity. Historical necessity is when something else could have served in its place, but given the times there was nothing else available at that time to do so.
This is the argument I am making.
At the time of the formation of larger social groups there was nothing else available that could have served as well as religion did. There are such now, and if they had existed then, religion would not have been necessary. However to argue that religion was not necessary on the basis of something that was not created until thousands of years afterwards – well, that is not very rational to my mind.
It is rather akin to saying that General Custer should have used a cell phone to call for help when surrounded by all of those Indians and that he would not then have been killed. Well, yes – theoretically if cell phones had been around at the time then he could have done that. However they were not and to make this argument is nonsensical.
The same holds true for intellectual and social institutions. If they had not been invented yet to try to argue that they should have been used instead of religion is as nonsensical as that of the cell phone and Custer above.
Let’s look at one specific example, critical thinking. I know that Matthew keeps mentioning that little piece of reasoning skill.
“ The intellectual roots of critical thinking are as ancient as its etymology, traceable, ultimately, to the teaching practice and vision of Socrates 2,500 years ago who discovered by a method of probing questioning that people could not rationally justify their confident claims to knowledge. Confused meanings, inadequate evidence, or self-contradictory beliefs often lurked beneath smooth but largely empty rhetoric. Socrates established the fact that one cannot depend upon those in “authority” to have sound knowledge and insight. He demonstrated that persons may have power and high position and yet be deeply confused and irrational. He established the importance of asking deep questions that probe profoundly into thinking before we accept ideas as worthy of belief.
He established the importance of seeking evidence, closely examining reasoning and assumptions, analyzing basic concepts, and tracing out implications not only of what is said but of what is done as well. His method of questioning is now known as “Socratic Questioning” and is the best known critical thinking teaching strategy. In his mode of questioning, Socrates highlighted the need in thinking for clarity and logical consistency.”
If critical thinking was not really developed until about 500 BC, then can it really be considered as a viable alternative to something that came into being long before? The answer is clearly no.
Critical thinking, scientific thinking and such are all recent inventions of humanity. They are not our natural way of thinking and so took time and work to develop. Such concepts and intellectual tools were not available to those living in 10,000 BC and therefore to expect them to be able to use it then is ludicrous. You cannot use a tool until it has been invented. That holds true with intellectual ones as well as physical ones.
Other sources for history of critical thinking – oh and by the way, please note that they do include religious thinkers and even some saints as important in the development of critical thinking.
Again, yes our ancestors could have used something other than religion to form social groups and to do all of the other functions religion has historically done – if those other substitutes had existed at that time. Just as biological evolution works with what is at hand instead of what might be best, so too in this case – superstitious beliefs and the start of some rituals were available to be used. Critical thinking and science were not.
If such tools had existed back 12,000 years ago, the argument that religion was not necessary would be on firm foundation. However they did not exist then and would not for thousands of years.
Further, our natural way of thinking is to assign personalities and purposes to the inanimate; which is one of the reasons that the belief in the supernatural is so universal and appeared so early (much, much earlier than science and critical thinking) in our history.
“Humans use two separate cognitive systems for processing information: one that is fast, emotional and intuitive, and another that is slower and more analytical.
The first system innately imputes purpose, personality or mental states to objects, leading to supernatural beliefs. People who rely more on intuitive thinking are more likely to be believers, while the more analytical are less likely. This doesn’t necessarily mean analytical thinking causes disbelief, but activating analytical thinking can override the intuitive system – and vice versa. “
“On the basis of ethnographic data and psychological research, Guthrie argues that people have a bias towards detecting human-like agency in their environment that might not actually exist. Thus, people are particularly sensitive to the presence of intentional agency and seem biased to over attribute intentional action as the cause of a given state of affairs when data is ambiguous or sketchy. These observations suggest that whatever cognitive mechanism people have for detecting agency might be extremely sensitive; in other words, people can be said to possess hyperactive agent detection devices (HADD). According to Guthrie, such a biased perceptual device would have been quite adaptive in our evolutionary past, for the consequences of failing to detect an agent are potentially much graver than mistakenly detecting an agent that is not there. The implication for religion is that the HADD might lead people to posit agents, perhaps of a counterintuitive sort, that are then well-transmitted because of their easy fit within intuitive conceptual systems. Similarly, counterintuitive-agent concepts would be more likely to receive attention and be transmitted than non-agent concepts, because agent concepts are more likely to resonate with agents posited by the HADD.
