Monday, April 18, 2005

What utility does religion serve?

What good is religion?

I think religion has served many purposes throughout history-- but belief in God has always revolved around two things: Fear and Hope.
-People are afraid of death and hopeful that there is something after death.
-People are afraid of eternal damnation and hopeful that God will accept them into his perfect kingdom.
-People are afraid that they'll always be impoverished and are hopeful that one day they will be repayed for all their suffering.
Fear and Hope are very helpful tools to keeping a stable society... so in that sense religion has done good in promoting stable societies.

So then why all the negative quotes about religion?

I think it's about time that our society loses the need to believe in an invisible father figure who comforts them and threatens them in order to keep order. We no longer need to be told what is right and wrong from a supernatural source-- we have many man-made sources we use to tell us what is right and wrong: namely the government.

How could a government possibly determine what is right and wrong?

It's very simple-- They decide what is right and wrong by thinking about what is beneficial to a society and what is not beneficial to society... and then they make laws to encourage the beneficial things and to discourage the not beneficial things.

So if right and wrong is merely decided by those in power-- does that mean that morality is relative?

Yes! Of course it is! Look at some extremist muslims-- they think that it is morally right to fly planes into buildings filled with innocent people and in their small extremist community it is acceptable to think such a way and they consider it "right". Most of the world sees what the extremist muslims did on September 11th to be an immoral act... in our community it is unacceptable to fly planes into buildings and, thus, we label it "wrong".

So if it is all relative-- why choose the government's right and wrong over a religious right and wrong?

It is much easier to change a man made law than it is to change a law that people believe to be a divine law. What do people do when religious laws conflict with social laws? In those instances they have two choices either (a.) oppose the social law or (b.) ignore/lie to themselves/make up some excuse about the religious law so that it fits their liking. This has happened many times through history-- for example the bible states in Deuteronomy 23:1 "No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord." In our society it is not acceptable for churches to discriminate against those who lack their genitalia-- thus, everyone just ignores it. The same goes for Ephesians 6:5 which states that slaves should obey their masters just as they should obey Christ. And 1 Timothy 2:11 which states that women should not have authority over men. It is obviously no longer acceptable in our society to have slaves or to consider women to be inferior to men... so people just ignore those parts and just listen to the parts that society agrees with. It wasn't immoral back then to own slaves and it wasn't immoral to treat women as being inferior because it was accepted and it is immoral now because it isn't accepted. When you decide to ignore some things and accept others as the word of God you are basically being a moral relativist... so why not just admit that morality is relative and quit lying to yourself?

Basically what it boils down to is that it is easier to please a society when we can adapt what we consider beneficial or not beneficial to our society based on the current condition of our society-- instead of religious laws that are rigid and outdated and often clash with what is beneficial to our current society (as was shown by my three prior biblical citings). There is no practical need for religion-- and I agree that replacing it might be "nigh impossible" but that is only because of people's hopes and fears.

Of course this argument is contingent upon there being no logical reason to believe in a God: This will be the topic of discussion for my next post.

-- Also if you wish to leave a message please leave your name attached to it so that I can know with whom I am debating... I promise there will be no hard feelings.


Anonymous The KyLe said...

Hey Jeff, i was just droping a line to see if i could clarify the biblical text for you. The Old Testament stuff is stuff that was written when there was absolutley no law in the world, nor was there a standard for cleanliness. This is why in the same OT stuff, people werent to tattoo or cut themselves, nor were they to eat pork, because there was no proper way to cook it to know it was safe (same with saftey of tattoos and cutting). This is changed when God rules man through his own actions later in history and also through the actions of Jesus in the New Testament, then men are enlightened, also throughout the development of technology, some things become easier to patrol and thus not dangerous for humans to take part in (i.e. pork, tattooing)

With the I Timothy verse, that is mostly because men were seen as more rational and less likley to lead with pure emotion, something that could lead to real awkward moments in the church. not saying that emotion is bad, but when you are overcome with emotion, you can make mistakes at times that might be costly (also not saying men dont make mistakes). But if you read on in I Tim, it talks about how (verse 15)"she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety". This is to say that the woman will really control the propogation of the species and the influence of the children as long as she is a holy woman. So its like a trade-off, kindof like (and i KNOW this sounds crude) "men in the workplace, women on the homefront". But anywho, thats about it for that.

