Are we really better off believing in religious Myths? 6


url-1An objection to reality that many of those that believe in gods will promote is the idea that people are better off if they embrace such myths. As an example we have a recent letter-to-the-editor type of format for this claim here in the Indiana Gazette …

Science hasn’t proven the existence of God, but it shows conclusively that you’re much better off if you are a believer. In fact, in the next few moments, nonbelievers may find themselves praying for a change of heart. Whatever your beliefs, I can assure they will play a pivotal role in your life and your business.

It’s not the science of God that’s important; it’s the science of belief.

Ask writer and researcher Tom Knox. His research may well have moved him from atheist to believer. Knox published his summary of myriad scientific studies on the subject in the U.K’s The Daily Mail. And a recent Gallup study of nearly 700,000 people confirms his findings.

It is a matter of scientific proof, not postulation, that belief in God makes people happier, healthier and more charitable. It gives them higher self-esteem, lower blood pressure and a reduced likelihood to smoke, drink or do drugs. People who believe in God are less depressed and recover from depression 70 percent faster than their nonbelieving counterparts. Their immune systems are stronger. They have better emotional and mental health. They have stronger marriages. And if all of that’s not enough, try this one on for size: Believers live an average of seven years longer than nonbelievers. Oh… my… God!

For all of the negative attention given to religious people, the benefits of belief in God are nothing less than, well, miraculous.

OK, so there are two specific aspects to this that merit some attention, let’s look at each in turn.

First let’s assume this is true

If indeed believing in ancient myths yields some benefits then the next question to ask is the rather obvious one – how can you in all honesty start believing in stuff that you know is not true and know is not real?

Try this.

Suppose I offered you One Million dollars to truly believe that a magical pink unicorn will appear in your yard when nobody is looking, would you then actually believe it to be real? You can of course fake the belief by telling everybody around you that you now believe it, but you would know in your heart of hearts that it was not actually real at all, and the magic pink unicorn would of course also know that you were pretending and so would never appear.

That illustrates one very real problem with the thought that people should just believe stuff because they are better off embracing a delusion, it really is not a choice as such, you simply cannot opt to start, or for that matter stop, believing, but instead we are all persuaded to embrace specific things as true for many different reasons. Sometimes those reasons are rational (once you grasp that adding 1 to 1 yields 2, you can never be persuaded that 3 is a better answer), and sometimes those reasons are cultural and emotional; when everybody around you in your social circle tells you that being Baptist, Catholic, Hindu, Muslim is true and best, most generally align themselves with that and may in fact not give it all that much thought.

Second, is the claim true, are you actually better off?

Notice that no actual evidence is cited, but instead the author simply claims that a pew research poll confirms, or the Daily Mail story confirms, etc… without actually giving you a reference to check, but he still may indeed be correct, so let’s suspend such judgement for a moment.

Let’s check.

First of all the suggestion is that we should ask Tom Knox. The problem here is that no such person exists, because Tom Knox is the pseudonym of British writer and journalist Sean Thomas.

The Daily Mail article he has in mind is this one, and dates back to 2011, so yes, his “proof” is a 3 year old tabloid article from a paper that does not really have a great reputation for either accuracy or honesty when it comes to either science or health, but I’m not being fair, because it still may be all correct.

Mr “Knox” lists a string of claims, that might or might not be true, and to be frank, I’m not going to dig into every single one, because for every such list, you will find a similar list that makes a case for you being better off for not believing nonsense … for example I’ve seen claims that atheists have stronger marriages, are better educated, are less likely to be addicted to drugs, are less inclined to abuse their spouse, and that the vast majority of people in prison are religious.

All such claims from both sides of the argument tend not to be as simplistic as presented and often if you dig you discover that the correlation does not really confirm that belief or non-belief is the true cause.

Take the prison claim as an example. It is indeed true that the percentage of non-religious people in prison is far lower than that number of non-religious people in society in general, and so it might be tempting to assert that being non-religious makes you far less likely to be a criminal. Oh but wait, that correlation assumes that non-belief would motivate you to not be a criminal, when in fact there is a far simpler explanation. If you were unfortunate enough to be sent to prison then there are distinct benefits to wearing a religious mask while there – you gain an instant community of friends who will support you in a very hostile environment, you also gain practical benefits (Mormons get Hot Chocolate), and it helps to have references from a cleric to get parole, etc.. So using this metric does not actually establish any causal relationship at all between criminality and belief.

