December 04, 2006

My reasons for appeasing...

I was writing a comment to a post over a Larry Moran's Sandwalk, and it grew a bit long. Since I don't like long comments, and on the other hand, I haven't found the time to post here, I decided to paste it here and only send the trackback there.

The general topic is the current controversy in blogs and elsewhere about how to deal with religions; I won't survey the discussion here, since I doubt that anyone will land here who has not already seen the topic elsewhere.

I agree with most of the post of Moran; the argument of Scott Atran he quotes is certainly a bad one, a Moran's answer sensible. My comment is to the last part, where he quotes Sam Harris:
There's another interesting point made by Harris. He explains that there are only three good reasons for appeasing the superstitious.
(1) Certain religious beliefs are true (or likely to be true); here's why…
(2) Religious beliefs, while not likely to be true, are so useful that they are necessary; here's the evidence…
(3) Many religious people are so irrational that it is simply too dangerous to criticize their beliefs. Please keep your mouth shut.
I agree. I'd like to hear from the Neville Chamberlain Appeasers. Which one of these three arguments do you support?

There is a question, here is my answer.

I don't know the exact definition of appeaser, but I guess I'm one. At least in the sense of not being a militant atheist; and I don't think it would be a good idea to fight religion in all its forms, as long as we don't have a tested and viable way to replace its roles in society. And here are some of my reasons (there may be more); I think they fall mostly under point 2 of the trichotomy:

- I know people who are quite happy being religious, and religion is part of their happiness. Since happiness is a rare thing, I'd be loath to take it away from them (being an atheist can be quite difficult). The fact that I think they are wrong is not enough for me; as long as their religiosity remains civil and I see they are happy, I won't preach atheism to them.

- The fact that, when people stop believing in god, they are likely to start believing any BS. As Razib has argued repeatedly over at Gene Expression, people are inclined to believe, and they will find something to believe in. Probably something simple. As long as we don't have a good replacement, my first answer to those who would like to see the instant demise of churches is "be careful what you wish for...". A mature, organized, domesticated big religion, can be more easy to deal with (for matters of public interest, like health) than a pandemonium of new age superstitions, with faith in alternative medicine and the like.

- Charities. Religions are just good at it. I have considered refusing to give money to religious charities (since I know that this contributes to their status and reputation), but what can I do if in my country the most important provider of help for the poor is a Catholic charity? And they are not just the biggest, but also the most professional and effective. In my country, which has being doing quite well during the last decades, it could be argued that the state can and should take care of the issues the charities currently address. But in most of the third world, religions provide safety nets that are not available otherwise, and won't be available any time soon.

- For some years in the late 60's and early 70's there was a strong political polarization in my country. After that we had a brutal dictatorship, which shut down almost every social organization. The combined effect of the whole process effectively destroyed the texture of society. When it was rebuilt, the Catholic Church was essential (along with some other confessions): the embryos for the organization of the new unions, neighbourhood associations, whatever, they were all the work of the Church. I don't know what else could have filled that role, with the same nation-wide influence, connections and appeal. Not to mention the amazing job they did in protecting and supporting those who were politically persecuted at the time, saving lives of both church-goers and godless communists.

That's it. I hope that we'll some day outgrow religion. But the day seems to be far away, and fighting religion as a whole won't bring it closer; educating people, raising the living standards, and studying religion à la Dennett, in order to understand it and be able to eventually design, try and test alternative institutions that can fill its roles, that looks more promising to me.