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.

  • thumb
    Feb 26 2011: Tim, if by 'religion' you mean 'theism', then I'd say yes. But I believe that religion, in the general sense, is one of our most potent tools to solving the world's problems.

    Consider this definition of theology: "A lens that combines a person's or group's set of values into a single narrative."

    Dawkins attacks a straw man, singling out a specific type of narrative that causes destruction. Specifically, he points to religious traditions that conflate truth and myth and are unable to distinguish between story and fact.

    Here are some excellent examples of how religion, as crafted by humans, has enabled people to transcend their normal limitations and do good:
    - Evangelical Christians in Britain were the singular force pushing for the abolition of English slavery.
    - various Christian groups in America specifically crafted an abolitionist theology to oppose the pro-slavery theology of the American South. That battle was not rationalism vs religion but a struggle between two religious narratives with very different values on human life.
    - Immigrant groups, from all cultures, use the skills of creating religious narrative to retain personal and corporate relational ties when they find themselves isolated within a new foreign culture.
    - Food moralism in the modern progressive movement is a form of religion (though it hates to think of itself as such). It places moral values on eating various foods based on the sustainability and perceived cleanliness of those foods.

    So is it obsolete? No. It just requires that good and intelligent people commit themselves to keeping the narratives of their culture on track. If we abstain from religion entirely then the fools among us will hold a monopoly on moral language. It's our job to weave our values into a single story that can be understood by many and do good for all.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.