Religion

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About

A religion is "a system of social coherence based on a common group of beliefs or attitudes concerning an object, person, unseen being, or system of thought considered to be supernatural, sacred, divine or highest truth, and the moral codes, practices, values, institutions, and rituals associated with such belief or system of thought. It is sometimes used interchangeably with "faith" or "belief system", but is more socially defined than that of personal convictions." In other words, a "religion" is a type of "faith" that includes social aspects.

The vast majority of religions, especially those based in the West where Abrahamic religions dominate, assert the existence of a single God who created the universe.

Pages

  • /respect: it is often claimed that religious ideas deserve respect simply because they are religious

Causes

It seems likely that religion has essentially evolved to take maximum advantage of various hard-wired quirks of human nature such as:

  • the tendency to arrive at (or prefer) anthropomorphic explanations (e.g. the intentional stance)
  • ethnocentricity ("my tribe/group/family is the best"), with religious rituals and beliefs forming an essential part of the sense of group identity

It has often been said that there is a "God-shaped hole" in our lives, which therefore proves that we need God; more likely, the concept of God has evolved over the millennia to fill an existing hole and to dig in its claws in just the right places to make it almost impossible to extract -- in much the same way that carnivorous plants have evolved to fool insects into believing there is food inside and then keep them from escaping with carefully-"designed" systems of hooks and sticky stuff, but with less fatal consequences (usually).

Harm

A short list of ways in which religion is harmful:

  • If someone can convince you to hold beliefs that contradict reality, this has two negative effects:
    1. They leave you dependent upon them to interpret reality.
    2. They can control what you believe, and thereby what actions you believe are morally correct – and thereby they control your actions. "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." — Voltaire
  • If you believe that all humanity is part of a plan set in motion and ultimately guided or controlled by an entity who is vastly more powerful than our entire civilization, then you are less likely to take measures to preserve that civilization. "God wouldn't let that happen – and anyway, if it is destroyed, that must be part of God's plan." (Especially if you belong to an apocalyptic sect; see next point.)
  • If you believe that part of God's plan involves an apocalypse, after which there will be some kind of dramatic improvement in the condition of the properly faithful, you might even seek to encourage apocalypse-level confrontations between major world powers (e.g. the United States and the Islamic world).
  • If you believe that everything in the Bible is literally true, this gives you license to commit horrible atrocities and to encourage others to do so as well. (This also holds true for the Koran and probably many other scriptural works.)
  • A substantial portion of scientific progress has been made in the face of religious opposition, whose viewpoint tends to be that "we shouldn't meddle in things we don't understand". (We're never going to understand them if we don't meddle, so this is just confirming religion's essential anti-knowledge stance.)
    • Religious opposition to stem-cell research has been a great obstacle towards doing that kind of research.

See also bad religion

Mechanisms

reduction of thought-effort

Religion is a kind of sanctioned irrationality, an organized suspension of disbelief in certain areas by a coalition of willing believers. In exchange for this suspension, believers receive their belief-system essentially pre-digested (to an extent which varies by religion) by higher authority, rather than having to go to the trouble of working it out for themselves. Some believers will go to the trouble of trying to reconcile their beliefs with reality, but this generally only goes so far; when push comes to shove, it is reality that gets second priority.

The main western religious traditions, having at their core the idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing being, can use the supposed existence of that being as a fake explanation for any seeming inconsistencies in doctrine, or between doctrine and observed reality. "Q: How could all those fossils seem to be hundreds of millions of years old, when the world was created in 4004 BC? A: God did it! Q: Why would God plant all that false evidence to confuse us? A: God moves in mysterious ways!"

spread via offspring

Most religions encourage their believers to reproduce and to pass on their religion to their children, at an age when children tend to believe anything their parents tell them; this is one of the most powerful mechanisms by which religion is spread, and certainly the most powerful method by which it is maintained against contrary evidence.

control mechanisms

Most if not all religions use a number of obvious memetic social control mechanisms to maximize the number of new adherents, minimize the numbers who leave, and prevent any serious inquiry into the veracity of doctrine. Some religions make more use of these than others, but it seems safe to say that they all use at least one of them:

Paul Bloom said:

In this conception religion is a fraternity, and the analogy runs deep. Just as fraternities used to paddle freshmen on the rear end to instill loyalty and commitment, religions have painful initiation rites – for example, snipping off part of the penis. Also, certain puzzling features of many religions, such as dietary restrictions and distinctive dress, make perfect sense once they are viewed as tools to ensure group solidarity.

from page 2 of Is God an Accident?, Atlantic Monthly, December 2005

natural intoxicant

There is some anecdotal evidence that religious feelings may stimulate the brain in ways similar to those induced by psychoactive substances such as alcohol. The mechanism by which this might happen is as yet unclear; perhaps the relaxing cadences and repetitions of the same message in slightly different forms are able to excite areas of the brain responsible for "feeling safe" or even "feeling loved"? This is sheer speculation at this point, but worth being aware of in case any data shows up supporting or disproving it. See googlegroups:theauthoritarians/msg/34f012bf77dde5b3 for an anecdote.