For example, someone might be told that an invisible person lives in the forest and trips intruders. This story could become salient because it reminds the person of having tripped in
the forest and wondering, ‘Who did that?’ (because of the HADD). Alternatively, a story about an invisible rock is less likely be spread because the hypothesis, ‘Did I trip over an invisible rock?’ is unlikely to be expressed, albeit a more testable hypothesis. Because of the human tendency to seek intentional explanations for a given state of affairs, counterintuitive agents provide ready explanations in ways that nonagents do not. In this way, selective pressure of the HADD might contribute to the prevalence of religious-agent concepts over other counterintuitive concepts. Furthermore, when individuals talk about these agents they may cite empirical
evidence consistent with the agents’ existence.”
By the way, this article also has a bit about the limits of counter-intuitive assumptions, as can be seen above in the discussion of an invisible rock. In other words there are limits to how far HADD can go.
Now, given that science and critical thinking had not been invented yet, and also given that the above is a natural way of thinking for us, then yes superstition was indeed necessary for the formation of larger social groups. If the preferred tools are not available then you have to use the tools that are available. This is a common and basic concept in evolutionary biology; that evolution can only work on the material available to it – so too with intellectual, cultural and societal evolution.
To go over again exactly what I am claiming is a bit of one of my blogs – along with a long quote from another reference of mine – Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies”.
“In Jared Diamond’s excellent book “Guns, Germs, and Steel; The Fates of Human Societies” he writes about how human society has grown throughout history; starting with small family groups and then tribes, chiefdoms, and states. Bands are small family groups consisting of only a few dozens of people. Tribes are groups of kin based clans and consist usually of only a village of a few hundreds of people. Both of these can use family groups and ties to hold the group together and provide it with an identity. Also with these smaller, family based groups an informal system of dealing with problems within the group, making decisions for the group and in deciding how to allocate group resources are possible.
However when we move from those small groups to the larger ones such as chiefdoms which consist of many villages with many different kin groups and states which consist of over 50,000 people and many different villages and cities then you run into several problems.
With the larger groups you have the danger of it fragmenting because of conflicts between the different family groups or clans. Also informal methods of decision making, conflict resolution, and resource allocation are no longer effective.
One of the answers to this problem that was universally used was to use the superstitious beliefs about the world, organize it, and standardize the rites and rituals and the hierarchy and use this to help provide a group identity beyond that of the clan, a means of resolving conflicts, and a way to make decisions.
This was done in conjunction with the rise of the other institutions used to keep large social groups together and to allow them to fuction.
Before quoting Mr. Daimond though let me first mention that when he refers to “kleptocracy” he is referring to any government in which resources are taken from the many and then concentrated in the few. This act by itself it has no moral value either good or bad; consider that all governments good and bad engage in this. The good ones use those resources for the benefit of their society whereas the bad use it for their own personal benefit. Do not let the usual negative associations of this word prevent you from understanding what is being said here.
From “Guns, Germs, and Steel” page 277 – 278.
“ Bands and tribes already had supernatural beliefs, just as do modern established religions. But the supernatural beliefs of bands and tribes did not serve to justify central authority, justify transfer of wealth, or maintain peace between unrelated individuals. When supernatural beliefs gained those functions and became institutionalized, they were thereby transformed into what we term a religion. Hawaiian chiefs were typical of chiefs elsewhere, in asserting divinity, divine descent, or at least a hotline to the gods. The chief claimed to serve the people by interceding for them with the gods and reciting the ritual formulas required to obtain rain, good harvests, and success in fishing.
