Six Arguments Against Religion I: A Poor Return on Investment

After my “Evil Christianity” post a few weeks back, I’ve continued to think about issues of religion and belief. While my own ideas haven’t changed much, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss matters online and offline with a number of friends, both pro- and anti-religion. These six arguments against religion are ones I’ve personally found the most intriguing and compelling.

There are other arguments, but they are mostly variants or derivatives the ones in this list, or are simply blatantly wrong. A couple of quick examples of the latter:

Science Says There Is No God.

The argument here is that Science can find no evidence of God, hence he does not exist. This argument shows a misunderstanding of both religion and science. It’s true that some religions still make claims about the world that are demonstrably false — that everything started less than 10,000 years ago, that evolution doesn’t happen, etc. — but the larger purpose of religion is to provide answers to universal questions about purpose and meaning, and a framework of moral belief and action. For this, the history and structure of the universe is not necessarily relevant. Modern religions rarely claim history, biology, and cosmology as matters of faith. And God is, by his nature, not something you can perform experiments on; so science simply has nothing to say about him.

An Omnipotent God is Logically Inconsistent.

Can God create a rock so heavy he can’t lift it? Why would an omnipotent God allow evil into the world? These are great questions. The first, simplest answer is that God isn’t omnipotent. I subscribe to this view. Another is that God is omnipotent, but can’t do things that are logically impossible (like make 2 + 1 = 4, or create a rock so heavy he can’t lift it, or give humans free will while preventing them from doing evil). Another view is that God is omnipotent, and our little biochemical brains just don’t know all the answers.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s tackle some harder ones. I’m going to progress from the simpler ones to the subtler ones. The arguments are:

  • If you’re religion is false, you’ve wasted years of your time, money, and life.
  • Religious beliefs are frequently inconsistent.
  • Religion discourages independent thought and encourages submissiveness.
  • Religion encourages violence and disrespect of others by dividing people into the “in” group and the “out” group.
  • Religion discourages true virtue by setting up laws and punishments.
  • Picking just one belief system and sticking with it is not the best path.

Religion:  A Poor Return on Investment?

What if your beliefs are wrong?

ire38Most religions require a significant investment of time, money, and effort. Besides learning all the rituals, the stories, the histories, the laws and regulations, there’s all the sermons you listen to. Most religions require (or at least very strongly suggest) that you support them monetarily, as well, and trust that the money is being put to good use.

If your religion is wrong, then… well, it’s a huge, huge waste. Add up all the wasted time and money from one person, and multiply by billions of believers, and it’s a staggering total.

Pascal’s famous wager (you might as well believe in God, because if he’s real you gain tremendously, and if he’s not you’ve lost nothing) doesn’t take these costs into account. Perhaps they’re a small price to pay in exchange for your soul, but it’s still a significant part of your life that you aren’t getting back. And if you’ve chosen the wrong religion, you’ve really lost out. How can you know which one is right?

Papers, Please

It’s like you’re standing outside the gates of the City of God, and to get in, you’ve got to buy the right badge. And there are a bunch of people standing outside, trying to sell you badges. Which is the right one? Is it the most expensive one? The shiniest? The one you personally like best? The one sold by the most trustworthy face? The one your parents bought?…

This is a serious issue. But this problem isn’t unique to religion. For any human endeavor — whether it’s trying to find breakfast, or trying to go to the moon — there are risks involved, and the possibility of losing everything. The difference here is that the churches of the world have raised the stakes considerably, by claiming infallibility, and by saying that your very soul is on the line. The stakes have become so high that violence tends to erupt between factions.

It is essential to realize that religion is a human construction, a tool for reaching and communicating with Spirit. Like any human construction, it is fallible and faulty in some places, genius in others. Recognize this and know the risks before you enter into it; and look with understanding and compassion on those who work with different tools.

Of course, knowing this just makes it even more difficult to choose a badge, doesn’t it? So consider these questions.

Why do you think you can’t you make your own badge? After all, you want something done right, you should do it yourself. For something as important as this, you want the highest possible quality.

