Monday, August 13, 2012

Religion Makes People Better

Four Star Nursery, Carleton, MI
When I converted from weak agnosticism and practical atheism to Christian theism, immediately I began to be a better person. A process of morphing from self-centeredness to other-centeredness had begun, and continues to this moment. I am certain that I am a better husband to Linda with Christ than without him.

Christianity has made me a "better." [Not "best."] I have met countless people for whom this is true. Their "religion" has made them kinder, more giving, sacrificial, and as a result has morally improved our culture. This is true, in spite of the rantings and raving of the atheistic "Four Horsemen" who have ridden through town and are now heading off into their own darkness.

Why be concerned wth them if they've left town? Because they've left a smearing residue which states, falsely, that religion makes people worse, even evil. Internet village atheists pick up this mantra and mindlessly repeat it, thinking they have said something intellectual. This idea can be debunked.

Today's Chronicle of Higher Education agrees, in Tom Bartlett's fine essay "Dusting Off GOD: A new science of religion says God has gotten a bad rap." It's worth a read. Here are some of the bullets.
  • Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, two of the "Horsemen," beieve that religion is "malevolent." Religion "poisons everything." "Religion is obviously bad for human beings, condemning them to ignorance, subservience, and endless conflict, and we would be better off without it."
  • But would we be better off without religion? Bartlett says "you have to figure out what religion does for us in the first place. That's exactly what a loosely affiliated group of scholars in fields including biology, anthropology, and psychology are working on. They're applying evolutionary theory to the study of religion in order to discover whether or not it strengthens societies, makes them more successful, more cooperative, kinder."
  • These scholars, many of them atheists themselves, consider the New Atheists to be "ignorant, fundamentalist, and worst of all, unscientific."
  • The issue here is not whether God exists, but whether it's helpful to believe God does exist, and if this makes people better rather than malevolent.
  • Bartlett refers to a "study that found that religious people were, in some instances, more likely to treat strangers fairly. Or the multiple studies suggesting that people who were prompted to think about an all-seeing supernatural agent were less likely to cheat. Or the study of 300 young adults in Belgium that found that those who were religious were considered more empathetic by their friends." Like many Jesus-followers I know of, I have given money away to needy people and causes. We do this because: 1) We believe there is a God; 2) we believe all we have in life is a gift from God, and we are God's stewards of his resources; 3) God has a preferential option for the poor; and 4) God can instruct us what to do with his money, which will include giving it away to meet the needs of others. My "religion" fuels altruism.
  • "A growing body of research suggests that religion or religious ideas, in certain circumstances, in some people, can elicit the kind of behavior that is generally good for society: fairness, generosity, honesty. At the very least, when you read the literature, it becomes difficult to confidently assert that religion, despite the undeniable evil it has sometimes inspired, is entirely toxic." This is the point David Sloan Wilson makes. And, Wilson, professor of biology and anthropology at Binghampton University, is an atheist "who is interested in finding out what religion does, from an evolutionary perspective, for individuals and societies." Religion, reasons Wilson, "bestows an array of evolutionary advantages on groups of believers."
  • Wilson has "declared that Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists "don't understand the nature of the beast" and yet still "go on and on in a very ignorant fashion."... Wilson contends that [militant atheist P.Z.] Myers and the rest are fabricating a cartoon version of religion, one that doesn't grapple with the science, and deciding on the outcome (religion is bad) before the evidence is in."
  • University of Michigan anthropologist Scott Atran describes the New Atheist idea of religion as malevolent as "moronic. "I don't see anything in the New Atheists' work that tells us anything at all about religion," he says, "and I think their ad hominem attacks are ridiculous.""
  • "In a recent Science article, Atran and Jeremy Ginges, an associate professor of psychology at the New School, cite evidence suggesting that "only a small minority of recorded wars" have been mainly motivated by religious disputes (though making distinctions between religious and political causes is notoriously knotty). They complain in the article that the New Atheists are quick to remind everyone how fundamentalism fuels Al Qaeda but neglect to mention the role of churches in the civil-rights movement. The New Atheists are, according to Atran and Ginges, cherry-picking the horrors. "Science produced a nuclear bomb. Therefore we should throw away science," says Atran, to illustrate the baby-bathwater logic. "Sometimes it can be really noxious, and other times it can be quite helpful.""
Anyone still living under the myth that religion is inherently evil would do well to read this article and follow up by studying the likes of Wilson, Atran, et. al.