Riker's Mailbox

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Found on the Blogroll*:

Matt McCormick, author of Atheism: Proving the Negative, has written some really nice articles addressing, among other things, some of the difficulties of atheism we don't often think about, what with all the 'disproving Christianity' that keeps us busy.

This particular article of his caught my attention. It stopped me dead in my tracks, since at the time, the idea he presented had never once crossed my mind.

The idea came from recent studies that suggested religious people were generally happier and healthier than their nonreligious counterparts, and really amounts to "Okay, we know religion is not true... but if it turns out that being religious really is good for us, then what do we atheists DO with that information?"

After some vigorous pondering, here's what I came up with:

The first thing we have to do is analyze the merits of the statement above. As Mr. McCormick noted, most atheists would jump to the conclusion that the studies were not properly constructed or were otherwise compromised so as to provide some degree of bias in their results. Off the cuff, I think that's true.

But I'd like to frame my response without having to invoke a flaw in these studies themselves**, and instead appeal to general knowledge about studies of this nature, and what we can infer when we think critically about them:

Studies like this often fall victim to 'tunnel vision' wherein the item they're focusing on (in this case, religiosity) is inadvertently credited for all deviations and contrasts between the subjects of the study, when other influential factors are undoubtedly present. Religiosity is often accompanied by complimentary*** behaviors and/or belief structures that may be nonreligious in and of themselves, and which may influence the subject just as strongly.

An example of this phenomenon is that Muslims are less likely than Christians to be killed in automobile accidents****. When worded this way, it implies that Islam makes one a better driver than does Christianity. But it's much more likely that since Muslims generally don't drink, Muslims drive drunk far less frequently than Christians do, resulting in fewer enough drunk-driving fatalities to skew the results.

As it pertains to the studies above, I'd be shocked not to discover the same kind of effect taking place.

But... that's not the only mitigating factor in my assessment. If we disregard my argument above and assume that the studies were constructed to eliminate those external factors, and that they accurately measured a difference in wellbeing based solely on religiosity, there is this to consider:

These studies are essentially positing religion as a giant placebo. This is actually a great explanation of religion - A placebo is an inert substance/operation that has a positive physical effect on the subject; it literally 'hacks' the brain into generating relief because the subject believes he has received a genuine***** treatment. As you might expect, placebo can be effective... but genuine medicine is usually much more effective. Similarly, there are probably many other things in life that can be more beneficial than religion. Real things. It is naïve to think that religion's placebo effect is singular among all we can experience. Remove religion from a population and replace it with something rational and real (like higher education, for example) and what benefits were lost in removing religiosity may be replaced or restored.

Of course, there is probably a cumulative effect of these benefits, and it's fair to say, in following my example, "Well, if we have higher education and religion, then we'll be even happier!" I admit I do not have an argument against this. I will say though, that there are probably dozens if not hundreds of distinct rational alternatives that many of us to not yet employ in our lives****** that hold similar potential benefit without all the negatives that inherently accompany religion*******. All we have to do is pick one. That shouldn't be too hard.

But wait!! There's more!

Finally, there's the dilemma of disbelief itself. Again, we'll disregard my arguments above, and now assume that the studies are definitely correct. Religious people are better off than nonreligious people. Okay. But we still run into an issue.

Like the placebo I mentioned before, religion only has its assuaging powers when people believe in them. Atheists cannot will themselves to benefit from religion when they are aware that it is not true. Thus, you can only cross the line from belief into disbelief. Atheism is a one-way ticket; once we know better, we are no longer capable of experiencing the benefits of religiosity.

With this in mind, the question at hand no longer applies to atheists. Now it applies exclusively to atheists' behavior toward believers.

And the question is not whether we should keep dragging people across the line from belief into disbelief... it's whether we are obligated to keeping others from crossing on their own.

Thinking rationally about such a dilemma, it becomes a matter of Ignorance versus Bliss. I believe the conclusion we'd inevitably come to is that the benefit of removing that bit of ignorance would not outweigh the benefit of leaving said ignorance intact. Would we ever have a reason to tell a patient that the medicine we gave him shouldn't have worked??

The least course of action that would be morally acceptable would be to swear one's self to secrecy. To actively promote the greater good, atheists would actually have to shoulder the burden of maintaining belief in the masses.

Think about that. We would literally become the shepherds to the flock. Ergo, atheists would be destined to become the new clergy.

How wild is that?********

* -
** - especially since I'm not privy to the details of how the studies were done. No unsubstantiated allegations coming from this mouth.
*** - as in, 'complementing each other,' not 'free of charge.' Because the latter wouldn't make any sense.
**** - This is a fabricated assertion. I have no idea whether it's true or not, but it is a great model for what I'm trying to explain.
***** - In this sense, I mean 'genuine' to indicate an active medicine rather than an inert one. Many doctors will attest that placebo are a genuine treatment, since they do provide a measurable benefit when properly implemented.
****** - Yoga comes to mind for some reason. I offer no explanation.
******* - I guess I
do have an argument against it, then, don't I?
******** - This post definitely holds my personal record for most footnotes.

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