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 28 2011: I'd like to start a new thread with a quote from Joseph Campbell:

    "Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble." Joseph Campbell

    So - open question - can we accept the holy scriptures as mythical metaphors or is it necessary that we take them as facts?
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      Mar 1 2011: Hi Tim

      The trouble with "mythical metaphors" is which "translation" we accept. Surely everyone will see a different meaning. Let's say there's a couple of dozen "Holy Scriptures"; is it really beyond the wit of man to check them out literally & see if any make sense. If not then demote them. If we are still left with "mythical metaphors" then I for one am lost, as we will be left with millions of interpretations.

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        Mar 2 2011: Peter: I thought we already had millions of interpretations.
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          Mar 2 2011: Tim

          Touche' . That's my point. We have to start with evidence.

    • Mar 2 2011: Is "the curvature of space" a metaphor or a fact? Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. Does it have to stop being fact to be a metaphor, or vice versa?
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        Mar 2 2011: Fascinating point Charles. Could we even say words are metaphors? And numbers (I'm particulary intrigued by the number 3 as you can see from another post)?

        So perhaps the question should read "can we accept the holy scriptures as mythical metaphors or is it necessary that we take them literally?" The point being that if their meaning is open to debate then perhaps we can head off the un-holy alliance of politicians and clergy when they push their official story.
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          Mar 2 2011: Hi Tim

          Politicians & Clergy are certainly into the metaphors, although many of their flock stick with literal. That's what happens when people get ideas above their station. I'll join you in heading off the unholy alliance.
          If we take things literally (where they are obviously meant that way) then things are open to be investigated regarding their literal truth. metaphors on the other hand just go round & round.


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