Sunday, March 23, 2008

Religion: A Placebo with Side-Effects

Laura at Token Offerings has written a nice post on the placebo effects of religion, noting, among other things,

How could they [life-long religious believers] understand their lives outside the context of their faith? If this is the placebo effect of religion, is it really such a bad thing? There are some people who would not be able to endure their suffering without believing that God has a good reason for it, and that it will be revealed in the fullness of time. I understand the kind of fear, pain and despair that makes people reach out into the darkness and grab hold of whatever comforts them.
The hope and consolation of religion is surely its most defensible feature, and it's not adequate to answer it with "that's irrational." I would not say any such thing to, say, a sick person grasping for hope and finding it in religious belief. To do so would be cruel, misplaced, and ineffective.

And no one is immune to it. I enjoy the experience of buying a lottery ticket now and then because of the license it gives me to daydream about the possibilities. I certainly don't want a statistician to get in my face at that moment and remind me of the vanishingly small odds of my actual winning. I know the odds are practically zero. I know I won't really win the lottery. But I still enjoy the daydream, and more than that, the enjoyment of the daydream makes the day a little brighter. An unreasonable hope feels almost exactly as nourishing as a well-founded hope.

The lesson I take from these thoughts is that it's always important to pick one's battles carefully, with a clear view of the wider human context and the foreseeable stakes. Arguing the existence or nonexistence of god with a terminal cancer patient is a non-starter -- if you "win" the argument you've done nothing better than deprive someone of hopes in favor of a pointlessly narrow victory for capital-T Truth.

But there are other contexts, and other ends beyond hope and consolation served by religion: repression, ignorance, intolerance, violence, etc. The trick is that some of these are sometimes dressed up as appeals to hope, or mixed with appeals to hope. Surely a typical suicide bomber has a mixture of motives and ends in mind when contemplating the decision to detonate -- to advance this or that cause he finds noble, to please god, to destroy an evil, to give inspiration to fellow believers, to prove his courage, etc. And there it gets tricky. Not all of these ends and motives are evil when taken in purest isolation and regarded in the most charitable light. But the task of delegitimizing suicide bombing by undercutting the underlying beliefs entails doing damage to all the varied ends and motives.

This is where the placebo metaphor breaks down: unlike a typical placebo, the placebo of religion has dangerous side-effects that must be monitored. It's a question of trade-offs, and while some engagements with religion demand generosity and forebearance, others require questioning and confrontation.


mikesdak said...

I agree about the futility of stopping suicide bombers by undermining their religion. One other problem is we haven't exactly given them much to counter the idea that blowing some of us up is a bad idea. Our very presence is an affront to some of them. They see the huge permanent bases with levels of luxury they can barely imagine while they struggle for life,and they know we don't plan on ever leaving.We are seen as another oppresive colonizer. The fact that our leaders ignore their popular opinion (and ours, for that matter; see Dick Chaney's latest) in all decision making, thus undermining the few positive ideals we do claim to uphold, dosn't help.

Dale said...

Mike, please pardon the fever-fueled screed to come, which is only slightly a response to your comments. I'm in a bit of a mood.

I think we should make common cause where we can and win hearts and minds in every way possible.

That has to be the starting point of US policy, I think. Diplomacy must be diplomacy. We have to find a way to live in a world in which large swaths of people organized in nation-states don't see things quite as we do on key matters.

As a private person, however, I reserve the right to challenge the basis of faith systems that underwrite fanatical violence and other dangers. These belief systems are false and their falseness matters.

Sincerity is not a valid argument.

'Because my tradition says so' is not a valid argument.

'Because some musty old book says so' is not a valid argument.

It is within bounds to state this plainly, even if it gives offense. That these are invalid arguments matters because the truth matters.

It's not nice or diplomatic to say so, but bullshit is bullshit, and bullshit has to be kept on a short leash. The beheaders and bombers and theocrats are stacking delusions atop delusions and wishing to wall us all in. Free people will refuse those walls or find ourselves inside them with no exit in sight.

I'm not talking about laws, but about conversational intolerance. I insist on the right to give offense and to call bullshit.

Ezekiel said...

There is hope that one knows is unfounded (or improbable) and then there is religious faith. My grandmother died approximately 22 years ago, of a cancer she believed she would live through (that belief based in her non-christian faith), perhaps in her last couple months alive it was useful to not dwell on the fact that she would die, and then slowly rot.
However, to my aunts and mother, I know that it was upsetting that try as they might, they couldn't get the type of reconciliation and closure they needed from her. (They knew she was dying, even if She didn't)
Each of them attempted to say final goodbyes in her own way, but still...

Faith might be a "balm" sometimes, but I think that self-delusion isn't useful. To be trite, I like the comparison between religious faith (as a soothing balm) and alcoholism: both make you feel good, have no true sustenance to them, and in the end can kill you.