Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Religious Delusions: What Harm Can They Do?

I was recently asked by someone what was the harm in an individual believing in God. Well let me first start by stating the obvious, believing in delusions under normal circumstances would get you locked up in an asylum, however if that delusion is God, then you are giving a wafer, some wine and told to pray very hard, and all your sins will be forgiven.

Let me first say that nobody really believes the elderly woman who prays to her God each night that her Grandson makes it home from combat is truly dangerous, and I’m not going to suggest otherwise. This is not someone you should need to fear, should the day that little old women begin strapping bombs to themselves then you might have something to worry about.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a delusion as such:

An idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder.[1]

“…being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument…”

By that definition, any belief in a deity without evidence is a delusional belief. So believing in God is a delusion. So although the little old women that take comfort in believing in a God are delusional, but are they dangerous or rather is that belief per se? To really answer that question, you have to know to which God we are referring. Because I’m sure the little old woman believes her God to be a just and benevolent God of mercy. But then are there not many versions of the same God? Because the bible itself has at least two; the one that strikes down children and floods away mankind, and the one that gives his first-born son to save us all. Why the contradiction?

Surely, there can’t be too many people who believe that God is an evil bastard who strikes down his enemies with wrath and unkindness? So if the vast majority believe in the “good” God version, why do people commit atrocities in his name? Why do we go to war? Or strap bombs to ourselves, murder doctors, blow up buildings, crash airplanes, etc. Surely a God that is so kind, filled with such benevolence would not permit, or encourage such things. Why does man seek to destroy itself in the name of invisible deities with nothing but a promise of something after death? Surely it would be smarter to simply live a more cautious life?

After all, there are no guarantees. Simply believing that you will be granted a reward after you die shouldn’t be enough to override intelligence with stupidity is it?

Let’s try something here. You tell me you love ice cream. I tell you that you can have all the ice cream you want, but you have to break into that car and steal that person’s radio. But I tell you, I have no ice cream myself, you just have to go to grocery and you get all the ice cream you want. You are not going to do that? Why not? You have no idea if I’m lying or telling the truth. You have no idea if there is an endless supply of ice cream just for you. Remember Willy Wonka, well I’m telling you it’s not a lifetime supply of chocolate, but a lifetime supply of ice cream.

Still not going to do it?

Common sense tells you that this is not true. So then why does common sense not kick in when someone tells you that if you just pray, or you just blow up that building, or you just murder those people in the market that you will be granted an amazing after life? It’s exactly the same kind of lie, you do me a solid now, and I do you a solid later. What’s wrong with that?

Oh, it’s a con? You mean like the kind that have been used for centuries? You mean like the Nigerian Prince Email scam, where he emails you telling you that if you just send him $5,000 now, when he receives it he can turn it back into $50,000 later.

So besides it being a delusion, it's actually a kind of con, with the churches playing the part of the grifter, taking your money in exchange for salvation to an afterlife they have no business offering since they have no knowledge of its existence. You interested in a bridge? I can sell you this one cheap. You can charge people to cross it, makes tons of money.

But how do these kinds of things get entwined in our human psyche to begin with?

Well part of it is cultural influence and part of it is evolution. Over time the things we pass to each other just become habits of old, like calling someone when you can text or email them instead. These kinds of thinking are more popular with the conservative mind because it is less likely to adjust to progress, and the progress of progressive thinking in general. You may encounter the person who has a cell phone but doesn’t know how to text, or use it for internet access, instead using it just to place calls. Now it would be easy to claim that this is merely the ignorance of technology. “I am too old to learn something new.” But I posit that it’s more likely that the person chooses to ignore this advantage, in favor of simplicity.

One could argue that learning something new is no more difficult as an adult than it was as a child, the difference rather might be that the person believes there is a difference, and that it is simpler if they do not try. But plenty of people learn new things every day, even those of an elder nature. The man who refuses to text on his phone finds no problem skyping with his grandchildren on the computer, can an argument not be made that these are equally difficult to learn? It can be argued that typing a trait most people have, learned as teenagers, is simpler than clicking shortcuts and running programs and hitting random buttons to make a VoIP or face to face call, than typing a message and hitting send on a phone?