Claims for Discussion

  • All religious followers are essentially dogmatic and unwilling to discuss the basis for their beliefs.
  • When a religious person is forced to choose between dogma and common sense (and isn't able to successfully change the subject), dogma always wins.

Challenges

  • Demonstrate how the Bible can be used as a source of moral authority, when each branch of Christianity interprets the Bible differently and there is no official understanding or interpretation.

Related Concepts

  • Russell's teapot [W] is an analogy coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell [W] to refute the idea that skeptics have the burden of disproof regarding unfalsifiable claims of religions. Richard Dawkins adds to this the observation that we are all atheists about a great many things, including Odin, Zeus, and Quetzalcoatl, whose existence nobody even considers the need to disprove; why is it necessary to disprove the existence of God as well, for whom there is no more evidence than any of the others?
  • Einsteinian religion is a term used by Richard Dawkins (and possibly others) to describe the non-theistic, non-traditional uses of the words "God" and "religion" by Albert Einstein and other prominent non-religious scientists.
  • Providentialism is the belief that God is actively directing the affairs of the world, e.g. through the actions of 'chosen people' whom God "provides" for such purposes.
  • Blasphemy
  • Heresy

Related Pages

Definitions

Jehovah's Witnesses

According to a flyer distributed in 2006 by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania (the mouthpiece of the Jehovah's Witnesses, an apocalyptic evangelical Christian sect):

  • True Religion:
    • Practices love: "True worshippers are 'no part of the world', are not divided by race or culture, and display 'love among themselves' (John 13:35; 17:16; Acts 10:34, 35)... Rather than killing one another, they are willing to die for one another (1 John 3:16)"
    • Trusts God's word: true religion bases its doctrine on God's word, not on tradition or the commands of men
    • Strengthens families and upholds high moral standards: husbands must "love their wives as their own bodies", wives must develop "deep respect for their husbands", children must "be obedient to their parents", and "those entrusted with positions of authority must have exemplary morals". A "true religion" encourages or requires all of these.
  • False Religion:
    • Meddles in war and politics: quotes the journal Asiaweek (ceased publication in December 2001) as saying "...power-hungry leaders are cynically manipulating people's religious sentiments for their own needs." Contrasts the words of an unnamed "prominent religious leader in the United States" who said "You've got to kill the terrorists before the killing stops. ... Blow them all away in the name of the Lord." with several Bible quotations: "If anyone makes the statement 'I love God' and yet is hating his brother, he is a liar." (1 John 4:20) and "Continue to love your enemies." (Matthew 5:44).
    • Spreads false doctrine, which apparently means teaching that the soul does not die, or does not die under certain circumstances, and thereby extracting money from their followers to help ensure this reward. (Apparently what really happens is that the dead will be resurrected, as taught by Jesus (John 11:11-25), so no afterlife is necessary.)
    • Tolerates immoral sex, which apparently means homosexuality and gay marriage, as well as tolerance of child abuse

Links

Reference

Discussions

Filed Links

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Facts & Data

to be filed

Analysis

Religious POV

Non-Religious

  • Iron Chariots: provides "responses, information and resources to help counter the glut of misinformation and poor arguments which masquerade as "evidence" for religious claims."

Anti-Religious

Science on Religion

See wired for religion

Criticism of Religion

  • 2007-07-12 video Why does faith deserve respect? by Pat Condell
  • 2007-07-10 video Politics and religion need to be prised apart with a crowbar, argues Pat Condell
  • 2007-06-29 video What about the Jews? by Pat Condell: some history, and a firm opinion about Israel
  • 2007-03-15 God's dupes by Sam Harris: Moderate believers give cover to religious fanatics – and are every bit as delusional.
  • 2007-02-24 video George Carlin on religion by George Carlin
  • 2006-12-05 When Atheists Have Their Say by Matt Arnold (blog entry with comments)
  • 2006-11-24
    • The Alpha Male Monkey In The Sky
    • Beyond belief: "What is belief? Is absence of proof the same as proof of absence, or is it just as misguided to disbelieve something without evidence as it is to believe in it? In this article we explore the touchy issue of dogmatic belief and try to establish why atheism is not just 'religion for the nonbelievers'."
  • 2006-11-14 Faith Won't Heal a Divided World by Sam Harris: "It is worth observing that religion is the one area of our lives where faith in dogma – that is, belief without sufficient evidence – is considered a virtue. If such faith is a virtue, it is a virtue that is completely unknown to scientific discourse. Science is, in fact, the one domain in which a person can win considerable prestige for proving himself wrong. In science, honesty is all. In religion, faith is all." ... "It would, of course, be absurd to speak of 'Christian physics' or 'Muslim algebra.' And there is no such thing as Iraqi or Japanese – as distinct from American – science. Reasonable people really do have a monopoly on the truth. And while they might not agree about everything in the near term, common ground surrounds them on all sides."
  • 2006-05-24 How do you prove Jesus existed? CNN article about an Italian man who is suing the Catholic Church to prove the existence of Jesus (with reader comments)
  • 2006-05-16 Why Religion Must End by Laura Sheahen, Beliefnet (original is much more cluttered)
  • 2006-03-05 The Book of Bart: "In the Bestseller 'Misquoting Jesus,' Agnostic Author Bart Ehrman Picks Apart the Gospels That Made a Disbeliever Out of Him"
  • 2006-03 Killing the Buddha by Sam Harris: religion stands in the way of rational discussion of belief
  • The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris: ISBN 0393035158 (hb) ISBN 0393327655 (pb)
  • Islam: The Religion of Peace (Believe It Or Else): not sure how rational this site is, but it certainly presents food for thought
  • Exposing Religious Error and Deception: bizarre, disjointed criticisms of Christianity (by someone apparently named Seven Star Hand) which nonetheless seem to make a few useful points... but mixed in with all kinds of bizarre nonsense...

