Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Playing "God's Advocate"

One of the arguments I have been faced with is the notion that to be as much of a dogged rationalist as I aspire to be, one must be prepared to take the position of the adversary in a rational way as well.  So a challenge came forth to me to put out the most rational and thorough argument I can make in favor of religion and faith in general.  As much as it might give me pause to support religion in general, I still have to say that this makes for an interesting intellectual exercise, so I'm actually quite pleased to go through it.  And indeed, the one who dared challenge me to do so is fair in doing so, but simultaneously expects me to fail.

I will say, at least, that this cannot possibly consist of any arguments for the truth of a religious belief system.  Such arguments cannot possibly be made while still maintaining full intellectual honesty.  Rather, this would consist of arguments that posit that religion is, at least on some level, a positive thing.  A large part of this is going to rely less on intrinsic qualities of religion and more to do with human nature and the practical outcomes that connect these two.  Furthermore, I am leaving out such arguments as the ways in which religion has molded the fine arts (something I've mentioned in the past with respect to music) or the way it served humanity in ancient times -- these, I would consider elements that outline historical value, which although passable, are not entirely relevant in a qualitative way today.  I will refer to these as examples, but only in reference to a larger point. After all, this is supposed to be about the idea that religion is, not was, a positive force.

So you can go check outside your window for flying pigs, and then proceed below the jump.

The first thing we have to consider is that religion provides a lot of comfort for the individual believer.  Generally speaking, a lot of studies do show lower stress levels for the hardcore believer in religion compared to the less serious believer or non-believer.  To take a quote from Marx, the misquote about religion being the opium of the masses is followed by a more important sentence, which states that the removal of religion as an illusory source of happiness results in a demand for their actual happiness.  But actual happiness for the masses is a seriously impractical goal (and it's part of the reason why communism is actually impossible to implement in the first place).  Whatever you can say about the beliefs being false, it is often comforting to the person who believes them.  The idea of not having to accept one's own mortality as the screen going blank is something that is easier to deal with than having to contemplate the pure stop of function of all input like that of a computer being turned off.  The idea of seeing one's lost loved ones in a later life is easier than having to cope with an apparent loneliness and emptiness of the state of nonbeing of one's own mind.  The idea of an overseeing force which imparts flawless justice is easier to cope with and requires less intellectual investment (something that not everybody can provide) than a serious inquiry into the questions (or even their validity) would require.  Indeed there are those who can cope with it and accept it without it causing them undue stress (and rather turning it around to the viewpoint that this life should be made worthwhile), but there is little chance that these people can fall in the majority, and religion can fill that gap.

For instance, take the case of the filmmaker, Vikram Gandhi, who deliberately faked a religious leader persona, and even in spite of incessantly throwing out hints that he was faking it, people understood it as a deeper metaphor and felt a genuine emotional benefit.  This is partially an indication of people's natural expectations about a holy man, but also an indicator of the need to believe.  Indeed, his particular case, in spite of the full awareness on his own part as to the fakery, snowballed into something that bloomed, at least for a time, out of his own control.  The crowd is drawn to these sorts of wishful thinking.  One can draw the parallel to Daniel Dennett's notion of "believing in belief."  While it has its dark side, it also has the ability to keep people from losing their sanity to their own emotional and intellectual weaknesses.  And truth be told, they are a natural component of being human.  We invented gods for this very reason.  Faith exists because people seek it out.  False hope exists because people seek whatever gives them emotional relaxation.

Secondly, we have to consider the structural component of religion.  This includes a certain degree of nonsensical ritual, true, but it also includes a certain collection of best practices.  Telling someone that there is a dark juju monster in the river may be an absurd statement, but it can just as easily be a way of ensuring that we steer clear of predators which actually are in the river.  A very real-world practical example that is somewhat famous is the case of the ritual and ceremony around the making of the katana or samurai sword.  Yes, the process is bathed a great deal in ritual, restrictions, and ceremony, all of which seems superfluous on the surface, but the interesting thing about it is the degree to which all of this is unvaried and upheld without question.  This, in effect, became a sort of systematically rigid quality control that forces the people who work on the product to operate in the exact same way every time and ensure equal results.  This isn't exactly unique to Japan, either.  Judeo-Christian and Islamic scripture puts restrictions on things like pork and raw seafood because the technology of the day made it safer to do so.  Hinduism puts cows in the position of sanctity because of the fact that they proved to be extremely useful in the economic and agricultural framework of India for centuries.  It is generally much easier to put those restrictions on impressionable youths who often do not question than to actually explain the real need for them -- ideally, this is done in the interest of explaining yourself after people are mentally equipped to understand the system in question, but that interest can easily be lost if not utilized effectively.  That said, a certain degree of structure and rigor is necessary in life especially as one comes of age, and simply expecting anyone and everyone to own up to the responsibilities that are put on their table at the drop of a hat is something of a fool's errand in general.  Sure, there are always going to be exceptions, but when you put that rigidity on someone from start to end, you create a framework that almost guarantees smoother transitions down the line.  Getting up early on Sunday to go to Mass may not make a whole lot of sense on the face of it, but it does at least impose a certain level of discipline even on a day that might otherwise be a day that people would  prefer to relax, and that end effect is not necessarily a bad thing in itself.  This drive towards discipline is further reflected in the fact that higher rates of religiosity tends to be correlated with lower rates of petty crime (though the opposite is true of violent and "heinous" crimes). We often use the same sort of thing in military organizations or in martial arts training in a different fashion, but the M.O. isn't all that different in that it still relies greatly on a deference to authority, hard-lined discipline, and unflapping dedication to the rules and restrictions laid out.