We pass on the things we learn, including our religion, or lack of it, but we also pass on other things as well. These things Richard Dawkins refer to as memes[2], the idea, behaviors and styles which spread from person to person throughout a culture. This includes religions, because unless the government is a theocracy, it takes the cultural influence of people to spread religion. But even in cases of theocracy, the government would not have begun this way without cultural influence that set it up to be this type of government.

Now because of this cultural influence, the believers are able to implicitly encourage others to believe that religion should be something that is respected, despite the fact that it is delusional, and this encourages faith.[3]

Faith should be considered very dangerous, because it stymies the progress of science, and the search for the natural causes of everything. In terms of evolution we have to look at how traits get passed as part of the natural selection process.

If a species as a whole benefits the most from altruism, large groups all benefit from helping each other out. But this creates the situation where by people within this species can take advantage of this altruism by taking resources from others without paying their fair share. Over time the species learns that cheating is more beneficial to the person than the group, and so the specifies suffers. Over time fewer individuals act altruistic, and so natural selection dictates that it may become unnecessary to survival.[4]

Religion works in the same way. If the promise of benefits after death encourage people to only do things necessary to help this, as opposed to what would benefit everything else or everyone else, than those outside this structure of belief do not benefit and everyone suffers as a result.

For example: You are a believer, I am not. Although I am willing to help everyone equally, you are encouraged to help only those that believe what you do. You thereby benefit from people like me, and people like you, but I am only benefiting from people like me, and not people like you. Now this behavior isn’t necessarily only limited to religious, it is also found in those with wealth, however it should also be noteworthy that those with wealth tend to be religious, and so those with the greatest ability to do the most good, tend to be the people who do the least good.

So this kind of behavior is both culturally and evolutionarily dangerous, although its most dangerous culturally since the nature of memes are that they can be spread quickly, whereas evolution takes time, and it’s both possible to spread something quickly to cause damage and have it become tenuous over time to the point that it escapes evolution. Now speaking of the nature of memes, cultures are plenty, and so it is natural that religions be plenty as well. And this per se is really the cause of danger within religion.

Much like the sports figure who bends a knee and prays to his God, on opposing side a similar act is committed, thus two opposing players have prayed for victories, one side is going to be disappointed. This competition is not limited to sports, in fact it can be the very basis for cultural wars, the clashing of clans of opposing views about what God wants, or rather which clan does God support the most? Again one side is going to be disappointed, at least on any given day.

And this kind of thinking gives rise to the belief that there is power in believing that your God loves you more than your competition, that he supports your efforts more, that he blesses your team, or your clan, or your race. And this kind of thinking has gone on for centuries, wars have been fought in the name of religion for thousands of years, with the promise that on each side all they have to do is murder the opposing side and they are granted passage into their afterlife.

Imagine that? Just go slaughter those people, and you will be granted the greatest feast ever. But in this case, one can imagine what that feast might be, it is hard to imagine what benefits us after we are dead. We understand all the pleasures that being alive bring us, after all we have senses, because we have a brain to process that information. We have memories that remind us of all the things that bring us happiness while we are alive. But what good are these when we are dead? What good are these when we have no brain to think, no mind with which to be ourselves?

You eat a candy apple and enjoy the rush the sugar from the caramel gives you, the taste of tart apple reminds you of apple pies baking in the oven at Grandma’s house. Your senses tingle, you begin to smell the apples baking. All of this going on in your brain, and you feel absolutely alive with pleasure. But in death, none of this is possible. It cannot be because the organ that allows this possibility dies when you do. In fact, aside from your body, what you are, who you are is nothing more than a pile of saturated fat and cholesterol strung together and covered in nerves resting on the top of a column of nerve tissue in your skull.

You are your brain, and when you die, it also dies, and rots away in your skull until it is gone completely, and everything you were is also gone.

So why do so many people believe in a delusion, when rationally there can be no meaningful after life, even if there were one, it would not be one in which whatever makes you what you are now, lives beyond to a point that would allow you to continue being you?

We have to assume that evolution has played some part in this. That religion as a whole has developed as a means of survival. Imagine the believers of opposing tribes each believing their Gods to be superior, developing tactics, and traits that benefit only them and their kind. You have to wonder if that which benefited the ignorance of the time then, doesn’t impede the progress of intelligence today. I think the answer to that is clear in the fact that so many people are willing to believe in God, without any evidence whatsoever, in spite of the fact that many other things they would have belief in they would require such evidence. Again want to buy a bridge?

