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Well, would you disagree with that the world would be a better place without religion in this day and age?

It depends. I would say that religions give a lot of people a meaningful life by providing values, hope and guidance on what they should aspire to. But there are always those on the extreme fringes, who make the rest look bad.

That's what they claim to give. And many of those people actually believe this, to the point of assuming that anyone who is not religious has no values or morals, and is obviously driven completely by hedonism.

The question is not "what role does religion fulfil", but rather, "if religion wasn't there, would things have been better?". Because, e.g. many recreational drugs ALSO provide values, hope, and guidance (on one hand), and some religions like Mormonism and Scientology also provide them, but apparently forbid leaving them (read about excommunicating in either) to the point that I find unacceptable in a society.

Disregarding the obstacle of definition of religion vs. e.g. cult vs. value system[1], my opinion would be, based on observing mostly-religious states vs. mostly-secular states (like Sweden and Norway), would be that value provided by religion is a net negative.

[1] if you insist, I will say that beleief X is a religion iff there's a government of a country with >10M residents that accepts it as a religion for the purpose of its law. Specific definition is immaterial - they will all coincide for 99% of the population, and will have essentially no effect in the grand scheme of things.

> based on observing mostly-religious states vs. mostly-secular states

Be careful. I think the general consensus about these observations is that what's happening is that less stable and secure societies tend to make people more religious, rather than that religion tends to make societies less stable and secure.

> I think the general consensus about these observations is that what's happening is that less stable and secure societies tend to make people more religious

I am not aware of this consensus, but it is entirely unrelated to my claim: The supposed benefits of religion are nil, because comparable countries that essentially eschew religion fare at least as well, and usually way better than those that do not.

I did not make any claim about the relation between stability and religion. Swedes and Norwegians, as nations, are the best educated, best nourished, among the healthiest, with virtually no crime compared to e.g. the US or Italy. What exactly are the positive benefits that you get from religion that you do not get without?

It is related to your claim, because it provides an alternative explanation.

Observation: Various measures of societal health are correlated with lack of religion.

Explanation #1: Religion is bad for society.

Explanation #2: Bad society is good for religion.

Both explanations are at least somewhat plausible (religion is bad for society because believing falsehoods is morally corrosive, or because religions are full of ideas founded in old moral systems that we no longer endorse, or whatever; societal ill-health is good for religion because people in difficult situations will turn to anything that seems to offer comfort, or because when things are really hard the gods really do help, or whatever). In particular, the plausibility of explanation #2 means you can't just leap from the observation to explanation #1.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not claiming any particular benefits for religion. I'm an uncompromising atheist myself. I just don't like plausible but unsound arguments, and "The Scandinavian countries are great places and also very irreligious, therefore religion isn't good for you" is, I think, a plausible but unsound argument: it could equally be that their irreligiousness is an effect, not a cause, of their education, good health, low crime, etc.

(On the other hand, "The Scandinavian countries are great places and also very irreligious, therefore religion isn't vital for a healthy society as some religious people claim it is" is a perfectly good argument, and one I've used myself.)

[EDITED to add, on the subject of that putative consensus: see e.g. http://edge.org/3rd_culture/paul07/paul07_index.html, a single article but one written by two of the biggest names in the field, Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman. "To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions [...] Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. [...] Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the US." I should perhaps emphasize that GP and PZ here are talking about the origins of large-scale popular religiosity; individuals' decisions are, well, more individual and it certainly isn't true that all religious people are that way because their messed-up societies make them look for supernatural aid.]

Thanks for a long and detailed response. Really appreciated.

But I want to reiterate, that I only ever claimed "sum (religion benefits) <= 0", which I believe is equivalent to your statement that "religion isn't vital" (or rather, "religion isn't helpful"). At no way did I imply any other cause and effect relation other than the one implicit in this statement.

But do religion make less stable societies better or worse?

Does it help them climb out of poverty or does it only help them reassure themself the world is exactly right, their poor lives are okay, and everyone smarter than them should be stoned to death?

It seems to me that religions that prey on unstable, unsecure societies are especially nasty these days. Evolved to conquer poor societies and keep them that way!

There is nothing that religion provides that cannot be and is not already provided by secular society[1]. Religion is an antiquated notion that serves no purpose in modern society.

It seems faith should be like a prescription drug: it should be practiced by people who need it. But instead it's like illegal drug, which is used by all kinds of people and it hurts a sizable chunk of them: and also makes their relatives' lives tougher.

Religion is like almost anything, it's serves a valuable purpose for a huge number of people but there are some that abuse it. The world is a messed up place for a large amount of people, if the idea that there's a higher being that they're doing this for and that idea is what they need to keep going where's the problem?

