Is Religion Necessary to Control Bad People?

I’ve heard the “religion is necessary for some people” argument now from several friends and acquaintances. This argument is that it is fine for some people to be without a religion because they have an good system of personal ethics. However, other people actually require a religion with a built in moral code to prevent them from doing evil.

According to this argument, some people are bad because they lack an internal moral compass, and as such they require the constant threat, guidance, and promise of religion to prevent them from becoming criminal. Religion is also supposed to reform evil people from being criminal, or from just being a non-contributing member of society.

To me, this seems like Alcoholics Anonymous – where the alcoholic acknowledges that he or she requires spiritual guidance and strength to overcome addiction. This works for some people – I know that having a positive attitude is necessary for success in any endeavor, and the belief that you can draw strength from outside of yourself can increase your will to succeed.

When I was taking Tae Kwon Do we were taught that bursts of strength came from focused ‘Qi’ – and yelling the “Kee-YA” during a strike seemed to make the blow more effective. I see the belief in a ‘Qi force’ to be a useful fiction that actually allowed me to focus my mind and body on a very narrow target and increased the force of my punch. I’m under no illusion that this force is real – it is merely a useful way of fooling myself.

And perhaps the belief in a ‘higher power’ is a useful way of fooling yourself to stay sober through AA. Perhaps the belief in a “God the Master” prevents people who lack a moral compass, or lack willpower, from doing evil. Belief in a God who owns both the carrot of Heaven and the stick of Hell ensures that the poor sinner will stay on the straight and narrow path.

And what about falling off of the wagon, so to speak? In AA someone who fails is forgiven, and allowed to try again, for as many times as it takes. Forgiveness enables a person continue on – without forgiveness a person might come to believe that any attempt to change is ultimately futile and may not bother to make a second (or third) attempt.

So, I think I must concur that bad people can use religion to help themselves reform. But I must disagree when such a person gives God all the credit for success. This sort of personal triumph was aided by a useful fiction, but ultimately it is personal actions and attitudes that matter. I think it is as silly to thank God for your ability to change as it is to thank Qi for your ability to break a brick with a Karate chop.


We should ask why there is a belief that only religion can give ethical aid, why can’t we use a non-religious approach?

I’ve been told by Christians that their religion is the only hope of reforming evil people, or of preventing people from becoming evil. After all, the argument goes, in 2000 years Atheism is yet to create the same sort of moral guidelines supported by a community ‘safety net’.

In my reply to Daniel Lewis I state my opinion that there are two reasons why non-belief has not already created a useful ethical system. First, science is a relatively new human invention. Humans have always experimented, but only recently have we learned how to qualify results. Second, the persecution of non-believers and other heretics has stifled progress. (Torture and death tends to cloud people’s minds.)


Karl Marx wrote that religion was being used to create the illusion that everything was okay, that it masked real suffering that had to be addressed, and therefore religion ought to be abolished. In my opinion Marx was very wrong.

I think that getting rid of religion without offering an alternative philosophy is a mistake. Religion is used as an extended social network, binding people and communities together. When done well, it acts as a safety net. It is a very powerful tool which, like any tool, can be used for good or evil purposes.

Non-believers are becoming interested in systems of philosophy based on the scientific and the rational. Secular Humanism is currently my favorite.

Paul Kurtz, founder and chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism has almost single-handedly snatched the insulting label of ‘Secular Humanist’ from Christianity and used it as the foundation of an ethical system based on science, reason, exuberance, and the philosophy that improving the condition of humankind while reducing human suffering is the greatest good.

I think Dr. Kurtz is onto something here – and other non-belief ethics seem to fall in line with the various manifestos of Secular Humanism. (Yes, there are more than one – but the latest manifestos seem to be saying essentially the same things. The Humanist Manifesto 2000 is the latest.)


Is Secular Humanism the replacement for religion? I dunno. The philosophy is in its infancy, and science is only now starting to focus on the evolution of morals. There is a lot to discuss here.

