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Is religion good for anything?

Thursday, 27 September 2012
by Mano Singham

I have argued that the world would be a lot better off without religion. Religious people disagree and one would expect them to. But more surprisingly, there are those who are not believers and yet feel that religion serves a useful purpose and is worth retaining.

One such group consists of the religious leaders themselves. I have long argued that there are good grounds to think that popes, bishops, and leading imams, rabbis and priests are nearly all secretly skeptics but that they see no reason to pull the plug on a racket that gives them such an easy living at the expense of the gullible masses.

Then there are those political leaders who see religion as providing a powerful means of social control. This has been long realized as can be seen from these quotes:

Aristotle (384-322 BCE): “A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of an evil treatment from a ruler they consider god fearing and pious. On the other hand they less easily move against him believing that he has the gods on his side.”

Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE): “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”

Voltaire: “As you know, the Inquisition is an admirable and wholly Christian invention to make the pope and the monks more powerful and turn a whole kingdom into hypocrites.”

Napoleon Bonaparte: “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping the common people quiet."

Edward Gibbon in The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire (1776): “The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. 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. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.”

In the modern era, Ronald Bailey and William Pfaff have argued that leading neoconservative thinkers have been quite open about not being believers themselves but favoring fostering belief among ordinary people because those poor saps cannot handle the truth that there is no god, only the elites can. But I suspect that that view is not limited to just the neoconservatives but is as widespread among political leaders as among religious ones.

This idea that it is only religion that keeps ordinary people from running amok is surprisingly widespread. Inculcating people with the fear of divine retribution if they violate god’s commands is believed to be effective as a deterrent to bad behavior even if it is not true. Of course, this does not reflect well on religious people if the main reason that they act morally is because of fear of what will happen if they do not. It may be that people think that they themselves act morally because they are good people but that other people need the fear of punishment to behave.

But it is still an argument that needs to be taken seriously. I was reminded of its power once again when I saw the film A Separation (2011), the Iranian film that won the Academy Award this year for best foreign language film. It deals with charges and countercharges between two families about what caused a miscarriage. A central plot device is the demand for people to swear on the Koran that what they are saying is true. The fear that god will punish them for lying is what eventually leads to the truth. But it was also the case that some people lied despite such swearing, which makes it a wash

There is no evidence that religious people behave any better than nonreligious ones, which makes one wonder how the belief that religion deters bad behavior originally came about. I suspect that it is a byproduct of the warnings used by religious leaders to keep religious people in line, by warning them of dire consequences if they stopped worshipping their god. It would not take much for that argument to be extended to saying that all wrong behavior would also be punished by their god.