And as far as God vs. No God goes, i think a lot of it can be seen through history and through artifacts, but God doesnt want someone to believe because of fact, he wants someone to be willing to take a step of faith, where they cant see the next part of the path, but they trust that it will be there for them anyway. At least, thats how i see it. Its too easy to believe in something that you see/understand 100% of, plus then its not a choice, but an obligation.


P.s. Also, is it so bad, living life under the guidlines of the Bible? I mean, "love your neighbor", "dont steal, kill, lie"?... God doesnt ask that you be perfect, only that you give it an honest try all of your life.

"While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal." -II Cor. 4:18

"Id rather live my whole life thinking there is a God and find out there is not one than live my whole life thinking there is not a God and discover im wrong." -Cant Remember

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is an interesting idea to replace religion with government as the ultimate arbiter of morality. While American government may currently be doing a fairly decent job at dishing out justice and legislating morality, it is far from perfect. History provides repeated examples of legislated morality that hurt society: Prohibition, slavery, codified racism. The current War on Drugs is a major source of funding for criminal activity, and the right's obsession with the evil of homosexuality (their view) provides a curious moral code for the country to follow. Are you honestly suggesting that the average citizen view government as the final source of a moral code?

This doesn't even begin to deal with governments far more corrupt than our own around the world.

If this is in response to my statement that finding an explicit moral code outside of religion is difficult, all well and good, but the morality of religion would seem to provide more benefit to society than the various laws and actions espoused by our government both past and present. Stability is eliminated when morality changes from election to election. I would suggest that some other solution must be found.

Hello, Kyle. I like the implications of your debate. In short, the Bible does not provide an absolute moral code, and must be interpreted to fit the times. Morality remains relative and is dependent on any number of things, including the technology of the day and the prevailing social theories. With that as a given, how is one to choose which Bible passages are absolute, which are relative, and which are merely anachronistic? You seem to suggest a few absolutes, and certainly ones I would not argue with: "Love your neighbor as yourself; do not kill, steal, nor lie." These are difficult to argue against, except perhaps in extreme situaions. You also seem to suggest discarding most moral code found in the Old Testament, something also difficult to argue against; these tend to be society specific, arbitrary, and often in conflict with each other. As if we could never cut our hair, and at the same time keep a close shave. What standard can be applied to determine right and wrong using the Bible as guide?

Jeff, I applaud this blog, and look forward to your next post.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On a side note, I would say you fail to consider important facts by restricting the primary inspirations of religion to hope and fear. They may be the dominant forces, and certainly appear to be so in Christianity, but I would claim at least two other basic human drives as central to the development of religion: the desire to know and the desire to control. Most religions offer knowledge about this world that would otherwise be unavailable, and most religions believe that wordly events can be influenced through prayer, meditation, sacrifice, what have you. To the extent that this is merely illusion, it might seem to do a disservice to believers; yet, there are enough examples of religion transforming people's lives and personalities that some control seems to be gained by a belief in a higher power. If there is some fundamental concept underlying these transformations, perhaps a concept that is itself not dependent on religion, it would be beneficial to elucidate.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And as for my immaturity and cowardliness in remaining anonymous, I believe that it is the ideas which are fundamental, and personal identity is irrelevant. I do not see how my name will make any difference. As this is my belief and this is a forum for debate, you are more than welcome to attempt to sway me. However, you are unlikely to be succesful.

12:02 PM  
Anonymous chas said...

nutsackula STRIKES

2:40 PM  
Blogger Murmy said...

I have one question for you:
What is our purpose in this life?

11:11 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

I would just like to offer this, and you can blame it on mere semantics if you find no other way out: As per the claim that morality is relative, saying that "It is all relative," is in fact an absolute statement, thereby refuting the assertion that "It is all relative." Since it was a claim you made, you have the burden of proof. You must logically back your assertions.
So am I to believe, especially in the lack of any compelling evidence, that "it is all relative," when that statement itself is not subject to its own rules? It would seem that absolutes do in fact exist, at least at some basic level, despite how liberating the thought of their nonexistence may seem. I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

I wish to offer something else: If God is omniscient, then He should be able to know all, despite what time period. So then, if the Bible is in fact inspired by God, the laws of the Bible should remain immutable regardless of the current time period. The issue then becomes how to interpret these difficult, and oftentimes contradictory, statements made within the Bible.

