To me religion is a bit like that dude who shot up a bunch of people during the premiere of the Batman movie. He may have done some good for somebody (at least he inspired another asshole to plan a shooting during the premiere of the new Twilight movie), but in general he was just a big asshole.
Good Things About Religion, Historically Speaking
Back a couple thousand years people were stupid. Not to be understand that their brains were less evolved than they are today (except due to malnutrition) but understood as they did not have the knowledge we have today. They still made observations, conclusions, and experiences based on what they had, though.
One thing they observed was that in warm countries, eating pork was a bad thing. Today, we know this is because the pig is genetically very close to humans, so any disease carried by a pig is very likely to also be bad for humans, but back then, genes hadn’t been invented yet and they had no means to understand why eating pork was likely to make you sick. They therefore went with the classical “a wizard did it” explanation, and said that God forbade eating pork. In much the same way, a wizard forbade adultery – today we know of bacteria and sexually transmitted diseases and can provide a better explanation why fucking around might have been a bad idea. Of course, God hates fags because they are not allowed to form a classical relationship and hence are more likely to have multiple sexual partners and hence get sexual transmitted diseases.
This all boils down to the fact that humans discovered something was bad, did not know the reason it was bad, went with the “a wizard did it” explanation, and ended up calling these rules religion. Today, we can think of it as the law of the land a couple thousand years ago. The rules were good and they saved lives, but today we should regard them as nothing more: “a wizard did it” explanations to what was then unexplainable.
Religion is more than that, though. It is also a philosophy of life. It starts with simple rules like “stop killing the living shit out of each other” and continues along the lines of “help the retards and handicapped”. It may also deal with questions like “where do we come from”, “where do we go” and “what is our purpose”. As people back in the days of yore, as already mentioned, were stupid, they lumped all of this together in a big mish-mash, passed on from generation to generation until somebody invented the internet and wrote a blog-post about it all.
This is of course only considering religions that are thousands of years old. I’ll also include reinterpretations of said religions in this category, but I won’t include mock religions whose sole purpose is the extraction of money from less savant members of the population.
Bad Things About Religion Today
The thing is that while some parts of religion, e.g., the life philosophy, are worth keeping, at least for discussion, some parts should be thrown out like a kid with the bath water. Eating pork is not bad and bacon should be part of the curriculum of any school. Adultery is not inherently bad unless it is a breach of trust and promises, and God does not hate fags. God is very busy being fictional and does not have the time to concern himself with neither British cigarettes nor homosexuals. Today we know what causes the bad effects, and we can restrict our behavior to not eating uncooked pork and use protection when having sex with unknown or new partners. We can have the cake and eat it too. It’s actually quite difficult to eat the cake without having it first.
As the big explanation 2000 years ago was “a wizard did it”, you had to buy into the entirety of a religion. People did not know why eating pork was bad and just had to trust the magical book. Or die. Maybe. As religions were and still are a mish-mash of useful but not entirely well-understood rules you typically got all or nothing. Die from catching the gay pig-flu or trust the wizard.
As religion also encompasses a life philosophy some may have difficulty parting with (some, especially Eastern religions, are actually mainly life philosophies), it is difficult to shred the old “a wizard did it” explanations while keeping the life philosophy as the magical books are all or nothing. And that is the main harm of religion: they are rigid and do not allow discarding parts while keeping others. This means that today people still adhere to ancient rules even though they are no longer necessary. Today we can eat delicious bacon with no fear because we know why bacon was dangerous 2000 years ago and we can treat our pork correctly and eat it with no danger.
Religion is not Science and Science is not Religion
Today we have a much better tool for describing the world. It is called science. Science has a lot of the same functions religion used to, most importantly describing the world around us. Science, however, being a couple thousand years newer than most religions, is made by smarter people.
Science does not aim to be the absolute truth but just to explain the world around us. For that reason, science changes. Science 500 years ago was pretty sure the world was flat or at least that the Earth was the center of the universe. People adapted this view as it was proven wrong. Science also used to think the world consisted of four elements. When that seemed less and likely, science adapted. Today, both of these views are discarded in favor of better theories (and better theories, and better theories, and better theories, and better theories, and … I’ve probably forgotten some as my knowledge of physics is ancient and hence stupid).
