Tuesday, September 8, 2015


"Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things--that takes religion."
--Steven Weinberg, Physicist and Nobel Laureate

Another friend of mine has ventured down the mind-numbing rabbit hole of discussing religion on Facebook. The main focus of the conversation is on an article which suggests that raising children without religion may have better outcomes than raising children with religion. This is an interesting proposition. Religions often claim to offer exclusive benefits to adherents. If such benefits are not exclusive--or, as the article suggests, come from the opposite direction--then what good is the religion? In my experience, anything good which a religion does can just as easily be done through purely secular means.

I recall a similar conversation from my youth, wherein a Mormon referred to an article which claimed that Mormons are healthier than other denominations. At face value, this seems to confirm the Mormon claim that god blesses members of their sect more than others. However, one must also consider variables which are not exclusive to Mormons.

For instance, Mormons prohibit alcohol and tobacco. These two things alone put Mormons at a lower risk of several conditions, including liver and lung diseases. It isn't Mormonism, per se, which is beneficial, but rather the indirect--and non-exclusive--benefits of a particular emphasis within Mormonism. Similarly, Hindus often tout the health benefits of their vegetarian/vegan diet, which Mormons tend to discount.

A non-religious person, on the other hand, can look objectively at the potential health benefits of any diet and make an informed decision as to which aspects they wish to adopt. Meaning, there is nothing which stops a non-religious person from abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, or meat. And they don't need a religious mandate to do so. They can make a decision based on evidence. They can even decide that moderation--rather than dietary abstinence--is right for them, which is a luxury not afforded by divine fiat.

Most of the "benefits" of a non-religious upbringing are actually simply an absence of the negative effects of religion. A non-religious child does not grow to fear hell or eternal punishment; they are not set back sexually by an aversion to contraception or comprehensive sex education; generally, they do not learn that homosexuals are deviants from whom children should be shielded; the love of their parents is not set on conditions of religious obedience. The list goes on, and to be fair, not every negative point on the list applies to every religion, and I'm sure that some points do not apply all non-religious people.

Other benefits fall more into socioeconomic metrics of society as a whole. For instance, more secular nations tend to have better healthcare and welfare programs and prison systems.

It seems clear to me that a non-religious upbringing offers many people a better life than a religious one. But what happens when an adult, especially one which has built their worldview and morality upon the premise that god will punish or reward them after death, transitions from religion to non-religion?

Many people struggle to make this transition, which is one reason some people avoid it at all costs ("There must be a god! There just must be!"). The idea that god may not exist truly terrifies them. Religions, and in particular more fundamental sects, teach members that if there is no god to issue postmortem justice, then there is no reason to do good, and no reason to refrain from doing bad.

The sort of dirt bags who really believe that the only reason they should not kill or rape or steal is because god will punish them can only be described as amoral sociopaths. However, I have found such people to be rare, and most people who have bought into this philosophical drivel simply do not give themselves enough credit. They are better than their religion would have them believe. Still, navigating through the quagmire of morality is daunting, especially for people reconsidering their tenuous faith-based reasons for pro-social behavior.

As for myself, I choose to not act like a jerk because I don't want people to treat me like I'm a jerk. This is my version of the golden rule, I guess. It doesn't always work in every situation, but, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out, it is about as good a rule of thumb for morality as any.

Some of the responses to my friend's post irked me something royal. One person accused my friend of being ungrateful to his religious grandfather by leaving and criticizing religion. This appeal to emotion is significant in two ways. First, it is fallacious to the point of nonsense. Second, it reveals the basis upon which my friend's detractor has built his worldview: emotion, rather than reason.

It is this coercive core of religious belief which traps many would-be defectors. Even I fell victim to Mormonism's entrancing concept of eternal families, and for many years I feared what my disobedience or apostasy would mean for my family in the eternities. This kind of emotional blackmail upsets me a great deal. I don't have a strong enough adjective to describe my disdain for this kind of manipulation. It is pure evil. Holding relationships hostage in this way is reason enough to dismiss out of hand any worldview which utilizes it. 


Tim Minchin, If You Open Your Mind Too Much Your Brain Will Fall Out:

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