Friday, October 27, 2006

Is belief in God socially useful?

Lizard at Journal of Applied Misanthropology was asked the following question:
Is there not some social utility in having human beings who feel a direction connection to God/Yhwh/the universe/Whoever and to His/Her/its creations? Can we not expect it to deeply influence their behavior in a way more profound than an intellectual acceptance of a systm of morality?
Follow the link to read Lizard's response. Here's mine:
Ah, yes, the "Noble Lie" argument. I share [Lizard's] disdain for it. And I agree that science provides us with a more firmly grounded connection to the universe. Here's my favorite: All living creatures on earth are members of the same family. Not some hippie-dippy, "spiritual", abstract kind of "family", but all are literally cousins, albeit very distant ones. To riff on an old exclamation, You WILL be a monkey's uncle (if you're male), indeed you already are.

But my main objection to the "noble lie" argument is that it assumes that belief in God will "deeply influence their behavior" in a positive way. I think this is a very difficult question to answer in the affirmative. God seems to tell some people, "Thou shalt engage in socially useful behavior!" but he seems to tell other people (or even the same people) "Thou shalt vote for [a] pathetic, incurious, narrow-minded jerk who will do enormous harm to your country." And of course, God often seems to say "Go kill person/nation/ethnicity [fill in the blank]" as often as he issues the contrary command.

Certainly there have been studies showing that regular church attendance in the United States is positively correlated a number of socially desireable outcomes, but the causal relationships are by no means easy to tease out.
Much has been written on this topic, of course. It is extremely difficult to evaluate the utility of something as widespread, ingrained, and ancient as belief in God (or more broadly, supernatural reinforcement of morality). It's too much a part of much of society. But I don't think the assumption that belief in God will make us better should be accepted automatically. Wouldn't it be better to make people believe in being better people? Why not cut out the spiritual middleman (not hard, since he doesn't exist anyway) and extoll virtue directly?

(Of course, we can have a whole separate universe of debate about what virtue is, but I actually think that many American atheists and believers have a good deal of overlap on that:Many athiests I've talked to (including myself) have a moral system that is recognizably Judeo-Christian in origin, it is the theological accoutrements that we find objectionable. Of course there are Nietzschean and Randian atheists who might claim their morality is derived from a completely different set of ideas.)

And extolling virtue directly might not as easily engage all those parts of the brain that get people all fired up. But maybe that would be a good thing. Certainly, there are parts of the world that would benefit enormously from an epidemic of religious apathy.

5 Comments:

Blogger FINDING JESUS said...

I AM NOT TRYING TO PUSH ANY KIND OF RELIGION ON YOU I JUST HAD ONE QUESTION ABOUT YOUR EXTREME KNOWLEDGE OF HOW THE WORLD WAS CREATED FOR ONE I PERSONALLY FEEL THAT COMING FROM A HIGHER SPIRITUAL BEING IS MORE SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE THAN COMING FROM A MONKEY SECONDLY YES IT DOES HAVE A HUGE INFLUENCE ON BEHAVIOR AND EVEN IF THERE WAS NO GOD IT PUTS MUCH NEEDED MORAL VALUES IN A DEEPLY DISTURBED WORLD I MEAN FACE IT SOME PEOPLE ARE WACKED THIRDLY IV'E NEVER HEARD OR READ ANYTHING STATING THAT THOU SHALT ENGAGE IN SOCIALLY USEFUL BEHAVIOR IN FACT THE BIBLE TELLS US THAT YOU SHOULD SEPERATE YOURSELF FROM THE WORLD FINALLY HAVE YOU READ THE BIBLE EVER IN YOUR LIFE TRY IT SOME TIME YOU MIGHT LEARN SOMETHING!