But I’ll leave that for another entry.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

i0571: the reason non-belief has not created a useful ethical system is that ethical systems are all arbitrary
i0571: science isn't going to come up with one, ever, because there's no science IN ethics
asgromo: ah, but if everyone's killing each other, how does science get done
i0571: by experimenting on their corpses, i imagine
i0571: i think religion is useless for making people behave, and that in fact it makes people worse than they were before, by a well-understood psychological trick wherin the reward negates the drive to do something for its own sake
i0571: the end... of my critique...
asgromo: You might not use science to develop ethics, but why not develop ethics to best suit science
i0571: because "developing ethics" is a pointless activity, nobody uses them
i0571: "I think that getting rid of religion without offering an alternative philosophy is a mistake. Religion is used as an extended social network, binding people and communities together. When done well, it acts as a safety net. It is a very powerful tool which, like any tool, can be used for good or evil purposes."
i0571: he's making the same mistake
i0571: talking about what would happen if you "got rid of religion" is pretty useless, since you can't
i0571: and religion's use as an extended social network could easily be replaced by friendster
i0571: that's about how useful it is
i0571: i mean, what is he thinking
asgromo: Sagen imagined a pervasive religion based on the tenets of science, which doesn't seem wholly unrealistic
i0571: even in his nightmare scenario where religion is suddenly erased off the face of the earth, can't the people just go to a book club instead of church?
i0571: is it so hard?
i0571: all religious communities do is have pot-lucks and bingo, really
i0571: it doesn't seem so terribly vital to me
asgromo: don't religious communities in the middle east often blow each other up
i0571: well, that's different...
i0571: but even there, i'm sure you could just form a gang if there were no religion around, and have gang wars
i0571: it's pretty much the same

Calladus said...

I like IM when I'm keeping in touch with my friends and family. It's great when I talk to my siblings.

But I find it tedious at best to read someone else's IM conversation.

And tedium becomes torture when it becomes apparent that one of the 'speakers' is completely clueless on the subject.

- "No science in ethics"
- "Nobody uses ethics"
- The 'religion replaced by a bookclub' metaphor.
- The uselessness of religious communities.

The "Nobody uses ethics" comment actually scares me - does this person actually not have a system of morals? That would be exactly what the Answers in Genesis people say about non-believers.

As for religious communities only being good for pot luck dinners and bingo nights - having a religious community come together and help you build your house, raise your barn, deliver food during a family emergency, hire people who need a second (or third!) chance, and offer solace or a helping hand in many difficult situations is nothing to be sneered at. Religion isn't all Jihad and Inquisition.

Barn raising isn't needed as much anymore, but churches are finding other niches of need that must be filled. There are many secular groups that do the same thing. (Like the Red Cross.) I'd like to see secular groups become even more involved in these areas. I'd love to see secular aid groups eventually "out-compete" religious aid groups.

As for the science of ethics - Shermer, Dawkins, and Harris have been pointing out various studies that show correlations between ethics and evolution / biology.

Dawkins mentions a study in "The God Delusion" that showed people had firm unconcious beliefs about certain moral truths; that these moral truths seemed to span cultural divisions; and even though it was difficult for these people to articulate why something was right or wrong, they still agreed that certain actions were more moral than others.


In this IM i0571 quipped that talking about getting rid of religion is useless because that won't happen. What are you saying? That religion, which is only good for potluck dinners and bingo, is so attractive that we can never be shut of it? That must be some really good tasting potluck!

I'll agree (but not about the potluck.) I don't think we can 'get rid' of religion, not because it is useless, but because it is useful enough to be very attractive to a lot of people.

I don't think religion will go away - not unless a superior alternative to religion is developed.

I have no idea what such an alternative will look like, but I think that humankind is slowly groping it's way there. And I think that science, reason, and rational thinking are the key to any replacement philosophy.

Anonymous said...

"I like IM when I'm keeping in touch with my friends and family. It's great when I talk to my siblings.
But I find it tedious at best to read someone else's IM conversation.
And tedium becomes torture when it becomes apparent that one of the 'speakers' is completely clueless on the subject."

i0571: would you say a badger has a system of morality?
i0571: or a monkey?
i0571: one common mistake people make is that they imagine morality stems from some basic set of principles somewhere in our minds
i0571: but it doesn't, it stems from a hazy swamp of all sorts of things, down eventually to the level of animals
i0571: the foundations are chaotic and unsound
asgromo: I still find it difficult to imagine people who have no real morality to speak of, given my definition of it
i0571: what is your definition of it
i0571: or by definition do you mean vague, wordless conception?

