…to tell me why, in the absence of data, they were so sure that religion was bad for the world. That is, how do they know that if the world had never had religion, it would be better than it is now?
That would seem to be an empirical question, resolvable only with data. Yet as far as I can see (and I haven’t read every comment), most readers feel that the question can be resolved not with data, but with logic or from first principles. Or, they cite anecdotes like religiously-inspired violence (my response would be that it’s easy to measure deaths, but not so easy to measure the consolation and well being that, believers claim, religion brings them). But pointing out that religion does bad stuff doesn’t answer the question if it’s been harmful on the whole.
As an atheist myself, my answer would be that the question is neither empirical nor resolvable with logic from first principles, because it implies an objective standard whereby such terms as “bad,” “better,” and “harmful” can be defined. No such objective standard exists. At best, one can identify the consequences and then decide whether they are “go0d” or “bad” based on one’s personal subjective whims. As long as it is clearly understood that my reply is based on that standard, I would say that religion is “bad.”
Supernatural beings either exist or they don’t. I don’t claim to know the truth of the matter with absolute certainly. I don’t claim to know anything with absolute certainty. I base my actions and my goals in life on what I consider probable rather than absolute truths, and I consider the chance that a God or other supernatural beings exist to be vanishingly small.
The question then becomes, do I, again from my personal point of view, consider it a good thing for other people to believe in supernatural beings even though I consider that belief an illusion. In short, the answer is no. It will never be possible for us to know and understand ourselves, either as individuals or as a species, if we believe things that are false, and yet have a profound impact on our understanding of where we come from, what the future holds for us, what morality is and why it exists, the nature of our most cherished goals, and how we live our lives. Our very survival may depend on whether or not we have an accurate knowledge of ourselves. I want my species to survive, and therefore I want as many of us as possible to have that knowledge.
According to a current manifestation of the naturalistic fallacy, religion “evolved,” and therefore it is “good.” Among other places, articles to this effect have appeared at the This View of Life website, edited by David Sloan Wilson, a noted proponent of group selection. Examples may be found here and here. According to the latter:
For Darwin, an inevitable conflict between evolution and religion could not exist for the simple reason that religiosity and religions had been biocultural products of evolution themselves! He realized in the 19th century what many religious Creationists and so-called “New Atheists” are trying to ignore in their odd alliance to this day: If evolutionary theory is true, it must be able to explain the emergence of our cognitive tendencies to believe in supernatural agencies and the forms and impacts of its cultural products.
I’m not sure which passages from the work of Darwin the article’s author construed to mean that he believed that “an inevitable conflict between evolution and religion could not exist,” but the idea is nonsense in any case. Many flavors of both Christianity and Islam explicitly deny the theory of evolution, and therefore a conflict most certainly does exist. That conflict will not disappear whether religiosity and religions are biocultural products of evolution or not. Assuming for the sake of argument that they are, that mere fact would be irrelevant to the questions of whether religiosity and religions are “good,” or whether supernatural beings actually exist or not.
In any case, I doubt that religiosity and religion are biocultural products of evolution in any but a very limited sense. It is most unlikely that genes could be “smart enough” to distinguish between supernatural and non-supernatural agencies in the process of installing innate behavioral tendencies in our brains. Some subset of our suite of innate behavioral predispositions might make it more likely for us to respond to and behave towards “leaders” in some ways and not in others. Once we became sufficiently intelligent to imagine supernatural beings, it became plausible that we might imagine one as “leader,” and culture could take over from there to come up with the various versions of God or gods that have turned up from time to time. That does not alter the fact that the “root cause” of these manifestations almost certainly does not directly “program” belief in the supernatural.
This “root cause,” supposing it exists, is to be found in our genes, and our genes are not in the habit of rigidly determining what we believe or how we act. In other words, our genes cannot force us to believe in imaginary beings, as should be obvious from the prevalence of atheists on the planet. Because of our genes we may “tend” to believe in imaginary beings, but it is at least equally likely that because of them we “tend” to engage in warfare. Supposing both tendencies exist, that mere fact hardly insures that they are also “good.” Insisting that the former is “good” is equivalent to the belief that it is “good” for us to believe certain lies. This begs the question of how anyone is to acquire the legitimate right to determine for the rest of us that it is “good” for us to believe in lies, not to mention which particular version of the lie is “most good.”
One can argue ad nauseum about whether, on balance, religion has been “good” because of the comfort and consolation if provides in this vale of tears, the art products it has spawned, and the sense of community it has encouraged, or “bad” because of the wars, intolerance, bigotry, and social strife that can be chalked up to its account. In the end, it seems to me that the important question is not who “wins” this argument, but whether religious claims are true or not. If, as I maintain, they are not, then, from my personal point of view, it is “good” that we should know it. It matters in terms of answering such questions as what we want to do with our lives and why.
Consider, for example, the question of life after death. Most of us don’t look forward to the prospect of death with any particular relish, and it is certainly plausible to claim that religion provides us with the consolation of an afterlife. Suppose we look at the question from the point of view of our genes. They have given rise to our consciousness, along with most of the other essential features of our physical bodies, because consciousness has made it more probable that those genes would survive and reproduce. When we fear death, we fear the death of our consciousness, but as far as the genes are concerned, consciousness is purely ancillary – a means to an end. If they “program” an individual to become a Catholic priest in order to inherit eternal life, and that individual fails to have children as a result, then, from this “genes point of view,” they have botched it.
In a sense, it is more rational to claim that “we” are our genes rather than that “we” are this ancillary entity we refer to as consciousness. In that case, “we” have never died. “Our” lives have existed in an unbroken chain, passed from one physical form to another for billions of years. The only way “we” can die is for the last physical “link in the chain” to fail to have children. Of course, genes don’t really have a point of view, nor do they have a purpose. They simply are. I merely point out that it would be absurd to imagine that “we” suddenly spring into existence when we are born, and that “we” then die and disappear forever with the physical death of our bodies. Why on earth would Mother Nature put up with such nonsense? It seems to me that such an irrational surmise must be based on a fundamental confusion about who “we” actually are.