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Pi Guy

Because if religion is mistaken -- and I think that it is -- then that makes it harmful.

By definition.
I was starting to get worried there for a few paragraphs. You began even-handedly - a bit too even-handedly - and *gasp* I thought "Is GC about to make the Golden Mean fallacy? No way..."

But, alas, just as I was about to jump right to the comment box to write "BUT - if it's not true, if it's a myth, then it can't be good for society by any rational measure. (BTW: Speaking of measures - being a science guy I tend think in metric and then have to convert. "...or is it a self-contradictory myth that requires a metric shitload of circular defense mechanisms to support it?" *snickers again*)

I agree with everything. In particular, I argue all of the time that the general gullibility associated with people who would accept any unfounded belief system - not just religion but also astrology, etc.) - leads to many poor long-term, big picture decisions.

As usual, dead-on.


Excellent discussion! Makes me wonder about the sanity of bothering to participate in my own idiotic religion. Oh by the way I mentioned you in today's Demented Diary entry.

John 672

Hello Greta,

I really like this post... but not for the reason you might think. I'd like to write an entry on my blog debating the points you bring up. I would probably have it up by Wednesday. May I have your permission to debate this with you?

Namaste - er... I mean Thank you.

- John.



I've been thinking along these lines for a little while now, but I don't think I could have articulated it this well.

Great post


Ed Jones

You should check out the movie Expelled at it will be out in Feb and discusses the exolution vs. creationism debate in schools.

Greta Christina

John, you're welcome to post whatever you want on your blog. But I can't promise to debate it with you. I will if I have time, but these days that is a big, hairy "If." (To give you an idea: When friends ask me how I find the time to do all the writing I'm doing, my usual answer is, "Sleep deprivation.")

I'd certainly be interested to see your reply, though, even if I may not have time to debate it.


Greta, you wrote that so well.

Over the last couple of weeks I have been trying to formulate my thoughts on just this topic for a post, because I think it's important, but dammit, yours is so much better than what I was trying to work on.

Best thing I can do right now is post a pointer (I doubt I have readers you don't, but just in case).

Wonderful stuff.


Just to play Devil's Advocate here (a mixed metaphor if ever there was one), there are plenty of false theories that are still useful.

Newtonian mechanics and dynamics is simply wrong. It leads to contradictions if you try to use it near the speed of light. Nonetheless, it will get you to the moon, and let you do lots of other useful things.

Admittedly, this is helped by the fact that we understand in considerable detail how much it is wrong, so we know when to use a more complete theory, but it's also "good enough for most real-world applications".

Likewise, I also think a lot of moral "rules" are similarly not quite correct, but close enough to be getting on with.

Unlike fundamentalists, I very much think that such rules should be studied, because there may be extreme situations in which they are dangerously incorrect. And the present is very much a novel situation for a meme that evolved in an agriculture-dominated feudal society.

I just want to point out that "right" and "wrong" isn't an entirely binary division. "Almost right" can be useful, particularly if you understand the "almost".


Wow! Great post. And good comment, too, Eclectic. But what if we say that Newtonian mechanics is helpful to the extent that it is mostly accurate, and harmful if we insist on holding it in situations where it isn't accurate? Does that bring things back into line with Greta's point?


I was discussing with someone not to long ago why I can't date anyone who believes in any kind of supernatural deity, religion, whatever. He wanted to claim that many pagans are much more tolerant and have more of a live and let live attitude about atheists and other religious ideas. While I agree that I get into less arguments with pagans, I have to include them in the "don't date" category. The reason is because their belief in a "mistaken" idea spills over into their decision-making process, regardless of how tolerant or accepting they are.

As you pointed out, someone who worships a rain god will make bad decisions in times of drought because they are operating under a set of assumptions that will not accurately predict the future.

Someone who has any sort of belief in supernatural events will make decisions that fundamentally conflict with my idea of the "right" way to conduct a relationship and life in general.

I wish I could remember some of the examples I gave during that discussion. They had to do with how their religious beliefs ultimately caused them to do things to or believe things of *me* that were contrary to promoting a loving relationship. I think I'll start sending people to this entry the next time someone starts in on me for being "close minded" about dating outside my "religion". Bah.


Hi! I recently found you, and I've been reading you dialy since then.
I think your post is really, really interesting, so I wanted asked if you mind if I translate it on spanish and put it, with credit and a link, of course, in my journal.
There a lot of people I know, who are not able to read in english, but could found fascinating this.


Sorry Eclectic, but that is one of the silly BS concepts that get dredged up when talking about this. That "moral codes" is the same thing as religion. They are not. Its possible for the basic moral precepts to be right and the religion 100% wrong, and in fact, one could argue **likely**, since there is very little general deviation from those codes between different religions. Yeah, there are relatively minor ones, like what sort of sex lives (if any) you are *allowed* to have or if you should kill only outsiders, or no one (and its only certain modern versions of some religions that even try to claim the later either. The OT was hardly a book full of examples on how you shouldn't kill *anyone*, instead of just not your own people.)

Trying to claim that moral values = religion is just conflating the argument into not two separate arguments, but three. I.e.: 1. Is religion true or not? 2. Is religion harmful or not? 3. Are the moral codes we follow right now ones that make sense?

The answer is imho, the same as Greta has stated, its hard to imagine religion being *right* at this point, if it is wrong, then its harmful by definition, and one of the ways that it *is* harmful is that it distorts moral codes, such that you get double standards and excuses for who they codes apply to, or even *if* they apply at all when deciding how to deal with someone that doesn't believe the same as you.

