Religion makes the World a better place
Pro will accept the burden of proof to show that religion makes the World a better place.
I'm assuming that we're going to hear about charitable donations, better moral compasses and so on and so forth.
I'll be ready :-)
I accept the challenge. Con has not laid out a structure for this debate, but as I am accepting the Burden of Proof, I assume that Con intends for me to make the first argument.
I argue that the presence of religion makes the world a better place.
Studies have shown that practicing religious people:
1. Have lower rates of suicide 
2. Have better mental health 
3. Have lower mortality rates  
4. Have better overall health 
5. Have lower rates of juvenile delinquency 
6. Are more likely to help the disadvantaged 
I think that's enough to start things off with.
First of all, I'd like to thank Pro for accepting the debate and tip my hat to a clinical first round.
I do concede one aspect of religion that is almost unambiguously positive: it provides individuals with a support group. This seemingly simple provision has lots of knock-on effects, and I would argue that one mechanism underpinning many of Pro's first statistics (insofar as they are accurate) is the sense of community that a church engenders; we are, after all is said and done, highly social animals.
I consider this a challenge to secular communities around the World: we must find a way to reproduce that one powerful and important successful aspect of religion... the stability of a support network of mutual trust and love. I see no reason why this effect cannot be achieved in a secular setting, thus robbing religion of a monopoly that it currently exploits.
Right now, secular communities are in the large part failing this challenge; this situation provides the basis to make the claim that religion is making the World better... in one sense, it is... it is via our religions that we have (as a species) discovered the most successful bonding mechanisms for large groups. There are dangers as well as benefits, though; the power that religion weilds is both a cohesive and a divisive force. I will return to this idea in a later round.
Pro begins on the edge of a very real (but small) effect: atheism correlates with higher suicide rates. On the face of it, this is a no-brainer win for Pro. I beseech the gentle reader consider why the correlation happens, though. It is a discussion that has been thrashed out over the years; one key player in the understanding of the effect is the philosopher David Émile Durkheim, who has been widely acknowledged as one of the fathers of modern Sociology. Whilst I do not think that everything he says is right, I would encourage any gentle reader interested in the subject from a scholarly perspective to begin with Durkheim.
Unfortunately, the study that Pro cited is not particularly useful in studying the effect. Problems include:
1. The study is looking at suicide attempts, not completed suicides. It should not need stating but we have much more accurate statistics about actual suicides than about attempts.
2. The study has n=371; this is *far* too small a group to draw conclusions from.
3. It is unclear how effectively the study selected the 371 participants in an impartial way.
But didn't I already concede the point that atheism correlates with higher suicide rates? Yes, yes, I did... but the very article to which Pro directs our attention  warns away from a simplistic interpretation of this fact by saying "compassionate tolerance for suicide and euthenasia are widely regarded as hallmarks of many secular societies". It may also be noted that more men commit suicide than women, that suicide rates are higher in rural communities AND that suicide rates are higher in industrialized countries.
The point that I'm making here is that suicide (or euthanasia) might not be universally bad. I, for one, present my thinking on this point in this way:
1. There exists such a reality as can be described by the words "a fate worse than death"
2. I can see no moral justification for pressuring any sentient being who self-identifies "a fate worse than death" to endure it.
- (unless they have dependents, when the story may be more complex)
The idea that suicide is universally unacceptable seems to me an artefact of religion (so strong was this pressure that attempting suicide was a criminal offence in my native England until 1961). What moral reason does the atheist have for objecting to suicide? We don't have to like it, but atheists are generally more accepting of the idea in principle. Of course we would encourage counselling or medical routes before agreeing that this last resort is a good answer to a given situation.
In short, I see no reason why we should accept that a very small decrease in suicides in some American religious communities equates to the World being a better place. In extreme cases, it may even mean that because of religious pressure (it's a sin to kill yourself), some individuals manfully endure a fate worse than death. This seems to me to be a bad thing. I hope that I have given the pensive reader pause for thought.
So far I've dedicated half of my space this round to Pro's first claim. This seems excessive, perhaps, but I wanted to explore Pro's primary claim first. In case Pro didn't intend for the claims to be in priority order, I invite Pro to pick one or more "favourite" claims in order to reduce the sheer volume of discourse that would be necessary to tackle some of the issues.
