Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Three propositions:

1. In one of my earliest posts on this blog I argued that religions have positive placebo value. They may be the ‘opiate of the masses’ that acts on the brain as an endogenous opioid but religion makes people less ill, suffer less mental illness and provides a convenient social glue. Praying for someone will not help that person but it might help you. So, while I am an atheist, I don’t resent or dislike the fact that friends and colleagues have religious beliefs. Good luck to them – they’ll probably outlive me, have more friends and almost certainly be more sane.

2. Religious belief is so widespread in different societies that it is presumably hard-wiredthe Supernatural Enforcer guides most people in most societies. Some have asked whether there is a God gene.

3. Although religious conversions seem fairly common in western societies (I could not dig up confirmatory data) my guess is that most people adopt a religion that is reasonably close to the religion of at least one of their parents. It is not an adopted as an act of choice.

Point 3 by itself makes the choice of religious belief seem arbitrary to me but, in conjunction with points 1. and 2., suggests that disputing people’s religious beliefs is unlikely to be a productive communication. It also suggests that while war is presumably a generally a quite irrational response to dealing with conflict generally in terms of its harmful consequences (John Quiggin has reminded us of this recently) that it is particularly pointless when it is derives from differences in religious belief.

I am motivated to make these remarks by the recent horrific suicide bomb attack in Iraq where one sect of Islam attacked another in a marketplace killing 125 people. The street became a river of blood. The input was hatred and the outputs generated were death and hatred.


Christine said...

Suppose there is a positive placebo effect of religion. Yet people keep killing each other for (at least ostensibly) religious reasons. Do the total benefits of religious belief (private plus external) outweigh the total costs?

If not, would they if there was only one religion in the world? Is a single world religion a stable equilibrium? Would it be a stable equilibrium to have no world religion?

OK, I know these sound very economics geeky, but I'm actually semi-serious here. It does bear on whether a non-religious person should in fact attempt to convince a religious person that they are wrong, and on whether a non-religious person should try to convert themselves or raise their children in a fairly religious manner.

hc said...


My view is that you don't try to be very ambitious in dealing with the foolishness of religion. Don't try to dispell people's religious beliefs. It is largely a waste of time for the reasons set out.

Just try to stop religious people from killing each other. This isn't a hard sell since it is consistent with the values of all religions I know and with humanist common sense.

Christine said...

Sure, Harry, in practice - but what about in theory?

Steve Edney said...

"religion makes people ... suffer less mental illness"

Do you have a reference for this? I can probably accept that common (but less visible) forms of mental ilness may be higher amongst atheists - although I am still sceptical about the direction of causality. Anecdotally however the people who really seem to have lost it, and are ranting on street corners almost always are speaking about religous beliefs.

hc said...

Steve, There are quite a few references - one in my linked post - that make the claim I mention. But don't get me wrong. I think religious belief is irrational and foolish - even if it does provide consumerist placebo benefits.

And I agree. Adverse selection means that lots of crazies become religious devotees. But I think the moral hazard consequences of religion are overstated - moderately sane peoople (such as yourself and me) probably would derive benefits.