Interpreting the Bible is a different matter, however, and requires the guiding influence of the Magesterium of the Catholic Church. For example, just as you would not ask someone to interpret the applications of any one specific section of the Constitution of the United States on their own, a very difficult task indeed, so you would not ask this person to interpret an even more complicated compilation of documents on their own, i.e. the Bible. This is why the practice of Sola Scriptura does not work, but it is also a reason why there remains so much confusion on the teachings of the Bible. Having an institution that can provide 2000 years of collective experience and wisdom allows one to interpret the teachings of the Bible in terms of its history, the established doctrine, Church Tradition, and the current time period. Expecting someone to determine the truths of the Bible on their own, however, without any real training in Biblical Exigesis, remains absurd at best.

1:35 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

One more thing. When you talk of these religious extremists who murder people because of their religion, please be sure to give equal airtime to the truly religious extremists: the Mother Teresa's of the world, the ones who give absolutely selflessly with no desire for any gain for themselves, the ones whose only concerns are to help those who need it most, the ones whose religious motivations are grounded only in love and helping others. It is an atrocity that there are people who would use religion as a means to kill others, but they are not the only people who have religion as their motivations. Look for those whose motivations cause only love, and I think you will see that it is not religion that is the problem, but those who would twist it for their own political objectives. (Note: This is not to say that the Catholic Church has not had dark times, but it has come through those; and if you look at what the Church truly teaches, and not what some aberrant, individual priests may suppport, you will find that nowhere today does the Church preach anything but that which results in love.) God bless.

1:48 AM  
Blogger spankidiots said...

I see no logical reasons to believe in religious morality. I do, however, see reasons to believe in Governmental morality... mainly because I've experienced it. I've experienced punishment for doing something "wrong" and I've seen awards given for doing something "right". There is no reason to believe that these terms exist anywhere other than outside of our use of them.

Yes Paul I know that the Church teaches people to do good things-- However, I do not think that the church is necessary to preach love and charity. Religion's utility could be replaced by something not based on fear, hope and the supernatural.

5:18 AM  
Blogger Paul said...


What do you suppose could truly replace the Church in terms of moral teaching?

I would hold that there are some moral absolutes, which, despite the current thoughts of a large number of people, should never be changed. For example, the Church holds that it is wrong for anyone, at whatever stage of development (i.e. embryo, fetus, child, adult, geriatric) has a fundamental right to life that cannot be denied by anyone, regardless of the circumstances. Unfortunately, we live in a country that says it is okay to kill people at some (even most, depending on the circumstances) of these stages, and as a former fetus and potential geriatric, I disagree. This same country, might I add, also permitted (racially determined and violent) slavery for almost 100 years (not to mention the de facto and oftentimes de jure discrimination that continued for another 100 years in its wake). Did that just suddenly become okay because the government allowed it? If you asked anyone today, would they say, "It was okay back then because the government said so, but now it's definitely not"? I highly doubt they would, and I doubt you would say that even all of the citizens back then thought it was okay. And I think the two are in fact related, because both encroach on the fundamental rights of a human being. Furthermore, I think this reveals the inherent flaws with leaving morality in the hands of a constantly changing group of people, all with their own agendas and personalities; slavery was too large a mistake to think that we might not be looking at other horrible atrocities incorrectly. There must be moral absolutes. Maybe Madison was correct to be suspicious of the tyranny of the majority...on a level of which he perhaps was quite unaware.

Simply put, I think there are absolutes, as I demonstrated on the self-refutation of the statement "All is relative." With the existence of absolutes comes the requirement of a body that will adhere unequivocably to those absolutes, a job far too difficult for a body of people seeking to satiate the interests of their constitutents even, sometimes, at the expense of what is truly good for the people. I am not advocating for the abolishment of government. No. I think it is a beneficial institution and that there are many things it does well. I do not, however, believe that the government alone can stand responbile for the morality of people; it has not worked in the past, and I would argue, does not work now.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Another question: In our governmental system, what awards have you received for doing something right? I don't often find that the government rewards me. More often than not, the government operates by punishment, i.e. giving tickets for speeding, sending someone to jail, revoking one's license. I guess aside from tax breaks, when has the government rewarded you? And under what circumstances? I've never been rewarded by the government for being more patient with my siblings, for helping an old lady cross the street, or for smiling at or listening to that person who really needed it. I'm not saying that you have to have religion to do these things, but I am saying that I don't see how the government has ever encouraged those things. If you have counterexamples, please let me know.

