I am going to devote a number of posts on the question of the existence of gods and I am currently working on a podcast. I’d like to talk about why I am doing this and there are really two reasons.
I Like the Discussion
I find myself drawn to any discussion on the existence of god. I enjoy seeing good atheist arguments and watching theists’ arguments being defeated. I do not know why. I seem to just like delving into the philosophical, moral, and scientific issues at play.
While I do think answering the question of whether any gods exist is an important one, projects aimed at eliminating poverty, preventing war, healing the sick and, caring for the environment are more pressing. I’m interested in doing this series mainly because I enjoy it.
These Are Important Issues
That said, I certainly do think there are a number of benefits and harms that flow from getting this question wrong. If a god does exist and denying or ignoring him means people will be hurt, including missing out on eternal life and facing to eternal anguish, it would be better to know if this god exists in the first place. There may also be all kinds of other benefits to believing, or acting religious. For example, prayers and rituals might create positive results in this life and in any afterlife.
On the other hand, if no gods exist, then it would seem that a great deal of resources are being wasted and a multitude of harms have been needlessly imposed. I think we can be more confident about some of these harms than others, and I divide them into three rough categories.
Harms that are Almost Certainly Caused by Religion or Theism
We can be most confident about the social divisions, strife, and psychological distress caused because of differences in religious belief. Families are divided, moms cry for atheist or apostate children they believe destined for Hell. Some believers feel offended or guilty over sin and blasphemy and so on. Also, a lot of money and time is being spent on religious buildings and rituals which could be used more directly for alleviating social problems, for building community, or simply for entertainment. I would also place the refusal of secular medicine on religious grounds in this category.
Harms I Think are at Least Partly Caused by Religion or Theism
There are of course many more troubling issues, but these are also more difficult to link to religion or theism. Terrorism, genocide, and crimes against humanity, such as genital mutilation, seem quite often religiously motivated, and religious justifications are commonly advanced for them. We also have discriminatory views and practices against equity-seeking groups (such as homosexuals and women) that seem to fall into this category as well. But we cannot deny that there are sure to be social, economic, and psychological causes for these harms too. It may very well be that if no one ever believed in any gods, something like the Crusades, the Inquisition, Al-Quaeda, ISIS, and the Westboro Baptist Church would have happened anyway. Of course, the same can be said for the many charitable activities and goodwill for which religion is given as a justification. These kinds of things cut both ways.
I don’t think we know what the relative strength of possible causal factors are for these kinds of harms or good works, or that we ever will know. But what we can say with confidence, is that if theism and religion do play some causal role in these atrocities, reducing the belief would lessen the harm. Even if there is no causal link, we are still better off in demonstrating atheism to be true, because at least we will have taken away a stated justification. Then again, if charity and goodwill are also partially attributable to religion, these too would suffer. But I think reducing the harms would likely be more beneficial on balance. I can of think good secular reasons for things like helping the poor and curing disease, but I can’t think of any for things like witch-burning, genital mutilation, or homophobia.
Harms I Suspect are Related to Religion or Theism
A harm which is probably the least easy to establish, is my view that theism actively encourages uncritical thinking and bad epistemology about important issues and this bleeds into other important areas. Theism is about things more important than life and death, such as the fate of eternal souls. When it comes to justifying these beliefs, it is not empirical evidence and logic that are employed, but rather tradition, wishful thinking, blind faith, ideology, and dogma. I don’t think that we can honestly say that people will suspend reason on these religious issues, but rely on reason alone for other important issues.
What Do I hope to Accomplish?
I know that many religious apologists will argue that their beliefs can be justified entirely by empirical evidence and/or reason. It is these arguments that I wish to address in these posts. I think all of their arguments can be refuted leaving only things like intuition and dogma to justify believing in any gods. If people still wish to use these to justify their positions, then there is not much anyone can do, but I think they must admit they are in a weaker position.
I don’t think anyone will read single a post here and change their minds. But I think efforts like this provide a counterweight to the well-organized and well-funded projects intended to justify theism. I think counter-apologetics are helpful to thoughtful theists in their journeys to reason and out of religion, lessening the harm described above.