Sunday, February 06, 2011

the 'nothing-butterer'

Third Way | But let me say something about that Guardian piece. I have for a long time, in following [Richard] Dawkins' work and writing about memes, thought of religions as viruses of the mind. Now, I know it's only a metaphor, but if it means anything it means that religions are dam­aging and are 'selfishly' using human bodies and brains to get themselves copied - for their own advantage, not for ours or the advantage of our genes. How­ever, I rec­ently went to a conference and heard a lot of evidence that was new to me - and overwhelming - that showed that, in the three ways that matter, being religious ac­tually has positive effects.

I'd already read quite a lot of research that said that people claim to be happier and healthier if they're religious. There's also a lot of new evidence now that people are more co-operative and altruistic, even if only to the in group. And, finally, the overwhelming evidence is that religious people have more children - and not in just one religion, or just one country or just one age, but all over the place.

So, I've made a shift from saying that religions are viruses of the mind to saying that religion is costly and damaging - no question! - and untruthful but it works. The cost is worth paying from the gene's point of view. So, we have a situation in which untruthful ideas are thriving, and will go on thriving, because they have all these positive effects on people. I find that extremely uncomfortable.

I wish that some Christians or Mus­lims or whatever would be a bit more honest and say: 'Giv­en that the idea of God doesn't make sense' - I mean, we got here by evolution and we have no ulti­mate purpose - 'what else is av­ailable?' Why don't you join those of us who are atheists who would love to develop a spirituality without spirit: something that encourages us to try to under­stand the world in ways that are not pure­ly mat­erialist and self-centred but take one beyond oneself, a way of growing as human beings in empathy and compassion and openness and awareness and self-awareness which doesn't need to involve ludicrous ideas such as that God created us for a purpose. We have these spiritual yearnings, but I think religion holds us back.

Dawkins talks about the harm the fundamentalists do, but I agree with Sam Harris3 that nice, liberal religious people are as much of a problem, be­cause they are saying that faith (which means believing in something even if there isn't any evidence for it) is a good thing. Of course, even as a scientist you've got to have faith - for example, that the basic laws of physics are not go­ing to change tomorrow. But I think that's very different from the faith you get in religion, which says al­most 'It's good to believe something without evidence.' But I think that most of my anger comes from the wickedness and cruelty promulgated by religion - particularly by Catholicism at the moment.