Do religious people live longer? In general Seventh-day-adventists have a longer lifespan, ten years longer to be precise, but that is once again not due to their specific religious beliefs, but rather due to the very very strong emphases upon health within their community … no smoking, drinking, vegetarianism, strong pressure on the obese to reduce weight, strong emphases on regular exercise, etc… It is this specific health obsession within a community that will press you to conform and not the belief itself that yields the practical long term lifespan outcome.

Are religious people happier? There is of course a benefit that may indeed be derived from being part of a social community that will support you, but once again that benefit comes only from being a member of that community and not from actually believing specific things.

What can we really conclude?

So the bottom line is this – the idea that you should believe myths simply because you can then gain social benefits is not exactly a compelling argument that the myths are actually true at all, but rather is an attempt to bribe non-believers into embracing irrational beliefs. The fact that is it like this might also explain why beliefs tend to thrive, they basically offer a small survival advantage.

Things however are changing, there is a slowly rising realisation that believing stuff that is not actually true at all also yields distinct disadvantages. (Embracing bad ideas often motivates bad behaviour – An extreme example would be ISIS)

We now have a rising number of people who have access to vast amounts of information that was previously not accessible, and as a result there is a rising tide of rationality. Regardless of our belief or non-belief, we are still basically social creatures and need a social context within which we can gain the distinct benefits that such social communities offer. In the past religion was the only game in town, and so those that opted out were in effect isolated. But with a rising tide of nones (people of no specific religious affiliation), new forms of social interaction are starting to rise up and offer viable alternatives. This includes meet-ups such as skeptics in the pub, or Humanist meetings, or Sunday assemblies.

The game is changing, the vast flow of new information, the Internet,  is enabling the non-religious to also form social circles that offer a similar degree of community and social support, and so the Internet is once again demonstrating its ability to disrupt a historical monopoly.


Leave a Reply

6 thoughts on “Are we really better off believing in religious Myths?

  • Jeffrey Tobin

    David, I am honored that my article has prompted such a thoughtful response on your part. Dissenting viewpoints are valuable learning tools and I learn nothing if all are in agreement. I want to address a couple of points in your blog. That you have taken time to consider your thoughts and publish them here is a testament to the importance of this matter to you. Predictably, there are things with which I disagree, and to continue the discourse I am compelled to respond with my own thoughts. I trust you will see them as critical in nature of some arguments, not of you, yourself.

    Regarding your first point, absolutely agree with you. It would be disingenuous to believe in something that is intellectually untenable. As you so well put it, “…how can you in all honesty start believing in stuff that you know is not true and know is not real?” I wholeheartedly agree and stated as much about such a disingenuous intellectual retreat. We can put the first point aside.

    Regarding your second, I believe that with some research you will find as I have that a causal relationship is not necessary and I have not seen anything to make that claim. In your example of the Seventh-Day-Adventists, it is indeed their community – a community formed because of their faith and religious beliefs – that affects, as you state, their health and well-being. This by no means presumes that a non-religious community could not also benefit in the same way as you might suggest. The study, however, was about religious communities and the findings therein. An atheistic community which followed a stated regimen might easily benefit in the same ways. I think it’s likely. In any case, there is nothing in this article to claim overtly cause and effect. it does, however, clearly state that religious people are found to have these benefits.

    You postulate that as the name Tom Knox is a pseudonym, and that you perceive the The Daily Mail to be an unreliable source as a tabloid. This is an emotional perspecitve in my opinion, not a reasoned one. Reason would demand a look at the evidence.

    I’m not clear as to why you state that three-year-old data are unreliable. In light of the consistency from study to study, including the recent supporting Gallup survey of nearly 700,000 people, my research into these studies shows them to be wholely reliable and peer-reviewed. I believe you would agree with me that neither of us would likely reject studies – especially when they are so consistent in their findings – merely because three years have passed.

    Can all of this research be nullified by dissenting scientific viewpoints as you note? This seems counter-intuitive to me. If this generality was equally applied to other arguments without substantiation, it suggests that we can reasonably reject any study merely by opinion. I don’t believe you really think that way, so I might be missing something there.