One other thing: I think you should downplay fear as a factor in faith, because this is not the focus for a true Christian, though indeed a good motivator. The true focus should be, "How is my relationship with Christ?" Because, according to my faith, He is a real person with whom I can talk. So really, it is not out of fear that I serve the Lord, though it can play a factor at times (just as one fears their mother's retribution for doing something wrong, but because one loves the mother and not because one fears her); rather, it is out of Love. I love God, so I seek to do what he asks, much as with a parent.

4:47 PM  
Anonymous Om said...

Oh, come on. "All morality is relative" is not self-referential in any fucking way. Stepping back to say, "All is relative" is a different matter, and can be viewed as somewhat similar to Epimenides' Paradox. But, that's largely irrelevant.

Paul, you would do well in the world of 1984, double-think is right up your alley. You bash on government morality due to slavery or abortion, but conveniently sweep aside the Crusades, the Inquisition, the numerous incidences of sexual abuse of young children. Your church is not perfect, and I don't see why it's a better source of morality than Protestant conventions or the Jewish body of law. After all, if it's experience we're looking for, the Jewish faith has been at it a good deal longer, and some Eastern religions even longer than that.

I am not arguing with your statement that the government can not be responsible for morality, but your posts imply that you believe 5/6 of the world is wrong; indeed, you sound like one who would claim that most of the world is going to hell. Extremism is dangerous in all its forms.

10:31 PM  
Blogger spankidiots said...


Om is right about "Morality is relative" not being a hypocritical statement.

What can replace moral teachings of religion?

Many things could replace moral teachings of religion. We could teach children about our system of government-- how to question it while still abiding by it. We could teach children ethical theory so that they could choose which ethical system they most agree with. Morality is not difficult to teach without religion.

As for the bible being an immovable source of morality--

First, there is no reason to believe that the bible was inspired by God... other than it says so in the bible. Circular argument.

Second, certainly you do not take everything that it says in the bible for absolute truth. If that is the case then you should still believe that women should not have authority over men and that slaves should obey their masters just as they should obey christ. If you believe that-- it seems very hypocritical to say that the word of god is unchanging and only obey some of what the bible says and disregard the parts of the bible that are no longer acceptable. On the other hand if you still believe that women should not have authority and that slaves should obey their masters then I suppose you aren't a hypocrite and instead are just an asshole. Which is it? Hypocrite or asshole?

I know you believe there is an absolute right and wrong-- but there is no way for you to prove that.

Killing at any stage of a person's life is wrong-- unless it's during wartime or unless it's self defense? Sounds like your absolute is actually relative...

What awards does our government give us?

They give us physical protection, legal protection, garbage pick-up, libraries, fire fighters, we get to use our money as we like... and if we don't obey the law they can take away our money or take away all the rest of the liberties awarded to us.

Only through a system based on hope and fear would you expect there to be a reward for doing what is right and wrong...

Yes-- I would say that slavery was not "wrong" when it was legal. But our system allows for us to change what is "right" and "wrong"-- thus, since I would never approve of slavery (using my preferred ethical system)-- I would have worked to have it changed... and people did work to have it changed. They used the system to make slavery "wrong".

Let's say instead of going by my system of morality-- we went with a purely religious one during the time of slavery. The bible justifies slavery and since the bible is an unchanging source of morality-- how could you possibly change slavery from being "right" to "wrong" without being hypocritical?

You say that "how is my relationship with Christ?" is a bigger part than fear in being a Christian. However, you would have no reason to want a relationship with christ if it weren't for fear or hope.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

First in response to Om:

-I made the "All is relative" argument too broad for this case. But I think the argument can help illustrate the existence of absolutes. I still apologize for my misuse of it.

