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Intelligence Squared: Would The World Be Better Off Without Religion?

Posted in Editorials on November 16th, 2011
by Elizabeth
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Last night, Adam and I attended the Intelligence Squared debate “Would The World Be Better Off Without Religion?” I am inclined to think that the world would be pretty much the same without religion. I don’t deny that religion is linked with tremendous atrocities – oppression, war and ignorance. However, I am not sure that these things are the sole purview of religion. As I said on twitter, religious problems also exist in a secular context – greed, bloodlust, prejudice all appear in our society in ways not directly related to religion. I think that a better way to state the motion would be “Does religion do more harm than good?” But as I have written previously, I think sometimes Intelligence Squared goes for the catchy title rather than a proposition that is easy to debate.

I think that the speakers were all impressive Matthew Chapman and A C Grayling for the motion and Dinesh D’Souza and Rabbi David Wolpe arguing against. However, I was a little disappointed with the fact that neither side really made an effort to frame the debate, and both sides seemed to be talking past each other. Chapman and Grayling cited ridiculous and cruel passages from the Bible and stressed that religion deters science and oppresses women and gay people. D’Souza and Wolpe spoke of the good things religious charities do and of how people need hope and to set high moral standards. Rabbi Wolpe pointed out that the other side kept stressing the text whereas he was talking about the actions of religious people. This was an excellent point, and wasn’t countered at all.

Still, I felt like there was a lot being left unsaid. I did get to ask a question. I asked, “For those in favor of the motion, how are the harms of religion different from those of nationalism and racism? And for those opposed to the motion, how are the good things about religion different from the benefits of secular charities, community organizations or having close relationships with family?” Chapman said other societal ills are “mistakes based on reason” and that the “horrors of religion” are based on “superstitious fear and delusion.” I’m not sure if he really means to say that racism is rational, but what I think he is missing is that superstition and delusion exist outside of religion. Rabbi Wolpe said religion is good because religious people do good works for a transcendental, enduring purpose. I find this also kind of silly and trite. What if your enduring purpose was because you wanted to be remembered after you died as a philanthropist? There are reasons people do good things for all kinds of philosophical, moral, and social purposes, some of which are selfish but as a person who enjoys art museums and a yearly concert at Carnegie Hall, I can’t criticize the “selfish” philanthropists too harshly.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I am glad that my congregation exists. I am interested more in ideas of orthopraxy – how we should live a moral life, and the faith I have that we are called to do good works – than theological debates about the existence or nonexistence of God. But I am in no denial about the atrocities human beings are capable of. I believe a case can be made that there would be less cruelty in the world without religion, but it was not made last night by Chapman or Grayling. Brilliant writers though they may be, they never specifically explained how religion discourages critical thinking or why it halts scientific progress. I understand those arguments thoroughly, but wonk than I am, I needed to hear them spell it out before I would vote for them. I was frustrated with D’Souza’s arrogance and odd non-sequitirs (if Catholicism is better than Hinduism because it lacks a caste system, then doesn’t Hinduism make the world worse?) I liked Rabbi Wolpe the best of all the speakers but he never explained why a religious person is better off because of religion than they would be if they simply were involved in secular charities and had an active social life. In his closing statement he made a touching statement about hope, but hope comes from all kinds of places, and is not solely the province of religion.

I maintain that the world would be much the same without religion, a few inspiring heroes, some terrible villains, and most of us falling somewhere in between.

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3 Responses to “Intelligence Squared: Would The World Be Better Off Without Religion?”

  1. Donnie McLeod Says:

    I have Huntington’s Disease. After much contemplation I wrote a poem to a young theist who could not understand why I reject turning to God in my time of crisis. It is because I have of 16 that share the DNA of my mother, 8 will need more than believe to get them up in the morning. They will need the help of Richard Dawkins and etc. to get up.

    The Art of Getting up in the Morning

    I need to get up in the morning.. I need the transition of dark to light. I need the blue light from the sun. The light distorted as it travels through the horizon. If I don’t after two weeks my body will want to sleep all day and stay up all night. That is our nature.

    I need to get up in the morning. God is not going to get me up. A nagging spouse is not going to get me up. Fear of consequences is not going to get me up. It will keep me in bed. I have to get my DNA to want to get up and face the day. That means I have to convince my own DNA, that as a collaborative monkey, I am contributing. I must prove to it I have meaning and purpose. It has to be real. That is our nature.

    I need to get up in the morning, to eat well, to go for a 2 hour walk for the BDNF so I can produce new brain neurons. That is our nature.

    I need to get up in the morning to ask of others and learn, discuss, ask questions, be terribly wrong, listen, think, project, assume, verify, articulate and write. All that leads to production of new brain neurons. That is our nature.

    I need to get up in the morning knowing that over the last week someone said something with that incredible tone of voice that means I have made other’s lives better. That means it is very likely to happen again in the next week. That is our nature.