    I sincerely appreciate that you allow the possibility that his research may well be truthful. I will be happy to provide sources to the myriad peer-reviewed studies that will show these perspectives to be factual.

    This topic is an emotional one (and like politics, may not one for the holiday dinner table.) I think that if you and i were to sit together and do our best to look at this topic without emotional charges associated with it, we would come to the same conclusions I noted. I do hope you will not take this article or my response as an attempt to discredit you or your perspectives. Nor is my intention to ask people to be unreasonable in their own intellectual journeys. I respond with the attempt to ferret out the factual from the emotional, and to highlight my belief that there is nothing here that should – or is meant to – discredit anyone’s beliefs. On the contrary: It is meant to point out some very interesting, valid research for the purpose of generating thoughtful consideration by my readers. I look forward to continuing the discussion with you, David.

    • TJ Tim James

      Dave Gamble – Excellent job pointing out the fraudulent and misleading claims of Mr. Tobin.
      I was on my way and am still on my way to writing a very similar article addressing Tobin, Knox/Thomas, and the Gallup results in depth and why they don’t mean what Knox/Tobin pretend they mean.

      I feel one of the many detriments to a healthy society is when authors write articles that present such a lack of critical thought and make ‘should’ proclamations out of survey data and poorly interpreted and cherry-picked journal extracts. Yes, that’s an emotional statement, but I’m willing to wager that Tobin would say the same.

      I highly support the right of the press and free expression and would never suggest that these authors don’t speak what’s on their minds. Especially since It’s the best way of finding out who is being disingenous, being a liar, and/or being terribly ignorant.

      As Tobin said: “Regarding your first point, absolutely agree with you. It would be disingenuous to believe in something that is intellectually untenable.” I’d be happy to ‘put that point aside’ when Tobin authors an article on a similar topic instead of just inserting it as an afterthought in the article – or at the very least admit that point in the comments of his own article. That would be the first evidence of his journalistic integrity I’ve seen.

    • Dave Gamble Post author

      Jeffery,

      My deepest apologies for not replying sooner, somehow the comment slipped through and I’ve only just caught up with it.

      So first let me start by saying thanks for taking the time to reply.

      Now stepping back from it all, and pondering over the topic, I find it does open up some rather interesting questions, and so I’ll list a few that immediately spring to mind.

      – Q1. Do you feel there is a specific causal relationship between belief and either human longevity and/or individual happiness?

      – Q2. If the answer to Q1 is “yes”, I’d be curious to understand how you establish it to be a causal relationship and not simply a correlation.

      (The thinking behind the above is this: it is, as I’m sure you are aware, rather easy to fool ourselves with a correlation and assume it is a causal relationship – silly example – everybody who ate an apple between the years 1734 and 1823 is now dead, that’s a verifiable fact, therefore apples are bad for you)

      Now moving on to develop this a bit further, I also find myself pondering over a slightly different line of enquiry …

      – Q3. Are such correlations specific to a culture or even a belief?

      For example, if we look at different variations of belief that exist within the same culture (variations of Christianity … Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, etc…), or different types of belief (Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, etc…) do we find the correlations persist, or do we find that they spike for specific types?

      What happens if we expanded the scope of the study to span different cultures, non-English speakers, Northern Europeans, Southern Europeans, Middle East, Asian, etc..

      – Q4. Do you feel that there is something supernatural going on here, and if so what convinces you that it does not all have a natural explanation?

      I’d also be interested in reading any of the actual studies, so if you have any references handy (to ensure we are reading the same ones) that would be great, because I’d be curious to see what their methodology was, sample size, etc…

      Finally … a couple of direct comments on your comment :

      You quite rightly observe that my Criticism is the Daily Mail is an emotional response, and yes, I can happily put my hands up on that one, but would add that it is not without foundation (If you lived in the UK, I suspect you might feel the same, and my reaction is in some respects perhaps similar to how some in the US react to the idea of Fox News being a reliable news source)

      You are also correct to observe that the topic can indeed be emotionally charged, and so examining how people deal with such studies is potentially something that could make the career of any psychologist interested in researching the cognitive biases that are a normal part of humanity … hence it is important to strive to eliminate any such bias and to ponder over what the data in any such study actually tells us, how objective it all is, and if the conclusions are actually backed up by the study, or if there are other variables in play that throw into question the conclusions.

