Monday, May 21, 2007

What If the Lie Really Is Good For Us?

A number of studies have been published in recent years, some of them pretty well designed, that have suggested that there is a causal link between religiousness and longevity, happiness, social satisfaction, health, longer and more stable marriages, charity, being moral, honesty, integrity, mental health, and so on. All of these studies need to be considered carefully in their own right, but I am not going to discuss any of them directly here.

Predictably, non-believers have been very quick to criticize and reject the findings. “The study was poorly designed,” “Praying is good for you because it has an stress relieving effect like meditation, not because God is listening,” “It’s the social contact of regular church attendance that is good for people’s health and happiness, not contact with God,” and “A longer and more stable marriage isn’t a good thing if both partners are miserable and they have 12 kids because the Pope said birth control isn’t allowed,” are typical of the comments. And some of them may be right.
But let’s consider another possibility without criticizing the studies.

What if they are right?

What if it turns out that even though religion is a complete myth, humans are actually better off by any reasonable standard if they believe and practice than if they don’t? Such a scenario is plausible, and in theory it could be empirically verified. That’s what all of these studies are trying to do. If they succeed, then the atheist who prides himself in holding science, evidence, and truth above all other priorities will have to put his money where his mouth is.

So if it turns out that being religious really is good for us, then what?

The possibility presents a much deeper and more profound challenge to the non-believer who wants to wage the God fight. Non-believers will point out, correctly, that even if all of those claims about the positive benefits of believing are accurate, none of those results show that God exists. Beneficial doesn’t equal true. And there are even lots of believers who would concede the point that God’s existence can’t be proven.

But if that point is granted, then what exactly is the non-believer striving to achieve? Is it better for us overall to believe something true, but demonstrably bad for our lives, happiness, and longevity? Except for the rare philosopher among us, I think most people when pressed on the issue would conclude that truth is ultimately of instrumental value, and if it turns out that a falsehood serves our interests better in the big picture, then truth becomes a lesser priority. And if that is right, then the non-believer who wants to fight this fight, who wants to convince people to believe otherwise just doesn’t have a leg to stand on. And this non-believer really needs to ask herself or himself just what it is that they are trying to accomplish?

The atheist should be prepared to admit, if it turns out to be well supported by the evidence, that it might be better for us all to keep believer. Sure, the whole God business is false, it’s a fairy tale, and so on. But if it turns out that believing this particular truth instead of the happy myth makes us more unhappy, less mentally healthy, less charitable, less kind, less compassionate, die sooner, have worse health, and have weaker social ties, then it’s not at all clear that we should all abandon the myth and that Dawkins and the like have our best interests in mind. It may turn out that humans really are better off believing a deception and we’re worse off it we mess with that.

So here’s a reality check for the atheist: If we really mean it that the evidence, reason, and truth are what’s most important, then we need to be prepared to admit that the evidence could in fact show that we are all better off being religious. And if that is true, then we need to think long and hard about the kind of world we are trying to achieve with our arguments.


Steve D. Owen said...

I have simple, but I think good answer for you, MM.

Where a lot of atheists have gone wrong is thinking that religion can be eliminated without something similarly "beneficial" (and more truthful, and more sane) to fill the emotional and moral space.

This is why I have a problem with radically objective science and philosophy -- they don't even try to posit an alternative to what relgion does -- make people feel better.

People want something moral and universal to be a part of: something "spititual."

If the atheists don't step in with something new conceptually to fill the void, then religion (and fundamentalism) will not go away.

What could possibly fill the void? I've always liked Sartean Existentialism; I think that's actually a pretty realistic (and yes positive way) of looking at human life in the world.

That may not be the answer for most atheists, but the point is we need something new, something better, and something objective in a humanistic way.


Kevin Hoes said...

Sorry Owen, I have to disagree. It appears to me that nothing more is needed to fill the void left by Gods absence.

It is sufficiently enlightening and spiritually satisfying to know that you are perceiving reality accurately then to be aware of the fact that your belief structure is built on fallacies.

One has only to value the truth, even if they never obtain a true belief, it is the search that provides spiritual satisfaction.

Steve D. Owen said...

What about the millions of people that need something like god?

You'd rather they just keep on the religion train?

That might blow the world up.

John said...


Interesting topic. I think there is probably a decent case for the existence of a divide between what is important from a philosophical standpoint and what is important from a practical (social, political, etc.) standpoint. But I think that this will naturally induce a divide between the types of atheists that you might be addressing in your post.

An atheist that is interested purely in philosophical issues might not be so much concerned with the differences in quality of life between theists and nontheists. On the other hand, an atheist interested in advocating atheism as part of a broader social (political, etc.) cause might need to take these issues into more serious consideration. If they are interested in more than simply the truth or falsity of religious claims--such as the impacts of nonbelief on individuals and larger communities--then they might want to revise their approach. If it turns out that there is a measurable, substantial causal link between religiousness and quality of life (and it seems like this is still a big "if"), then they might, for example, focus on eliminating effects of religious behavior (such as intermingling of church and state, etc.) rather than trying to eliminate religious belief.

