Sunday, December 26, 2010

It's not my fault

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.



  1. I have to agree with the Actuary here, religion is actually a fantastic way of teaching morality. The problem occurs when people disagree with what morality is. This difference in beliefs can lead to some very nasty situations, especially in religions who feel it is their necessity to spread their morality to others.

    Nor do I think religion requires a surrendering of reasoning. I know a lot of very intelligent and very religious people... the question is how do you approach the masses? Not everyone can understand morality at its fundamental level (philosophy) but instead simply need rules to follow. Religion provides this for those, and those who prefer philosophy are allowed to do so. The expectation that everyone needs to come to their own personal understanding would lead to chaos... could you imagine what the world would be like if people had to understand physics or mechanics to drive a car? Morality is a societal construct and is taught to maintain society as a whole.

  2. Such formality! Bah! Morals are very simple and don't require religion, you would just prefer it that way. And surrendering of reason is very a much a requirement. You can't logically deduce that the major religions of the world have ultimate truths. It's man-made words in books that have no real basis. It's fiction, and unnecessary.

  3. Here is the thing Bung: If religion does not require the surrender of reason then the tenets of the religion must be reachable by reason. There are two possibilities here: One is that the religion you refer to is a religion that is logically deducible and internally consistent. This does not describe any religion I have ever heard of, and I would be eager for you to tell me of a religion that follows these characteristics. The other possibility is that the religion you speak of is not internally consistent and reachable by logic, in which case believing in it *does* require surrender of reason.

    Note that plenty of intelligent people are religious. Plenty of intelligent people believe they can beat the slot machines in vegas, or that they are a better than average driver, or any number of other things. I am not saying that anyone who believes in religion is stupid, I am arguing that belief in religion requires believing in things that are not believable from a logical reasoning standpoint.

    I agree that if everyone had to understand physics to drive a car that things would be crazy. I have no idea what that has to do with morality, or reaching a personal understanding of it. I do think that you are right that many/most people aren't interested in philosophy and want rules to follow. Supplying those rules is a useful thing to do, but why is there any reason to mix those rules up with supernatural nonsense? You don't need God to think it is a bad idea to kill people, so why bring God into it at all?

  4. Science is not internally consistent either or really reachable by logic. Our conditions for science is that it is repeatability and the ability to predict (and explain) observed data. Quantum mechanics completely blows away any real understanding of physics as we understand it. Does that mean what we teach at high schools is purely mumbo jumbo and useless and engineers and mechanics who use that physics are simply blindly following a faith that they know nothing about?

    The tenets of religion _are_ reachable by reason. The unfortunate truth is that people claim that religion is an all or nothing deal... Either you accept all portions of it or none at all. That kind of expectation is unreasonable for any belief system, but sadly religion is held to that far more often then any other belief.

    What needs to be considered is that religion is a societal construct. The scriptures are works of people and if you are trying to judge the religion, then they need to be studied with that lens. You cannot try to literally read the Bible and say that God said X and since we now find that morally reprehensible that the Bible has no values. There has to be a context applied to it, and you are deliberately trying to remove it.

    I'm not claiming that religions are infallible or that their insistence of a deity can be fully fathomed. But I see little difference between that and the assumption underlying quantum mechanics in that the randomness is "pure". Obviously we cannot test the randomness (since every measurement we take will skew the sample) so we must believe that it is in fact random. Whether or not the randomness is artificial or natural really has no bearing in the science's understanding, nor does the existence (or non-existence) of a deity remove the moral teachings of religion.

  5. I think that the very fact of having a discussion about how to teach morality to the masses is a demonstration of why religion is not morally useful. Someone who thinks they are not part of the masses is really in no position to talk about morality meaningfully.

    When you are three and you hit someone and an adult says, "Well, how would you feel if someone hit you?" you don't have an in depth understanding of philosophy or of religion, you haven't surrendered your reason to anything, and yet you manage to understand.

    Religions are the moral equivalents of planned economies. No person, or group of people, is capable of rationally reasoning out rules for behaving morally. We are mostly capable of making pretty good moral decisions for ourselves (I think we are better at morality than economics), but we need the emergent intelligence of the entire society to actually come up with reasonable ways of dealing with the complexity that arises in moral decision making.

    So religion has something going for it. It has been around a long time, and the people who are preaching about it have a huge tradition to draw on. Also, it is to their credit that many religious leaders don't think they have all the answers and that it is better to rely on the wisdom of others. This can be an application rather than a surrender of reason - much the same way that letting markets set prices is more rational than devising your own scheme.

    But simply sitting back and conveying the wisdom of the crowd is hardly a good picture of what religions do. Pat Robertson doesn't go on TV and call for assassinations because he is in tune with our common wisdom about right and wrong. Moreover, for every person who is humbled by the idea of God there is a person who thinks that they are personally blessed by God and that God justifies their actions. If belief in God has a correlation to being egotistical, we don't know whether it is positive or negative, but I'd wager heavily it is very small.

    I just keep going back to the idea that religion seems to have nothing to do with morality. Whether someone is religious or not is not really an indicator of whether they are moral or not. The fact that there are virtually no atheists in prison probably has way more to do with an third cause like education.