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Which Religion is the World’s Best? Or the least Evil?

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By Stephen Hicks

February 27, 2016

 

Some religious people believe fundamentally in the goodness of human life in the world, but they make an intellectual error in believing that the supernatural helps with that project. Others fundamentally despise themselves or the world, and their religion is used to rationalize that.

To evaluate the track record of any religion, first we need to specify our evaluative benchmarks and identify, in each case, whether we are evaluating religion generically or that particular religion.

A religion is a set of beliefs and practices, and my primary benchmark is this: Does the belief system foster or hinder healthy and happy living in the natural world?

All of the world’s many thousands of religions are false, but they are not all false in the same way or to the same degree—so the destructive effects of their falsity also come in degrees.

Theme 1: Nature-friendly and Nature-hostile Religions

At the outset, we should divide the religious into those who accept the benchmark of healthy and happy living in the natural world and those who reject it. Some religious people believe fundamentally in the goodness of human life in the world, but they make an intellectual error in believing that the supernatural helps with that project. Others fundamentally despise themselves or the world, and their religion is used to rationalize that.

It’s the difference—to take one very particular example—between those who believe, as Benjamin Franklin did, that Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy—and those who believe that Alcohol is a demonic tool of Satan.

The former view celebrates the natural world and its pleasures and believes in a benevolent god as a cause, while the latter view shuns the world out of weakness and guilt and invents a god to reinforce its negativity. Both mistakenly assert that a god exists, but the destructive effect of the more pessimistic religions is much greater than that of the ones that project a fun-allowing God.

Theme 2: The Three-way Philosophical Debate

But we can also speak of religion in general and contrast it to non-religious belief systems in general.

Religion is a type of philosophy, one of three basic types—naturalist, supernaturalist, and nihilist. All three types offer answers to the big questions: What is the nature of reality? What is knowledge? What is human nature? What is the good life, both individually and socially?

Religion is a type of philosophy, one of three basic types—naturalist, supernaturalist, and nihilist. All three types offer answers to the big questions: What is the nature of reality? What is knowledge? What is human nature? What is the good life, both individually and socially?

In broad strokes, the three philosophies answer this way:

The naturalist says: The meaning of life is to be found in the natural world. The nihilist says: The natural world is empty of meaning. The religious say: Meaning is to be found beyond the grave.

The naturalist says: Human beings are rational animals. The nihilist says: Humans are merely meat in motion. The religious say: Humans are meat plus a ghost.

The naturalist says: Ethics is about the objective requirements of natural living. The nihilist says: Ethics is merely about our subjective whims. The religious say: Ethics is about obeying the gods’ subjective whims.

The naturalist says: Knowledge is acquired by evidence and reason. The nihilist says: We’re all irrational. The religious say: Reason is limited or pointless so we should seek mystical revelations or believe on faith.

And so on.

These three characterizations define the extremes, and many thoughtful people attempt to blend their beliefs into more moderate packages. Whether that can be done successfully is an ongoing matter of debate.

But a key point is that it is always a mistake to characterize the debate as a dichotomy—as for example John Wright does by regularly asking us to choose only between a religious-supernaturalist model that believes in something and an atheist-nihilist model that believes in nothing. That false alternative leaves out entirely the atheist-naturalist model.

It is more fruitful intellectually to put the naturalists on one side and both the nihilists and the supernaturalist religions on the other.

In my judgment, it is more fruitful intellectually to put the naturalists on one side and both the nihilists and the supernaturalist religions on the other.

Nihilism and supernaturalist religion are intimately related. Both look at the natural world and see degradation, seething conflict, and emptiness. The religious person recoils from it—but wants to believe in something positive—and so wills himself into believing the supernatural as a refuge and a corrective. Meanwhile the nihilist cannot make himself believe in religion’s fairy tales—and so accepts the negativity and meaninglessness.

Note that both are opposed fundamentally to the naturalists—who affirm the positive value of the world and seek to understand and further it on its own terms.

Theme 3. Religion’s Role in Our becoming Conceptual and Principled

Religion does get credit for aiding in human cognitive development.

In the most primitive stages of human life, we lived range-of-the-moment and often savagely. But we humans have since developed a powerful capacity to be principled and long-range in our thinking and action, and many religions were early attempts to do so.

