Is Religion Good or Bad for Society?

Is Religion Good or Bad for Society?

As part of their promotional tour for the book "Is Christianity Good for the World?”, English-American journalist/prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens, together with American evangelical theologian Douglas Wilson, filmed a series of debates centered around the following question: “Is religion absurd or is it good for the world?” Posed as a disjunction, the question assumes (and by inference, these opposing authors assume) that religion cannot be both absurd, in the colloquial sense of illogical or laughably false, and good for the world, in the sense of furthering what humans rightly value. The fact that religion is absurd does not entail that it is bad for the world, and conversely the fact that a belief system is bad for the world does not imply that it is ill-founded. Even massively fictitious belief systems preoccupied with preternatural worlds can have beneficial social effects, so long as they motivate the right sorts of behaviors in the ‘real’ world. Indeed, this is precisely the claim made by adaptationist theories of religious belief and behavior.

For example, it may be manifestly untrue that there is an all-knowing supernatural being, such as a god, spirit, or ancestor that is concerned with everyday moral behavior and monitors the thoughts and actions of group members. But believing this to be the case might very well encourage cooperation and suppress free-riding, behaviors that help to solve collective action problems that attend to living in large, unrelated groups. If increased cooperation and decreased social strife is deemed to be a public good, then religion may be seen as a force for good irrespective of the truth-value of its propositions.
Whether the content of religious belief is true or justified is another matter entirely. So in theory both Hitchens and Wilson could be correct, and hence the question sets up a false dichotomy.

Furthermore, it is the case that a belief may be absurd and yet entirely harmless, such as the conviction that an invisible chariot is pulling the moon across the night sky, or the notion that Rudyard Kipling’s ‘just so story’ is a true account of how the leopard got its spots. The lack of critical reasoning faculties at the populational level may be a worrisome state of affairs, but the “new atheist” crusade is not merely troubled about the general lack of what the astronomer Carl Sagan referred to as a ‘baloney detection kit.’ There is something specific to religion that makes it, among the larger class of putatively absurd beliefs, uniquely dangerous. Thus, Hitchens, who is part of the vanguard of the "new atheism" movement along with Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and others, argues that religion is not only absurd, but that it also leads to “the most appalling atrocities and depredations.” However, to the extent that religious convictions are dangerous, their danger stems not from their specious semantic content, but rather from the powerful social motivations people have to preserve and transmit them. Of course, I am speaking here quite generally, as there are surely some religious beliefs that are harmful because of their content, such as the supernatural beliefs that lead certain religious individuals to prohibit their children from receiving blood transfusions, or from adequately protecting themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. Nevertheless, the same emotional commitment mechanisms that allow religion to play a role in motivating morally aversive behavior, such as violence directed at an out-group (or toward a dissenting minority within), are the same psychological processes that make religion such an effective binding force within groups, encouraging altruism between group members and improving their intra-psychic wellbeing by instilling a sense of belonging.

For his part, Pastor Wilson argues that the inexorable consequences of atheism are (1) radical skepticism (i.e. “the unpalatable but necessary conclusion that random neuron firings do not amount to any ‘truth’ that corresponds to anything outside our heads”), (2) reductionism to the level of “random neuron firings,” and (3) moral and aesthetic relativism that would corrode the social fabric of human society. What’s more, Wilson proclaims that belief in God—and in particular, the Christian God—allows us to avoid all of these potential philosophical and moral pitfalls. I will briefly discuss each prong of Wilson’ argument.

