Monday, 3 December 2007

Is Religion Dangerous?

This is a response to Stephen Law's
"Is Religous Dangerous":

I would agree with William Hawthorne that it is not 'religion' in and of itself that is dangerous, but the following combination (including and paraphrasing some of Stephen's points). The first two conditions might apply to many situations, but it's the third condition that's the clincher for religion:

1) People with an uncritical mind are extremely gullible and open to persuasion by charismatic unscrupulous, or merely misguided, people, or by weight of numbers, about some 'truth' X.

2) People of a critical mind are not completely immune from this persuasion, or may not be able to refute X, for many reasons: they are not as charismatic as some of the proponents; the arguments for X are so tortuous, or rely on fallacies that are difficult to put across to those without the training; the arguments are not even real arguments, but statements that can neither be proved or disproved; there is insufficient data, or the problem is too difficult to refute currently; etc.

Conditions (1) and (2) allows for the propagation of X through whole communities, and it may continue and grow over a period of time. However, given enough effort and time it can be established that X is not a worthwhile 'truth' and can be discarded. Even then some people will continue to belive in X. Crazy 'truths' can sweep the blogosphere in this way.

Condition (2) can result in 'experts' believing X for some time, but later finding flaws in the original reasoning that supported X. This is the case with the early adoption of nuclear energy, where the arguments for it failed to account for the true cost of decommissioning. The war in Iraq might also have been permitted as a consequence of condition (2).

The solution to this problem is more critical reasoning and the promotion and teaching of critical reasoning, as Stephen has suggested.

But, religion comes into its own with condition (3):

3) Faith, and by inference the rejection of critical reasoning. Note that critical reasoning might be used, up to a point, but then only to the extent that it supports X. The main principle here is that if reasoning fails, then faith applies, but if reasoning can be used, no matter how invalid, if you can get away with it use it to bring some apparent credibility to X.

One of the benefits of having faith in your arsenal is that it makes it very easy for those of a non-critical mind, or those struggling with a difficult argument, to simply accept X on faith, and particularly on the word of the leaders of the faith.

4) Hysteria. This isn't absolutely necessary, but it helps. If you can whip up your followers into a frenzy, then it becomes more difficult for followers to reject X. If you've been discarding all reason, chanting and throwing yourself about in the name of X, calling for the death of apostates and non-believers, can you suddenly see yourself turning round and saying "Oops! Sorry folks, I think I may have been mistaken there." Such a sudden change of heart not going to happen is it? It rarely happens in policing, politics and business, so why should we expect it to be likely in religion.

So, religion is dangerous because of the combination of all these conditions; and there may be more.

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