Oct 172012

Tweet from Ricky Gervais – “Dear Religion, This week I safely dropped a man from space while you shot a child in the head for wanting to go to school. -Yours, Science”

A friend asked: ” Is it really fair to use the Taliban as the mascot for religion? You could easily switch around the bias and say something like “Dear Science, Today Charlemagne adopted Catholicism which united Europe and help pull it out of the dark ages. While you developed the hydrogen bomb which if dropped in NYC will kill around 8 million people in seconds.” “

He’s missing the point. This wasn’t about saying religious people are like the Taliban, and non-religious people are like the Stratos team. This is comparing the tools of science – which gives us the ability to understand the world and use that knowledge to bend it to our will, with the tools of religion – which gives us the ability to motivate people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do by lying to them about reality.

My reply: I’d argue that what united Europe was his military conquest, and the dark ages lasted several more centuries. smile But in the end, religion is a social hack, and science is a reality hack. I dislike manipulating people, and I like manipulating reality, so I’m going to be biased toward one and away from the other, and I’m going to try to spread that bias to others.

Him: See I respect that philosophy only I think the example you posted is a little extreme… Kind of sounds like you are mirroring those crazy extremist religious people.

It’s meant to be a bit extreme, for two reasons.

The first is that it’s only the extremist religions that I have a problem with. If all the religions out there were like the Lake Wobegon Lutherans I wouldn’t complain. As long as religion keeps encouraging fanatics I’ll keep ragging on it. You might say it’s not fair to lump in the Wobegon Lutherans with the Taliban, but that brings me to reason #2…

Religion is useful in direct proportion to how harmful it is. Your point in the first comment (if I’m interpreting correctly) is that religion can be a powerful social tool for uniting and motivating people. While that’s true, it seems that it becomes less and less effective at doing that as the religion becomes more and more reasonable and tolerant.* The most benign religions, the ones we don’t mind and can exist with happily, have the least ability to whip their followers into unified action. The more virulent and fanatical a religion is, the better it becomes at this sort of motivation. You see the Taliban seizing governments, not the Unitarian Universalists. This makes it a BAD tool, in my opinion. The better it is at doing what you want, the more it hurts the world as a whole. We’d be better off without it, and finding some other tool to use instead. Unfortunately it’s like the Dark Side of the Force – it’s quick and easy and the costs aren’t born by the people who abuse it, so those who want power and don’t care about it’s negative side-effects are happy to use it.

And that’s why I feel it must be given a bad name – so people can recognize that those who do use it are often bad.

Science does not have this downside. Generally the more fanatical a scientist becomes, the worse the science becomes, until it breaks down completely and is useless (like the Lemarkian genetics pushed by the Soviet Union).

(*note – I don’t know of any research to this effect, that’s only the way it seems to me from my observation. If I can be shown that this is not the case I can be swayed)

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