Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Different Perspective, but Still Missing the Point

This critique of the New Atheists (so very unchanged from the old) takes an entirely different tack than I usually see. The author doesn't attempt to prove or disprove the validity of belief in gods or the lack thereof, but instead points out that religion makes people happy. So we should cherish it. Especially for those poor people in developing countries, who have so little reason to be happy.

Not only should the more rational and therapeutic elements be distilled from the opi­ate of re­li­gion. But the wacky, su­per­sti­tious, cloud-cuck­oo-land forms of re­li­gion, too, should be cherished and preserved, for those forms of religion some­times do great good for our emo­tion­al lives, even when they com­pro­mise our more-rational lives.

Here's the thing. I rarely take issue with what makes people happy. For one thing, it's not really my business. For another, I know that happiness is fleeting, yet entirely worthwhile, so if collecting string provides you with happiness, far be it from me to comment.

I will, however, take issue with what makes you happy when it's harming you or others. Collecting string is harmless fun- until you start spending your entire paycheck on string and your house becomes so packed with string that it's dangerous to live in. I will also take issue with your string collecting when it starts to harm your children and your neighbors.

Religion is the same way, especially religion that infringes upon rational facilities. I don't have an issue with people believing in god and attending church or enacting rituals naked under each full moon. Whatever makes you happy. But when that religion starts inspiring you to legislate its rules or deny civil rights to your gay neighbors or withhold medical treatments from your children, that's when I find no issue with stepping in.

I especially take issue with religion in the developing world, which is what this article is about. I have no idea what it is to be poor in the developing world. I can't even imagine. So I understand the argument that religion provides happiness to people who have little to be happy about, ever. I even understand the argument that religious people provide necessary charity in the developing world, without which life would be even worse.

However, I find religion in the developing world, especially as proselytized by privileged Westerners, to be abusive. "Let me tell you about Jesus" is a little different from "Here's the only clean water in 100 miles- now let me tell you about Jesus." I especially take issue with missionaries who care only for the spiritual welfare of their victims intended converts. (You see this in super evangelical communities.) "Hey, don't worry about improving your lot in life or even drinking water that does not contain feces- we've got heaven! It's great!"

Anyway, the author also seems to think the New Atheists don't go far enough- they condemn Christianity and Islam, but not East Asian animism. There's a reason for that: the average American or Western European has little to no experience or knowledge of animism, and nothing makes you look stupider than criticizing something you have absolutely no knowledge of. (See: every evangelical Christian's critique of Islam) Never mind that "you go too far!" is an odd argument to juxtapose with "you don't go far enough!"

Is an­i­mism a mere "opi­ate," as the athe­ists ar­gue? Well, yes, but don't underestimate opi­ates. They can be high­ly in­spi­ra­tion­al and con­sol­ing. Af­ter all, a drunk­en man is usu­al­ly a lit­tle hap­pi­er than a so­ber one. In fact, to con­tin­ue the met­a­phor, op­pos­ing re­li­gion is a lot like pro­hi­bi­tion­ists' oppos­ing drink­—a rath­er cru­el pro­ject in my view. I'd glad­ly give my copies of Mao's Little Red Book, and Daw­kins's The God De­lu­sion for a six-pack of Grolsch. But if all that is too of­fen­sive, we might re­place the word "opi­ate" with "an­al­ge­sic," and my point may be more a­gree­a­ble.

Um, sure some drunks are happier, though some people get morose or pugilistic while drunk, and anyway, you may be happier drunk, but it's not a good idea to be drunk on a regular basis. "Analgesic" doesn't make that argument more agreeable to me. I'm on painkillers 24/7, and have been for years, just like the religious in your argument. It's not like they're only religious a few times a month, which is how often I think healthy people take analgesics. (I really don't know.) Being on painkillers constantly is a problem. It's bad for your body and it reflects a much larger problem: if I were even close to being healthy, I wouldn't have to take painkillers constantly. I'd call this an analogy fail, but it's actually the best analogy I've heard in a while, the author just doesn't realize the import of it.

So how do we dis­crim­i­nate be­tween dan­ger­ous and be­nign re­li­gions? That is the more fruit­ful ques­tion, be­cause it in­vites the oth­er world re­li­gions into the dis­cus­sion.

No, it's not. It's not. Trying to figure out whose invisible pink unicorn is prettier is a waste of time. Some religions lend themselves more readily to abuse, but none of them are true. Helping the developing world will not be accomplished to trying to find the least dangerous religion for people to believe in. It will be accomplished by improving the situation and lives of the people to the point where they don't need emotional aspirin anymore. (Yeah, don't ask me how to do that, I have no idea.)

In short, the re­duc­tion of human suf­fer­ing should be the stand­ard by which we meas­ure ev­ery re­li­gion.

How about it's truth? Really, we can't judge religions by truth? We can't demand proof? It seems more than a little condescending to say that people in developing nations cannot adopt logical thinking or the scientific method. It's not like religion has changed the plight of people in developing nations, maybe we do need to try that.


  1. We've been arguing this over at Choice in Dying, and I have to ask, Did we read the same article? Mine was about how non-theological religion (e.g. animism and atheistic Buddhism), co-exist with dogma (eg. Catholic).
    They're not exclusionary, which allows them to incorporate a scientific world view as people become more educated. It did not say to condemn animism, but to stop being ignorant about it, and that although it is silly it has positive benefits even if they are placebos.

    Much as I love you PF, your advice to judge religions by how true they are instead of how much pain they cause—fuck that. When my little boy clung to his teddy bear as he was dying, I should have told him it's just a stuffed toy, it can't help? I buried it with him. You see a problem there?

  2. "When my little boy clung to his teddy bear as he was dying, I should have told him it's just a stuffed toy, it can't help? I buried it with him. You see a problem there?"

    Uzza, PF never said anything like that. She said the opposite:

    "I rarely take issue with what makes people happy. For one thing, it's not really my business. For another, I know that happiness is fleeting, yet entirely worthwhile, so if collecting string provides you with happiness, far be it from me to comment."


    I take a stance somewhere in-between: on the one hand, I'm an skeptic who values truth and I tend to prefer people know it, because decisions informed by truth are usually better than those informed by delusion. On the other hand, I consider myself a Taoist and love the philosophical approach of eastern religon in general.

    Consider things like Chi. Does it exist? Not really: our bodies generate heat and kinetic energy, but there's no such thing as "life energy". But it's an excellent and useful analogy for the movements and flow of our bodies (anyone who's done Tai Chi knows this). A similar thing could be said about the human mind: it doesn't exist except as an analogy for the millions of disparete but connected processes within our brain, but we think of it as a "thing" all the same. So, in that sense, Chi does exist. The same argument can be made for many things: Yin/Yang, or for example.

    But these things provide benefit in a rational way: as analogies for reality. They're "true" in the same sense as any analogy or narrative.

    I should never be a matter of trying to balance spirituality with reality: if putting weight on one pushes against the other, then one of them is false (hint: it's not reality). But in some cases, the two concepts can complement and work with each other, by providing stories or analogies that might not be real in a physical sense, but have value as an abstract construct.

  3. everything you said below that line I totally agree with. Nice cherry-picking above it though.

    JB asks how to tell benign from malignant beliefs, and PF's answer here is by whether or not they're true.
    By that metric, Chi is bullshit and so are teddy bears.
    I care far more whether they are hurtful than whether they are true. So does PF, in spite of the brain fart in the end of the post.


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