Thus an important trait of science is that it adapts. A theory in the terms of science is not a fancy word for “I made up some bullshit”, but has a formal meaning. A theory has to make predictions about the world and must be falsifiable. This means that it must be possible to prove that a scientific theory is wrong. It does not mean that it must be possible to prove a scientific theory is true. The theory of gravity is one such theory: in essence it says “if I drop a stone, it falls down”. There is more to it, but this interpretation shall suffice here. I can easily falsify this theory: pick up a stone and drop it. If it leaves hanging like that annoying guy at a party, the theory has been proven wrong. If it does not fall, we have not proven the theory wrong, but obtained a more confidence it is true. Note, we have not proven it true, just gotten more confident in our theory: it has successfully predicted something about our world. Even if the theory is wrong in general, it at least once made a correct prediction.
As we make more observations, we build confidence in our theories. Sometimes we make observations that do not correspond to the theory, and we need to refine or make completely new theories. For example, if we drop a stone most places (except for fast-moving elevators) on Earth, it will indeed drop. But if we do so in space (or on a fast-moving elevator), it won’t. We must adapt the theory. Theories that are well-supported by evidence are often adapted, though sometimes they need to be completely replaced. If theories most of the time correctly predict the future, they are useful even if they are not completely true.
This is very contrary to religion. In religion I can claim “the is a God/magic wizard”. This is not falsifiable, and I can never prove there is no god. It is possible to prove there is a god: catch it and show it. So far nobody has done that (except for Britney’s parents). Thus we have a random assertion that cannot be proven wrong (and hence cannot be supported by observations) and has not been proven right. It is useless for prediction and as a guide.
In mathematics and computer science, we like to divide problem up into boxes. From the point of view of this post, we divide them into 3 boxes: the decidable problems, the semi-decidable problems, and the undecidable problems. For historical reasons, these are also known as the recursive problems, recursive enumerable problems and non-recursive problems ((The connection to recursion is very subtle and only works if you have seen Gödel’s definition of recursive functions, which most people haven’t as Turing’s description is simpler to understand for most computer scientists.)). This field is known as computability theory.
Decidable problems are problems for which we can get a definite yes/no answer. This is the domain of mathematics and simple computer science. In the real world most interesting problems are semi-decidable. For example, if I state “if I drop this rock, it will fall down” it is a decidable problem: by simply dropping it, I can see whether it falls down or not. If I state “all rocks fall down when dropped” it is a semi-decidable statement. By dropping a single rock, I cannot infer that the statement is true. If I drop a rock and it falls down, I have not proven the statement to be true. If I drop a rock and it does not fall down, I have, however, proven it to be false. This is semi-decidablity. I cannot devise an experiment proving the statement true, but if it is false, it is possible to prove it so.
The statement “there is no God” is semi-decidable in the same way, but the statement “there is a God” is not. The statement “there is no God” can be proven wrong by presenting a God but cannot be proven true. The opposite statement cannot be proven wrong (but can be proven true). We note that this does matter. If something cannot be proven true but can be proven wrong, we can build confidence it is true by honestly trying to disprove it and failing, but in the opposite case, we can only build confidence that something does not hold. This is where religion is different. They do not honestly try to present a God to disprove “there is no God”. Instead, they modify the statement to “there is a God and he’s a scaredy pants who doesn’t want to show himself”. That makes the statement all-out undecidable and it can no longer be proven true or false as not producing a god doesn’t increase confidence in the conjecture “there is no God”.
Science tries to prove itself wrong, because each proof of science being wrong yields better science better at explaining the real world. We get more evidence that our theory can predict things about the future. Newton was better explaining motion than was Platon. Einstein was even better. In the future, we’ll probably be even better, as soon as somebody finds Einstein to be wrong (in an obscure special case, as Einstein is pretty good at the conditions we have tested so far).
Good Things About Religion Today
The real explanation is not always the best one. This can be for three reasons: the real explanation has too many complications to grasp the essence, the real explanation is too uncomfortable, or science simply doesn’t have an answer.
