Saturday, October 16, 2010

Good Sides of Religion?

I shall respond to some of your comments (it's only fair that I do) and clarify a few things. For now, I will write a separate post, but I might reorganise it later.

First of all, I do not intend to make this an anti-religion site, but a pro-reason one. Religion just happens to be what I am interested in at the moment, and it's a very popular subject. I am not trying to demonise it, but to study it objectively. Perhaps religion was a wrong choice, as it is a complex matter, and I should have started with something simpler, but there's no use crying over spilled milk now. In my next few posts, I will try to get everyone familiar with the "background" and make a case for certain assumptions that I use. Until then..


Usefulness of religion is debatable but irrelevant. I am interested in the truth, not usefulness. Sam Harris said in a debate once that it would be very useful to indoctrinate children with the idea that they have to study science or they will be devoured by a demon, yet no one is doing it. Indeed, the usefulness of religion is irrelevant to the religious folk as well. I've never heard anyone say that they believe something because it's useful. Usefulness only joins the argument when someone is trying to defend religion, claiming that it is responsible for certain good things too and that it provides answers to questions that (they think) no one else can answer. I disagree on both accounts. I can't think of a truly good thing that religion is responsible for, that did not cause more evil than good. As for the provision of certain answers, this is a bit complicated issue and I will deal with it in detail in some other post. For now, let's take a moment to bask in the words of Bertrand Russell, a man I greatly admire.


A common argument is that of morality i.e. that a good thing religion did is that it spread and/or invented morals. This argument is so lame that it should be ridiculed. On what grounds does one claim that the morality of their religion is superior to any other morality? Because a book says that something called God thinks it is superior? Assuming he exists, why should I think that he is right? How could God possibly convince me? Do you remember the Euthyphro dilemma? "Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?" Think about that for a moment. Imagine standing in front of God and asking him "God, why should I accept your moral code?" and he answers either "Because I say so" or "Because it is the right thing to do". Without analysing whether or not these answers mean the same thing, I can say that they are both meaningless. I will address morality in detail at some later point, and further invalidate such arguments.


I did not say that the world would be at peace if it were void of religion nor am I so naive to believe it. Religion does not necessarily cause war. For example, it is quite reasonable to believe that the Crusades, or something equivalent, would have happened anyway, if it weren't for Christianity. However, religion is like a drug that makes soldiers more obedient and makes them do things they otherwise would not. When a leader wishes to wage a war people are more likely to support him if they believe that his word is God's word and you don't question God. We all know from experience that there are certain things only religious soldiers can do. Religion doesn't cause war, but it makes supersoldiers.

Old friends.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Origins and Evolution of Religion

As it is a rather popular topic, I decided to write some more about this repulsive antithesis of reason. You might find this post boring but it might give some more insight into why religion is the way it is. Perhaps you will find interesting the fact that evolution of religion mirrors greatly the evolution of living creatures. Bear that in mind while reading this.


The right eye of a giant bird-god.
..Or it's a large ball of hydrogen.
The first "religious" memes came into existence when a member of some primitive tribe of apes claimed that they figured out some of the following: volcanoes, thunder and lightning, the wind, the Sun, the Moon, the stars, disease etc. Their explanations included magic, giant/invisible humanoids, anthropomorphic animals etc. (Most of them have since left religion because science explained it all.) Some of the reasons why people come up with and spread such nonsense, include:

  • Desire to impress or deceive (cf. "bullshit")
  • Mental disorders
  • Mushrooms, yopo, virola, cannabis ...

The first one listed being by far the strongest. I rarely encounter people who readily admit that they do not know, they bullshit instead. Impressing others is of vital importance to the continuation of the species, and no one is impressed by ignorance.

But why would anyone believe any of it? Well, the human brain is not perfect, it's a kludge. We tend to believe authority figures (especially when we are children), we tend to conform to the majority, we make plenty of logical fallacies, we tend to not understand large numbers, probabilities etc. I will come back to this point in a future post.

The crucial meme of religion is the idea that death is actually not the end of life. It's a very pleasing idea to someone whose main fear is death*. It is so pleasing that it is almost certain to occur and spread.

The first religion is formed by connecting several such memes. E.g. "when you die, you join the bird-god".
*Fear of death and desire to live are products of evolution. People who have neither tend to die without progeny, it's as simple as that.


Once you have this basic "organism" called religion, the evolution takes care of the rest. New memes can be added and mutations can occur on existing memes, changing them a little bit. This organism will be attacked by reason and by other religions that contradict it. Its fate is either to perish, as the vast majority of religions have, or to evolve. Religions today are the lucky ones that have evolved rather than perished. Just like living organisms, they have adapted to their surroundings.

