11/13/09

Good and Absurd

Russell Powell makes sense here, when he says religion doesn't have to be either absurd or good for the world.  Apparently that's the false dichotomy presupposed by a series of debates between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson.
Posed as a disjunction, the question assumes (and by inference, these opposing authors assume) that religion cannot be both absurd, in the colloquial sense of illogical or laughably false, and good for the world, in the sense of furthering what humans rightly value.
How can something absurd also be good?
For example, it may be manifestly untrue that there is an all-knowing supernatural being, such as a god, spirit, or ancestor that is concerned with everyday moral behavior and monitors the thoughts and actions of group members. But believing this to be the case might very well encourage cooperation and suppress free-riding, behaviors that help to solve collective action problems that attend to living in large, unrelated groups.
I was thinking of the peculiar possibility of good and absurd while reading an article about evidenced based medicine in Sunday's New York Times Magazine.  The writer reports that hospitals and clinics in Utah and Idaho have been using a new system of evidence based medicine, under the leadership of a very science oriented observant Mormon named Brent James.  With apologies to Mormons everywhere, I have to say that Mormonism is a real stand out when it comes to absurdities. The reporter intimates that part of the success of the initative--it seems to be saving thousands of lives--comes from a shared religion.
More than half of the state’s residents are Mormons. This homogeneity creates a noticeable sense of community, even a sense of mission, among many Intermountain doctors and nurses.
The good effects of religion seem to be overlooked when people like Sam Harris blame liberal religionists for giving faith a good name, and thereby sustaining malignant religious practises.  If unitarians and reform Jews can be blamed (even a bit) for Osama bin Laden, then they also have to be given credit (just a bit) for Brent James.

I like Powell's point that the very thing that makes religion beneficial can also make it harmful.
...the same emotional commitment mechanisms that allow religion to play a role in motivating morally aversive behavior, such as violence directed at an out-group (or toward a dissenting minority within), are the same psychological processes that make religion such an effective binding force within groups, encouraging altruism between group members and improving their intra-psychic wellbeing by instilling a sense of belonging.
That defines the task of liberalizing religion--getting that sense of belonging to function entirely for the good.

2 comments:

amos said...

Those who think that religion is an illusion or a fantasy might say that while in the short run or in the life of any specific person, religion may play a positive role, in the long run it is better for humanity to live without illusions or fantasies. I'm not sure that people in general can live without illusions or fantasies: I suspect that without religion, people, with certain exceptions, would tend to create new illusions, new fantasies. So in that case, there would not be much point in getting people to see through the non-harmful fantasies or illusions that are part of religion. In fact, the new illusions may be worse than religion, but here I'm showing my conservative streak: the true conservative is one who always thinks that things could get worse.

backoffscience said...

Isn't the point that if some religion is definitely a good thing, then you have to soften your concept of truth to let it in. You can't say something is good, and then talk about it in a way that threatens it's existence. I guess its pretty hard to swallow, once you've seen the atheist light though...