      • Jeffrey Tobin

        David, I responded within your original post, but that made it too long, apparently, and wouldn’t post here. I’ve posted it in two sections below:

        – Q1. Do you feel there is a specific causal relationship between belief and either human longevity and/or individual happiness?

        ####
        A very interesting question, David. I find the need to parse out my response because “longevity” and “happiness” do not, of necessity, have a relationship. I’ll respond to the term “happiness”, however, because it is the harder and more subjective of the two. I will also respond to Q2 within.
        Because I am a believer, belief is both causal AND correlative. It is correlative because – as I have stated – like-minded communities can and do have similar benefits without the element of faith or belief. These studies do point to community, however, as an important element in the mix. This brings us to the need for a more refined definition of the term, “belief” as belief in a god or a belief that there is no god are both beliefs. Either way, the results of these studies show it to be – at least – correlative. People of common beliefs, who relate socially with one another as stated in these studies, do have greater happiness.

        Now regarding causation, a qualitative answer may well be unobtainable. For people of faith, the typical belief would be that God has an active role in our happiness. To most Christians, belief in God demands a personal relationship. That personal and loving relationship – like the one between my wife and I – is not scientifically provable, yet it is certainly more than subjective. To me, my relationship with God is the same. Whether because of nature, nurture or nuttiness, I cannot deny (even when I’ve tried to deny) that God wants to have a relationship with me. And I respond. My perspective is that this relationship is the foundation for happiness (or more accurately, “joy”) in my life. This is a causal connection, one which most Christians will agree definitely exists.

        – Q2. If the answer to Q1 is “yes”, I’d be curious to understand how you establish it to be a causal relationship and not simply a correlation.

        Now moving on to develop this a bit further, I also find myself pondering over a slightly different line of inquiry …

        – Q3. Are such correlations specific to a culture or even a belief?

        For example, if we look at different variations of belief that exist within the same culture (variations of Christianity … Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, etc…), or different types of belief (Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, etc…) do we find the correlations persist, or do we find that they spike for specific types?

        What happens if we expanded the scope of the study to span different cultures, non-English speakers, Northern Europeans, Southern Europeans, Middle East, Asian, etc..

        ### As stated above, I believe that religion may play a causal role, but if I understand you correctly, is not necessary to find the same results as other groups may find. This is conjecture, of course, because these studies were all of religious communities. Mine is only opinion.

        – Q4. Do you feel that there is something supernatural going on here, and if so what convinces you that it does not all have a natural explanation?

        ### Oh I definitely feel it is a supernatural phenomenon. There are a number of reasons for this. I have read about this at length, trying to understand what is going on. Some scientists argue that this “feeling” of a supernatural being is rooted in evolution – that there are real and substantive connections in the brain that “cause” religious people to believe in a god. I put “cause” in quotes because I don’t know that it’s been shown that if, in fact, there really are common and physical consistencies among the brains of those of faith, the question still remains, do those consistencies “cause” a belief? Such studies also like to point to our politics as having been “predetermined” by our wiring. Perhaps they’re right. I don’t know.

        My mother is particularly religious. I hated church and as a very young man would regularly quote Bertrand Russell back at her. in fact, at 12 years of age, when my peers were brought into the church as members, I was the only one who refused to join. I have clear memories of arguing with idiots about their faith; my girlfriend at the time – now my wife – was one of them. I was a faithful atheist (or at least agnostic) until I was 21, when something happened to me. There was no specific event in my life that triggered it. I was under no stress or particularly challenged by life’s events. I can’t explain it, but something happened. Indeed, there is no question now in my mind that the god I fought for so long is real, that he was waiting for me and loves me personally.

        Might it be brain wiring? A chemical imbalance? Or, as Scrooge put it, “a bit of undigested beef.”? Perhaps. Of course I wonder about that from time to time, but I’ve always concluded that something bigger than us is going on. And why not?

