by A. Uiet Bohr
The following are my responses to a series of very good, basic questions from someone who felt unsure of his stance on faith. I answered him on the infidel forum, then came up with more additions, which I enclose in this set of his Qs in bold quotes and my As in plain.
“The issue arises in that I've read many studies indicating positive influences of religion on (mostly mental) health (happiness, less depression, more motivation, living longer, more harmonious relationship with one's spouse, quicker recovery when someone you are close to dies, etc). Most of the differences aren't incredibly large, but still substantial.”
Good questions, I think this is a problem for people who lose their faith but have no alternative "crutch" to use. There are many ways a person can be happy, regardless of religion, as for health, a healthy person, is one that leads a healthy lifestyle, exercise etc, faith has nothing to do with it. But for mental health, it depends on an individual's personality, intelligence, will, even looks. I know atheists who are depressed, and atheists like myself who see life from a very positive angle, due to things like science, morality, culture and the many other factors that effect people. Religion as a factor I would regard as almost entirely without merit. I will take it step by step.
1. Even if it did make you happier, its still living a lie, as no truly rational person can buy the theistic elements that are at the heart of most of it. Those in ignorance of reason can be a threat to themselves or others, while those who attempt to be rational, only end up twisting their brain into knots. This can make them frustrated, as a part of them may sense the truth, but they will consciously put this down to temptation, doubt, or sin, and regard it as a flaw rather than a virtue. I understand that atheists sometimes feel down, but remember religion is not the answer to any problem, there are always better ways than having your will and personality subverted by a brainwashing control freak. Happiness is found in nature, friends, art, music, goals etc. Life is so much bigger, the world so much better than the twisted vision drilled into you by people who know nothing but say they know everything, (or at least claim access to an infinite knowledge).
2. Morally, religion is a terrible tool to improve people, history shows you that, but so does the bible itself. I would never teach that to an impressionable child, I found it confusing and scary as I child, only as an educated adult can I read it with any degree of comprehension. I can see the immorality of it, and what it can, and often does lead to, even today.
“As a side question, are there any studies investigating largely secular societies (ie Europe) and seeing if they differ relative to mental health from more religious societies (ie the US) to see if these studies have other factors at play which haven't been identified (for example, certain types of people who are more likely to, say, exercise or , are religious, people who are better with human interaction - therefore having a better relationship with one's spouse - are more inclined to be religious).”
3. I wouldn't rely too much on studies, use reason, evidence, observation and logic.
As a European I can say community spirit is formed out of the need to solve community problems, crime, etc. Faith could do the uniting part but it is not a very practical problem-solving tool, unlike reason, logic and the ingenuity within all of us. Whereas faith can impair reason, leading to bad solutions, based on bias, bigotry, and subconscious desires disguised as religious piety. On the whole, the virtues of religion on mental health and society is superficial, most positive effects are due to the inherent natures of the people in question. The main problem is the side effects, so many people with mental problems become so much worse with a faith to encourage, direct and inspire their fixations. Faith in humanity is what is needed not an unreliable deity.
“Then I wonder if I will do my children (who don't exist at the moment) a disservice by not raising them to be religious liberals, say, in a Unitarian Church.”
4. You cannot guarantee the effect that religion will have on your offspring will always be positive, they could become fundies down the line or a crack pot extremist. The best thing is to educate them, in as much as possible, but especially about the dangers of faith, in anything not just religion. Prepare them so they can critically examine all the faiths that will try to sell themselves to your children throughout there lives, you cant just day "all religion is bad" as that is the kind of dogma they use against atheist and other faiths. Arm your kids with the ability to be self sufficient, confident and moral, religion will just seem redundant to them. I’m not after a world of atheists; I just feel everyone should have the benefits of a good education, and a firm grasp of critical thought. So much is wrongdoing, is based on ignorance and emotional bias, and such things can so easily be remedied.
“Then I get into broader questions about whether why we are less religious than before as a society, and if things that cause people to lose faith are positive ones (such as evolution).”
5. Very few people lose faith because of evolution; it is simply one of the many branches of science that contradict overly narrow interpretations of the bible, and most other holy books. Many theists are evolutionists, it doesn't rule out god, just the rather dumb way people interpret the way he created Man. Astronomy and cosmology rules out the way they say he created the universe, geology the earth, palaeontology the animals, ditto genetics, and DNA based sciences. In a sense, Newton's theory on gravity rules out the argument that the movement of heavenly bodies are a good example of god’s sense of order and design. Not to mention the heliocentric solar system, and it’s apparent contradiction of Joshua.
“Then I get into questions about what exactly did cause society to be less religious - was it an intellectual choice? Was it a change because of other factors in society (spread of consumerism, etc)?”