Experimental

  • WikiWrit: "The Holy Book Anyone Can Edit"

Wackyness

Problems with religion

Woozle makes some points

  • The chain of reasoning in many religious arguments vanishes into a black box, usually with the inscription "God says" on the outside. Even with churches like the LDS which admit the possibility of individuals communicating directly with God in order to get a better understanding of what God means, you are still either (a) forced to admit belief in God (can't communicate with something you don't believe in), (b) argue solely from existing religious doctrine, or else (c) have the validity of your arguments denied (your argument isn't based on God's word, so your premises may be wrong). In order to take part in the discussion, you have to admit to belief in God -- which is basically conceding the argument. In other words, the whole thing is a circular argument based on the infallibility of God.
  • Belief in absolutes (moral absolutism and the infallibility of God) can be used to justify extreme measures. If your faith's doctrine tells you with absolute, unquestionable certainty that what someone is doing is absolutely wrong regardless of circumstance, that removes most or all of the uncertainty and allowance for mistake (perhaps there are extenuating circumstances; perhaps your belief that their actions are wrong is incorrect; and so on) with which most people operate when deciding whether to take action against someone.
  • Because of the belief in absolutes, the black box nature of basic religious doctrine, and the authoritarian nature of most religions, it is extremely easy for someone who is both unscrupulous and power-hungry to manipulate, with a high degree of precision, those who have been raised and trained in the validity of such thinking.
  • If absolute truth can be had by speaking with God (as allowed by some faiths, but not all):
    • If you believe that God has spoken to you, how do you know that it is really God? (How can you tell the difference between the "real God" and an extremely advanced but non-divine being who isn't entirely honest?)
    • If someone else claims God has spoken to them, how do you know they are not lying (or else deceived, as above)?

Quotes

  • "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. — Edward Gibbon (often attributed to Seneca the Younger as "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.")
  • "Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God." – Martin Luther, quoted in The God Delusion page 190 (along with "Whosoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason." and "Reason should be destroyed in all Christians.")
  • "When one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion." – Robert M. Pirsig
  • "You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt." – Robert M. Pirsig
  • "I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind—that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overborne by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking." – H. L. Mencken
  • "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." – H. L. Mencken
PZ Myers said:

Top Ten Reasons Religion is Like Pornography

10. It has been practiced for all of human history, in all cultures
9. It exploits perfectly natural, even commendable, impulses
8. Its virtues are debatable, its proponents fanatical
7. People love it, but can't give a rational reason for it
6. Objectifies and degrades women even when it worships them
5. You want to wash up after shaking hands with any of its leaders
4. The costumes are outrageous, the performances silly, the plots unbelievable
3. There's nothing wrong with enjoying it, but it's nothing to be proud of, either
2. It is not a sound basis for public policy, government, or international relations
1. Its stars are totally fake
Douglas Adams said:

Religion ... has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, "Here is an idea or notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? – because you're not!"

If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down, you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says "I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday", you say "I respect that".

Why should it be that it's perfectly legitimate to support the Labour Party or the Conservative Party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows – but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe ... no, that's holy?

...

We are used to not challenging religious ideas but it's very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic because you're not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally, there's no reason why those ideas shouldn't be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn't be.

quoted in "The God Delusion", pages 20-21

This brings up the topic of "why religion is a taboo subject", which is probably worthy of a page of its own. I don't know what Douglas Adams might have been taught when he was growing up, but when I was growing up the reason I remember understanding for not criticizing religion was something like " we don't understand it, but it's important to them, and it's not hurting anyone". Later I may have realized on my own that there are also hostilities between religions, so if you start to criticize one particular person's religion, others will know the particulars of their faith and the person you spoke with will be subject to religious discrimination from members of other faiths. The first argument falls apart in the face of increasing religion-based violence, and the latter falls apart when you realize it is almost entirely members of other religions who behave this way; atheists do not, generally speaking, attack people personally on the basis of their religion, but at most will attack the religion itself while still believing fervently in the individual's right to believe whatever they want. In any case, further discussion seems warranted. --Woozle 21:33, 14 February 2007 (EST)

Trivia

  • Contrary to a popular saying, there are atheists in foxholes. [1]

Fiction

  • Barsoomian religion: religion as a fallacy is explored on more than one occasion in the Barsoom stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Narnian religion: the Narnia stories by C.S. Lewis provide a substantial and mostly positive metaphor for Christianity

Humor