Today, we still teach Newton’s theory of gravitation in schools. Unless you live in particular Southern states where also the alternative is taught. We do this even though we know the theory is not correct if you go very, very fast. That is because it is a very good explanation under the conditions we normally observe and the more refined theory of relativity has some consequences that directly contradict our every-day experiences as they only occur under extreme conditions. While Newton’s laws do not hold under extreme conditions, they provide an easier to understand description of the essentials of the theory of gravity which is good enough for everyday use. Newton’s theory is an adequate simplification of the truth (as is the theory of relatively, most likely).
In much the same way, we can consider the “a wizard forbade eating pork” to be a simplification of “if you eat undercooked pork with diseases you may get sick”. It is definitely a simpler explanation, and adhering to it will solve the problem of dying from pig-related diseases. The question is whether it is an adequate simplification. Thus, it all boils down to whether you like bacon or not. If you are not particularly interesting in banging you neighbor or another person of your own gender, you can also accept the religious explanation as the truth and save yourself the grief of understanding bacteria and sexually transmitted diseases. After all, we know how well abstinence works as pregnancy prevention.
Sometimes the real explanation is really uncomfortable. For example, what happens after we die? The science answer is nothing. You are dead and that’s that. There is no spoon and there is no soul. What is worse is that you are dead for all future, which is infinitely longer than you were alive. You’ll be dead until the end of the universe. If it ends. There is no reboot, there is no coming back. It’s just the end. This truth becomes even more horrible when you truly understand infinity. For a 3 years old, there is infinitely long till Britmas or their birthday. For a 15 years old there’s infinitely long till they turn 18 and get their license and/or can move away from their parents. For the 22 years old, there’s infinitely long till they are 30 and finally finish their 3-year degree. For the 50 years old, there infinitely long till they are 65 and can retire and mooch off of their kids. Even if we live for a 1000 years, constantly extending our concept of infinity, we would not even have understood one millionth of infinity. To quote AM from I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, trying to voice its infinite hatred for humanity:
Hate. Let me tell you how much I’ve come to hate you since I began to live. There are 387.44 million miles of printed circuits in wafer thin layers that fill my complex. If the word ‘hate’ was engraved on each nanoangstrom ((That’s roughly one tenthousandth the size of a proton.)) of those hundreds of miles it would not equal one one-billionth of the hate I feel for humans at this micro-instant. For you. Hate. Hate.
The “a wizard did it” explanation that we go to heaven or come back as a flower are easier to grasp and for many to like. Though, there are religions where the infinite rest is the goal.
Science can also explain where we come from. It’s evolution. Even most religions accept that there has been some notion of evolution. We can even go back further. How did life arise on exactly the one planet where life can be sustained? It’s the anthropic principle. It basically states that the reason there is life on Earth which can ask why is there life on Earth, is that Earth can support life. Basically, there are many planets and only some of them support life. Only on one that supports life, can life emerge. Thus, since life did emerge, we must necessarily live on one that supports life. As there are so many planets and (we assume) so many that support life, it is improbable for life not to emerge somewhere. We can take this one step further; it seems the laws of physics are fine tuned to produce a universe in which life can be supported, including allowing planets and suns to emerge. This is explainable using the anthropic principle if we accept a multiverse hypothesis.
Going further becomes difficult, though, and already the multiverse interpretation is dodgy. Do we just continue adding meta or do we reach a fixpoint? Even worse does it become if we proceed and ask the “why?” Why did all of this start anyway? Applying the anthropic principle, we get some of it; we can explain that if it didn’t we wouldn’t be here to ask the question, but without a lot of other worlds without life (or sufficiently long time), it becomes difficult to assign a sufficiently high probability to this happening. Outside of a universe (or multiverse) time and “other places” do not really make sense, and science is (currently) at a loss. Here, religion can provide an answer, which in best tradition is “a wizard did it”. If you really need a reason, you have your explanation, but who needs a reason for bacon?
The Problem: Religion Demands Respect
Thus, religion used to be a bunch of useful guidelines and even today sometimes provide easier answers than science. For some, it also contains life philosophy that promotes decent behavior (in my reference frame, of course), such as refraining for murderizing and promoting compassion. As religion is all-or-nothing, you often have to subscribe to archaic rules to avoid problems even though we have better (and more bacony) solutions today.