Why do you think you have to wear just one badge? The people selling you badges tend to frown on that, but if they’re like most people, they just want all your money, and your children’s as well.

Why do you think you’re outside the City of God?

In the other posts in this series, I’ll tackle the other arguments.  Next up:  inconsistency.

AgainstReligionI

Comments

  1. Science doesn’t say that there is no god.

    Science says that the questions of deities and spirituality are not scientific questions, because they are purely subjective; because by their very definitions, they can not be measured objectively.

    In science, there are objective observations and subjective observations. Subjective observations are used to form hypotheses, which are tested by experiment to form objective observations, which become the basis of theories.

    Spirituality can not be experimented upon… at least, not objectively… because the experimenter’s beliefs play a crucial role in the outcomes. Therefore, theories can not be created… but neither can any hypothesis be proven to be fallacious.

    Gravity is a theory based on the observation of mass attracting other mass. (Actually, the theory is that mass displaces space/time, causing it to curve… based on the observation of light, which always travels in straight lines, to appear to bend as it travels near a massive object.)

    Intelligent Design is a great hypothesis… It explains very thoroughly how complex creatures can exist. However, it is based on the idea of a creator, which can not be observed, either directly or indirectly, so it is completely untestable… Intelligent Design can never be a theory, and can never be proven wrong, simply because it is not scientific.

    So, science itself makes absolutely no claim about spiritual matters… The most scientific these matters can become are untestable hypotheses. There are plenty of deeply spiritual scientists, and plenty of militantly anti-theistic scientists, but those are their personal opinions, untestable by science itself.

    The most that science says about there being a god or not is… There might be a god… there might be billions and billions of gods… there might be no god. There is more evidence that a person could be teleported instantly to a planet a billion light years away, than there is evidence either for or against a god.

  2. Why do you think you’re outside the City of God?”

    Exactly.

    (And I can’t tell you what a relief it is to hear someone else put that one into words!)

  3. Jeff Lilly says:

    Adam: Yes, precisely so. Thanks for clarifying what I was trying to say! I’ve also edited the text itself to make it a little clearer.

    Cat: Thanks! 🙂 There’ll be more on that theme as this series proceeds.

  4. Hi Jeff! It’s been a very long time since I visited, so I’m not sure you remember me but …

    I really am gravitating towards the ‘creating my own badge’ thing. I’m tired of trying to wear badges that others have created. None of the suit me.

    So good to “see” you again. 🙂

  5. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kay, of course I remember you! Welcome back! 🙂

  6. Of course, it could always turn out that making your own badge works about as well as making your own ATM card …

  7. Considering that I’m forging a synthesis of Heathenry, Druidry and Stoicism, I’d say I went for the ‘make your own badge’ option. This doesn’t mean that any of these three religio-philosophical approaches ‘doesn’t work’ in their own right, it just means I needed elements from all three to feel closer to my gods (which I would argue is the first purpose of religion).

    I had to laugh a little about the science has found no evidence for deity part … billions of people around the world see the divine plain as day in nearly every facet of their lives, that science can’t detect the divine only demonstrates the limitations of science, not the lack of divinity in everything.

  8. Doesn’t the observation that people have practised religious beliefs for tens of thousands of years count as scientific evidence of some sort? I know it doesn’t prove anything, but I’m hesitant to turn my back on all that human activity and experience or merely explain it away as a false superstitious relic.

  9. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate, very true! So: strive to make a badge so freaking awesome you’d be proud to wear it, regardless of whether it gets you into the City of God. 😉 Then, if they don’t let you in, it’s their loss.

  10. Jeff Lilly says:

    Tempest: I know! Isn’t it crazy??

    Mahud: For many modern people, the fact that folks have believed religions for thousands of years just proves that human stupidity is endless. They are sure that they are the first ones to have doubts, the first ones to think the thoughts they’re having, and everyone before them was somehow being idiotic. I lean towards the view (to paraphrase Newton) that one is more likely to see further by standing on the shoulders of giants.