Chiefdoms characteristically have an ideology, precursor to an institutionalized religion, that buttresses the chief’s authority. The chief may either combine the offices of political leader and priest in a single person or may support a separate group of kleptocrats (that is, priests) whose function is to provide ideological justification for the chiefs. That is why chiefs devote so much collected tribute to constructing temples and other public works, which serve as centers of the official religion and visible signs of the chief’s power.
Besides justifying the transfer of wealth to the kleptocrats, institutionalized religion brings two other important benefits to centralized societies. First, shared ideology or religion helps solve the problem of how unrelated individuals are to live together without killing each other – by providing them with a bond not based on kinship. Second, it gives people a motive, other than genetic self-interest, for sacrificing their lives on behalf of others. At the cost of a few society members who die in battle as soldiers, the whole society becomes much more effective at conquering other societies or resisting attacks.”
I would add here that these changes in superstitious belief mentioned above were, for the most part, not done in cold blooded calculation. Rather it was changes that made internal sense and flowed naturally from the beliefs and the society. Those changes that worked stayed. Those that did not were changed or forgotten. “
Here are some other references for the above along with some passages from them
The Cultural Evolution of Civilizations by Kent V. Flannery published in the Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics Vol. 3 (1979)
“”Tribes” frequently have ceremonies which are regularly scheduled or “calendric,” occurring at the same time every year. These ceremonies-as well as longer-term ritual cycles which stretch out over decades-may help to maintain undegraded environments, limit intergroup raiding, adjust man-land ratios, facilitate trade, redistribute natural resources, and “level” any differences in wealth which threaten society’s egalitarian structure (cf. Rappaport 39, pp. 8-9).
Two recent papers by ethnologist Robert Carneiro (10) and archeologist Henry T. Wright (61) summarize current theories on the origins of the state. Among the “mechanisms of state formation” which have been proposed are population growth (per se, or in areas circumscribed in various ways), warfare, irrigation, trade, symbiosis between contrasting peoples or environmental zones, “cooperation and competition,” and the “integrative power” of religions or great art styles.”
From Institutional Evolution in the Holocene: The Rise of Complex Societies by Peter J. Richerson, Department of Environmental Science and Policy University of California Davis and Robert Boyd, Department of Anthropology University of California Los Angeles
The existence of contemporary societies handicapped by few loyalties outside the family
(Banfield 1958) or by excessively powerful loyalties to small tribes (West 1941) remind
us that work-arounds are awkward compromises that are difficult to achieve and easy to
The most important cultural innovations required to support complex societies are
command and control institutions that can systematically organize cooperation,
coordination, and a division of labor in societies consisting of hundreds of thousands to
hundreds of millions of people. Command and control institutions lead to more
productive economies, more internal security, and better resistance to external
aggression. Note that command and control are separable concepts. Command may aim
at quite limited control. For example, a predatory conquest state may use command
almost exclusively for the extraction of portable wealth, not for prosocial projects.
Institutions often exert control without personal commands.”
“The high population density, division of labor, and improved communication made
possible by the innovations of complex societies increased the scope for elaborating
symbolic systems. The development of monumental architecture to serve mass ritual
performances is one of the oldest archaeological markers of emerging complexity.
Usually an established church or less formal ideological umbrella supports a complex
society’s institutions. At the same time, complex societies extensively exploit the
symbolic ingroup instinct to delimit a quite diverse array of culturally defined subgroups,
within which a good deal of cooperation is routinely achieved.”
“The links between belief systems and subsistence are nevertheless incontestably strong. To build a cathedral requires an economy that produces surpluses that can be devoted to grand
gestures on the part of the faithful. The moral precepts inculcated by the clergy in the
cathedral underpin the institutions that in turn regulate the economy. Arguably,
ideological innovations often drive economic change. Recall Max Weber’s classical
argument about the role of Calvinism in the rise of capitalism.”
More references available upon request (many, many more), but let me end this list with a book that I have just started reading titled:
Between Culture and Biology: Perspectives on Ontogenetic Development, edited by Heidi Keller, Ype H. Poortinga and Axel Scholmerich and published as part of the Cambridge Studies in Cognitive and Perceptual Development.