        I find it interesting that the Gallup studies also showed that among atheists, 21% believe in things like tarot card readings, ghosts and even big-foot. Many believe in life on other planets. Is there life on other planets? No one knows, but our current science can only give us possibilities. If you believe in life out there… I guess we’d be much the same from a scientific standpoint: Unfounded belief. There is no preponderance of evidence. There is only conjecture. Might science one day prove that there is life elsewhere? It’s certainly possible. But I have a more metaphysical perspective. mine is that humans are really just large ants. We have a lot of knowledge – as far as we know. We have absolutely no idea of what we don’t know. Just like ants.

        I do a lot of public speaking… not on the topic of religion… but in workshops, I sometimes ask a volunteer to come to the front of the room. i give them a marker and an easel pad, asking them to draw a circle that represents ALL knowledge – known and yet unknown. Invariably, they make a circle as large as the sheet allows. I then ask them to draw a circle of what we humans know. Just as invariably, they make a tiny, tiny circle or a small dot. That’s how I see this whole religion thing.

        Are there ghosts? Well, I’ve never seen one, but there is so much anecdotal evidence, that I find it hard to disbelieve in some sort of beings outside of our sensory abilities. Why not? Why can’t things exist for which we have no means of measurement? The idea that something can’t exist until science can prove it is simple hubris. Only science claims that science can determine what is or is not true. Yet…science cannot itself prove that statement.

        All of this is to respond to your question about whether or not something supernatural is going on. Yes, I do. Can I prove it? Nope. I don’t need to. Nor could I prove that my wife loves me. I don’t need to. No one else could prove it either.

        _____________________

        more…

      • Jeffrey Tobin

        I’d also be interested in reading any of the actual studies, so if you have any references handy (to ensure we are reading the same ones) that would be great, because I’d be curious to see what their methodology was, sample size, etc…

        ### Here again, I don’t think studies are going to prove God’s existence. It may show a correlation, but not causality. And as stated above, I’m not in the least convinced that science is the “god” of all knowledge.

        ______________________
        Finally … a couple of direct comments on your comment :

        You quite rightly observe that my Criticism is the Daily Mail is an emotional response, and yes, I can happily put my hands up on that one, but would add that it is not without foundation (If you lived in the UK, I suspect you might feel the same, and my reaction is in some respects perhaps similar to how some in the US react to the idea of Fox News being a reliable news source)

        ### Two things here. My daughter lives in London. She is about as Liberal a person as I know. I believe she is also agnostic. She was here for the holidays and I asked her about this article and the Daily Mail. Here perspective was that while the Daily Mail presents some emotive perspectives to its readers, it is a legitimate and respected resource. This the article to which I first responded is an opinion piece, but the studies are all valid and peer reviewed. Some responders – both here and in other venues – to my article point to the author and fairly ignored the substantiality of the studies. He merely accurately pointed to the results.

        Regarding your comment about Fox News, I often wonder if any of their critics actually watch the news there. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a Facebook post deriding their actual news programs. The greatest preponderance of their broadcast programming is opinion programs. I find it valuable to watch their programs because they often have perspectives that few others debate. Being one who likes to learn – frequently through controversy – I enjoy hearing more than one side. Even when I find it uncomfortable.

        _________________________________
        You are also correct to observe that the topic can indeed be emotionally charged, and so examining how people deal with such studies is potentially something that could make the career of any psychologist interested in researching the cognitive biases that are a normal part of humanity … hence it is important to strive to eliminate any such bias and to ponder over what the data in any such study actually tells us, how objective it all is, and if the conclusions are actually backed up by the study, or if there are other variables in play that throw into question the conclusions.

        ### Again I refer to my perspectives about science. One thing I know for certain is that there is very little we can know for certain. I believe that our current scientific acumen hardly scratches the surface of what is or can be known, and I believe there is even more that we will never know. That being said, it leaves a lot of room for a personal belief in things we may find hard to believe. A belief that we humans even have the capability to understand everything is more than a silly notion. It portends that our minds are the ultimate and the only judge of what can be. My goodness. Who comes up with this stuff? ;)

        I know that this is a lot of stuff to consider, David, and I don’t know how we might proceed without continuing in tomes of more questions and responses. perhaps I can sum all of this up by saying that I do not believe that our limited science is the only lens by what is true can be known. I also believe that my beliefs are real – perhaps even more real – than what I or anyone could ever prove.

        Do YOU believe that anything can exist outside the understanding of the human mind?

        END