More briefly, then, I'll examine the rest of the claims that Pro makes; if Pro wishes to focus their claims then I will dedicate more effort (as I have with suicide).
Pro's second claim was based on a paper called “Relationships among Spirituality, Religious Practices, Personality Factors, and Health for Five Different Faiths”, which I took the time to look up. This paper  refers to a study done on 160 people. I hope that our audience will not be swayed by such small studies, from which we can draw no more than loose conclusions about how such effects may be evident in broader populations.
I suggest reference to the rough-guide table of requisite sample sizes provided by the Open University in my reference . According to this table, a study of 371 people may be suitable to describe a population of about 10,000 people. A study of 160 people may be suitable to describe a population of up to 500 people. You would need more than 384 people in a study to justify describing a population of 1,000,000 and more again to describe the population of the UK, the US, Europe, Africa or, as the resolution requires, the World. It is not good science to take a study of 160 people and generalise about the World. Sorry, Pro, but this just won't do. I'm also going to include a link  which may not be considered as authoritative as the OU, but explains the issues around sample size in a more accessible way.
Pro's third link discusses a study of 179 people; sorry to get boring, but this won't do.
Pro's fourth link at least looks more promissing, certainly in numbers. In a study of 3,968 older adults in the Piedmont region of North Carolina... I'm going to stop here because I haven't limitless room to debate. I will come back to this and the other links Pro offers in a later round if necessary. For now, I'd like the gentle reader to note that all of Pro's statistics relate to America and that the proposition before us relates to the World.
Phil Zuckerman has completed a World-wide meta-study to answer some of the questions . He is very clear about his methodology and sample sizes. I'm going to list some of his findings (all available from ).
0.2 percent of prisoners in the USA are atheists
(10% - 30% of the American population are atheist, depending on specific definition)
If religion, prayer, or God-belief hindered criminal behavior, and secularity or atheism fostered lawlessness, we would expect to find the most religious nations having the lowest murder rates and the least religious nations having the highest. But we find just the opposite. Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is deep and widespread (Jensen 2006; Paul 2005; Fajnzylber et al. 2002; Fox and Levin 2000). And within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon (Ellison et al. 2003; Death Penalty Information Center, 2008). Furthermore, although there are some notable exceptions, rates of most violent crimes tend to be lower in the less religious states and higher in the most religious states (United States Census Bureau, 2006). Finally, of the top 50 safest cities in the world, nearly all are in relatively non-religious countries, and of the eight cities within the United States that make the safest-city list, nearly all are located in the least religious regions of the country (Mercer Survey, 2008).
So I'm going to wrap this up for now with a map of religiosity around the World .
And I'm going to note that if I have to concede a small dip in suicides (which may be a good thing), Pro will have to concede a far higher increase in murder rates... even if the effects were matched 1-1, is the World a better place if one less person commits suicide but one more person gets murdered? I'll leave that for the gentle voter to decide! I know this: I'd rather commit suicide than be murdered.
Kudos to Pro for keeping this on a dry statistical level so far, but your statistics could do with a bit more weight and a lot more geographical diversity!
I freely admit that my sources for Round 1 are less than ideal. Given that I have the burden of proof in this scenario, I didn't want to start things off by waxing philosophical. However, I found myself rather hampered in the sources I was able to provide due to much of the information I would have liked to cite being in physical journals or books, which I am obviously unable to provide links to (and I hardly expect Con or the voters to rush out and buy them to determine their information's reliability).
Additionally, most of the research on the topic of religion's correlation with better health (which is, in itself, a fairly young area of study) comes from the United States. I recognize that this debate is focused on a global scale, but as there is so far a paucity of resources as far as the world at large is concerned, I hoped that my opponent would at least consider American statistics to be worth considering. If so, I can endeavour to find studies with more representative subject pools should Con request it. If not, I am more than happy to move on to a different argument. I will leave that up to my opponent.
I would like to begin by commenting on Con's argument about the crime rates of religious countries. An interesting feature of the globe's most religious countries is that many of them are in the developing world. Nations such as Mali, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Côte d'Ivoire, and Senegal, for instance, all marked in dark reds on Con's map of religiosity, are included in the Nations Online Project's list of countries with the poorest human development  (and, while it may be tempting to conclude from this that religion causes poverty, it's actually the other way around ).