6. As for why certain cultures become less religious, this is due to many factors. In Europe the memories of what religious extremism lead to, is still fresh in the minds of many nations. England still remembers the Protestant-Catholic troubles, Spain, the inquisition and moors, Eastern Europe the crusades, Russia, Ivan the terrible, central Europe the witch hunts, Holland, the catholic oppression. The Enlightenment was also very important and most freethinkers in Europe owe their freedom to these pioneers, if not their ideas. America although settled by many fleeing religious intolerance seem to think history will not repeat for them, they forget their witch hunts, and the way placebo-anity was used to keep the slaves in their place. They hark back to a rose tinted era of faith that never was, as if things can go back to the “golden age” communities in the 50s that the conservatives think was the “American ideal”. It may have been for white, male middle class xtians but not for anybody else.
Education is another thing, an atheist has many more reasons not to fall in with religious communities if he/she can quote the bible back at them, countering their claims. They understand that science has answered more question than faith can answer, and cures more ills than Jesus ever did, and for all, not just a small local crowd. The more you know about religion the less appealing it is to someone who already has good moral sensitivities. Philosophy is also key, there are many that have good counters to religion, Eurythro, Robert Green Ingersoll, Humanism, Epicureanism. The list of atheistic philosophies that have timeless reasons to be free is huge and could take your whole life to study.
Consumerism is an inevitable by product of the method of production and market model America and most of the west use. It is seen as an enemy of “the one true faith(s)™” as it is not inherently theistic (‘cept when it benefits a denomination, TV evangelism, etc), but it is nothing more than an enlarged version of old fashioned market and bazaar culture. There is excessive materialism, but this is from radically increased choice and availability, not as a result of a reduction in faith. There are always rich xtians who find a way to justify their shallow lives. Get ride of the hypocrites, the catholic church alone owns a large chunk of the planet, and maybe they will have a point. Until then, they cannot claim an ascetic life is any better, or more godly, Buddha thought this was rather a dumb idea, 500 years before Jesus.
At the end of the day, it’s like gambling, unwise, stupid, and ultimately a waste of a persons life, but not actually evil. By saying this, they are just creating more problems than actually exist. People need to find non-materialistic interests, such as relationships, nature or knowledge that’s all, I used to be a tad materialistic, then I found the satisfaction of memorising the local library, one shelf at a time. Knowledge stays with you your whole life, (baring senility) and although you can’t take it with you, you can use it to help others. Put some of your understanding back into the world, create a legacy of your knowledge through writing, and other forms of self expression, and you’ll feel far more fore-filled than after you’ve maxed out your credit cards at the mall.
“Are secular cultures healthier than religious ones? Is it healthy to promote a religious culture that is based on logic and reason (sounds impossible, but many liberal xtians seem to be doing it just fine). Is this question silly because it's implications don't matter - some cultures are just different than others, and a culture's values are passed on to their children, and to say certain fundamental beliefs of a culture should be changed for utilitarian reasons is foolish?”
7. Liberal religions may seem ok, and I have learnt to tolerate them, (sort of) but just because they don't do terrible things based on a terrible book doesn't mean they’re not still basing their lives on a terrible book. The potential is still there for some very unpleasant ideas and actions. Maybe I'm judging them too harshly, but you cannot say where a liberal church will go during the decades to come, or whether any of its members may be drawn to more extreme denominations. I would just play it safe and avoid them altogether. A white lie is still a lie.
As for their seeming logical or reasonable views and philosophy, they are only logical up to a point, push it hard enough and it will all fall apart. Pure logic and reason is based on the sceptical position with no prior assumptions. Maybe I’m being a purest about this but I prefer to think of reason being the prerogative of the non-theist, the liberal churches seem to use just enough reason to distinguish themselves from the fundies, but its all still ultimately about faith.
Utilitarianism and culture are not the issue, it is about the values, the reason cultures such as India or China’s come under scrutiny is due to their moral outlook. I don’t mind the aspects of a culture that don’t infringe on basic human rights, but many do, and those such as the intrinsically misogynist mentality of the bible, or India’s caste system are not to be tolerated. I don’t mind even the most illogical nonsense faith, I don’t care if a church has bizarre beliefs, or impractical views, disproved by science 10 times over, as long as there are no inhumane results from such culture. I don’t care how may times a day Muslims pray, or how bitter the herbs are at pasach, or how daft those Tibetan monks look in their big hats. Such things are none of my business and add to the richness of humanity, but treat women as inferiors, or try to control people sex lives and I’ll come down on your traditions like a ton of bricks. Use your religion to justify your archaic “values” and I’ll be forced to attack your faith, or at least your interpretation of it.