That is all fine as long as you keep it to yourself. As long as you don’t go killing people for believing differently than you or – worse – bug me about your bullshit belief you are completely free to believe in whatever you want. Just don’t impose it on others and (especially) me! One time I was serenely minding my own hangovers as I was rudely woken by a couple of Jehovas witnessess. The description is in Danish, but the gist is that I was hungover and the Jehovas (who weren’t even attractive) woke me up – much to my chagrin – lighting a permanent, healthy, and strong hatred against Jehovas.
The problem is that along the way, some religions started adding rules to enforce their power. As people had to believe in the magical books to not die from all kinds of bad things, provision were made in some religions that people not adhering to the religions were sub-humans and that there was only one true religion (despite a lot of the big religions more or less stating the same things, though slightly regionally adapted to the local conditions). Some even connected the compassion and only one true religion to form the ultimate weapon of love, missionary movements and their extreme, the crusades. All just fancy words for killing the infidels.
Today this has been softened a bit and instead of killing by rabbit, we respect people’s right to have a religion. I am all for this; as long as people keep it to themselves (preferably, also their churches shouldn’t be allowed to make any noise to call for prayer, neither on Fridays nor on Sundays as I’ll be hungover on those days). I completely respect the right of people to have any religion. This respect does not go so far as to allow people to use religious arguments to not uphold local, democratically agreed-upon laws nor the right of free speech.
Note that this respect only goes as far as for the right to have a religion. I will never respect your religion. I think that all religions are completely ridiculous. They are based on rigidism, stupid laws made up by stupid people several thousands of years ago, and unfalsifiable assertions. Before you even start thinking of asking me to respect your religion, consider if you would respect the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Church of the Invisible Pink Unicorn. Granted, these are made up to exhibit the ridiculousness of contemporary religions, but contain many of the elements of modern religions. If you cannot respect these religions if anybody genuinely believes in them, you have no claim to expect that I respect your religion. The one thing FSM and IPU are missing might be genuine believers. Ok, then how about these bullshit religions: Raëlism (as opposed to realism; believes that aliens populated Earth, likes fucking around and forgives pedophilia after 7 years, and uses the swastika because it’s ever-so-tasteful), Norse mythology (thunder is made by a drunk dude with a hammer), Satanism (like Christianity but less do-goody and more goat hooves), and Jediism (Star Wars was real and midi-chlorians: totally a thing). All of those have real devotees, and if you do not respect the content of all of these, do not expect me to respect the content of whatever your magical book is.
Conclusion and Why Britney is Better than God
So, I’ve made my case why I think religion is horribly bad. It’s ok for people to have their own beliefs, but many religions make devotees impose those views on others, sometimes even by violence. I have nothing against any religious person devoted to their own religion and not imposing it on others. This includes raping their own or other children, either metaphorically in school or more physically in church. Even if your magical wizard tells you it’s ok, it not really.
Religion abuses computability and deals with non-refutable statements, and even goes the extra mile to make their co-semi-decidable statements undecidable by adding mumbo-jumbo that even if we try to prove the existence of God and repeatedly fails, this is not allowed to strengthen our confidence that there is no God “because a wizard said so”.
Now, Britney Spears on the other hand also does good for people. She releases music that people enjoy. She helps people in need (instead of by proxy, she actually directly donates, e.g., to the hurricane Katrina victims). Best of all, Britney is real. I’ve met her and talked to her, and have hence successfully disproven the statement “there is no Britney”. Britney has a life philosophy which is admirable and does not deal with things like whether you should eat bacon. This is opposed to most organized religion which, while may have a nice life philosophy, also kills people by wrong science and demanding respect, and inconveniences followers by outdated and rigid rules.
If you want a life philosophy go ahead and pick any that suits you. But don’t get it mixed up with your science. You need science for medicine, food, and production of everything you need in your daily life (with the possible exclusion of children). And don’t force your life philosophy down the throat of others.
Time person of the year 2006, Nobel Peace Prize winner 2012.