TED Conversations

Tim Colgan


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Has religion outlived it's usefulness?

I'd like to start this conversation with a quote from Richard Dawkins:

"Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!"

The Guardian, October 11, 2001

So my question is - assuming religion ever did serve a useful function for humanity, is it perhaps time that we get beyond religion and develop other tools to provide for human needs?

NOTE: To people making comments - I encourage you to not only give a brief response to the main question but also try to respond to one or more of the other comments. Keeping it brief, respectful and perhaps phrased as a question will help generate a true conversation. Thanks. And come back and visit when you can.


Closing Statement from Tim Colgan

Many thanks to all those who contributed to this discussion. Upon starting this conversation I was concerned that ted wasn't the right place, fearing it would be dominated by a single mind-set. But the diversity of opinions expressed here is amazing. These threads represent a true mosaic of human opinion. Perhaps not a perfect sampling, but a fascinating cross-sample of personal beliefs. The conversations themselves reveal a bit about humanity - filled with sibling rivalries, with moments of compassion. Highly recommended to anyone to take the time to read.

Although it's probably obvious from the conversation's introduction that my intentions included an agenda, that agenda was soon blown out of the water. We had trouble coming to agreement on the definition of religion. Whether it's called religion or not, humans need institutions to provide it's function. To me religion is most symbolized by it's place - temple, mosque, synagogue, church... A place where people gather to share their humanity and ponder the infinite, and their place in it. Perhaps ted is one of those places.

Thanks again to all who contributed. It has been truly enlightening. That's to say, each of you has shone light into some aspect of our topic.

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    Feb 17 2011: Respectfully I say that to discuss any kind of direct action against religion - ever more by people outside its quarters - is plainly nonsense. Live it to those who are inside to bring balance and consistency upon their beliefs.

    The radicals - on any matter, issue or belief are a danger to themselves and others: if he is a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist. Of course any bad or wrong behaviour should be adressed by law and justice. But subjectively what can a disagreer do?

    Try to eliminate or to put any kind of limits or restrain on people's creed is just impossible. And using the argument that it is for the sake of humanity is just like throwing the baby away with the dirty water.

    Religion cannot be properly defined or characterized. Any kind of human movement in groups motivated by some kind of idealism or subjectivity can fall into the same trap. Anti religion is another kind of religion. Freedom above all is the best policy.

    Christianity has shown itself to be extremely bad on many occasions, and extremely good on others. The same applies to other religions. September 11 - how awfull and heartbreaking - is one example of the many attrocities played by man.

    Many give the argument that Western society would not be what it is otherwise if it wasn't for its Christian pressupositions and beliefs.

    Now, as we live in times where Institutions are on the brink - let the reactions, the reform movements, the self healing efforts and so on, be natural, spontaneous and nevertheless human.
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      Feb 18 2011: The issue which Dawkins so elegantly puts forth is the need to confront religious (i.e. - dogmatic) thinking. No, I don't believe that direct action in the form of laws or violence are the appropriate means of overcoming it. But concerted efforts by those who consider it fallacy to promote reason vs. tradition could have an effect.

      If more people in Bush's or Blair's inner circle had confronted them on their divine inspirations, perhaps it could have had a significant effect.
      • Feb 18 2011: You are taking your thoughts and the ideas of RD and formulating your own answers on how to grow as a society. Meanwhile, the religious masses are taking their thoughts, combining them with their chosen reference material and generating their conclusions. The fact seems to be that, with a "god" as your inspiration or not, we all see the world through our own eyes and have developed our own opinions. In terms of catering to our human needs, doesn't each man deserve the opportunity to satisfy this need the best way he sees fit? Even if that man is an elected official?

        BTW, I agree about Bush. But I was not presented with his situation and his responsibility.
        • Feb 19 2011: Everyman is indeed entitled to his own belief system. But the shape of society should not be determined by archaic principles that come from a "divine source". And when society is controlled by ideas that run counter to reason, and are esteemed to be above debate, thats when it becomes a problem. The ideas propagated by religion are so often shoved down the throat of those who don't know any better, and maybe it fulfills something for them, but there should be a way in which a light is spread on the fact that each idea is in and of itself, fallible.
        • Feb 25 2011: >>>Mr Internet
          First off, what archaic principles are shaping society? I just want some clarification of the specific principals your talking about and why they are bad. Also, which of these ideas run counter to reason?
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          Feb 25 2011: "Given that life only exists because of this divine source, this point is moot."

          Prove it.
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          Feb 27 2011: It's true, I thought that by 'theosophist' you meant 'theologist'. You proved me otherwise, I accept that. How you then conclude from this slip-up that I don't have the intellectual capacity to understand the old testament is beyond me (yes, I realise the irony of this sentence). But I think that says a lot about your particular way of reasoning. Personal attacks aside, doesn't evolution show that species aren't as immutable as you assert given time?

