Saturday, August 18, 2012

Religion is an unnecessary addition at best.

UPDATE: I noticed that in the morality sections, I address Christianity specifically as opposed to religion in general. I'm writing a related post that will somewhat readdress this topic to correct my error. /UPDATE

   Defenders of faith* will often attempt to make people like me who speak out against religion feel like victims of confirmation bias. They suggest that we are judging all of religion by counting all the bad people who are religious and ignoring all the good people who are religious. As someone who considers myself to be decent at critical thinking, I would typically appreciate such sentiments. The problem here is that, first, this is not a case of confirmation bias and, second, the defenders of faith are not critically examining whether or not it is actually true that people like me are guilty of confirmation bias. To state this another way, they are calling out what could be a fallacy without doing any investigative work themselves. It is not only intellectually lazy, I fear it is often meant to be intellectually dishonest; I suspect they are using this to distract or escape from the discussion. So since the defenders of faith are leaving the grunt work up to me, I'm here today to share my thoughts on why I am not guilty of confirmation bias.

* These people could also be called "religious apologists." Additionally, they are not limited to theists. This could also include atheists who have the belief that religion is useful.


   One of the complaints I have about religion is how it can discourage the pursuit of knowledge and scientific knowledge in particular. The defenders of faith typically respond by pointing out that there are many scientists who are religious. The problem with such responses is that it only shows us correlation, but does not show us anything in regards to causation. Are these people scientists because they are religious? Or are these people religious because they are scientists? Or is it just coincidence that they are both religious and scientists?

   Let's take a closer look at these questions. Starting with my first question, are people scientists because they are religious? I doubt it. From my own perspective (yes, anecdotal!), which may not count for much at all since I am not religious, I became interested in science out of curiosity for how things work. It was out of seemingly natural fascination. But disregarding my own perspective, I have never once heard any scientist say that they became a scientist because of their religion. Yes, I have heard some scientists say things like they want to understand how God (I'll use the capital-G "God" for the sake of discussion) made the universe...similar to Einsteins' quote, "I want to know God's thoughts." Yet, these are really just expressions of fascination with a religious context attached. Never have I heard a scientist suggest that they want to understand how God made the universe because that is what their religion wanted them to do.

   What about my second question? It would not seem that scientists are religious because they are scientists. If this were true, we should expect scientists to be more religious than the general population. But quite the opposite is true; scientists are disproportionately irreligious in comparison to the general public. This not only leaves us with religious scientists being generally the result of coincidence, but this could be a problem for the defender of faith. Let's assume for just a moment that I am wrong about religion discouraging the pursuit of knowledge. This disproportion in beliefs needs an explanation. Is it because being non-religious encourages pursuit of knowledge? If this is the case, even if religion does not discourage such pursuits, it would seem that it is at least blocking encouragement and is thus still problematic. Or it could be that pursuing scientific knowledge leads to a lack of religious belief. I find this to be more likely, but this still makes religion unnecessary*, even if it is not problematic, for such pursuits.

   So it appears that religion does not encourage pursuit of scientific knowledge. We now need to see if it possibly discourages it. The answer to that seems to be an unequivocal "Yes." Just take a look at some of the things that A Beka textbooks teach.

   Here's the short version of the above: There are cases where religion appears to have a neutral influence on pursuit of scientific knowledge. There are also cases where religion has a negative influence. No cases can be found or confirmed where religion has a positive influence. Therefore, since religion never provides benefits and will occasionally provide a negative, it must be discarded.

* Momentarily, I was thinking it could be possible that religious belief could encourage pursuit of scientific knowledge, even though it would, ironically, lead people away from religious belief. That was until I remembered that I had already addressed whether or not religious belief encouraged such pursuits in the prior paragraph.

Doing what's right

   The religious love to promote this idea that a person needs religion in order to be good. Or, at the very least, religion helps people be good. One example a Christian once threw my way was one of two nuns helping Jews in Nazi Germany and the nuns had claimed the Christian scriptures as their inspiration. For the sake of argument, allow me to grant this claim. Is that the only source out their for inspiration? I think I can quickly name three modern stories that are inspirational: Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games. And then add in all of the many superhero comics! I don't know what there would have been for inspirational stories in the 1930s, but there was bound to have been something.