The development of medicine is an example. In early times humans would get sick, but they would not understand why and make no consistent attempt to unlock the mystery. They would thus suffer and die as an animal suffers and dies.

Some humans then attempted to understand. They grasped the difference between health and disease. They came to believe that health and disease are effects of causes. They understood that effects can be changed by influencing their causes. Yes, they would often locate the key causation in a supernatural realm—the will of the gods, hopefully influenced by sacrifices and prayers—and while that is an error, religious medical theories are an advance over primitivism because they attempt to understand the world conceptually and in terms of causal principles.

But just as continued human progress required the rejection of the initial false religious medical theories, it required the continued development of naturalist theories in the other areas of investigation—psychology, ethics, cosmology, history, and everything else. Religion is a halfway house between primitivism and the fully-realized intellectual framework needed for full human living.

Theme 4. The Best Religion Ever

Contemporary civilization has already achieved much in the direction of realizing that intellectual framework. Our science and technology are impressive, as are our (genuinely) liberal politics, economics, and philosophy.

If the first philosophies were religious—as they actually seem to have developed in human history—then the religion that contributed the most to the development of the naturalistic philosophies deserves credit for having done so.

The best religion ever, accordingly, was the religion of ancient Greece, which opened the cognitive space for natural philosophy and science. Why—of the thousands of cultures across the globe and tens of thousands of years of human living prior to that—did philosophy begin and flourish in Greek city-states around 600 BCE?

Part of the story involves the worldly Greek religion, with its many gods and goddesses possessing humanistic strengths and weaknesses, goals and passions. The gods’ powers made intelligible the causal order of the natural world. Their limitations made it possible for mortals to question them and not to worship them uncritically. The gods’ wisdom, strengths, and beauty gave humans something realistic to aspire to. Much more can be said, but the one religion in history that clearly enabled philosophy and science deserves much credit.

Many other religions, by contrast, deserve blame for positing gods that are mysterious and unknowable and that demand only fear and cowering—and for consistently suppressing questioning and adding loads of undeserved guilt to the human psyche.

A standout feature of some versions of Christian theory, for example, is the unique and infinite value of each individual soul. So one could argue that this position planted the germ of individualism that eventually sprouted in the early Renaissance and developed into the modern world’s robust respect for individuality.

A few words about Christianity are relevant here, as it was in Western Europe, which was mostly Christian at the time, that modern civilization was born. One of two leading historical positions argues that, in contrast to all other religions, Christianity contains some elements that can support a modern, free, scientific, and artistic culture, and that those elements generated the Renaissance and modernity.

A second position argues that Christianity’s role was mostly to retard the reintroduction of Greek and Roman ideas. Christianity’s leaders tried many times to squash early humanism, but humanism succeeded in earning a place in Western culture. Once established, humanism tamed the Christians, who have been fighting a rearguard battle ever since and engaging in after-the-fact accommodations of humanistic culture.

My view is that the second position is closer to the truth, but that there are elements of the first position that are arguable. A standout feature of some versions of Christian theory, for example, is the unique and infinite value of each individual soul. So one could argue that this position planted the germ of individualism that eventually sprouted in the early Renaissance and developed into the modern world’s robust respect for individuality.

At the same time, the belief in the infinite value of the individual’s immortal soul also supports St. Augustine’s influential doctrine of benevolent torture. If one’s eternal salvation depends on believing truly, then why not suffer a few days of bodily agony—if being tortured can cause disbelievers to embrace the truth? The consistent use of officially-sanctioned torture across centuries is also part of Christianity’s legacy—and that militates against the respect for individualism embraced by the Renaissance and modernity.

The consistent use of officially-sanctioned torture across centuries is also part of Christianity’s legacy—and that militates against the respect for individualism embraced by the Renaissance and modernity.

So the best reading of history—with many sub-arguments yet needing to be addressed—is that Christianity did let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, but from its perspective that was unfortunate and the development of modern civilization was in fact an unintended consequence.

Theme 5. The Track Record of Atheism

While religion’s record is mixed, perhaps it is better overall than the alternatives. John Wright, for example, characterizes it this way: “The only openly atheist societies in history were socialist or national socialist, run by Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot and the other most atrocious monsters in history.”

That the individuals mentioned were monsters is not in question. But for both varieties of socialism, national and international, the history and philosophy are more complicated.