    I need to get up in the morning to go to bed at night at 10 p.m. for a full night sleep with the short and long term memory shuffling that comes with dreams and restorative cell work that comes during sleep. That is our nature.

    I get up in the morning because I know each day will be exceptionally wonderful and that takes my mind way beyond my physical limitations, including that broken part of my brain. As the poem I once read to my kids revealed to me; “Good morning, good morning, its time to face the day, first we’ll have breakfast and then we will play.”

    end.

    I express this in another way when asked to share some knowledge about business with college kids.

    1. Know what you do well and stretch that everyday.

    2. Work with friends that do what you are not inclined to do, about 5 or 6 in one group at any one time.

    3. Avoid people too selfish for your own good, use about 1 of every 12 as a guide.

    4. Wait for 5 positive interactions before calling anyone a friend, Cahners found a $3,000.00 activity based cost to sell a solution.

    5. Find the freedom to exchange a million little random ideas and make a million little mistakes to avoid catastrophe.

    6. Avoid jobs doing puzzles if not automated they will be outsourced for $10 per hour.

    7. Delight in jobs of mysteries. This is where you will find quality of life.

    8. If strong, find work in a selfish culture and change it from inside. You will know that by observing that knowledge transfers will be at the slow rate of 12 people per meeting. Knowledge will be corrupted by self interest.

    9. If weak, like me, find work in the growing number of firms that see the advantage of a culture of fairness needed for sharing for beating competition which cannot change and vulnerable to a fearless, learning and responsive younger managed business. Firms were alignment of fit for function of collaborative monkeys appreciates the DNA of most of us, not all, can be used to create fearless organizations. You will know that by observing that knowledge transfers will be at the fast rate of less than 6 people per meeting. Knowledge will travel up in times of external threats instantly. They will be fearless firms.

    Do more than co-operate, collaborate.

    donnie_mcleod@bell.net
    enjoying getting up in the morning
    in Almonte, ON, Canada
    with the trees, water falls and that dawn light.
    Poem ‘The Art Of Getting Up In The Morning’ is a Copyright of Donald G. McLeod, 2011
    If you find this useful please find someone in your community with Huntington’s Disease, like me, and ask them to help you in a way their DNA believes they are contributing in a meaningful way. That way their DNA is less likely to punish them for being useless and so to contribute by committing suicide, mind you the DNA acts on belief so it is wrong, for the good of our species. So help by having other’s DNA believe that they are contributing with what ever abilities they are left with. Its not so hard.

  2. Ashwani Says:

    I am an Indian & a Hindu. I cant understand why caste system is related to religion? Being in India, I am aware the atrocities of caste system. BUT, that was almost a decade back. Authors, researchers etc dig up stuff written ages ago and believe it to hold true now as well. No doubt, in some remote villages caste system still exists. But if anyone from a ‘backward caste’ in todays India wants to join standard chartered bank in India, no one will stop them because of their last name.
    The topic of the debate is idiotic. It pre-supposes that religion is bad.
    You have to know that whatever crimes have been done are due to half understanding of religion.
    I believe in god, he/she can be christ, Ram, Allah, Devi or anyone else. But I also believe in the goodness of people. That’s a god worthy trait.
    I do not think that all the corporate greed & theft we see today is result of religion. If anything, it is lack of the values that religion teaches. Religion is not just a set of practices it’s values which aim to bring every one together that is the true purpose of religion.
    It is difficult to see God as formless and it is difficult to see God as form. The formless is so abstract and God in a form appears to be too limited. So some people prefer to be atheists.

    Atheism is not a reality, it is just a matter of convenience. When you have a spirit of enquiry, or in search of truth, atheism falls apart. With a spirit of enquiry, you cannot deny something which you have not disproved. An atheist denies God without first disproving it. In order to disprove God, you must have enormous knowledge. And when you have enormous knowledge, you cannot disprove it! For one to say that something does not exist, one should know about the whole universe. So you can never be one hundred percent atheist. An atheist is only a believer who is sleeping!

    For a person to say, “I don’t believe in anything”, means he must believe in himself – so he believes in himself about whom he does not even know!

    An atheist can never be sincere because sincerity needs depth – and an atheist refuses to go to his depth. Because the deeper he goes, he finds a void, a field of all possibilities – he has to accept that there are many secrets he does not know. He would then need to acknowledge his ignorance, which he refuses to do, because the moment he is sincere, he seriously starts doubting his atheism. A doubt-free atheist is next to impossible! So you can never be a sincere and doubt-free atheist.

  3. Intelligence Squared: Would the World Be Better Without Religion? Says:

    [...] on how it went down. (My wife Elizabeth was the one who got me to go, and you can also read her thoughts on the evening.)Of the four debaters, I actually think that Wolpe, the rabbi, came off best. He was the most [...]

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