"The "Nobody uses ethics" comment actually scares me - does this person actually not have a system of morals? That would be exactly what the Answers in Genesis people say about non-believers."

What I meant was, people don't live their lives by defined ethical systems. Take the ten commandments, for instance. Even people who claim to be christian flagrently disregard them. They're just a thing you put on the wall and ignore when it's inconvenient.

The idea that you or carl sagen is going to come up with a new book of rules that people will live by is just not very plausable.

"As for religious communities only being good for pot luck dinners and bingo nights - having a religious community come together and help you build your house, raise your barn, deliver food during a family emergency, hire people who need a second (or third!) chance, and offer solace or a helping hand in many difficult situations is nothing to be sneered at. Religion isn't all Jihad and Inquisition."

Can't these things be done by any community at all? The local bowling league is pretty nice, and they have a much lower overhead on account of not needing stained glass windows. Where does religion, or even ethics, fit into raising a barn?

"In this IM i0571 quipped that talking about getting rid of religion is useless because that won't happen. What are you saying? That religion, which is only good for potluck dinners and bingo, is so attractive that we can never be shut of it? That must be some really good tasting potluck!"

I said YOU can't do it, you being a person in general. One day the order of the world will dramatically change, and religion will be one many things to go, but at that point the absense of community groups ready to raise barns and hire people who need a second (or third!) chance will be the least of our worries.

"Dawkins mentions a study in "The God Delusion" that showed people had firm unconcious beliefs about certain moral truths; that these moral truths seemed to span cultural divisions; and even though it was difficult for these people to articulate why something was right or wrong, they still agreed that certain actions were more moral than others."

Broad agreement about everyday moral questions does not mean it is possible to construct a coherent moral philosophy that everyone will agree with. It's easy to come up with moral questions which people do NOT agree to the answers on. And in any case, the project is irrelevent as people do not abide by the rules of the ethical systems they claim to believe in.

"I have no idea what such an alternative will look like, but I think that humankind is slowly groping it's way there. And I think that science, reason, and rational thinking are the key to any replacement philosophy."

muy incesante: house is on
muy incesante: i switched past the channel ten minutes ago, and he was yelling at someone
muy incesante: i switch past again, and he's still yelling!
muy incesante: the camera hasn't even shifted at all!
muy incesante: the woman he's yelling at is on the verge of tears

Calladus said...

What I meant was, people don't live their lives by defined ethical systems. Take the ten commandments, for instance. Even people who claim to be Christian flagrantly disregard them. They're just a thing you put on the wall and ignore when it's inconvenient.

Well, especially when most of the 10 commandments are immaterial to living as a good person. There is no biological imperative in, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Game Theory shows how people are treated when they murder, lie, steal, or commit adultery. Life is like a game – and people who cheat all the time tend to be less successful than people who play ‘tit for tat’. When everyone plays fair then everyone tends to succeed. We should be able to explain this to people in such a way as to encourage them to all ‘play fair’. Perhaps that explanation would become the foundation of a moral system.

The idea that you or Carl Sagan is going to come up with a new book of rules that people will live by is just not very plausible.

Mr. Sagan is dead, so I don’t think he’ll come up with something. (Although he is publishing a posthumous book…)

I’m not saying that anyone will invent a new rulebook out of whole cloth, I’m saying that we should investigate why humans already follow a set of morals and figure out what these are. We can figure out what that means later. We’ve been fed a load of bull by religion about what it means to be moral and this has resulted in victimless crimes.


Can't these things be done by any community at all? The local bowling league is pretty nice, and they have a much lower overhead on account of not needing stained glass windows. Where does religion, or even ethics, fit into raising a barn?

I dunno if the bowling league can do this or not. However, I can ask how many bowling leagues do you know that have done this already? I’m guessing not very many. Maybe they are not such a good replacement?

One day the order of the world will dramatically change, and religion will be one many things to go, but at that point the absence of community groups ready to raise barns and hire people who need a second (or third!) chance will be the least of our worries.