While the Communists were atheists, the Nazis were pro-Christianity. An affirmation of generic Christianity is in the National Socialists’ founding party platform (see point 24 of the platform). Goebbels identified the Bible and Jesus’s martyrdom as among his top moral influences. Hitler frequently said that he was doing the Lord’s work.

Yet when explaining the mass killings of the Communists and the Nazis, the important point is this: To do politics well, many principles and practices must be right. Believing in gods or otherwise is only one issue. Believing that humans are by nature evil or good is another key issue. Believing that people are basically rational or irrational is another. And believing that humans are primarily individuals or members of collectives is yet another.

The Nazis and Communists were killers, but not primarily for religious or non-religious reasons. They were killers because they were collectivists, and collectivism can be religious or otherwise. Political collectivism brings with it a willingness to use and sacrifice individuals for the good of the group. And if one believes that the collective is embodied in the State, then the State comes to be an object of worship and the collector of sacrifices.

Collectivist religions have killed many throughout history, while more individualist religions have been more likely to adopt live-and-let-live tolerance policies. Exactly the same holds for non-religious belief systems.

Theme 6: Looking Forward

The many religions’ track records of squashing artists, scientists, and other free-thinkers in economics, politics, and philosophy is terrible. All religions have great stains of immorality upon them, and human decency requires that their apologists acknowledge them.

Yet even now, in the twenty-first century: In the fight against AIDS, the Christian Pope tells Africans not to use condoms. Islamists destroy art and historic artifacts. Magical religionists continue to kill women for witchcraft. So we still have humanist work to do.

Meanwhile, advocates of the many religions continue to insist that their conflicting old texts are true and that their leadership is the best authority.

But if there really is a God, he could just show up and say, Look, guys, here I am. Here is what I meant, and here is why that is the best policy. He could even use social media to keep us abreast of the latest.

The silence of the gods means that religion is really about our hopes and fears and projecting a belief system that supports them. The silence also means that we are on our own—and that it is time that we take full responsibility, happily, for our own destinies. No crutches.

I say happily because if there are no gods, then that means we have lifted ourselves out of the caves. All of the achievements of civilization—in the arts and sciences, as well as in technology and philosophy—were made possible by human beings who did it and who deserve the credit.

Humans can be pretty awesome. We have much to build upon, and we have an open-ended future to explore and create.
 

 

A version of this essay appeared in The Good Life series at EveryJoe.com and can be referred to here.
 

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  • pollachoslegomena

    I like a lot of what you have to say here, but it strikes me as problematic that large swaths of certain things usually called “religious” don’t meet your description of religion. Thomistic Catholicism, for example, agrees at least as much, and perhaps more, with your “naturalist” as with your “religious” philosophy; it’s true that Thomists believe in things beyond the natural world and that our fulfillment as human beings is not fully possible in this life; it’s true that they believe the intellectual soul can survive the death of the body; and it’s true that they believe some truths are beyond natural reason and can only be known by faith or mystical intuition. But they believe that anything known by faith or mystical intuition must be consistent with what is known by natural reason, that our fulfillment as human beings requires us to live a full, bodily animal life, and that ethics is about the objective requirements of natural living rather than obeying the subjective whims of God. I appreciate that you’re gesturing toward the possibility of views like this one when you note that many people attempt to blend their beliefs into a more moderate package. But Thomism is not merely the attempt of a few religious people to blend their religious beliefs with something else; it’s one of the most influential and prominent interpretations of Christianity in that religion’s history (rejected in different ways by Luther and Calvin and their followers, but influential in Anglican theology from the founding of Anglicanism to today). Of course, we might think that Thomism itself was the product of Aquinas’ attempt to blend his religion with something else, namely Aristotelianism; but the Christian theology that existed before Aquinas was no more inclined to see ethics as about obeying the subjective and arbitrary whims of God or to maintain that our fulfillment as human beings is not the fulfillment of a rational animal. Of course, that theology was a synthesis of Christian teaching and neo-Platonism. But I don’t think we should follow fundamentalists in supposing that the only way to identify true Christianity is to look at biblical texts alone. Even if we take that route, we still have centuries upon centuries of Christian belief that is not at all what we would find if we looked solely to biblical texts alone and seek to interpret them solely in terms of the concepts and worldviews of their authors. Hence if we’re going to use the concept of ‘religion’ at all, classical Christianity, whether in its Augustinian or Thomistic forms, should count as a paradigm of Christian belief.