“I believe that many of these health benefits are with liberal religious groups, not fundamentalists or conservative ones- I think they are harmful to your mental well being. Question though - where does religion cross the line into being unhealthy? One can point to definite examples of it being harmful - i.e. Muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East - but it's hard to draw the line.”
8. The line between fundie and liberal is polarizing. As science makes more progress, the liberal, Catholic, Protestant, Unitarian churches except the findings and go down the “God of the Gaps” route, and bleed into the realm of science and reason. However this has the effect of condensing the extreme denominations, fundamentalism, creationism, Baptist, into a tightly packed centre that draws into itself those of the liberal churches that cannot take the scientific influence or are too extreme for the rest of the fold. They then deny the scientific data and make a world of their own, like a cult, and try to separate their flock from the real world, making islands of backward religious communities. These have appalling moral standards, sexist, racist ideals and a warped political agenda, that if successful will force all non-extremists and non-believers to live their way. All such denominations are to be avoided at all cost, I mean it, things can only get worse for us and them. (see conclusion)
“So often, I ask myself, when arguing with people about how they say their minister prophesized something that came true, or that they were touched by the holy spirit, in the long run am I going to cause them to be unhappy? Should I just let them be?”
9. Talking to theists is important and I can understand if you are worried about doing them a disservice by de-programming them, but it all depends on who they are, who you are and what you can offer them when they are free. I am working of a Kant style series of secular moral alternatives, in answer to the religious claims to ethical superiority. I would also think hard about whether in fact faith can offer anything that you or other non believers don't already have, or can provide. I have found I can meet any claim they make with better alternatives, how about you? Happiness due to theism is just as good as happiness based on reason, and enlightened ideals, but without the dangerous euphoria that some people will do anything to keep, or spread.
It’s like a drug user on a constant high, trying to get others onto the same stuff. Thinking he’s doing everybody a favour, even as his arteries harden, his mind collapses, and everyone looks on with horror, disgust or pity. To him, we are mad not to except his generous offer, but we are free to see the terrible effects, as his life is wasted, and he does terrible things to keep a steady supply. No doubt if we were addicted, out judgement might be similarly effected, but hopefully the foreknowledge of what it will do to you saves you from started down that terrible road. I have no doubt it feels great to bask in Jesus’s love, but it is not worth the price of my self-respect, my humanity, and my love of truth.
“I do believe that everyone is different, and religion and God is definetly not for some people, but for the majority of people, would religion be a positive thing? Is religion really not for most of the people who are not religious?”
10. This is akin appeal to popularity, the majority are not right just because they are the majority. Religion is not for anybody, but only a few are aware of this. I tend to think of it in terms of the effect that faith has on the people overall but also the individual. There are many cases when a single person has done terrible things to themselves and others because of their unique religious convictions, and again entire countries have become swept away with pious fervour and committed terrible atrocities. So on any scale it has drawbacks, is it worth the risk? Even if you, for some bizarre reason, thought most atheists would be happier as theists would you be willing to change them, with all the known potential drawbacks?
Many, like myself would consider it a betrayal of all those who suffered at the hands of the religion in question to convert, and many others have serious moral objections to the idea. Others are already happy, and need no “spiritual dimension” to their lives. Others just feel there is something wrong with the whole thing, they may not be able to explain what exactly, but doesn’t mean they aren’t right. I don’t dismiss xtianity because some can’t articulate their reasons for believing very well, I do so because none of them can, (among other things). Although many weak atheists just feel repelled, many could give extremely good reasons for all atheists to remain the way they are.
You have to look at things from the broadest context, are the most Americans happy as xtians? Seemingly, but what about the minorities within its borders who aren’t? What about the world as a whole, the middle-east is convinced they’re facing a new xtian crusade, and I think in a sense they are right. The xtian right has America over a barrel in many ways, and the borg again in the white house is setting back decades of work, ruining international relations with his stupid antics. Do you want to contribute to this, even indirectly by adding to the xtian majority that they use to justify their take over? The only hope is to help the sane among us, and slow down fundie expansion, and helping non-xtian theists may be a good idea. They will never be a threat to us, or the west as a whole, and are marginally more tolerated by the xtian right. In a sense, all non-xians should unite, not just non-theists, has we have a common enemy, a faith that has a proven record of intolerance, and must not be given the chance to start all over again. If all Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, pagans, atheists, deists, united to take out the xian right, in elections, and other areas, a lot of good could be done, numbers and organisation are the key.
This is not just an abstract philosophical question, we are not in a vacuum, we have to consider the effect such conversions will have on our countries, yours and mine, here and now. In theory it’s a bad idea, and in practice it’s even worse.
“Or is it more (to be very simplistic) like some people not exercising - it would be better for lots of people, yet many people just don't do it because they aren't interested by it.”