Case in point. These people think they are right to push the whole idea of eternal damnation and salvation via Jesus on everyone, *but* the first thing they did when disaster struck was start praying for people to be hurt, scared and gullible enough to go to them to *find* that salvation, instead of praying that those people would not be hurt, or anything else just as useless, but more ethical/moral:

This is what Greta is talking about. Religion, or one could argue, if you don't want to call all of them wrong, the "wrong" religion, distorting the very "moral rules" you think are so useful, into something undeniably evil, and the people following them being completely blind to the fact that they are, precisely because they choose to equate what is the right thing for them to do under the circumstances with what their "religion" tells them, instead of what imho most people's conscience would suggest instead.

As its said, evil men will do evil, good men will do good, but it takes religion to make good men do evil (and more to the point, convince them its actually good they are doing instead).


Although you discuss this tangentially, I think that it deserves more emphasis: It is not merely that religious beliefs are mistaken that's the primary problem. The problem is that the particular kinds of falsehoods embraced and promoted by religion are exactly the sort that magnify errors - making them more frequent, more severe, and less correctable.

My own take on this is that faith is not only an epistemological disaster, it is also a moral failing. At some point this will be the topic of a scholarly-type paper, but I've already written a short essay about it that Ophelia Benson kindly published at Butterflies & Wheels. See
if you're interested.


Actually, the issue can be divided into any number of valid sub-issues. Not only "does god exist" and "is religion a good thing", but also "is faith a good thing", "does non-belief in god equal non-belief in ANYTHING", "do people need religion for morality", and many more.

The problem is, people who never learned how to discuss - yes, it is a skill - jump from one topic to another. You have to be careful in any discussion not to allow either side to inadvertently jump topics like this.

But yeah, religion is bad. :)

John 672

Hello Campbell.

Funny you should mention that - I just argued the same exact thing in my response to Greta's post. Hopefully you will find that my response doesn't jump from one topic to another. :-)

Steve Caldwell


I saw a response to this post on your blog on a Unitarian Universalist blog called "The Pageless Book."

Here's the URL for this response:

I thought you might find this interesting.

John B

Greta -

Thanks for the mind-working posts. I don't agree with some of your positions, but appreciate the skullsweat your ideas and writing inspire.

I don't agree that mistakes are always damaging. Accidental discoveries are mistakes, after all, and the huge number of accidental discoveries we humans have come across boggles *my* mind at least, especially compared to the numbers of discoveries that were the end product of directed research.

I would also posit that fiction is potentially a useful fallacy. It allows for creative mind-stretching in ways that bare fact can quite often fail to address. Of course, it can be abused, but what can't be abused? *wry grin*

Does that make religion more or less damaging to society? I don't know - I'm not that smart. I'd just like to point out that not all work on mistaken ideas turns out to be detrimental.


John B. Hodges

I posted this to the Unitarian's blog.

AFAICT you seem to be saying that (1) religion minus claims of Truth = Practices and values, and (2) the practices and values can be beneficial, even if the associated story is fiction. So, for example, one could live like a Narnian even if there isn't any Narnia. (I have a fondness for Valdemar, myself.)

Though a longtime atheist myself, I once proposed deliberately creating a false religion designed to give the sorts of comfort that religions do, while implying and teaching the sort of ethics that would do the most good and the least harm. I suspect that the founder of the Bah'a'i Faith was making his best effort to do just that. My own effort was much simpler: Sequential Reincarnation; the doctrine that when you die your soul goes to the back of a line, and when you reach the front of the line you go into the next available human body. This, I hoped, would allow folks to deny the reality of death, which they so desperately want to do, and motivate them to try to make this Earth a good place to live for everyone in all lands, in a way that could last indefinitely, a Just and Sustainable society.

You noted that Zen (and perhaps other forms of Buddhism) can be entirely naturalistic is also to the point; but IMHO any philosophy of life that is entirely naturalistic does not qualify as a "religion". That is, I think, the defining difference between religion and philosophy, that religion makes at least some supernatural claims. It would be unusual (unheard of?) if any religion made supernatural claims WITHOUT those claims having some relevance to the ethics and practices that they teach.

My major complaint about religion is that it (typically) teaches a false theory of ethics, that ethics consists of conforming to the Divine Will, obedience to the Divine Mandate, however that may be expressed. This (a) makes ethics a matter of obeying some Authority, which consequently prohibits applying reason to ethical questions, and (b) severs ethics, to at least some degree, from concern for the consequences to real people in this world.

If ethics and practices are based, in any degree, upon false stories, thay are likely, to that degree, to be bad ethics.

David Harmon

John: (I have a fondness for Valdemar, myself.)

Oops, you just exposed the flaw in your "useful fictions" argument. I like Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar series myself, as fantasy... but the basic appeal of the series is exactly what makes it a fantasy: It offers a world where "the gods" not only exist, but they're paying attention, and occasionally providing direct assistance.

Remember too, that Valdemar is ruled and administered by a corps of people chosen and chaperoned by direct servants of their gods -- which is much of why the series occasionally drifts into "Mary-Sue Nation" territory. ;-)

That's exactly what we don't have in reality! somebody claiming to hear from God can't prove it nohow, and in practice, they're unlikely to any more moral (often much less) than someone who makes no such claims. And that leads back to Greta's point that believing and acting on untruths can be remarkably dangerous.

Loren Petrich

About 2360 years ago, the philosopher Plato in his dialogue "Republic" recognized that truth vs. falsehood and good vs. evil are separate issues; he proposed that his Republic have an official religion which he called a "royal lie". And there are others who have had similar viewpoints over the centuries; it's like saying that the religion business is desirable as the opium of the people.

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