Normally it is my fault when I end up in a religious debate with family. Wendy shakes her head when this happens as she really doesn't see the point in me getting involved in these sorts of debates, likely figuring nothing useful will come of it and somebody might well get really offended. This Christmas though I ended up in a pair of debates with her family members about religion and I am going to claim that it wasn't my doing. Whether or not she believes that cover story is unclear though it certainly is the case that I could have avoided them if I had really wanted to.
The Actuary wanted to discuss religion with me and led off with the statement that it seemed that I was much more serious about my atheism than he was serious about his theism. It seemed like he was expecting me to be surprised about that but I wasn't particularly. In fact, I tend to agree. There are plenty of people who are very religious in a cultural sense but not especially religious in a belief sense out there and it seems like The Actuary is one of those. By cultural sense I mean going to church, saying grace, being involved in the religious community and taking part in other religious ritual. Many of these things are things people do for the same reasons I celebrate Christmas - it is simply a set of activities acquired from parents and community that requires no special mindset or belief. Obviously there is a pretty big correlation between religious culture and religious belief but there is by no means a bijection between those sets of people. (I apologize to those of you out there who don't have any idea what a bijection is. Using it in regular conversation whenever possible is mandatory for a math nerd.)
Back to the actual debate! We agreed on the basic principle that the Golden Rule is the best simple summary of morality and encouraging people to act in that fashion is an important goal. The difference in opinion comes in when we began to discuss what role religion might play in educating people about morality and encouraging them to behave according to the Golden Rule. The Actuary is of the impression that religion is very useful in this way and helps people to understand and accept good rules for living that make society work. I disagree. (Surprise!) Some of my arguments stem from personal experience when I was young, which surely shaped my attitudes towards religion and religious people. Many come from books I have read and history classes where I learned much about the horrors that religions following codes of conduct that in theory are very altruistic can inflict. Not to say atheists in history have all been morally upright; I don't think that at all, but I don't see any reason to assume that religion creates good behaviour in history. I do find it intriguing that when I got into an argument about religion with a religious person we first led off by agreeing on a series of esoteric principles but started in disagreeing on simple matters of practical implementation. We agree on the basic principles of how people should act but we disagree on the best way to get the masses of humanity to act that way. The Actuary made a very good point that religion is generally very accessible and that nearly anyone can become involved and take away lessons from it. He felt that abstract philosophy was generally not something the majority of people would be able to learn from and that teaching morality from that standpoint would not reach many people.
I agree to some extent. Teaching philosophy to the average person is going to be a real hit and miss proposition and many people either will be uninterested/unwilling or just unable to really grasp the arguments. Also in many cases the arguments will not be especially compelling as they fail to have the raw emotional impact that is necessary to compel people to change their ways. Despite the anticipated lack of success of inducing morality through teaching of philosophy I don't think religion can be supported on that basis because teaching morality through religion requires surrendering of reason. To teach someone that they should not steal because an all powerful entity says so is simple and clear but it also teaches them that they need to simply believe things people say on faith and not worry about reasons, reason or logic. I think that the value of reason has tremendous value when trying to teach morality. The idea that the best thing to do when making decisions is not to simply obey authority but to consider the consequences of the action in the light of the greatest benefit for all is powerful. It isn't some kind of cureall, but it is far less likely to create an environment where suicide bombings and wars are considered acceptable.
We didn't really conclude the debate in any particularly satisfactory way. That is, unless you consider a mutual agreement to disagree satisfying. I assume Wendy considers that a very satisfying way for us to stop arguing though since it means that nobody is bitter and no punches get thrown. I would like to conclude with a quote I really like which summarizes the way in which decisions can be made without any reference to religion whatsoever.
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.