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Religion vs. Atheism vs. Transhumanism vs. Apathy
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Every single person alive today makes a choice about how to live their life, specifically whether to believe in God and an existence beyond this one or not. Though, rather than being two choices I think it’s best to think of there being four possible choices.
The first choice, and still by far the most common, though declining every year, is to identify with a religious ideology. Of course there are various levels of religious belief and adherence, but currently 84% of people worldwide identify as a member of a religion. That sounds high, but it is down from the 99-100% it was just 50 years ago. As far as an existence beyond this one, it is assumed that people in this group hope that their religious belief will provide them with that.
The second choice is the choice of the traditional atheist, Bertrand Russell described it thusly:
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
Russell’s case is unambiguous, and one I agree with, if you’re going to reject religion and embrace atheism, then this is what you have to confront, but not every traditional atheist agrees with Russell’s point about “unyielding despair”. I believe I’ve mentioned Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan before in this space. Ann believed just as much as Bertrand Russell in the finality of death. But she fell in a different camp:
We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful...I don't think I'll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.
In any case regardless of whether they view the world with despair or wonder, the traditional atheist acknowledges both that death is unavoidable, and also that there is nothing beyond it.
The third choice is one that has only lately come on the scene, the choice of transhumanism. Most of these people (though not all, thus my fascination with the Mormon Transhumanist Association) are also atheists, but rather than reacting to the prospect of death with despair like Russell, or just being grateful for the extreme improbability of the life they did get, the transhumanists desire immortality without involving God (again, with the notable exception of the MTA.)
I suppose you could argue that, were they to achieve immortality, they would not be entering into an existence separate from this one. That rather they are extending the existence we already have. This may be technically true, but for tens of thousands of years (at least) human existence has involved death, creating an existence without death should surely count as something different, even if technically it may look very similar. And of course this assumes that transhumanism takes the form of simple immortality and doesn’t involve things like transferring consciousness to one of Robin Hanson’s EMs, or something even more futuristic.
The fourth choice is the choice of apathy and inaction. All the people who aren’t declared atheists (or agnostics) or transhumanists, or who are religious, but other than attending church once to be baptized, have never attended since. Depending on how you define this group it’s possible it’s even bigger than the first group, at least in America and Europe. I’m probably not the best person to talk about this group because, despite their numbers, these people honestly baffle me. I understand the appeal of dealing with what’s right in front of you. Of enjoying what you have without thinking too much about what does or doesn’t happen when you die, which is anyway decades away. But at some point you have to grapple with it, don’t you? Perhaps this is just a difference in levels of belief between the old and the young or to put it another way, those who are about to die and those who are a long way from death, though I don’t think it’s as simple as that.
In any event why do I bring these choices up? As long time readers will know, this isn’t the first time, and if I haven’t made any impact on groups two through four already, what makes me think it will be different this time?
Very likely it won’t be, but I intend to persist anyway, in part because I’m hoping that this blog will become a resource for Mormon apologetics and more broadly Christian apologetics. Though to be clear, I’m not sure how good of a job I’m doing. In part, I’m sure it’s because the apologetics I do engage in are not always easy to recognize as such. If you’re trying to increase people’s engagement with religion, there are a couple of well-trod paths, and my stuff has a tendency to fall into the no-man’s land between those two paths.
On the one hand, you can talk about spiritual experiences, relate faith promoting stories and discuss people whose lives have been changed through their religious belief, or through Jesus Christ or through reading the Book of Mormon.
On the other hand, there are those apologetics who spend most of their time rebutting specific arguments, explaining historical events in a way which is favorable to the church or answering pointed criticism.
Given that I do almost none of the former and very little of the latter I don’t think my blog is what most people expect. If you were being charitable you could say I’m working at a higher level, but it might be more accurate to say I’m just esoteric. That said, I do aspire to comment on things from a high level view, to show how religion is integral to civilization, how the latest ideology is not as revolutionary as people think, how current philosophy and ideology has not left religion behind, but only made it more important, and so on. In an effort to be less esoteric, in this post I want to get into the nuts and bolts, numbers and figures that really show how beneficial religion is even if we set aside the promise of potential salvation offered by most religions.
I’m going to take much of what I say from a talk given at the 2017 Fair Mormon Conference, by Dan Peterson, titled What Difference Does It Make? I’ve already stolen the Russell quote from the speech, and as I say so often you should read the entire thing, or possibly better yet, in this case, you can listen to it.