  11. Re:
    “Kate, very true! So: strive to make a badge so freaking awesome you’d be proud to wear it, regardless of whether it gets you into the City of God. Then, if they don’t let you in, it’s their loss.”

    They might not *care* whether “it’s their loss” or not — any more than the bank or the post-office cares (or feels it has lost anything) if I try to go through life using some freaking awesome — but home-made — identification badge or ATM card or postage stamps or currency instead of the real thing.

    To use your favorite analogy — religion as language — trying to get around in the “City of God” with my very own home-made spirituality may be rather like trying to get around New York City speaking my very own home-constructed language:
    no matter how awesome it may be,
    no matter how that awesomeness may make it “their loss” if others don’t care to learn it and use it with me,
    I can’t expect to get along very well speaking my very own self-created “Kate-ese” or enacting my own home-made rites of “Kate-ism” if I can’t persuade anyone else to do the same.

  12. True they might not care, and you bring up a good point Kate. However I would still rather be outside “the city of god” with my “freaking awesome badge” than inside with an uncomfortable one. After all shouldn’t you be happy and yourself in the afterlife as well as the here and now.

  13. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate, good points — and Knoll, I agree. The “badge” metaphor breaks down here, in a way, because what happens, I think, is that if your “badge” is good enough — that is, if it’s true enough to yourself and to Spirit — it shows you that you’re already in the City of God. That’s quite a badge! The language metaphor is a little shaky here, too, but if a religion is a language for communicating with Spirit, then “constructing your own badge to get into the city” would be like creating a language that you personally can use to speak to Spirit. In my experience, Spirit is accommodating and tries to meet you halfway, but you do have to listen. 🙂

  14. Re:
    “I would still rather be outside ‘the city of god’ with my ‘freaking awesome badge’ than inside with an uncomfortable one.”

    What if being outside — no matter how awesome my badge — creates discomfort every bit as great as being “inside with an uncomfortable” badge?

  15. I know it’s semantics, but I can’t resist any longer:

    If you are inside the city of your god and feeling uncomfortable because of a badge, you probably aren’t really in the city of your god.

    If you are outside the city of your god and you’re sporting that ‘freaking awesome badge’ and feeling at complete ease, the city of your god is probably inside of you.

  16. i just stumbled upon this. This is awesome I am one who has always questioned Religion or lack thereof. Why does it all have to be so absolute? Why does each religion believe that they are the ones entitled to God or whatever name they use? Jeff you are a genius!

  17. Jeff Lilly says:

    I’m blushing, Dale. 🙂 But religions are absolute — to the extent they are — because people want definite answers in a universe that doesn’t provide them. But in every religious tradition I know of, there are people who realize that theirs is not the one true path, and that there is — and should be — diversity in religion.

  18. ng yong jie says:

    i think, religion is just another perspective of life, the beginning, the purpose and the end. i was born in a country where i was exposed deeply to 3 major religion, christian, Muslim and buddism.

    from the 3 religion, all that is common is the main values a human being should have, the content is very different, the laws, the beginning, the end, hell and heaven. but i think those weren’t important, within the differences i saw a main common point, that all the contents is explaining the purpose life.

    the big question of life, why we existed, religion is just one the answers made up to solve the question, and through it humans take advantage to correct and to justify our human values, some abuse it for money and power.

    we’re born as intelligent beings, we are aware of ourselves, we find all ways to answer to all the unknowns, thus religion is made, at the end, religion is just simply a way of seeing life. nothing more than that.

    there is infinite possible theories to the purpose of existence, maybe it doesn’t have a purpose. existence itself is a very complicated matter to be thought of and i think it’s beyond our ability to comprehend the true meaning of it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] two parts of this series, I’ve tackled two arguments against religion — that it gives a poor return on investment, and that it encourages hypocrisy. In this part I look at another argument: that religion […]

  2. […] accept Jesus as your Personal Savior (TM), you’re going to hell. And you’ve got your badge, so you’re all set. And then you walk around town, and you see someone wearing a different […]

  3. […] to the church! Your good acts will make up for your failings, and you’ll get to keep your badge and get into the City of […]

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