Oh boy! A New World Order! Should I make my tinfoil hat now, or do I have time to wait?


"Dawkins mentions a study in "The God Delusion" that showed people had firm unconscious beliefs about certain moral truths; that these moral truths seemed to span cultural divisions; and even though it was difficult for these people to articulate why something was right or wrong, they still agreed that certain actions were more moral than others."

Broad agreement about everyday moral questions does not mean it is possible to construct a coherent moral philosophy that everyone will agree with. It's easy to come up with moral questions which people do NOT agree to the answers on. And in any case, the project is irrelevant as people do not abide by the rules of the ethical systems they claim to believe in.


Tsk. Such an Eeyore! “It’s bound to fail, so why bother trying?”

It’s quite possible that an individual might agree that an action is moral, and then decide to act in an immoral way. That’s not my point.

I’m not saying that a scientist will come down from the mountain with a new set of 10 Commandments that people will just naturally want to follow. I’m saying that people in general already follow a moral system that has some central, evolved tenets.

There are areas of overlapping moral attitudes that people in general agree upon, but these areas have fuzzy edges when you start identifying individuals. It is easy to find moral questions that rest on the edges of morality that people disagree with. It is also easy to find moral questions people in general agree with.

There are scientists who are testing responses to moral dilemmas in order to determine what people (in general) think is right or wrong. Some of the results that I’ve read seem to indicate that at least some of Kant’s philosophy is correct, that people think it wrong (at a gut level) to use a person as a means to an end. From what I’ve read these results seem to be constant across cultures.

People who agree on an action also seem to have a hard time articulating why the action is moral. They get it at a ‘gut’ level. Is this an instinct? I dunno – I’m the wrong person to ask.


My point on this blog entry – which I’ve obviously failed at making clear – is that religions have been very helpful to many people who have joined them. Religious groups have managed to turn a lot of people’s lives around.

Religious groups have also committed atrocities and they encourage a mind-set that does not agree with reality. Ethical systems based on individuals “interpreting” the supernatural are dangerous. At best people get used to the false idea that the supernatural interacts with the real world in meaningful ways, and at worst religions are used by a few in order to influence or control a multitude.

I think there is a central foundation to what humans consider to be moral - what some call a 'moral language.'

I would love to see a natural philosophy that defines all of humankind as the ‘in’ group, and that offers the sorts of aid and support that religion has offered, without the evils that religion has perpetuated. Will it happen? I dunno. But I can predict that it will never happen if we don’t try.

Anonymous said...

"Game Theory shows how people are treated when they murder, lie, steal, or commit adultery. Life is like a game - and people who cheat all the time tend to be less successful than people who play 'tit for tat'. When everyone plays fair then everyone tends to succeed. We should be able to explain this to people in such a way as to encourage them to all 'play fair'. Perhaps that explanation would become the foundation of a moral system."

At least you recognize that kantian ethics IS game theory, which is more than I can say for most kantians.

However, to say that "game theory" shows tit for tat is best is just not true. Only in SOME games, such as the prisoner's dilemma, is tit for tat is the best strategy, and even then only for the iterated case. If real life were essentially an iterated prisoner's dillemma, we would not have evolved to lie and cheat and steal, but it isn't, and we did.

"I'm not saying that anyone will invent a new rulebook out of whole cloth, I'm saying that we should investigate why humans already follow a set of morals and figure out what these are. We can figure out what that means later. We've been fed a load of bull by religion about what it means to be moral and this has resulted in victimless crimes."

We follow a "set of morals" in the same sense that we have a "set" of asthetics. Beyond the most basic questions, things become far too complicated and muddled to make any headway. The search for a universal morality is like the search for a genre of music that is everybody's favorite. At most you get an elevator music which nobody actively hates.

Now, there could be a particular SONG which everyone would love, just as there could be a utopia in which everyone was happy. But a song is not a genre, just as utopia is not a moral philosophy. In theory I suppose it would be possible to have a book that everyone would live by, but it would be an almost magical thing on the order of harry stephen keeler's The Way Out, and certainly not something that humans have a hope of writing.

"Oh boy! A New World Order! Should I make my tinfoil hat now, or do I have time to wait?"