Also before I get into things, as I mentioned in the last post I’ve been reading Skin in the Game by Taleb, and he makes the very valid point that not all religions would be considered religions in the classic “freedom of religion” sense, which is to say not all religions accept the division between church and state. Meaning that, going forward, I’m going to be talking about benefits of religion in the American Judeo-Christian context, and these benefits may not exist outside of the context. It’s certainly possible that the points I’m about to make apply to other religions in other places, but Peterson’s data all comes from America and Europe.
With that out of the way, as I said at the beginning, everyone is making a choice between one of four options (or perhaps not choosing in the case of option 4) and the position that Peterson champions is that the first option is the best choice even without considering whether it leads to some sort of existence after this one. To begin with he argues that it improves a person’s health, particularly their mental health. And of course the irony is that so many people in groups 2-4 actually make the opposite argument, that religion is something of a mental illness. (Peterson offers up quotes from both Dawkins and Sam Harris in support of this.)
It’s easy to make that claim, and I’m sure it plays well with the sort of people who like Dawkins and Harris, but is there any truth to it? Here we turn to Peterson:
Harold Koenig, a psychiatrist on the faculty of Duke University, has established himself as a premier authority in this area. He and his collaborators argue that religious involvement is correlated with better mental health in the areas of depression, substance abuse and suicide, and, somewhat less certainly, with better results in the treatment of stress-related disorders and dementia.
Moreover…Tyler VanderWeele, professor of epidemiology at Harvard University…confirms the links that previous scientific investigation had identified between attendance at religious services and enhanced health. Regular attendance is associated, for example, with “a roughly 30 percent reduction in mortality over 16 years of follow-up; a five-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide; and a 30 percent reduction in the incidence of depression”...
Regular participation in communal religious worship [also] appears to be associated with “greater likelihood of healthy social relationships and stable marriages; an increased sense of meaning in life; higher life satisfaction; an expansion of one’s social network; and more charitable giving, volunteering, and civic engagement,” says VanderWeele.
One might perhaps conclude that it’s the social support afforded by religious participation that confers such benefits. VanderWeele, however, says that social support accounts for only about 20-30 percent of the measured results. The self-discipline encouraged by religious faith and the optimistic worldview that it supports also appear to be important contributing factors to physical health and longevity.
The “five-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide” is particularly interesting. First, because the effect is so large. Second, because, just in the last few days I’ve seen several articles reporting that the rate of hospitalization for attempted suicide and suicidal ideation has more than doubled among teens and children, and third because Peterson opened his talk with a story of someone who committed suicide after leaving the Church, seemingly because of his anger at the Church for, what he perceived to be, its many lies. To say that this particular individual would still be alive if he had never left the Church, is both callous and unwarranted, since it’s impossible to say what would happen with any given individual, but if VanderWeele’s claims are to be believed, and we instead look at the aggregate, there might be thousands of people if not more who would be alive today if they had been active in a religion.
Peterson goes on to quote Dr. Andrew Sims, former president of the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Psychiatrists and professor of psychiatry at the University of Leeds:
The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry, and medicine generally...If the findings of the huge volume of research on this topic had gone in the opposite direction and it had been found that religion damages your mental health, it would have been front-page news in every newspaper in the land! Churches are almost the only element in society to have offered considerate, caring, long-lasting and self-sacrificing support to the mentally ill… [which is one of the reasons why] religious involvement results in a better outcome from a range of illnesses, both mental and physical.
At this point you may want to argue that there are other confounders that were missed by VanderWeele and Sims, and maybe there are, but I think Sims makes an excellent point that if the research (a “huge volume” recall) had gone in the opposite direction it would have been front-page news, and my guess is that very little attention would have been paid to possible confounders in that case. Instead it’s mostly ignored, and my sense is that such research is becoming rarer. Possibly this is because the conclusions are solid enough to not require further support. More likely it’s because in this day and age no one wants to engage in the study of religion at all, particularly if that study is going to force them to arrive at a conclusion they don’t like. If you still have your doubts Peterson goes on to further summarize Sims’ findings:
In the majority of scientific studies...religious involvement correlates with enhanced well-being, happiness and life-satisfaction; greater hope and optimism, even when facing serious diseases, such as breast cancer; a stronger sense of purpose and meaning in life; higher self-esteem; better responses to bereavement; greater social support; less loneliness; lower rates of depression and faster recovery from depression; reduced rates of suicide; decreased anxiety; better coping with stress; less psychosis and fewer psychotic tendencies; lower rates of alcohol and drug abuse; less delinquency and criminal activity; and greater marital stability and satisfaction.
