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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    Mar 1 2011: It's a very different proposition to get a person to change their mind than it is to get them to make it in the first place. If the question were only how a person with no opinion could be convinced one way or the other (as we ask a jury to do), then a comparison of facts, beliefs, events and other inputs would be a reasonable basis to work from.

    But once a person has made a decision, even tentatively, they have started to form a commitment to that position. If they voice it, their commitment is even stronger - they rationalize it internally, and don't want to be seen as waffling externally. This inertia-of-opinion is the biggest problem, I think, and one big reason for the success of such strongly irrational positions, including religious and political, through the years.

    By an odd coincidence of timing, I'm working my way through a book I recently discovered, Cialdini's 1994 "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion." A fascinating, well-documented trip through its field, with one chapter dedicated to this particular topic (commitment, not religion).

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