(1) seems to be a version of Descartes’ thesis that atheists cannot have indefeasible or certain knowledge, since (quoting Descartes) “the certainty of all other things depends on [knowledge of God], so that without it nothing can ever be perfectly known” (Meditation 5). According to Descartes, knowledge that is subject to even the slightest doubt is not fit to be called ‘knowledge.’ Because the atheist unlike the believer can never be certain that she is not being deceived by an evil demon (or god), she has no way of avoiding radical skepticism. Wilson’s apparently revised version of Cartesian skepticism and its solution is this: Non-theists (or more specifically, non-Christians) cannot have certain knowledge that they are not being deceived by the random firing of their neurons, and thus they cannot help but slide into the radical skepticism that only belief in a perfect, all-benevolent God can guarantee. Had Wilson been familiar philosophical work in epistemology over the last 300 years, of course, then he would have realized that most philosophers are of the view that neither absolute certainty nor belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God is a necessary precondition for justified true belief. In any event, there is good reason to believe that our neuronal firings are not ‘random’ at all, but rather that they evolved to represent at least some mind-independent features of the universe in a way that allowed our vertebrate ancestors to successfully navigate their ecological world of middle-sized objects. What makes organismic behavior so successful is essentially what makes scientific investigation so successful; namely, the ability to manipulate and control based on an understanding of the causal structure of the universe, the astounding accuracy of which is too miraculous to be the result of a chance alone (as radical skepticism or non-realism might suggest). There is good evolutionary and scientific reason to believe that our neurons are not radically deceiving us, even if they are not giving us the entire truth.

(2) is the thesis that physicalism entails reductionism, which is simply incorrect. Physicalism (sometimes used interchangeably with ‘materialism’) is the thesis that everything in the universe is or is necessitated by the physical, from planets to people, from molecules to minds. Physicalism was in its early days connected with reductionism, or the thesis that one theory (say in psychology) can be logically derived from another (say in neuroscience) by bridge laws that connect the predicates of the reduced theory with those of the reducing theory. However, ‘supervenience physicalism,’ which is probably the now dominant view, does not entail reductionism, since it contains theories of non-reductive physicalism and emergentism. These theories, especially as they relate to the special sciences, tend to reject explanatory reductionism, or the idea that all explanations should be grounded in physics. It does not matter for the present purposes whether non-reductive or reductive physicalism is correct—all that matters is that physicalism does not imply reductionism, as Wilson suggests. I would point him to the vast literature on supervenience and reductionism in the philosophy of mind for further reading.

(3) is the popular idea that atheism leads to moral and aesthetic relativism. The independence of god and morality was demonstrated thousands of years ago by Plato in what has become known as the ‘Euthyphro dilemma’: If we define as moral those behaviors that are loved by the gods, then we are forced to ask whether the gods love those behaviors because they are moral, or whether they are simply moral because the gods love them? If one is inclined to accept the former, then one has signed on to the separation of morality and religion. To make a separate ethological point, primitive forms of religion have only been around at most since the upper Paleolithic revolution (about 40,000 years ago), whereas moral norms have played an important role in human affairs, coordinating the behavior and increasing the cohesion of hunter-gatherer groups, for much longer than that. Hence, while religion might play a role in enforcing traditional morality and perhaps even in generating new moral content, moral beliefs and behavior precede religion by many millennia, and in more rudimentary forms by millions of years. Moreover, monotheistic morality has only been around for a few thousand years, and it is patently ridiculous to believe that humans did not possess robust moral sentiments prior to several thousand years ago. Because humans have a sense of fairness and justice that is cross-culturally robust, core morality is simply not contingent on belief in God.

Finally, Wilson’s argument contains a bit of wishful thinking, or a dose of what may be properly labeled the ‘anti-naturalistic’ fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy describes the logical leap of deriving a normative conclusion (an ‘ought’) from a descriptive ‘is’ claim. Conversely, the anti-naturalistic fallacy is the equally fallacious leap of deriving a claim about the causal structure of the world from how one would like the world to be. Even if it follows that physicalism entails reductionism and moral relativism (which as I have argued above it does not), this is not in itself a legitimate reason for denying its truth value, even if it might be a reason for hiding its truth from society! One person might be repulsed by the idea that humans and chimps share a common ancestor around six million years ago, whereas another (like myself) might be overjoyed by the mere thought of it; but the emotional reaction in neither case is a reason for rejecting the empirical conclusion of common ancestry. Fortunately, I do not think that reductionism or moral relativism (or nihilism for that matter) is entailed by physicalism, and so I remain a reasonably psychologically healthy and essentially moral physicalist.

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