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 25 2011: daniel & Kathy:
    I notice your repeated reference to “consciousness”,“spirit” and “soul” and other incorporeal concepts. It appears that you believe in the independent presence of these non-physical things which have a common property in that they are intangible, impalpable and incapable of being investigated objectively (Similar to other religious entities). Why should a person give much weight to something that we have no indication? Among possible explantions for this unwarranted stance, both religiosity and psychologic tendency to cling to “something” immaterial that can defy death are apparent reasons .

    Science don’t ignore weird phenomena, on the contrary these represent the subject material for scientific research. When a mysterious phenomenon is well documented, science would attempt to find an explanation: In the past, ultrasonic effects constituted part of magician tricks until science made an explanation. When telepathy puzzles us, science attempts to explain it, e.g. quantum explanation. However many superphysical phenomena/concepts are not real (not reliably-not systematically documented) and the job of science is to recognize unexplained real phenomena from non-real claims. Till now there is no evidence that “consciousness” is real thing separate from the brain (the same applies for “spirit” and “soul”). Our current knowledge indicates that conscious activity is a result of nerve function influenced by stimuli.

    Our species has a wonderful capacity to imagine and conceptualise with the aid of complex brain and advanced language. Our wonderful brain allows us to undertake complex rational analysis, appreciate poetry and beauty but also makes it possible to deceive ourselves and others (illusions, hallucinations, non-real images…etc).
    • Feb 25 2011: to A Latif.
      Are you saying that consciousness is an illusion, hallucination or a non-real image?..Are you saying that the activity of consciousness... thinking.... is also an illusion? Can you tell me how science explains these things with quantum mechanics and the like? Whether or not consciousness has its origin in the physical brain or is free from the physical brain, the fact remains that consciousness, with its thinking nature, is without a doubt a purely non-physical activity. Call it superphysical if you like. But it astounds me that people that are generally wide awake, inquisitive and, to use an already coined word... bright.... can be so blind to the activity that lies within each of us and fills your head and mine with ideas(immaterial) and feelings(again immaterial) and then turn around and say..."well, science is working on it....we will get to the bottom of it soon..... quantum physics... brain neurons firing....etc. ....etc. ... etc." Science will never get to the bottom of it with purely materialistic explanations. There is and never will be a "selfish gene" that can stand there and ask itself "What am I doing here?" "What brought this all about?" No never! But the " I " in you can ask these questions. The I in all of us, at least to the degree the I is "awake within itself"... again you might say.... well, the " I "
      has not been recognized by science and therefore must be an illusion or some sort of hallucination or non-real image. There is no longer any meaning in your arguments... because there are so many non-physical aspects of the human being that must be taken for granted before you can even begin to discuss these things. Don't you see that? Thinking itself is a "spiritual" activity. If the word to you is strange,scares you away or creates a feeling of antipathy, then try to use a more "quantum" type of content in but never the less, the content is purely immaterial. Thinner than the thinest gas you can imagine.
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        • Feb 27 2011: Hi Kathy, started my own debate about "consciousness" stop in if you like. The discussion may take another direction than whats going on here. Only 2 visitors so far. But the topic is interesting. I don't think you and I are too far from each other in our way of seeing things but I must warn you, I have some pretty radical ideas that I've picked up along the way. Maybe some of the others here might like to stop in too... search on consciousness.. under ideas....
      • Feb 26 2011: daniel: Are you claiming to be some kind of oracle? How do you know what science will discover in the future? Claiming that thought is spiritual and will never ever be proven otherwise is exceedingly narrow-minded. By your explanation of thought, one would have to pray or meditate in order to think beyond "mmm hungry". Are chimps spiritual? Of course not. Yet they think, and are capable of problem solving that requires multi-dimensional thinking.
        Moreover, your lack of understanding when it comes to biology is not proof that science is wrong. All it proves, is that you don't understand it. Don't be so quick to call intelligent people "blind" when you are unwilling to even consider ideas outside of your own beliefs.
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      Feb 25 2011: A Latif: What do you think about the utility of metaphorical language from the point of view of simply dealing with day-to-day life?

      The issue of the spirit is an interesting one. The word "spirit" was derived from the word "breath". One can easily imagine observing a dying person breath their last breath and correlating that with a certain separation of the body from it's fuller former self.

