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: The short answer to the title question for me is that religion has not outlived its usefulness, in much the same way as bipedalism has not outlived its usefulness. This is partly because I have a much broader definition of what religion is than what Tim means by the word.

    "But when I talk about religion, I'm referring to a belief system based on a holy scripture and/or a divinely based authority."

    As I understand this definition, the question is about a particular form of religion. Furthermore, other posts suggest that an implicit postulate is being proposed that such a belief system excludes any rational thought. Such a postulate is readily falsifiable. There are hundreds of millions of people who believe in a deity or deities and/or scriptures who also engage in rational thought.

    All people engage in rationality. All people engage in irrationality.

    I believe that bad things which are attributed to religion are more accurately attributed to other pressures some of which have been mentioned here: economics, psychological illness, social and political disenfranchisement, etc. Blaming 9/11 on religion, for example, is like blaming 9/11 on the invention of airplanes.

    Even with this narrow focus on revealed, theistic religion, to me asking Is it still useful? is a bit strange. No one sits down and invents a religion in order to perform a use or to accomplish something. Revealed religion in particular starts as the result of an experience and interpretation of that experience. At the same time it's a dedication and a way of life. One can agree with it or not. One can have other religions or other outlooks. But it's a part of the human experience that exists with or without purpose as an expression of our curiosity and desire to know as well as our desire to love, to give, and to have meaning. Whether one believes in M-theory or not: does that serve a purpose? Perhaps not directly, but it's a manifestation of components of humanness that are very useful.

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