It is a very interesting book so far and very thought provoking. While not directly discussing the topic of the creation of larger social groups it does have information that is relevant to such discussions. From page 199
“Moreover, the religious background is important. Religion in many aspects underpins the development of a culture, its traditions, social norms and rules and the way individual behavior is interpreted, supported or negatively sanctioned.”
Now, religion since it was used to help create larger social groups then filled a variety of functions from medical to educational to promoting that societies morality. Until it could be replaced it was necessary in those roles. And it could not be adequately replaced until the necessary intellectual tools and ideas had evolved.
Take, for example, hospitals.
From Edward T. Babinski – History and Theology. Mr. Babinski by the way is an agnostic. http://etb-history-theology.blogspot.com/2012/03/origins-of-hospitals.html
“It can be said, however, that the modern concept of a hospital dates from AD 331 when Constantine , having been converted to Christianity , abolished all pagan hospitals and thus created the opportunity for a new start. Until that time disease had isolated the sufferer from the community. The Christian tradition emphasized the close relationship of the sufferer to his fellow man, upon whom rested the obligation for care. Illness thus became a matter for the Christian church.”
“Religion continued to be the dominant influence in the establishment of hospitals during the Middle Ages . The growth of hospitals accelerated during the Crusades , which began at the end of the 11th century. Pestilence and disease were more potent enemies than the Saracens in defeating the crusaders. Military hospitals came into being along the traveled routes; the Knights Hospitalers of the Order of St. John in 1099 established in the Holy Land a hospital that could care for some 2,000 patients. It is said to have been especially concerned with eye disease, and may have been the first of the specialized hospitals. This order has survived through the centuries as the St. John’s Ambulance Corps.
Throughout the Middle Ages, but notably in the 12th century, the number of hospitals grew rapidly in Europe. The Arabs established hospitals in Baghdad and Damascus and in Córdoba in Spain. Arab hospitals were notable for the fact that they admitted patients regardless of religious belief, race, or social order. The Hospital of the Holy Ghost, founded in 1145 at Montpellier in France, established a high reputation and later became one of the most important centres in Europe for the training of doctors. By far the greater number of hospitals established during the Middle Ages, however, were monastic institutions under the Benedictines, who are credited with having founded more than 2,000.”
Yes there are things that can replace religion now – but those things did not exist then. They have to exist first before they can be considered as a rational alternative to the role of religion in the past.
– Today religion is not a necessity for society since we have evolved much better substitutes to do the job it did in the past.
– 12,000 years ago such substitutes did not exist.
– Once religion was used to help form larger groups it provided many needed services to support and help the society and government – from wealth redistribution to education to medicine to providing identity and so forth.
– Again, today those services are no longer necessary so that while individuals still may find religion necessary it is no longer needed for the functioning of government and societies and is instead all too often counterproductive and destructive.
That is the argument that I made and it reflects some of my current thinking about religion. What I found interesting here though is how often atheists who disagreed with my arguments misconstrued them.
For example, I have said that one of the roles religion assumed was that of promoting and teaching the morality of a given society. Some atheists took this to mean that I was instead saying the religion is the root and source of morality – which is clearly not what I said, and given that I have just finished a six part blog on why god and the supernatural are not necessary for morality and that morality has its roots in our evolved nature and our societies, it is clearly not what I believe.
What I believe happened here though is that since these atheists are firmly wedded to the idea that religion is always evil and always unnecessary and since my argument was something new to them (especially from an atheist) they interpreted my words in the context of their debates with theists and with what theists claim – that religion is the source of morality.
What this shows is that atheists, just like theists, can let their biases and prejudices interfere with their reasoning. Which is another reason why I am skeptical that a religionless world would necessarily be a more rational and moral one.
Atheism alone is nothing more than a negation – a void waiting to be filled. Whether an atheistic world would be better than a religious world depends on what fills that void. To my mind atheism would have to be linked to another ideology in order to rationally make this claim – something like Humanism or the new Atheist+ movement would probably work.