Weak thinking

New Scientist’s editorials can be very good but this one really irks me.

It starts by suggesting the Beyond Belief II conference went easy on religion. That’s not quite the impression I’ve got from other accounts, like PZ Myers’, though of course such things are very subjective.

It then mentions David Sloan Wilson‘s view that religions might have been an adaption that boosted group survival through, for instance, ensuring compliance with the group, and states:

To want to cleanse society of religion before understanding its evolutionary roots and purpose seems strangely unscientific.

Now I don’t think David would argue that just because religion might once have had an adaptive role, that the same is necessarily true in modern times. And I don’t think you need to understand religion’s evolutionary roots to see it is a) factually wrong, and b) often maladaptive in the modern world.

It may be true, as the article states, that replacing religion with science is fanciful. But what’s not fanciful is separating the state and religion. Prying the dying hands of the Anglican church from the British state is a long overdue move.

What’s also not fanciful is separating education and religion. I am appalled by the state funding of faith schools in Britain. It is child abuse, as Dawkins put it.

The point is that neither of these will be achieved as long as society continues to pay lip service to superstitious nonsense just because it’s old superstitious nonsense that lots of people still fall for, partly because of the links with the state and education. The “new atheists” should be feted for highlighting this insanity, not castigated for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

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4 Responses to Weak thinking

  1. I have never seen a truly scientific assessment anywhere of the overall positive and negative effects of religious belief on society. Since such assessments do not exist (tell me if I’m wrong), the rantings of Dawkins et al, based only on the most obvious and visible negatives, are in fact extremely unscientific.

    I can tell you that Oxfam, for example, from a purely pragmatic point of view consider that religious organisations assist development, and for that reason wish to engage with and encourage them.

    Doesn’t the atheist crowd ever bore itself to death, arguing that religion is “factually wrong”? Of course it is, usually. Which completely misses the point. It’s like wanting to burn Tolkien because it’s factually wrong. Or banning all mention of the tooth fairy, for pete’s sake. The really interesting questions about religion are the ones Wilson is trying to ask.

    Do you think honestly think Anglicans would lose faith if church were detached from state?

    Condemning whole sections of society because of the extreme irrationality of a few is about as scientific as racism. And about as pleasant.

  2. johnfalla says:

    Well, I think this article (http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19526190.400-what-good-is-god.html?full=true) comes close. Unsurprisingly, religious people might be a bit happier – life is easier if you have faith.

    But as for this idea that religious organisations assist development: what about the Taliban? Are you seriously suggesting that Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and many others wouldn’t be better off without Islam? That Northern Ireland wouldn’t be better off without any kind of Christianity? That the Middle East wouldn’t be better off without Judaism?

    Sure, even theistic religions sometimes do good in some places. They may well have promoted development in the past few thousand years. But, now, globally, wouldn’t we all be richer and safer without theisms? I think we would

  3. Your point correctly to examples of negative development that are apparently religion-based: but it is questionable whether it is the religion that is at fault, or whether the religion is just used to justify the Taliban’s sexism for example. After all, Bush and Blair justified a war in Iraq on the basis of promoting democracy. We don’t throw out democracy, though, just because nasties like Bush and Blair use it as a rationale for vicious warfare.

    Even putting this aside, your assessment of the balance between the good and bad effects of religion is entirely opinion-based. It’s rather like those new agers who point to the relatively few but highly conspicious examples of bad science and bad medicine, and use them as an excuse to say that people should not get vaccinated.

  4. johnfalla says:

    To compare bad science with bad religion is like comparing a real aeroplane that crashed to an ugly toy plane that never flew.

    To go back to your original point, is it ok to lie if it helps people? Is it OK for Oxfam to support groups spreading lies – eg about Jesus- if that helps people.

    My answer is maybe, sometimes. But I think in some cases it could be storing up trouble for the future. Supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan might have been a good way to defeat the Soviets, but now it’s the US battling the force it helped create.

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