-I never once claimed that the Catholic Church as a body of imperfect people was in fact perfect. I understand that there are a number of atrocities that have occurred in the dark past and the present day. I am sorry that the people in a religious institution I hold so dear would misrepresent it so badly. The fact that these things have happened, thanks to sinful individuals, has not changed the doctrine of the Church itself, which I adhere to, though, lest I misrepresent myself, am also sinful. Again, I am in no way attempting to say that what the Church as people has done is excusable, but I still believe in what the Church as founded by Christ stands for. I can only hope and pray, however, that the people who compose this Church, myself included, would seek to represent properly.

In addition, I do think that the institution itself comes closer than any other modern-day church, especially in regards to interpretation of the Scriptures. That is not to say that any other religion is completely wrong. That would be to create a false dichotomy. I simply believe that the Catholic Church is closer than any other religious institution. On that note, however, I would NEVER, I repeat NEVER claim that anyone else, for religious reasons or otherwise, is going to hell. In fact, I am in NO way certain that I myself am safe from this destination. I, therefore, can especially not claim that anyone else is or is not. If any of what I have written implies that I do condemn people, then I would most fervently apologize.

On another note, the Catholic Church is formed in the Judeo-Christian tradition, meaning that much of what formed our faith is derived from the Jews (Old Testament anyone?). So a good deal of their experience plays into the Catholic Church.

And actually, in response to your extremism comment, I would, as Mother Teresa said, "Encourage everyone to be a strong believer in their own faith" (Paraphrased from memory). I believe that if everyone is ardently seeking the truth, we will find it. It is, rather, those individuals who are completely apathetic on all matters religious that worry me the most. That is why I am so encouraged by this forum; it truly reveals that people are seeking the truth. I have also realized that I myself have not been truly seeking enough to further define my own faith.

And Om, I hope you can see that I am being sincere in my statements. I further hope that in the future you would first seek to clarify, rather than attack, what my perceived intentions were. I will admit, however, that my statements did lend themselves to being interpreted that way, and I apologize.

And Jeff, I am again spent in finishing this "first" part of the post; as such, I will tend to your rebuttal later. Sorry for the inconvenience.

2:53 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

I realized, subsequent to posting, that I asked you to clarify my arguments rather than attack them. I cannot aptly make this request, however, as I myself am guilty of the behavior I asked to change. I do think we should still change this, but I realized the hypocrisy of my asking you to do so to the exclusion of myself and simply wanted to acknowledge it here. Please accept my apologies.

3:04 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Just a question for clarification: What's wrong with fear or hope?

3:27 AM  
Blogger spankidiots said...

There's nothing wrong with fear or hope.

I just think people should believe in something because it is true-- not because they are afraid or hopeful.

3:32 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Could they not be afraid because something is true? Or hopeful because something is true?

Maybe the truth causes both. Maybe it's not that hope and fear cause belief.

10:49 PM  
Blogger spankidiots said...

Story of Bill the grocer from Richard W. Miller's paper "Methodological Individualism and Social Explanation":

Bill is a grocer. John, who lives above the shop, comes down and asks for credit. "I'm broke and out of work now," he says, but adds, with all signs of sincerity, "I'm sure to get a job within a month." Bill knows that John possesses overwhelming evidence that he will probably be out of work for many months. When he proposes to John, "You're just saying you'll get a job soon because you want credit," his neighbor [John] responds with what looks like the most honest hurt at an insult, and leaves the shop.

How should Bill interpret his neighbor's saying that he will soon have a job? Bill might have independent grounds for believing that John is an extremely honest person, who, if he lied under extreme pressure, would show much anxiety and hesitation, no signs of which were, in fact, present in the scene at the store. Bill might also know that John is astute enough to comprehend the evidence available to him that he won't soon get a job. Given his knowledge of John's situation, character, and behavior, Bill might choose the following as the best explanation of why John described his job chances as he did: John really believed he would get a job soon, when he said he would. This blief was due to John's need to obtain credit together with his need to continue to see himself as an honest person. The satisfaction of these needs was not his reason for believing he was sure to get a job soon. He sincerely rejected this hypothesis. But satisfaction of these needs was the reason why he believed what he did. Or, as Bill might, more likely put it, "He believed what he said. But when they need credit, people believe the strangest things about their finances."

It seems to me that there is a sufficient lack of evidence for believing in God but, in response to fears and/or hopes, people continue to believe. Your reason for believing that you believe in God may be that it's true... but it may not be the reason for your belief.

3:59 PM  

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