      So from a pragmatic standpoint, doesn't it, at times, serve a purpose to speak of such things with analogies?
      • Feb 25 2011: No analogy intended
      • Feb 26 2011: Tim, if the case is limited to just “utility of metaphorical language from the point of view of simply dealing with day-to-day life” it wouldn’t be that serious matter, but adherents believe in the factual existence of these things and this prepares them not only to accept Shamanism, Trance Mediums and the like but probably also make them susceptible to adopt negative attitudes that hurdle human progress.

        Notice how one Sufi would states his “thoughts”, excerpt : “Now, a star emits its own light, but this visible star is only the physical body of the spiritual star”. This resembles the mystic notion that human body is the physical expression of the immaterial soul/spirit. It is an expression of human psychologic desire to outlive death and the Epic of Gilgamesh is the first written document that registers this impossible dream and all other fancied derivatives.

        The tendency to believe in the abstruce, necromantic and arcane shows how people enjoy flights of contemplation and envision other intangible, imaginary worlds and entities. This attraction by the esoteric and the mystical causes humans to recycle, uncritically, pre-modern era terms, concepts and imaginations, imaginations and non-real concepts that have roots in the mythical and magical worlds of ancient societies and early human beings who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago (as well as from more recent indigenous people like the Yanomamo and Australian Aborigines) , which have been also entrenched, in one way or another, by organised religions. Humanity has an efficient tool, scientific rationality, which help us to gain real perception of ourselves and of the world around us.
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          Feb 26 2011: Interesting points A Latif. How about wrapping up with a simple question to see how others respond?
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          E G 10+

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          Feb 26 2011: I'm doubting if the religion say that body is the physical expression of the immaterial soul.........as I know (and how's and my opinion) there are two different 'substances' material(body) and immaterial(soul) that are forming an human being, no more that that.
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        Feb 26 2011: Wikipedia:

        A phenomenon (from Greek φαινόμενoν), plural phenomena or phenomenons, is any observable occurrence.


        a fact, occurrence, or circumstance observed or observable
      • Feb 26 2011: It's simply because our "physical eyes" are not developed enough to "see". Just compare your own sense of smell to that of for example a blood hound. A blood hound can smell 50,000 times better than a person can. Compare your sight to that of an eagle. Compare your hearing to that of a whale. Our senses are limited. But there are people who are able to "see" into unseen realms. They are called clairvoyant. They can see what is called the aura. They can sometimes see glimpses of the past and even glimpses of the future. Maybe heal illness. Take this example. You meet a person that is colorblind ... you try to tell him of all the wonderful "colors" that are in the world. but he refuses to believe you... because he can only see shades of gray... This is how it is with the world of soul and spirit. Without training your inner perception you cannot see into these realms. You of course must be free to totally deny their existence..and rightly so, as we see by many comments here, many choose to do just that. But to one who has had direct experiences of such realities, you cannot come and say that they are simply hallucinations or deceptive brain function. If one briefly allows oneself to accept certain "thought-building blocks" to understand such non-physical phenomenon, a whole world of explanations will open up to a curious mind. But the wonderful thing about thinking is this... You can accept something as "truth" today.... but tomorrow is a new day.. with new facts that present themselves. The nature of thinking is free. You can simply set your thoughts on your "mental shelf" until you get more time to go back and take a closer look. In the mean time, we use the word "believe" I can cast aside tomorrow that which I thought was true today. You see, we are truly free beings. Dogma binds both the scientific mind as well as the religious mind. There is no difference. But of course some people, on both sides of the fence claim to have found the only truth.
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          Feb 27 2011: Daniel, I think there's a big difference between senses of smell and clairvoyance. Namely: testability.

          If you have someone who claims to have a good sense of smell you can blindfold them and hold items under their nose, asking them to identify each. This is a loose application of science and it's a good way to measure the validity of the person's claim.

          If you have someone who claims to be clairvoyant you can apply the same sort of test. The reason many people don't believe in clairvoyance isn't because they have their allegiance with science. It's because clairvoyance always fails under scrutiny, revealing itself to be false.

          Which is not so say that non-observable phenomena should all be chalked up to brain malfunction. But anything that cannot be measured should not be relied upon as if it were a usable fact.

          I doubt you'd pay real money for a computer that was built using mathematical rules devised by clairvoyant people. You'd be pretty certain the thing wouldn't work.

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