4:48 AM, October 27, 2006  
Blogger realisation26 said...

to: finding jesus' comments

How is it you claim that "internal monologue" should read the Bible to learn something, if it seems, by your very comments, you yourself have never in fact read the bible. As far I know from the portions of the bible i have actually read, the bible constantly tells you how to act. What do you think the "ten commandments" are? They are most certainly a code of ethics to be followed in the social sphere. They are not meant to be followed in heaven; they are meant to be followed now. Ummm... lets look for another example: love thy neighbor. Is this not something we are supposed to do in the social sphere lest we become full of sin? I think so. "Judge not lest ye be judged" is another one, explaining how people should not be prejudice towards others, lest, once again, we fall into sin (supposedly). All of these codes are written to explain how man, in the social sphere, in this lifetime, can redeem himself, so that he can get to heaven and God

7:17 AM, October 27, 2006  
Blogger Zachary Drake said...

Um, welcome, finding jesus. Can I just say that the first rule of Internet proselytizing is DON'T USE ALL CAPS WHEN ATTEMPTING TO BRING SOMEONE AROUND TO YOUR POINT OF VIEW! It's the equivalent of shouting, and is unpleasant and hard to read. And punctuation is a big help, too. Please use more of it. I took a quick glance at your blog, and I see you often use all caps there, as well.

My use of "Thou shalt engage in socially useful behavior" was humorous. God does not say exactly that in the Bible (and yes, I've read much of it and studied Job quite closely). I do learn things when I read the Bible, there's some wonderful stuff in there (as well as some very disturbing stuff). But I don't think it proves the existence of God is socially useful, which is the question at hand.

I never said humans "come from monkeys". We are related to monkeys, and descend from a common ancestor, which was neither monkey nor human (though it would probably look rather ape-ish to us). You assert that it is more "socially acceptable" to come from a higher being, but there is enormous genetic evidence that if we did come from a higher being, that higher being went to great lengths to make it look like we share an ancestor with monkeys. And you have not demonstrated that people who believe one way have a higher rate of socially useful behavior. The sort of evidence I'd find convincing is something like: A study found that people who believe in God have a 70% rate of incarceration than athiests, even when controlling for income, education, and other factors that would influence incarceration rates. From my understanding, such data doesn't exist because the main factors that determine whether someone is "socially beneficial" or not is not whether or not they believe in God, but whether they have a personality disorder, a bad childhood, violent friends, poverty, substance abuse problems, etc.

I agree that "some people are wacked", but many of those wacked eople believe very strongly in God. My argument is that it's not clear that if you add up the wackness belief in God has created and the wackness that belief in God has eliminated that you'd end up with the conclusion that belief in God has helped things any.

And thanks for chiming in, realisation26. I agree that the Bible has an enormous amount to say about how we should act in this world, and that the whole "separation from the world" thing is only one of many strains of thought it contains.

11:12 AM, October 27, 2006  
Anonymous Bill in Minneapolis said...

I agree with 'Internal Monologue' that there is no evidence that there is a higher being or God.

I do not believe that a belief in god makes one a better person - there is a tendency in human nature to exclude/look down on those who believe in a different god or no god. The same goes for people who do not believe in god.

So a belief in god is irrelevant as far as I am concerned.

What is relevant is the commitment to follow a values system in life. Great teachers are the ones to look to for this value system (so the question, 'What would Jesus do?' is a good one). I do not like limiting myself to one great teacher but find many with insights into life. Generally, they agree on some basic points:
- golden rule
- love your neighbor
- uniqueness/permance of all beings/life (the soul)
- the existence of suffering and foregiveness

What you choose to do with life is what is relevant (I think we have free will on this issue)- choosing to seek an enlightened self is a good start. Christian values as taught by Jesus also are also great guidelines.

8:27 PM, October 28, 2006  
Blogger beepbeepitsme said...

RE noble lie

All Things Bright And Beautiful And The Noble Lie
http://beepbeepitsme.blogspot.com/2006/11/all-things-bright-and-beautiful-and.html

6:43 AM, November 06, 2006  

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