TED Conversations

Tim Colgan


This conversation is closed.

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.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • Feb 22 2011: As a scientist, I have to start off by saying that a discussion of this topic/idea is going to be particularly biased without the input of the religious community, which I believe to be lacking on this site. Civil debate with peers well versed in religious studies would offer precious insight into this discussion. I am not one of them, but am passionate about the subject and recommend anyone to read some of Joseph Campbell’s works.

    “God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought. It's as simple as that.”
    Joseph Campbell

    This quote really sums up why religion or the notion of god will not and should not outlive its usefulness. I do not wish to argue that many of the dogmatic belief systems are archaic, in many ways they cannot related to the current age. This, however, does not diminish their meaning’s or purpose which are allegorical in nature.

    A religion is there to help guide one through life, so that they may be happy and serve their finite time on earth meaningfully. It gives people faith, not just blind faith, but faith that things can and will get better in times of darkness or destruction.

    Science and technology will never be able to answer all questions. I will leave you with this final quote.

    “Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history, mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives becomes dissolved.”
    "The Hero With a Thousand Faces", Joseph Campbell
    • thumb
      Feb 23 2011: Jon: Joseph Campbell I've always found to be very thought-provoking and have interesting insights on many aspects of human culture and evolution. However, in one of his later interviews it seems like he had re-embrased catholicism. That was a bit disconcerting.

      He had one statement, though, that really gets to the crux of the problem that I have with religion:

      "Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble." Joseph Campbell

      Considering the damage that occurs when religious metaphors are interpreted as facts, is it inappropriate for us to object to this kind of thinking?
      • Feb 23 2011: >>Considering the damage that occurs when religious metaphors are interpreted as facts

        What about the damage that can and has occured through the advancement of science( e.g. atom bomb, chemical, biological weapons)? Should we "object to this kind of thinking"? Or should we accept the fact that along with the good there is a capacity of bad or misuse.

        >>Is it inappropriate for us to object to this kind of thinking?

        Specifically, what kind of thinking ,using allegorical stories in general or treating allegorical stories as facts? Can you have one without the other?
        • thumb
          Feb 24 2011: Jon:

          You've really got me thinking about the meaning of myth in general (btw - have added "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" to my reading list). So perhaps it just comes down to a battle of mythologies. As Steven Hawking has said:

          "There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."

          On the other hand, maybe science will just get us in trouble and we would have been better off just remaining hunter-gathers living in tribal communities.

          One big issue with "religion" in the traditional sense is that there are so many of them and they tend to be in conflict. How do you see this resolving?
    • thumb
      Feb 24 2011: Jon thanks for mentioning Campbell. Religion should be sought out not because it is factual but because it contains some inexpressible truth. I would no longer rid the word of religion than would burn down the fiction section of a library. Religion is often interpreted in a non-metaphorical way allowing for abuse. That said all mythology is a system of belief. Science is a mythology in the idea you have to believe that if you repeat an experiment without changing any variables you will get the same results. This sound easy but there is never just one variable in nature. That said we can derive as much knowledge from science as will fit into our heads.

      Instead of dismissing myth cause it is easily abused we need to constantly question religion. If for some reason 99% of scientist were faking result we would not say the scientific method was bad and prone to abuse, but rather would work on exposing the bad methodology and trying to create our own science.
      • thumb
        Feb 24 2011: Good point Anthony. So how about we move the holy books to the fiction section?

        I can see the value of a body of literature telling stories for us to ponder and ask "do they have relevance to our life?".

        Can a religion emerge which allows all myths to be accepted as possible useful metaphors, yet none to be singled out as the sole truth?
        • thumb
          Feb 24 2011: Yes that is the problem. When you witness an amazing work of art that moves you to the core you don't banish the concept of all other art as heresy, but that is what happen in religion all to often. I guess to borrow a biological metaphor people need to be exposed to as many religions as possible in their formative years in order to develop a healthy immune system against the more insidious parts of any religion. What I see happing though is quite the opposite. I cringe every time I see someone like Dawkins argue against religion because despite his vast brilliance I feel he sort of misses the point. Myth does not pose any threat against science, One ask how one ask why, but by debating people often much less learn than he is he himself reduces religion to its most base fundamental appeal which often has crazy results. Ultimately I guess religions are no better or worse than the people who compose them. That said as more enlighten souls opt out of religion because it goes against their morality religion will try to appeal more to the fire and brimstone types.
        • Feb 25 2011: If you hold a gun to someone's head and tell them to treat their neighbor well, is that person really moral? What is the difference between that gun and Hell? Religion teaches the right things for the wrong reason. You shouldn't have the be threatened by Hell in order to live a happy and meaningful life. Society needs to learn to do good for the pureness of doing good, we don't need a "guide" and should certainly not be threatened.
    • Mind S 30+

      • +2
      Feb 24 2011: Jon,
      Why don’t you seek “meaning”, “purpose” and something to “help guide one through life” by way of reason and logic, and by adopting humanitarian thoughts instead of relying on “dogmatic” and “archaic” belief systems that “cannot related to the current age”(Quotations are from your comment). I wonder (particularly because you have introduced yourself as a scientist.) about your submission to delusional myths to achieve these goals instead of adopting logical, factual and reasonable ever evolving alternatives that can provide you with peace of mind, better human relations, existential meaning and purposeful life.
      • thumb
        Feb 24 2011: Mind S:

        Just to play the "devils" (slash that out), God's advocate here - do you see anything in religions (sense of community, etc.) that would be missing in a society without religion? What are the other ways to get provide those things?
      • Feb 24 2011: Mind S, I do seek meaning, purpose etc. through reason and logic and I don't disagree with you that ever evolving alternatives should and could be achieved. However, some general stories have developed throughout many cultures, "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell, and I don't think they should be discounted.

        Also, mentioning reason and logic, read some David Hume or Karl Popper, you will quickly see that logic and reasoning is not as cut and dry as you may expect.

        Tim, I think religions do offer a great sense of community. It is a shame that many of the greatest minds today don't have a weekly get together much like a religion would. I guess in a way TED is trying to achieve just that, getting highly intelligent people together to better the world.

        Finally, there is something to be said about the tradition involved in many religions, allowing you to connect back to something people have felt throughout history, linking us all together.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.