Does religion make people better?

Depends on which people, and on what “better” means. It clearly seems to make some people feel better. But does it improve their behavior, their actions, their communities, their lives? Still depends. Guess we all have to speak for ourselves.

So, to five more voices of disbelief in A&P. (I’d prefer “voices of humanist belief,” but I guess I just need to edit my own damned anthology.)

Kelly O’Connor’s been there and back, to the Land of Belief (chat version), and testifies that “the amygdala can convince the neocortex of just about anything.” Fortunately Kelly was there too, to help her neocortex understand that “my faith was solely based on argumentum ad ignorantiam.”  It was her work with the Rational Responders group, and not her work in the adult film industry, presumably, that got her on Nightline.  (Thanks for your research, David.)

Peter Adegoke is a free-thinking African who overcame the dual disadvantages of missionary-inflicted mis-education and the indigenous superstitions of his native land. (Did you know that Nigeria has more Catholics than any other nation?) At 19 he “enrolled in a Pentecostal Baptist Bible college” and then Theological Seminary, and finally encountered more than enough hypocrisy.  “I discovered that religion does not make people better.”

Chilean bioethicist Miguel Kottow “realized that religion is less about belief than about social concerns.” I heard a similar claim recently on a podcast featuring Jonathan Haidt (Happiness Hypothesis, The Righteous Mind). I understand, and I disagree. Belief matters, to religion and to us all. The issue is less what than how, but it matters.

But Kottow echoes the quote I mentioned last time about A.J. (“Freddie”) Ayer somehow elevating the status of theism by calling himself an atheist. “Agnosticism seems more disrespectful to religion than atheism, for the atheist takes other people’s beliefs seriously, whereas the agnostic takes a tepid view of what others hold dearly.” Again, I understand – and disagree. I take seriously others’ experience and their humanity. Their beliefs can be another matter.

Ayer, by the way, (recalling Susan Blackmore’s Out of Body experience from last time) apparently had a Near Death Experience of his own. He claimed it in no way impinged on his atheism. But an acquaintance reported that “He became so much nicer after he died… not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.” But again, Freddie denied that the experience made him “religious.”

Of the experience, Ayer first said that it “slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death … will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be.” However, a few days later he revised this, saying “what I should have said is that my experiences have weakened, not my belief that there is no life after death, but my inflexible attitude towards that belief”.  What I Saw When I Was Dead

It is important to distinguish between brain death and states that mimic brain death… I am certainly not going to disagree with the idea that nearly dying is transformative. It is probably why real NDEs have greater effects on people than lab induced NDEs. The knowledge that you are truly mortal is life altering. Cancer survivors can have the same epiphany without the cardiac arrest. The devil is in the details…  Dr. Mark Crislip, Near Death Experiences & the Medical Literature

I also disagree, vehemently in fact, with Kottow’s statement that “the whole point of professed atheism is sheer indifference to the problem of transcendence.” It’s not a problem, and I’m not indifferent to it. It is one of the more beneficent and happy aspects of our human nature that it includes intellect and imagination, the ideal vehicles of naturalized transcendence. That has nothing to do with believing in gods or not.

But I agree with Kottow about “Mr. Leibniz.” It is “really pathetic to say that this is the best possible world…” Some days it’s a pretty darned wonderful world, but we can usually imagine better… and we’re only finite mortals. But, mortals gifted with a capacity to go beyond our skins, our times and places, and (in circumscribed ways) our finitude. Not, though, of course, from the atheist/humanist POV, beyond our mortality.

Frieder Otto Wolf says questions about God, world origins, the soul, and the ultimate (divine or secular) status of ethics have become irrelevant to the pressing urgencies of our time. “Nor can we expect to find scientific responses to these questions.” It’s about time to bring Sam Harris on stage.

Edgar Dahl says East Germans find it easy to imagine no religion. Ich bin ein Berliner.

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