Peak oil, aliens, nuclear war, nanotech, and the singularity could be a problem in the next few decades. I realize the world has never ended before, but the thing about the end of the world is, it only has to happen once.

All I said was "One day the order of the world will dramatically change". I guess you imagine it just kind of dancing off into infinity without any big surprises.

And yet I'm the crazy one. Well, have it your way, time will tell.

"I'm not saying that a scientist will come down from the mountain with a new set of 10 Commandments that people will just naturally want to follow. I'm saying that people in general already follow a moral system that has some central, evolved tenets."

What makes you think people's unrefined moral instincts add up to anything worth writing down? It's just going to be a frankensteinlike list of

GENEROSITY GOOD!
OWNERSHIP GOOD!
RETALIATION GOOD!
LYING BAD!
FAIRNESS GOOD!
ADULTERY BAD!

When it comes down to details, like whether you can own people, frankenstein just shrugs his shoulders. These aren't AXIOMS, they're just instincts! They don't add up to anything!

"My point on this blog entry - which I've obviously failed at making clear - is that religions have been very helpful to many people who have joined them. Religious groups have managed to turn a lot of people's lives around.

Religious groups have also committed atrocities and they encourage a mind-set that does not agree with reality. Ethical systems based on individuals "interpreting" the supernatural are dangerous. At best people get used to the false idea that the supernatural interacts with the real world in meaningful ways, and at worst religions are used by a few in order to influence or control a multitude."

I would say religions are much worse than you describe, that they are not inert tools which are misleading and abusable, but rather evolved systems in their own right which control people like viruses and alter their behavior to encourage infection, reproduction, and the destruction of the religion's enemies.

I should probably note that I didn't figure this out for myself, I got it from a helpful little website that I forget the name of.

http://christianitymeme.org/ there we go.

In my personal experience I have been largely spared contact with religious people, but that which I have had has generally been of the potluck variety, and I am not impressed with their activities. It seems to me much of the "turned my life around" talk says more about brainwashing than it does about good works.

But I admit to being a cynic. I do not mean to say that humanity is doomed, just that a new moral philosophy seems an unlikely candidate for saving it.

Calladus said...

At least you recognize that kantian ethics IS game theory, which is more than I can say for most kantians.

I find Kant to be a very frustrating philosopher to read. I think his views of consent, and of not using people as means are spot on – but his categorical imperative is either a genus idea that I don’t understand, or it is batshit insanity. I’m leaning toward the guano on that one.

However, to say that "game theory" shows tit for tat is best is just not true. Only in SOME games, such as the prisoner's dilemma, is tit for tat is the best strategy, and even then only for the iterated case. If real life were essentially an iterated prisoner's dillemma, we would not have evolved to lie and cheat and steal, but it isn't, and we did.

Agreed. Tit for tat is the preferred strategy for some games. Life is a game; it’s a very complex game. The strategy is going to be much more complex. I would guess that the possible moves are so large that they would seem infinite, but the rules would be more easily understood. I also think that the ‘rules’ will not be black and white – but possibly trends. I think that being honest is, in general, a better strategy for success. If it were not, then I think the capacity for honesty would have been bred out of the gene pool.

Beyond the most basic questions, things become far too complicated and muddled to make any headway.

So you again advocate what? Give it up as useless? Give it up as, “obviously unsolvable”? I’m more optimistic than that.

Now, there could be a particular SONG which everyone would love, just as there could be a utopia in which everyone was happy. But a song is not a genre, just as utopia is not a moral philosophy. In theory I suppose it would be possible to have a book that everyone would live by, but it would be an almost magical thing on the order of harry stephen keeler's The Way Out, and certainly not something that humans have a hope of writing.

So you find one song that everyone likes. Then you find a different song that everyone likes. And then you find another. Perhaps with enough data, enough songs, someone could correlate their similarities, and create the genre of, “Songs that everyone likes.” Sorry, I’m just kinda playing around here – I don’t think this analogy is very useful.

Peak oil, aliens, nuclear war, nanotech, and the singularity could be a problem in the next few decades. I realize the world has never ended before, but the thing about the end of the world is, it only has to happen once.