          I mean the laws are immutable, but I don't see them meaning what you conclude for them. Systems evolve within those laws of nature, laws that are synonymous with the way particles interact which each other and how space-time itself takes form. I think you're skipping a lot of steps between your conclusion and premise;
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          Feb 27 2011: Kathy: "the intellectual mind cannot conceive of spirit. I repeat, it cannot." are you saying that no one whom considers themselves to be spiritual can be intellectual?
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          Feb 27 2011: I apologize for making this short, it is late.
          For Miss. K,
          I hold a great contention for your argument about the energy scientists talk about and religion's concept of spirit. The concept of energy is fundamental to physical sciences and is astoundingly well understood. If you could provide evidence for, a definition of, and the connection therein to energy, for the for the concept you presented in the word 'spirit', I would appreciate it.
          Moreover, nitpicking on words and harassing Mathieu for not looking up the particulars of a definition or the etymology of a word is an ad-hominem attack and is a logical fallacy that does not negate his argument nor advance yours whatsoever.
          Also, claiming that one's mind is too intellectually dense for 'spirituality' holds no weight and is not an argument. Therefore, it does not diminish the statements of others or advances yours.
          Also, this idea of the 'immutable law of nature' is complete bunk.
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          Feb 28 2011: Kathy K., you seem to run a little too wildly with your conclusions about my character. It'd be nice to see you try weaken my position with actual arguments rather than attacks. I know what immutable means, I was making a specific comment about some of the things you said such as:

          "Plant an apple tree, rely on it producing apples, not figs.
          A cow will bring forth a calf, not cubs."

          Is in not true that given enough time, from one species other species can be borne out? The apparent immutability of organisms is only but an illusion of a short timescale.

          Sure there are laws of nature that don't ever change for our particular Universe, but from none of these can we seriously conclude your so-called 'elegant' conclusion. Things bringing forth their kind? On the contrary I see transformation everywhere. The elements that compose us were forged in the hearts of massive stars for example.
          Like Michael says, your immutable law of nature idea is complete bunk.
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        Feb 19 2011: With due respect to the brilliant Mr. Dawkins, I find his confrontation of religion to be out of alignment with some of his own work.

        Surely the human mind holds onto religion for a specific reason. A frontal, logical, attack on the belief systems does little good. Dawkins talks about helping the "middle of the road" people to know that living a life without religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. If that is his end goal, then maybe his approach is working.

        Minds that hold tightly to the religious meme do so for a reason. Subtlety is required. I call that work "meme tweaking" whereby new ideas are submitted in a way that does not trigger a defensive response by the core meme.

        It continues to surprise me that Dawkins uses such a brute force technique.
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          Feb 21 2011: Steve: You make an important point about the futility of direct confrontation against religious dogma. Yet isn't one of the most important aspects of "meme tweeking" in this respect the power of indoctrinating children in the belief-system?

          So just taking one issue for discussion - might it not be very important, from a societal deprogramming perspective, of a movement such as prohibiting prayer in publicly funded schools?
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          Feb 22 2011: If I were given the opportunity to suggest a name for the next TED conference, I would strongly recommend Os Guiness for his sharp and intelligent pointing of potential errors that American Society might bring about in following a radical secularism as well as the radical religious right. Every time we polarize the discussion or our intents, we do an awfull job on liberty, diversity and unity.

          His 2008 book The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It - challenges us to a higher and more noble position that is more than being tolerant: to be civil. And I agree with him. The public square is not to be naked (stripped of any religion) nor to be sacred (as some Muslim Societies are - and sad to say - some radical Christians would love).

          Although the question was not posted - but it comes about that when we want to square in on religion (or better saying to put religion on the table and try to strip it). This is just an impossible task for the quest to believe is innate in the human being, and that is what gives us power to decide and live. Each one of us has a personnal faith - Philosphy and Epistemology will give us more light on the matter.

          So as I tryed to make my point in my other comments - we fall into a trap not being able to separate Religion from other forms of 'ism's. The assumption that Religion follows a sacred text is limited. What counts is not what we explain for our deeds and behaviour (afterward) but what came before, and caused us to act (and live) and that is ... our personnal belief system.
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          Feb 22 2011: Reply to Volney:

          So maybe we can divide the discussion into two parts:

          Scriptural based religions: Do you believe it is wrong to confront scriptural based thinking and "evangelize" in favor of reason?

