Monday, January 12, 2009

Religion and the utility argument

I was just reading Greta Christina's post on hope.

It's a wonderful post. I just wanted to explore an aspect of one of her themes and head down a little side-track.

There is an argument that is sometimes made: "but religion brings people hope".

This is a claim that religious belief is useful, even when it isn't true.

I have several issues with this claim.

Firstly, it often comes during a discussion of whether or not a religious belief is true - a discussion in which it has no place whatever - and in that context, such ground-shifting is tantamount to an admission that it isn't true (or that the support for it is so weak that such ground-shifting is required).

But let's examine an argument about its utility even if it isn't true.

That some religion might be useful in some circumstances may well be the case. Is it always useful? Is it sometimes harmful?

The answer is quite plain on its face - religion for its own sake (i.e. irrespective of its truth) is not always useful, and there is plenty of evidence that it can be harmful, or that it can be used in harmful ways. I have different examples than Greta Christina, but I think she addresses this fairly well, so I won't spend time on it here.

The problem is the argument is used to justify religious belief outside those specific circumstances where it has utility. The exact circumstances where it is useful are not examined, because it isn't really being used as an argument for its use in those specific circumstances alone, but instead for its general use. It's another form of bait-and-switch; the underlying aim is to turn off the arguments against religious belief, so that religious belief can be maintained generally.

However, let us go further, and start with the assumption that in fact religious belief is useful in some circumstances, and we happen to be faced with exactly such a circumstance. Here we find a second bait-and-switch. The point is actually to support the theist's specific religious beliefs. Are they really willing to consider other religions? If we examine, say Ásatrú, and find that it's better (more useful) in these specific circumstances, will they abandon their current belief when in that circumstance and embrace Ásatrú in that situation instead?

The emptiness of the argument is immediately apparent.

If utility is what is sought, their religious belief must be put into competition with all religious belief, with incompatible religious belief, to find the belief(s) that are most useful. If the point is really about utility, it is the high-utility beliefs that should be maintained, and the theist's beliefs will very likely lose. There are many thousands of extant religious beliefs, many thousands more extinct ones, and uncountable infinities of potential beliefs (indeed, including lack of belief in anything supernatural) - if "religious belief" is a useful thing, we should try to work out which specific beliefs help the most. Is the theist willing for their beliefs to undergo such examination? If not, they undermine their utility argument - if they actually want religion for its utility, they'd be willing to find the most useful beliefs, not the ones they're currently infatuated with. The fact that they simply don't do this shows their argument for the bait-and-switch that it is.

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