   On the flip side, Christian scriptures are a source of wickedness. One such story is that of Noah's Ark, which I would think most Christians are familiar. In this story, Yahweh (God) commits mass murder by flooding the earth. If you believe your god to be a good god, and this god then goes and commits mass murder, you need to explain how a good god does this. There will be Christians who attempt to justify this by saying that the people of the earth were corrupt. And that's exactly the problem! Murdering corrupt people then becomes a good thing. And the Noah's Ark story is far from being the only such story.

   So while those nuns were inspired by Christian scriptures, perhaps Hitler was too! Add in some ideas about the Jews being corrupt because they let Jesus be killed and other New Testament ideas to this idea that killing corrupt people is just and... VoilĂ ! Justification for murdering Jews straight from Christian scriptures!

   This is much the problem with scripture. There is violence and murder in those other stories I mentioned, but how often is this shown in a positive light? In many of the stories, it is even a shame if the hero has to kill the villain. With Christian scripture, the villain is the "hero" (read "protagonist").

   This is a problem. Sure, some Christians (somehow) ignore or overlook the horrible parts of their scripture, including the bizarre claim that such stories are just metaphors. (I say "bizarre" because I fail* to see how that makes things any better.) But there is no requirement** that all Christians must ignore/overlook/whatever these stories. Those who don't ignore the bad parts can be said to be influenced by Christian scriptures just as much as those who do.

* Honestly, I think the whole idea of claiming these stories as "metaphors" is to make these horrible stories easier to ignore and discard. I.e, "God didn't commit mass murder because that story isn't true; it's just a metaphor. Therefore, God is still good." Never mind what the metaphor means!

** I say this because many times Christians will use the "No True Scotsman" fallacy, claiming all those morally corrupt Christians aren't real Christians. Sorry, they are.

Where the REAL confirmation bias is

   On that, we actually have historic and current data that shows correlation of religious beliefs with moral positions. It does not bode well for the defenders of faith. Just looking through the history of the United States, we see a trend of religious people being on the wrong side of history. From slavery to suffrage to segregation and now to gay rights, we see that the people who have put up the most resistance have been some of the most religious. The below image is from a recent Gallup poll. There are two things that I find noteworthy:
  1. Those with no religious identity are the biggest supporters of gay marriage.
  2. The more often one attends religious services, the more likely they are to be against gay marriage.

   Now I will freely admit that correlation does not equal causation*. There is one important conclusion we can reach, though — religion does not necessarily make people better. If it did, we should expect to see the opposite, which would be support of gay marriage increasing with attendance. We would also not expect to see the non-religious being the largest supporters of gay marriage. And this is where the real confirmation bias is. It is with those who would defend faith by pointing to a few good examples here and there while ignoring or writing off all of the bad examples.

   To summarize the last two sections, while it is possible that religion can be a positive influence, there is a lot that can be a negative influence and there are alternatives available that lack such negatives. Additionally, from history to present day, we see religious people strongly opposed to social progress. Sure, not all religious people oppose progress, but we see greater numbers of opposition with greater amounts of religious devotion. This is a correlation that should not exist if religion were the inspiration for good that some defenders of faith claim it to be.

   It would seem, then, that religion, since it does not appear to do significant amounts of good, can be discarded. Though, I suppose I should recognize the possibility that those who are quite religious would be even worse if they didn't have religion. But does this really make sense? This would mean human behavior is quite diverse if religion is preventing those people from being savage beasts. (OK, I'm exaggerating, but you get the idea, right?) But I don't buy it. I don't see any evidence that would suggest that to be true and I actually see evidence to the contrary when I hear stories about atheists who used to be fundamentalists and became more tolerant of others as they lost their faith. Actually, this is also evidence that supports the idea that religion is the problem. Therefore, religion does indeed need to be discarded.

* Though, because of all the bad stuff that is in Christian scripture, I find it reasonable to suspect there is indeed a causal relationship.

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