I wonder why someone who is so willing to believe in one bit of nonsense, is completely opposed to the belief in another. Like if you are ok with believing in a God, why can’t you believe that if you drink this arsenic, God will protect you? Or if you are willing to believe that God exists, what stops you from just jumping off a skyscraper? If God saves you, then you have proven he exists, if not, it’s a one way ticket to the afterlife, win-win if you ask me.

But people want to pick and choose the delusions they are comfortable with, people want to have the sense they are in control of what they are being conned with. It’s ok if the church cons me out of $50 in the collection plate, however if that Bum on the street asks me for a dollar to buy some food but really wants wine, well no sir, I’m not comfortable with that at all.

And so we are back to the harmful nature of believing that one thing is ok and another is not, even though you know that the homeless could use $50 more than the church. One lives behind a trashcan, and eats the crap you throw away, the other builds massive cathedrals to bring in more sheep to feed their greed. Surely, if the message was a good one, it could be delivered from a tent, or a street corner, and the money be donated to someone who is actually in need?

We need to treat these kinds of things as a sort of virus of the mind.[5] It is really the only rational explanation of how religions can still exist thousands of years after they were started, when ignorance has given way to common sense, intelligence and science. Like any virus, it too must spread and survive. You can imagine that the more elaborate things become, the more it spreads, and soon all that are left are those religions which have the best promise for an afterlife. After all, there is no reason to do it, without reward right? Harmful thinking…

You have to imagine that as doubt began to surface, the virus adapts, something is needed to spread even more. First we must tell them that if they do as they are told while they live, they get rewarded when they die. But soon that cannot be enough, so it adapts again and people begin to associate their morality with God, as if one could base their entire moral compass on the words on a page. But that is not enough, so people begin to suffer near death experiences, which can be explained as a lack of oxygen and a rush of endorphins, but it all helps to convert more.

Have you noticed that in different parts of the World, the promises and rules are all different? A sign of adaptation requires that any organism will evolve to suit its environmental needs. So religions adapt to the environment around them. In places where women are treated poorly, the religions fantasize the idea that death grants them more women to covet, to enslave, as it does in the Islāmic religion. The promise of virgins no less, the act of taking their virginity forcefully surely arouses the mind and body of those willing to delve in the delusion. Harmful, because it continues to embolden inequality.

So then we are back to the original question of what harm can it do?

You might be tempted by Pascal’s Wager: Belief in God is the best option, because if you are right you have gained everything, and if you are wrong, you have lost nothing. But do not be fooled, this would suggest that there is no cost to religion, I posit that this is more nonsense. Pascal himself could not argue the notion that reason and rationality made belief difficult except to say that “Acting as though one believed, would cure one of his disbelief.” Which of course is funny, because it suggests that Pascal really didn’t believe in God, he just suggested that it was better to try really hard, that doing so would cure you. I assure you, this does not.

But back to the wager, this kind of thinking per se is also dangerous. No religion is without rules and regulations, therefore there is strictly no way to simply “believe.” There is a cost for this belief, in terms of wealth of mind, and of person. One can go broke drinking the Jesus juice, but it must also be burdensome to worry about how you live in this life, to worry about how you will be treated in the afterlife. It is both literally and figuratively taxing. What the church doesn’t steal from our pockets they take from our minds.

I spoke of viruses earlier and just as the common cold makes us cough, and sneeze to spread itself, so do religions by making people preach, sing and pray. The money they take from their followers they use to pay priests of that religion who infect others with their virus, who then go on to preach, sing, and pray.

The endless cultural cycle that can only truly be ended by progress, and forward thinkers, those who choose to ignore the memes, and see reason and rational thinking as a means to an end. For the non-believer it is not the promise of an everlasting afterlife, it is the nature to want to bring good to the culture because it benefits us all, not just those willing to do good in the hopes of that everlasting promise.



  1. Oxford Dictionary
  2. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976
  3. Sam Harris, The End of Faith, 2004
  4. Evolutionary Game Theory, First published Mon Jan 14, 2002; substantive revision Sun Jul 19, 2009
  5. Richard Dawkins, Viruses of The Mind, 1993

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