At the same time, it seems like the facets of quality of life that you mentioned in your post might be significantly outweighed by the negative effects of religious belief. (Crudely: I will take a hundred failed marriages over one religiously-driven suicide bombing.) These would need to be compared in order to reach a more definite conclusion.


Jon said...

If it were the case that we could only choose between flourishing in ignorance or being miserable in the pursuit or knowledge of truth, then obviously we would remain either stupid or unhappy. Either one is not a goal that mankind should have to strive for or choose between in order to be of true success or proud achievment.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Steve, Kevin, John, and Jon for your thoughtful comments. There are lots of good issues here.

Here's a couple of ideas. I think that science and naturalism just aren't up to the task of replacing or offering up some alternative that will do the work religion is currently doing in people's lives. Science and naturalism give us an impersonal picture of the world, whereas what people crave and what religion provides (at least western monotheism) is a personal contact with some grand supernatural force. God is a person who cares, loves, judges, watches over, etc. And no matter how exciting or awe inspiring scientific discoveries are, no matter how beautiful pictures from the Hubble telescope are, science just isn't in the business of producing the right kind of warm personal fuzzies for people. I'm fond of Sartrean Existentialism too, Steve, but nobody ever suggested that it was personal, warm, or optimistic. One could argue that it's really a non-answer to the God urge we have. And Kevin, it sounds like you are just telling them all to suck it up and appreciate the truth. That right, they should. But the truth is cold, objective, and uncaring--the universe just doesn't care about our existence (that's the first premise in Sartre's argument.) Pursuing atheism as a sort of social movement is an interesting idea, but what exactly are the goals and the motivation? To make people unhappy and deprive them of the (false) beliefs that they find most fulfilling? That seems perverse, even if it is the truth.

Thanks again all.

Anonymous said...

"The atheist should be prepared to admit, if it turns out to be well supported by the evidence, that it might be better for us all to keep believer. Sure, the whole God business is false, it’s a fairy tale, and so on. But if it turns out that believing this particular truth instead of the happy myth makes us more unhappy, less mentally healthy, less charitable, less kind, less compassionate, die sooner, have worse health, and have weaker social ties, then it’s not at all clear that we should all abandon the myth and that Dawkins and the like have our best interests in mind. It may turn out that humans really are better off believing a deception and we’re worse off it we mess with that."

--this is very interesting to me. Wouldn't this be a case that's considered cognitive dissonance, believing something to be bad but going along with it anyway?

With that said, you are compromising your beliefs if you buy into that mindset. If being religious and believing in God is going to make you more charitable, healthier, more compassionate, etc., then that's a character deficiency issue and has nothing to do with God.

The cliche about religion and God is that it's a crutch for people. So if you believe religion is a myth but go along with it anyway because it yields positive effects in your life, what does that say about the individual? So then wouldn't religion be a crutch for the atheist as well? Or are you trying to say that the atheist would be OK with this, since the results are there? Do these results really have to do with God, or do they say something about the character of the individual, that the individual is too weak to be happy, friendly, communal, healthy on her own, without the help of a myth? It still, always, comes down to the individual, in seemingly all circumstances. So if you want to be happy, healthy and a vital part of your community, you can still do this, no matter what you believe in. Perhaps more people are able to be like this with the help that they get from some feeling that stems from religion, but we don't have to be sheep and follow the results. You could bet 1 million on double zero in roulette and win twice in a row, but regardless, it's still a bad bet if you try for a third time.

My $.02: Don't follow results. It's the process that matters. Be a strong person and be happy and mentally healthy and compassionate on your own, without the help of anything external to you- God, religion, whatever.

--Josh Cadji

steve d owen said...

I think we need to clarify what religion really does for people, and then we can consider whether atheism, or some other system, can OR should attempt to replace it.

First, I want to make it clear that relgion can be replaced with something similar but more healthy and truthful.

What does religion do for people?

(1) It gives them a way to understand their existence and thus provides meaning (and truth) for them. It provides a kind of intellectual comfort. "I am here because of this."

(2) It gives them emotional comfort. Knowing why you exist is one thing, but people want to know that they are being "looked" after in some sense by a greater "power." This also applies to "life after death" -- people don't want to fear death and feel sad about losing loved ones.

(3) It also makes them feel part of something bigger and "better" than themselves. Humans are social animals and have to be part of something larger than mere individual accomplishments. The individual side is part of life, but it's not everything. We also like being a part of family, friends, culture, and so on. "God" and religion provide the largest and most powerful manifestation of this social urge.

I'm sure there are others, but I think these three are the biggest:

(1) The desire for objective meaning and truth.

(2) The desire for emotional safety and physical (and "spiritual") protection from something larger than ourselves.

(3) The desire to be part of an ultimate ideal/group.

Science and logic give us (1)

Many things can give us (2): culture, state, law, family, philosophy, psychology, etc.