A nice example are the Abrahamic religions. A mutant child called Christianity was born and it had Hell, and eternal love and forgiveness. It might not make much sense but that does not matter. It works. That's why it's still there. If you join them, they promise salvation and if you don't, they promise eternal fire. It is an effective weapon against atheism, agnosticism and many religions. The other offspring, Islam, was born with additional mutations: Muhammad was the last prophet and apostasy means death. These are even more effective. Had any peaceful religion been born in that area in place of Islam it would have perished. Islam, and religion in general, is a product of its surroundings.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Religion and Truth

Religion, in its current state, is hands down the greatest enemy of truth so perhaps it is a logical choice for this post. My intention is to give short but sound arguments against this horrible disease of mankind.

Primary interest of religion is not the truth

Religion is a set of ideas and ideas spread with variation. In other words, religion is a set of memes (a concept introduced by Richard Dawkins). Religion evolves just as life does and consequently its primary interest is maximal reproduction and not the truth or the well-being of humans or anything else. This should be fairly obvious. People believe what is pleasing, not what is true or what is written in their book. Many Christians haven't even read the Bible, and many among those who have, reject bits that they don't like.

A person born in Saudi Arabia is very likely to be a Muslim. Why? Because Islam is very good at making Muslims, not because Islam is an evident truth. The same is true for religion in general. If religion was bad at gaining followers it would disappear. So, if a religion exists it is because it is good at it, not because it is true.

Religion is full of unsupported claims that are good for spreading it: eternal life, Heaven, Hell, prayers etc. These ideas are there because they are good for religion. They are random gibberish but they stuck because they were a favorable mutation for religion. It has nothing to do with truth. But could it be that religion is true anyway? I think not.

Religion is actually not true
"Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là."

There is no proof of God, and there is no need for such an assumption. That alone should be enough to dispose of God, but indoctrination, superstition, fear and plain stupidity are powerful things.

We can use simple mathematics to dispose of the "holy" books, e.g. the Bible. It contains contradictions so it's trivially not true, as a whole. For example, the Bible claims that there is a circle whose ratio of circumference and diameter is exactly 3 which is not true. But that is not the point of the book.

The argument is as follows. First, for simplicity, we reduce the Bible to only 2000 independent religious statements for which no proof of any sort exists. I think it's a rational choice, as the Bible is very long. I have no intention of going through it and writing the statements explicitly here, though. By the principle of indifference and the product rule, the probability that all of these 2000 statements are true is ~1:2^2000. If you don't understand how small this number is let me write it down for you. It is roughly:


What does this mean? It means that believing in God (in the most popular sense of the word) is probably the most irrational thing a person can do. "The more details there are to a story, the less likely it is that it is true." This is a very basic concept but unknown to many it seems. (I think the quote is from this book. You might find it useful, if a tad boring.)

Santa: less imaginary than Jesus.
Holy books are fairy tales. Fiction. Saying that the events described in the Bible took place is as intelligent as taking an equally thick collection of Superman comics and declaring that what's written in them actually happened. Even Santa is more probable than God. Over a trillion trillion times more probable, and yet almost all sane adults agree that he is made up. God is over a trillion trillion times more useful, though. E.g. unlike Santa, he can be used to justify murder through a very complicated logic that I have yet to understand.


The only "rational" "religion" is believing that there's a "god" and nothing more. It's as likely that he doesn't. The moment you start describing him in detail with zero evidence to back it up, the probability that such a thing exists starts to decrease really fast. Exponentially fast, in fact.

The rational attitude is to say that you don't know, and move on. Sadly, many people have lived in this illusion for so long that they won't change their mind no matter what. If only they left our children alone...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Let Knowledge Prevail"

Well, all the good ones were taken. This blog is not dedicated to any particular subject (yet), so I had some trouble figuring out what to put in the title. I settled for this since it is a noble principle and probably the only one I will (try to) have in mind.

I've been caring for knowledge and truth all of my life. At first because I was curious and later because I realized that it's one of those rare things in this world that are truly worth having. Another one is love, of course. If I didn't seek knowledge I'd be bored and luckily there's enough to learn to keep a person busy for the rest of their life.

"Knowledge is power" but one should not quote this without also saying that ignorance is power, and a far greater one at that. There are a lot of ignorant people and you need a lot of knowledge to combat their collective ignorance. Now, there's nothing wrong with being ignorant, but being proud of it and/or unwilling to change it, that's another story. Sadly, I see such people quite often.