11. There are “weak” atheists who are not interested, but many who are very interested but only intellectually. Many know the bible better than the believers, but they see no reason, ethically or theologically to take it at face value, and for good cause.
Most people are not scholars, critical thinkers or sceptics, they trust, some fervently some without thinking. It can only take a moment’s thought to realise that this trust is misplaced. In what way have the clergy or any other religious “authorities” proven their trustworthiness? 2000 years and so far, no fore-filled prophecies, no proven miracles, nothing that is not clearly derived from wishful thinking, rather than from “beyond”. Maybe as humans these priests are honest in their advice, even good moral people. They may think they are telling the truth, but they’re deceived, even as they deceive others. It could be described as a “guiltless” cycle of deception. However, they make significant claims, about life, the universe, and death, and offer no proof. It is not about trusting “god” but trusting them, they are the reason most believe, not because of personal revelation. They may be honest in an everyday sense, but we have no reason to trust the words that they base purely on their own faith. Trust based on trust, another cycle, and this time we can’t, without a leap of faith, except the claim that these priest know what they are talking about. They are not scientists they have no secret knowledge, no research, only the church’s training, and course the bible, something we can all see for ourselves is not proof of any kind. They trust it, sure, but should we, because they do?
It is possible they see more in it than the atheist does, or maybe we see more, and are not deceived. I’ve certainly spoken to many theists who appear to have completely missed some pretty important parts of their holy writ. Parts that I would say deserves some serious thought, (of the kind the church disapproves of). Is it simply the more you think the more you see the lie? No, or there would not be so many scholars who believe, they have the need to rationalise rather than block out or ignore what most theists would prefer was not there. Intellectual, yes, critical, no. These apologists come up with clever arguments, but they are all still just words, never anything solid. Take away the bible and the clergy what remains? The schizophrenic and his voices from god, not the firmest of foundations for a lifestyle.
“It's also an interesting side note that when I read studies about, say, Buddhism and it's mental health benefits I don't feel threatened at all. But when I read about benefits from religions such as Christianity I do feel threatened. Maybe it is a reflection on the lack of judgementalism (not a word?) on the former's part and the pervasiveness of it on the latter's part.”
12. Buddhism is an interesting example of how a faith system can behave, if founded on the right moral principles. At the end of the day, the humanitarian message of Buddha is not drowned out by theological crap like in xtianity. You could take away the doctrine of reincarnation and nirvana and it would still work. This is because it has self-evident virtue that doesn't need to be imposed by a deity or church for people to follow it. Secular Buddhism is a good idea and this principle is a good test of a faith in general. Does it function as a social system? Is there enough there to support itself rationally, philosophically and morally? Funnily enough this works for Judaism as well.
Moral values are moral values regardless of whether a god is behind them, that there is any connection between being a good and happy person and religion is just propaganda that even the non-theist subconsciously swallows. The majority that are part of xtianity are not to be shunned or attacked, however for the good of humanity several things need to be done…
There is, in a sense a war between the rationalist and the believer, the believer wants power, the rationalist try's to limit that power. This conflict is taking place on three fronts.
1. Separation of church and state. - No point in trying to fight on the other fronts if the nation is under a tyrannical theocracy.
2. Separation of church and science. - No point in criticising the morals of the faith if everyone thinks it’s literally, factually true, as even an immoral god is still a god.
3. Separation of church as ethics. - The final stage.
The first front is well covered, and is well known in America. The second features the creationists and IDiots trying to contaminate genuine science with theistic and metaphysical ideas. I follow this closely; you wouldn’t believe the nerve of these people. The third front is my speciality; I hate to see religions clinging to their monopoly on ethics, as if they had any claim at all to a purely humanitarian effort. How can one be humane with rules invented by a non human being and enforced by inhumane acts and laws?
The main strength of religion is it’s moral standing in the community, one it is attacked on least. It is seen as it’s strength, whereas reason, evidence, and political legitimacy is usually seen by militant atheists as the weak spots, but one apologists are most prepared for, I think faith should be hit were it really hurts. None the less, they have lost the first two fronts in places like America, for the most part. The reason the 3rd front is so crucial, is as long as xtianity has a moral agenda it will have political sway, and use it to get a scientific one, and visa versa. Religious ethics are used to gain political power, and is the backbone of many creationist attacks on evolution. These three areas feed each other and need to be uniformly attacked in a cycle.
Providing religion is de-clawed in these 3 areas I am willing to tolerate it, but not as long as they seek to tell us how we should lead our lives, and what to think. How far you go is up to you, remember never let them push you around, and your future kids are yours, not the states and not those of the dominate faith. Be proud you’re not a sheep, and that you are free to know the truth, as far as anyone can.
Ta ta for now.