Related to this is the fact that religion generally delivers its message through narrative.  This is largely more effective than simply telling people something.  Telling someone that dishonesty is a bad thing isn't quite as effective as telling a story that shows the price of dishonesty.  This is largely because our empathy is a pretty powerful thing, and empathizing with the characters in a story holds nearly as much weight as experiencing the same outcome ourselves, albeit without the consequences.  Indeed, this is why you find tales in the Bible that are really meant to be taken as metaphor even cover to cover (Young Earth Creationism in a major way is a relatively recent phenomenon).  This is why a lot of tales in Hindu literature tend to blur the lines between good and evil.  To this extent, the stories put forth "godliness" as a standard to which people should aspire more so than simply talking about "god" itself.  Religion carries with it very powerful use of language and narrative that can motivate people very strongly towards certain values.  Indeed, this has the flipside of essentially motivating pretty much any philosophy you could imagine, including not-so-good ones.  That is itself tempered by the fact that we are living in a modern age exposed to a very different context.  10,000 years ago, you could be disgustingly racist, but the fact that you were extremely unlikely to even come into contact with a person of a different race meant that your attitudes would not have resulted in any measurable harm.  Today, of course, we interact with people of different races all the time, and can even directly converse in realtime with someone on the other side of the planet, so the cost is much higher.  When you put the ancient texts in this context, people, by in large, tend to filter out the parts which would be "nasty" by today's standards.  Although I have my issues with the terrifyingly high frequency of religious atrocities, I can not claim that the people who take their religion to that level are in the majority.  The majority look at their faith through a rose-colored lens that uses modern pigments to provide that color, more or less.

Finally, I have to add the single largest value of religion is also its single biggest attraction as well -- it provides a certain sense of community.  I will say that this is done in different ways across different religions, though.  For instance, the Western religions (as well as the pluralistic amalgam-type religions like Bahai) tend to involve people gathering together in prayer and celebration of their beliefs, while Eastern belief systems are more individual, but they foster community by unification of certain local traditions within (which is basically what 'caste' in Hinduism actually is).  There is a deep psychological need within all people -- we are social animals after all -- to belong to a group.  Save for those with forms of functional autism and social phobias, this is a pretty major need.  We like to belong, we like to be with others of like mind, and we are naturally built to cooperate as a community.  Religion, because it carries with it, a notion of believers vs. non-believers, tends to group people together in this way.  This is equally divisive as it is uniting in nature, but for the person on the inside, this is pretty powerful.

Conversely, atheists have a much harder time organizing and acting in unison because atheism by itself is only a single principle (that being, disbelief in gods).  There is sufficient variation between atheists in so many aspects that people aren't necessarily going to unite that easily.  There is little in the form of a truly solid "atheist community" compared to, say, the religious right. Religious faiths carry not just one idea, but a huge collection of ideas, and on a base level, all believers belonging to a certain church community tend to believe the same basic things.  While there are still differences, they tend to be more subtle and more on the level of details.  Atheists can vary on pretty much everything other than that one disbelief.  Some efforts have been made such as the Atheism+ movement to try and tie atheism together with a variety of secular humanist philosophies, but it ultimately proved to do more harm than good.  If anything, it proved more divisive in practice than people had actually hoped.

One end effect of this is that religious charity organizations tend to be pretty stable and substantial in scale (within bounds, of course).  When you can take the people under your wing and unite them in a common set of beliefs, you can also unite them in a common cause.  When you anyway drive people to give money to their church, it is a small step to have them give money to organizations and efforts tied to the church.  Most of the atheist-specific organizations that work to any extent (note that being a secular organization does not mean that they are atheist-specific) are united only in the face of local religious oppression.  The largest charity efforts from atheists tend to come from individuals of considerable means.  Although I have a strong preference for this sort of flow of funds over people who generally can't afford to give being trained to give in spite of it by way of their faith, but one can't really deny that it means there is considerable capacity on the part of religious organizations to drive charity efforts.  While you can make arguments about the efficiency of religious charity organizations, they still have a pretty good influx of funds for the very same reasons that the religions themselves have a large contingent of followers.  Also, most of the religious charities that do "juggle the books" in the direction of impropriety tend to be those which are connected to those churches which are themselves cheating people irrespective of any charity efforts.  The general case is actually much smaller and/or more honorable than the likes of Peter Popoff or Kerney Thomas (not that that's a challenge).

Having said all this, I have to admit that I do have counterarguments for all of these points, but they are not the sort of counterarguments that can entirely nullify the point so much as weaken them or at least offer alternatives.  Arguments for the existence of a god or the truth of a particular religious belief fall well into the realm of logical fallacies, but these points are a different story.  They are all ostensibly valid and being able to dismantle any of these demands more of a cultural shift and a global change in attitude than logical discussion.