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 26 2011: I have never regarded religion, in all its numerous guises, throughout all the cultures of man , in a primarily utilitarian way,such as employing the term" useful" seems to indicate. Religion has never been,to my knowledge, subject to any species of rigorous means testing in order to qualify for some type of agreed upon social function.However, I am aware of the efforts of the psychologist and philosopher William James who sought to study mystical experiences employing the methodology of psychology,i.e.,approaching such experiences as if they were merely psychological states similiar to a psycopathology. Religious belief may assume a grand social role in societies, but only after the fact. Religion,broadly defined, is a belief in the supernatural. Most people in the world believe in God or the supernatural. Such beliefs seem to be indigenous to the human experience and are the province of our self-realization and identity,and as such are cleary beyond the perception of merely a social utility tool to fit a given undefined need.
    Much has been made of the destructive outgrowth of certain religious beliefs and experiences. There is no doubt that religion has done its share of misery and mayhem. But it is interesting that very little if any of the same recognition is given to anti-religious systems, such as the totalitarian regimes underpinned with scientific reasonings and modern empiricism, and the death squads that carry out the dictates of those miraculously free of anachronistic adhesions and pre-scientific delusions such as religion.
    Just for the record, this commentator is an agnostic and has made these assertions outside of any religious viewpoint.
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      Feb 27 2011: Don, I appreciate the illustration that horrors have come both from religious and fiercely atheist regimes. That's worth contemplating.

      I disagree with your claim that religion is belief in the supernatural. That's a common element of religion but it's by no means required. Many modern Jews practice the Jewish religion while having no supernatural beliefs.

      Religion is a means of tying together cultural values into a form of tradition and narrative. I consider myself a practicing Christian even though I've long since left behind any concept of the supernatural. I do it because I come from a Christian background and I've found the narratives of redemption and forgiveness (in all their varied manifestations) to be quite moving. I apply those themes to my own life whenever possible.

      If you're interested, Karen Armstrong's book The Case for God is a lovely study of religious history that depicts literal belief in the supernatural to be a deviance from healthy religion.
      • Mar 2 2011: Thanks for the reply Jack. I'll check into the Armstrong book.Cheers.

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