Indeed, correlations between religious faith and improved well-being “typically equal or exceed correlations between well-being and other psychosocial variables, such as social support.” And, he adds, this substantial assertion is “comprehensively attested to by a large amount of evidence.”
“The nagging question we are left with is, why is this important information” — “epidemiological medicine’s best-kept secret,” [Sims] calls it — “not better known?”
“If it were anything other than religious belief or spirituality resulting in such beneficial outcomes for health, the media would trumpet it and governments and health care organizations would be rushing to implement its practice.”
Here I diverge somewhat from Sims and Peterson, I don’t know that health care organizations and governments could successfully duplicate the positive benefits of religion. In particular, it doesn’t seem that forcing someone to join a religion probably gives the same benefits as someone voluntarily joining a religion, or staying in the religion of their parents. But even if these benefits can’t easily be duplicated, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be done. To begin with, these results certainly point to a policy of not mocking the people who are religious. Modern atheists are an obvious target for this policy, but I think it extends to a lot of the modern left in general. Recall Obama’s statement about bitter people who cling to their religion, and here’s a whole column in “The Atlantic” talking about the Democrats religion problem.
I think the quotes also strongly argue against policies which are anti-religious. Unlike some people I don’t think there’s a “War on Christians”, but neither do I think that the current political environment is particularly friendly to Christians at the moment either. Just today I read that the city of Philadelphia had ended its association with two Christian foster care and adoption organizations because they won’t place kids with gay parents. I might be sympathetic to the city if these were the only organizations in the city providing this sort of service, or if there was no need for additional help with foster care and adoption, or if these organizations did not offer referrals to other organizations who do work with same sex couples. But none of those conditions is true. And in fact at the same time this was happening Philadelphia tweeted about the urgent need for foster parents. I understand this is just one story, and I’ve already talked at some length about freedom of religion in another post, so I’ll leave it there.
I find that I am most of the way through this post and I’ve only covered the first of several points Peterson makes about the value of religion. Perhaps I’ll cover the others in a future post, but for now I need to talk about group three, the transhumanists. While, Peterson did an excellent job of covering groups one and two (and to a certain extent to group four) he understandably didn’t spend any time talking about transhumanism. Therefore this is one area where I thought I might be able to add something to the discussion.
To begin with, one of the advantages of religion is that it seems to work even for the very poorest and most disadvantaged people. In fact, it may be that among those people is precisely where it’s the most useful, particularly when compared with other “interventions”. In contrast, the transhumanist ideology is almost entirely restricted to affluent first worlders with a predilection for technology. Now it is possible that combining the two gives the best outcome of all, which is the entire point of the MTA, but it is also possible that the combination results in something which abandons the caution of either in favor of something that is far too optimistic and utopian. Regardless, at the moment the idea of combining the two has an influence far too small to make much of an impact either way.
If we consider the route to “salvation” provided by transhumanism on its own it has the advantage of potentially providing immortality and eternal happiness even if there should turn out to be no God, this is counterbalanced by the disadvantage I already mentioned of, at least initially, only being available to a select few. Also it’s unclear if the transhumanist ideology would create any of the advantages I mentioned above as far as mental and physical health. Unless we assume that all the benefits of religion come because of its promised immortality, which I strongly doubt, transhumanism is unlikely to act as a substitute. But maybe I’m wrong, there is unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, no data comparing outcomes between the religious and the transhumanists. Also to be fair the Effective Altruism movement is pretty big in that space, and it has the very religious sounding rule of giving 10% of your income to charity.
Also, the reason I talk about transhumanists so much is not because I dislike them, but because, they appear to be doing the best they can in the absence of religion. That said, I think they overstate the advantages (immortality is going to be ridiculously difficult, and yet it’s child’s play compared to ensuring eternal happiness) and understate the disadvantages, particularly the small number of people for whom it has any effect at all. And it is a small number, I mentioned at the beginning that the number of religious people in the world has fallen from essentially 100% to around 84%. As the number of religious individuals has decreased every other category I mentioned above has increased, though I would argue that the biggest increase has not been among atheists and transhumanists, but among category 4, the apathetic and inactive.
To conclude, let’s for the moment imagine that being an atheist or a transhumanist is a good thing, that somehow it replaces all of the benefits of religion with something as good or better. I very much doubt this is the case, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that it is. We still have the problem that the vast majority of people have not left religion for atheism and transhumanism. The vast majority of people have left religion for nothing. Thus we have not replaced believers, with all the benefits attached, with intellectually courageous atheists, or futuristic transhumanists, but with a vast and increasing mass of shallow, materialistic, status seeking people who have lost the benefits of religion without any compensation.
I repeat again, the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.
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