          Non-scriptural based religions: How do you define this? If the definition is "a personal belief system", then I guess the original question could never be answered in the negative, for how could personal belief systems ever cease to be useful?
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          Mar 6 2011: Volney: Your suggestion on Os Guinness motivated me to investigate and I found this video


          Os is definitely a master of the metaphor. Thanks for your suggestion. Although you and I differ on technicalities, I appreciate your sticking it out in our discussion.
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        Feb 21 2011: When we look upon someonelse's creed or worldvision and consider it a fallacy, we are creating a religion of our own, thus making an argumentative circle that entraps our own position. We cannot use 'reason' (the Rational framework that is) as a superior assumption in which we build our argument. Even if we have to go into Philosophy - this has to be clarified.

        RD does in fact create a new religion to fight a widespread creed under the umbrella which peolple believe in a Supreme Being. It is easy to fall into a cry mourning for having to live in the same world where people don't accept the same 'ism as we do.

        I understand perfectly well - even though being a Brazilian - that American Society is in a constant strugle with the religious influence perpetuaded by those with political power. But the Democratic Sistem has to find ways to minimize any kind of bad influence.

        I would say - since Mr. Bush is mentioned - that the great majority of the Latin American Christians (Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox) did not endorse his decision for war, and felt that his motivations were more personnal than religious.
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          Feb 21 2011: It reminds me of the Atheist walking through Belfast. He was accosted by a gang of youths who demanded to know whether he was "Catholic" or "Protestant". No doubt the answer may have dire consequences, so he answered "I'm an Atheist." Thinking for a moment the young men retorted; "Yes, but is that a Catholic Atheist, or Protestant Atheist ?"
          We have the same thing in the central belt of Scotland, divided by football team. What has this to do with sincere faith in Jesus Christ ? Absolutely nothing, but many people just lump it together in their mind.
          I think freedom of speech is sacrosanct , should be protected at all costs & if young men want to follow 'religious' football teams then ; subject to the rule of law; that should be allowed. If we start banning religion, then it will only be a matter of time before they ban bingo, fishing, or whatever your particular thing happens to be. We must protect the freedom of others if we aspire to freedom for ourselves.
          The Americans seem to have a problem with their democracy. Doesn't the guy with the most votes get in ? If not then fix it, or maybe folks don't vote for Atheists. It's democracy right ?

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          Feb 21 2011: Volney: All your comments are very thought provoking and bring up interesting points.

          One which is most striking to me is your associating belief in reason to a form of religion. I can see the parallel in terms of both being a belief system. But when I talk about religion, I'm referring to a belief system based on a holy scripture and/or a divinely based authority.

          I'm wondering - what is your opinion concerning the usefulness for this type of religion? Can you understand my interest in seeing this type of thinking diminish?
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        Feb 24 2011: I find it a little frustrating that the UX for this new conversation system does not easily allow ongoing reply threading....

        But to @Tim's points above, I am a fan of Stephen Prothero's push to teach comparative religion in public schools with a focus on the top ten religions by population. In addition, I believe our schools would do well to teach a modernized from of Aristotelian Ethics. Science and Public Eduction have let go of the subjective discussion of the a fulfilling human experience. I think this may be the unmet demand that religion fills.

        When we begin to have modern discussions of human thriving I believe much of revealed religion will begin to naturally fade away. I see no need to directly confront the irrational constructs of revealed theology from the Abrahamic traditions. Instead, something should be offered to humanity that is more relevant and useful. When that happens, the archaic belief forms to wither.

        Society is a memetic marketplace with major brands holding much market share. Any group wishing to displace stalwart brands will need to supply something that fulfills the existing demand. Personally I believe there is an enormous unmet demand for rational spirituality. Or maybe it should be called applied spirituality.
        • Feb 24 2011: Steve, I am sorry but I can't figure out just what in the hell you are talking about.....
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          Feb 25 2011: Steve: Your comment opened the floodgates on an aspect of this conversation which I have been having trouble with.

          In my comments in other threads, I've searched for benefits of religion, but had trouble coming up with anything more that "meeting a need for community".

          But your phrase - "fulfilling human experience" - open my mind to other ideas such as:
          . where one can go to teach
          . hear music and participate in it's making
          . be in a visually interesting environment
          . get involved in social movements
          . be part of a book club
          . do some meditation
          . etc, etc

          Which are perhaps all related to a need for community but somehow (for me at least) broadens the purpose of religion.

          Do you know of any good examples of religion-like communities developing which provide these benefits without resorting to a dogmatic and/or exclusionary mindset?
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        Feb 27 2011: Tim, I'm attempting to build one here: http://sbnr.org

        The concept is to service the group of people that are Spiritual But Not Religious through discussion of applied spiritual practices and the wonder of every day experiences. It will be a community based on intersection values not belief. It is non-dogmatic except in its dogmatism of being non-dogmatic. It's on a shoestring budget right now as we get it going and is only a glimmer of what it is intended to be.

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