    My own inclination is to ditch the concept of religion and think more in terms of supernaturalism. It seems wrong to identify religion and supernaturalism, since on most points something like Marxism strikes me as pretty clearly a religion despite its opposition to supernaturalism; one might also believe in entities beyond nature (perhaps numbers, or abstract, pre-existing universals) without holding any other views or attitudes that we associate with religion; and some things that look an awful lot like religion might reject the existence of supernatural entities. It’s also relatively clear that a philosophy can occupy any of a number of positions on a spectrum of naturalism and super-naturalism; Franklin was more naturalistic than Aquinas, who was more naturalistic than Augustine, who was more naturalistic than Luther or Calvin or Jerry Falwell. That would help those of us who fall pretty resolutely into the naturalistic camp as you describe it identify ways in which certain ‘religious’ thinkers (like Aquinas) are closer to our own thought in many respects than other ‘religious’ thinkers and even other ‘naturalistic’ thinkers.

    I’m sympathetic to your conclusion about the religion of ancient Greece, though perhaps not entirely for the same reasons. You might appreciate the following, from Hugh Lloyd-Jones’ introduction to his Loeb translation of the tragedies of Sophocles:

    “These tragedies can only be understood if one has some understanding of the religion that lies behind them; we must avoid the opposite mistakes of assuming that this religion resembled Christianity, or that since it did not resemble Christianity it was not really a religion. For the Olympian gods men are only a secondary consideration; Greek religion thus avoids the problem of evil, which has perplexed many Christians. But they have certain human favourites, and the chief god, Zeus, punishes the crimes of men, although since the wicked often flourish it often happens that the punishment is not immediate, but falls only on the descendants of the criminal. Thus even the most admirable of men may be struck down in a moment for a crime committed by an ancestor; the most obvious example is the case of Oedipus. By showing the gods the honour that they demand, and by taking care to remember the limitations of mortality, it was possible for worshippers to remain on comparatively good terms with them; but often it was the bravest and most intelligent among men who like Heracles or Ajax were tempted to commit the offenses which provoked divine resentment. Zeus would then punish them, but the punishment did not diminish their heroic status.

    Before dismissing this religion as outmoded superstition, one may well ask whether it has not certain merits. Neither the “pietists” nor the “hero-worshippers” are altogether right; the truth lies somewhere in between. The Greek gods stand for forces which we can see working in the world, and the things that happen in the world are more easily explained if the universe is ruled by powers like them than if it is controlled by an all-powerful and all-good divinity. Nietzsche, who at the age of twenty lost his Christian faith after reading Darwin’s Origin of the Species, started his career as a professor of Greek, and the influence of this outlook on his philosophy is readily apparent. In a period in which he and others influenced by him have attracted so much attention, it is easy to understand why Sophocles has aroused special interest.”

  • Brianna LaPoint

    I dont give a crap what the article says, it was poorly written. Best religion in my opinion is Hinduism it has the best holidays and it is a nice balance of monotheism and polytheism and not a Hindu i like their holidays though

  • Vidhu Shekhar

    All of your arguments for Greek being the best/least evil, applies also for Hinduism, which is the oldest surviving religion in the world. It shares many framework of old world religion as also some modern aspects. No doubt with time it has lost some of its sheen, still, you can very well count it to be in same pantheon as Greek.

  • Gaijinman

    The best religions… any Christian denomination that doesn’t perform the sacrilege of serving grape juice in place of wine, and also Buddhism. Also special honors to the uniquely Japanese Shinto traditions. Now for the religions that suck:

    Islam and especially Wahabi

    Zionism

    Marxism

    Liberalism

    Climate Change

  • Karthik Adithya

    Why I have enjoyed this article immensely, I would like to know your views on Taoism? Because, personally, I feel that somewhat fares better than the Ancient Greek religion. Let me know, if you find time.

  • advancedatheist

    The Greek paganism known to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle has long since disappeared, despite the LARPing of neopagans who want to reboot it. Yet Greek philosophy has survived. Hmm. What does that say about the importance of religion versus philosophy?

    By contrast, after Christianity disappears, for example, will universities still teach from the writings of Augustine and Aquinas as part of a living philosophical tradition, apart from their historical value? Or will scholars recognize Christian theology and apologetics as historically contingent special pleading for a dead world view based on a mistake?