In a post called A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists, David V. Johnson’s use of the silly undergraduate-level technique of mockingly mislabeling the contrary position has distracted many of his commenters from what could have been the start of a fruitful discussion (about the appropriateness of vigorously promoting atheism).
The interesting question that Johnson reminds us of is what it means to claim that humanity would be “better off” without religion.
This raises at least two major sub-questions. One is what it means for humanity as a whole to be “better off” and the other is what is meant by the word “religion”.
Many people do claim that religion has caused more violence and immediate pain than it has prevented, but that claim is virtually impossible to verify. It is also similarly impossible to verify whether or not people would really be happier with or without the “consolations” of religion. But even if they would be, the question remains as to whether the comfort that might be provided by religion to its adherents is sufficient to justify the corresponding costs to themselves and others. Perhaps there are values higher than happiness, but who am I to judge this for others and to deny a drug that gives ignorant bliss to those who choose it. But what of those to whom it is administered without choice? and what if in addition to creating bliss for its users it also causes them to do harm to others?
Here, by “causing harm to others” I am referring less to the possible (but far from established) effect of augmenting the human tendency to tribal violence than to the effect of continuing to cloud the minds of future generations with pleasant fuzz which prevents them from achieving the possibly painful joy of a clearer enlightenment.
And then the other question is whether it is possible to have “religion” without insisting on counterfactual beliefs and without increasing our susceptibility to demagoguery. Does religion necessarily lead us to be less resistant to accepting the words of authority figures for example?
These questions all seem open to me but I have no wish for counter-rational comfort and prefer to rely on my own moral judgement rather than some external authority. So of course I prefer a society in which these tendencies are not put at a disadvantage. It would be nice to have rational arguments “proving” that such a society would be “better” but my guess is that they do not and will not exist – and that the best I can do is encourage progress towards the world I prefer in the hope (but not faith!) that it will in fact not be more hurtful to others than I can in good conscience accept. To that end, I am inclined to cheer on the atheist evangelists, but only somewhat weakly as there are other issues I consider more important.