All I said was "One day the order of the world will dramatically change". I guess you imagine it just kind of dancing off into infinity without any big surprises.

And yet I'm the crazy one. Well, have it your way, time will tell.


My apologies. My blog sometimes generates vaguely hateful email, or weird email. The weird stuff is sometimes about psychic or over-unity machines. “New World Order” is a buzz-phrase that I flag as being deep in the territory of woo-woos, next to conspiracy theories and “aliens among us”. You got my knee-jerk reaction by using it.

Honestly, nuclear war scares me, as does nanotech to a lesser degree. (I’ve had dreams! Still I can’t help thinking that bacteria is also nanotech – and we haven’t become ‘green ooze’ yet.) I’m optimistic about what would happen if singularity occurred, but I doubt it will happen anytime soon. I don’t think Peak Oil will happen as drastically as doomsayers predict.

I place visiting aliens far down my list of concerns – somewhat higher on my list than the possible awakening of Cthulhu, and lower than the possibility of having my throat ripped out by a marauding Chihuahua. I do think it highly likely that humankind might receive an alien signal, but who knows when or how that will affect us.

What makes you think people's unrefined moral instincts add up to anything worth writing down?
When it comes down to details, like whether you can own people, frankenstein just shrugs his shoulders. These aren't AXIOMS, they're just instincts! They don't add up to anything!


What makes you think they are not worth investigating? Face it, neither one of us has answers to this question – I’m optimistically advocating that this area is worth studying because we might learn something. You seem to believe that any such study is an exercise in futility and we shouldn’t bother trying. I’d have a hard time living with that sort of an attitude.

I would say religions are much worse than you describe, that they are not inert tools which are misleading and abusable, but rather evolved systems in their own right which control people like viruses and alter their behavior to encourage infection, reproduction, and the destruction of the religion's enemies.

I should probably note that I didn't figure this out for myself, I got it from a helpful little website


I never saw the site before – but from a curious glance it looks like I already know their central premise from my books by Dawkins. Dawkins advocates out that religion is a highly successful meme that has developed methods of defending itself.


In my personal experience I have been largely spared contact with religious people, but that which I have had has generally been of the potluck variety, and I am not impressed with their activities. It seems to me much of the "turned my life around" talk says more about brainwashing than it does about good works.

You ever notice how the most vocal and active fundamental evangelical speakers always lay claim to a sordid past? Apparently the bigger the ‘turn around’ the more authoritative the speaker. I can imagine a preacher, in tears, saying, “I was a gay Atheist prostitute alcoholic and on drugs until I found Jeee-zuhs! And now I’m a normal Heterosexual man with a wife and family who has kicked the demons of crack and booze! And you can too if you pray, and send a donation to My Church!”

But I admit to being a cynic. I do not mean to say that humanity is doomed, just that a new moral philosophy seems an unlikely candidate for saving it.

(shrug) I dunno if it can or not. I do think that humans need something, and that the something (religion) that is currently popular is also dangerously unhealthy to all of humankind. It would be nice to find something better. Perhaps someone should investigate that.

Anonymous said...

"I do think that humans need something, and that the something (religion) that is currently popular is also dangerously unhealthy to all of humankind. It would be nice to find something better. Perhaps someone should investigate that."

My grip on morality has always been rather tenuous. My instinctual perspective has always been one of problems and solutions rather than good and evil, and my perspective has slipped over time to the point where I often regard the whole world as just one giant problem.

I realized the other day that perhaps the root of this argument is my inability to empathize with your aims. I was raised without any enthusiasm in belief and I don't recall ever being drawn to it.

The assertion that "Humans need something" doesn't strike a chord in me at all. I had vague notions about right and wrong, and I developed and codified and reworked them for many years, trying to get them nailed down into something concrete. I eventually arrived at negative utilitarianism, but already I began to realize there was no foundation. Eventually hume's guillotine came along and it was all cut away.

I don't consider myself a particularly nice person. I worry about the world because it is my nature, but I would rather it was not. I do not need more strings to pull me about.

I'm sorry for being cranky. If I may leave you a final caution, it is that people simply do not all want or need the same things. Some of us may need "something", but some of us just need a rest.