I think (3) is something lacking for humans. That is, we have plenty of ideals and groups to be a part of on a local basis, but what IS (if anything) an ultimate ideal group for human beings globally/universally?

I think (3) is the biggest challenge. However, I think science and philosophy can combine to provide the answers here. After all, it appears that life in the universe, at least on the level of civilization, is pretty rare (and even if it weren't rare, life is still a pretty amazing natural phenomenon) -- why doesn't that provide a "special" basis for humans to come together on?


Riker said...


I'm really glad you asked this question, because honestly, I don't think I ever gave the idea any thought.

I think I'll have to write an entire article of my own to adequately respond (and when I do I'll send you a link), but in a nutshell the following things came to mind:

So if it turns out that being religious really is good for us, then what?

Well, while there is debate over the quality of the conclusions those studies suggest, there is enough information out there to infer quite a few other things... namely, that the odds of this being correct are not good enough to bet on.

You're essentially positing religion as a giant placebo. Well, there are a lot of studies on the placebo effect. Just as there are medicines that work better than placebo, there are other things in life that can be more beneficial than religion. The odds are not likely at all that religion's placebo effect is singular and unique among the things we can experience.

Also, there's the dilemma of disbelief itself. Disregarding what I said above, religion only has its assuaging powers when people believe in them. Atheists cannot will themselves to benefit from religion when they are aware that it is not true.

Thus, you can only cross the line from belief into disbelief, and the question is not whether we should keep dragging people across the line... it's whether we are obligated to keeping others from crossing on their own.

Thinking rationally about such a dilemma, the only moral thing to do would be to swear atheists to secrecy, and to ask atheists to shoulder the burden of maintaining belief in the masses. We would literally become the shepherds to the flock. Ergo, atheists would be destined to become the new clergy.

How wild is that?

Riker said...


I finished writing my full response, and wanted to give you a link:

My post at Prose Justice

If you get the chance, I'd really appreciate your comments.

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

If it proves true that religion is good for health because of the socialising benefits etc., I think that religion would be only beneficial for the religious.

I can't imagine that having to sit in a church every Sunday with a bunch of believers, and worshippig an imaginary being, would be good for MY health.

Many atheists, like myself, couldn't start believing in something they think doesn't exist even if they tried.

I figure that if religion brings benefit to believers, this only applies to believers, not to the ones who pretend to believe to get a free ride on the health benefits wagon.

Vic Stenger said...

What about the studies that show that the happiest, healthiest societies in the world are those with very low God belief (Denmark, Sweden, ..)

Brent said...

Certainly it is possible that believing some falsehoods may have positive effects in the short run - and as Keynes remarked, in the long run we all dead. But once you adopt this utilitarian standard the question becomes which beliefs are most conducive to the good life. If there were a scientific study of this it might turn out that a beneficient deism or tolerant mysticism or belief in the perfectability of humans or whatever we evolve into was the optimum. But can anyone imagine that belief in a demanding, jealous, misogynist, egomanical, vengeful, supernatural despot makes for the good life?

Beliefs are not just personal. It may make some people happy to think they are going to live forever and those who disagree with them are going to be eternally tortured because of it, but who wants to live around such people?

The importance of the scientific attitude is not so much the specific beliefs but the attitude toward them - that they are uncertain and provisional.

--- Brent Meeker

James said...

A few thoughts...

If religiousness is so socially beneficial, why are there proportionally few atheists in prison when compared to the religious?

I think, and this is a generalization, those of us who are atheists have had a reason or two to question the nature of existence. So there might be a correlation between being an atheist and being less happy than the general public, but the cause of being less happy is likely not the atheism itself. So those studies may be right, but not for the reasons they purport.

Also, the benefits of religiousness may be good on an individual level, but bad on the larger scale. If a person sticks their head in the sand, they may be able to avoid certain stressors in life. But if the majority of people stick their heads in the sand, that really leaves room for "bad" people to get away with worse things. For conditions in general to go down hill, or at least not improve... If one slave makes problems he's going to be worse off than the general slave population, but if all the slaves revolt, they would have the chance for freedom.

Personally, even if it would make my life easier, I can't just arbitrarily decide to believe something. If I could win a million dollars for believing that 2+2=5, truely believing it, I couldn't do it. I could say I do, I could act like I do, but I would be lying. The facts are immutable. I can't throw out a lifetime of experience that's been the basis for my current condition, just because it might "make me happier". If I know it's a placebo, it won't work.

Regarding the bigger picture, what IS the purpose of life? Being an atheist, I don't believe the religious explanations for why we are here. I think the reason people came to exist is arbitrary, (beautiful and complex, but arbitrary) but that doesn't stop us from getting together and agreeing on a common goal. What is the common goal of humans, as a species? Simply to persist? Even if it's that simple, there are things we should do address problems that will arise on the really large scale. Namely, we should really put more effort into raw science. We should not all be stuck on one planet. Some day the sun will nova, and it would be good for our survival if we found someplace else to be.