I guess ultimately the world would be better without religion if you only consider the negatives, but if the world is better without religion then it's also better without alcohol, drugs, cars, love, internet, business...

Religion today serves no purpose, really. It did at one point, but it doesn't now. As societal animals we've moved beyond the need for religion. Additionally, religion by and large is a (huge) net negative on society. Couple that with the fact that, for instance, internet, business, love do orders of magnitude more good than the rather minor harm and you can't equate religion to the others (perhaps, alcohol and drugs, but even those have more positive benefits than religion).

It's a meaningless question. How would a world without religion come about? By flipping a switch, and everybody becomes well educated, peace loving, hyper-rational atheists? In that case, probably yeah, it'd be better. On the other hand, if you start lopping the heads of anyone found to be taking guidance from any teaching that isn't solidly grounded in hard science, then, no, it certainly won't be better.

That's right because all religious people are poorly educated war loving and irrational.

Seriously... Do you forget what was responsible for spreading education so rapidly around the world (give you a hint, it wasn't atheists).

There are a number of religions that are founded in rationality, and large components of others that are pure rationality. Just because you don't believe in (a) G/god doesn't mean you aren't religious. Just because you believe in a G/god doesn't mean you are irrational.

Irrational for sure. Everyone's an athiest when they're born. The natural position is non-belief. Religion is a faith based belief system for something that cannot be proven. Hence, belief in religion is by definition irrational.

Now, if you are saying 'religion' to mean 'societal construct' or something like that, well, that is a different ballgame. Though I don't think you mean that, so the above applies.

Bottom line, the major religions of the world demand someone to suspend rationality to believe. Otherwise the followers would not be followers.

And as for educated. Perhaps there isn't a conclusive study on the subject, but it is safe to say that the more educated you are, the less likely you are to be religious, particularly fundamental. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religiosity_and_intelligence

No, nobody is an atheist when they're born. Atheism is the conscious rejection of the existence of god. Agnostic, more likely.

Yes, religion is by definition irrational. Humans generally aren't very rational beings. Love is irrational, it makes us do irrational things, but I'm sure we can agree, on the balance, love is a good thing. Thus dismissing religion on irrationality grounds is not very meaningful.

There is confusion over what atheism actually is. Look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism#Implicit_vs._explicit We are born (implicit) atheists.

I also didn't say we should dismiss religion because it is irrational, I said people who were religious were irrational. I believe that still stands.

If anyone asked, I would say we should dismiss religion because it is harmful. Harmful to our stability, harmful to our advancement, harmful to the people that follow it and harmful to the people stuck in it against their will (either country, family or society). Today the negatives of religion far outweigh any good it can do. There was a time and place for religion, but we have outgrown it.

Most of the negatives you mention are perhaps styled in the language of religion, but they're underpinned by deeper causes.

The Middle East isn't solely a religious conflict, it's very much an ethnic one as well. Oppressive countries are oppressive, they're not liberal countries that just happened to read in a book that they should kill and maim those that worship in the wrong way. Closely knit groups (families, societies) are going to sanction deviators regardless of religion.

Agnosticism is an epistemological position that many (most?) atheists (such as myself) hold.

I disagree with both. We are born atheists, but we can create our own god(s) even without the influence of others. How else would religions come to existence? It might even be an evolutionary trait or something. Having bigger brains, larger set of emotions etc, we needed something to protect us from the sensation of a meaningless life, injustice, the concept of death, the ending of our consciousness, etc.

A number of buddhist sects/schools hold no belief in any god... It is a religion, they are not irrational. It is a major religion.

> And as for educated. Perhaps there isn't a conclusive study on the subject, but it is safe to say that the more educated you are, the less likely you are to be religious, particularly fundamental. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religiosity_and_intelligence

Correlation or causation? I don't really have time to read through all the studies, but St Thomas Aquinas is a good counter example of that premise, very analytical, very religious...

I meant that sentence to make good atheists distinct from bad ones (such as various brands of communists). In general, I agree with you. It's incredibly hard to separate out religion from history - almost everything that happened in the world up until about 100 years ago was driven by religious people, and that's the core of my objection that it's a meaningless question. If there never was any religion, you'd have to rewrite literally the entire history of the world and you can't flippantly claim that the outcome would be overall better.

Almost every person in the world up until about 100 years ago had lice and other parasites.

Should we now declare that, given that Newton, Galileo and Socrates likely had lice (the blood-sucking kind) for some part of their lives, we should consider lice a vital part of our cultural heritage and that any modern scientist should get some?

Statistically, religious people are worse educated, poorer and less rational than not particularily religious ones.

And still they think of themselves as an example for everyone to live up to.

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