Even in more affluent places like Europe, the statistic doesn't stand across the board. Eurostat reports: “Homicides are most prevalent in the Baltic States: Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. However, they are relatively rare in some southern EU countries (Malta, Italy, Spain) and Austria, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden .” Interestingly, Estonia boasts the lowest number of religious adherents, whereas Malta has the highest . Italy, Austria and Switzerland also have high levels of religiosity and low levels of atheism.
I could also mention that Vietnam subscribes to state atheism and has massive numbers of non-believers—as well as significant issues with human rights.
So let's take it down a peg further and look at the United States. Zuckerman's article mentions that the most religious states, such as Alabama and Louisiana, have the highest rates of murder. They also tend to have high rates of gun ownership and lax laws , which has been shown to correlate with higher rates of overall homicide in addition to gun deaths . This could also serve as an explanation for why the United States has higher homicide rates than less religious countries such as Canada and Britain, where gun ownership is much more heavily restricted.
In short, I would like to direct the readers' attention to what is known as the False Cause Fallacy, summed up nicely in the adage of “correlation does not imply causation.” Zuckerman's broad-brushing of the issue smacks much more of bias than science. If Con beseeches the reader to consider additional reasons for the correlation of atheism and suicide, I believe I have the right to request the same considerations for religiosity and murder rates. When considering these kinds of statistics on a global scale, there are too many factors involved. One cannot take the stance of “all things being equal.”
As far as the “fewer atheists in prison” argument, there are a couple of problems. According to  (which seems to be the only place to list the findings of Golumbaski's original study, cited in Zuckerman's article), the religion of approximately 20% of inmates is unknown. That's a significant margin, and it could conceivably be composed of anything from no atheists to all atheists. Perhaps these “unknowns” refused to answer (which would raise the question of why), but perhaps they are non-believers who simply chose to tick the “other” box as opposed to the “atheist” one. We don't know. Additionally, these statistics do not account for conversions. We don't know how many atheists there were going in vs. coming out. Prison ministries are surprisingly common, and it's conceivable that there is a large percentage of people who come to faith in prison.
As far as Con's points on suicide (ignoring my sources for the time being), I consider it to be vastly different from euthanasia as far as the ethics and complexity of the issue. The idea that "suicide may not be universally bad" is a point I would certainly stand to disagree with, but euthanasia is a different story. However, this is not the debate at hand, so I hope that we won't get too caught up in it. I would also note that Con's comment that "the idea that suicide is universally unacceptable seems to me an artefact of religion," while perhaps partially true, is somewhat nearsighted. It bears remembering that even if suicide is in the best interests of the subject in question, it is very rarely in the best interests of their loved ones. The idea of suicide being universally unacceptable seems like a fairly understandable response to the pain and grief suffered by the victim's family and friends. After all, suicide victims do not have the luxury of explaining their reasoning. Even if religion had not played a part in the debate, it's possible that we would have drawn the same conclusions either way.
Thank you, Pro, for admitting the weakness in your Round 1 statistics. They suffer from being small-scale and geographically centralised.
When you say: "I would have liked to cite being in physical journals or books, which I am obviously unable to provide links to (and I hardly expect Con or the voters to rush out and buy them to determine their information's reliability)", you do me an injustice. I am rational and fair-minded enough to actually want to know if I'm wrong. Therefore I ask that you at least list the sources which you have which have obviously convinced you of the truth of the proposition. I may well purchase access to an academic paper or buy a book (I may even prove to you that I have done so). I don't want to believe wrong things!
When you say "most of the research on the topic of religion's correlation with better health (which is, in itself, a fairly young area of study) comes from the United States" and "there is so far a paucity of resources as far as the world at large is concerned" then you are implicitly agreeing that the jury is still out on the question, so you can hardly claim it as a point to you in this debate. Don't believe things without sufficient evidence, please; if you do, please don't expect the rest of us to share your opinions.
"I can endeavour to find studies with more representative subject pools should Con request it" - please do so.
It is true that we have to be careful how we interpret brute data. I could have started by citing some very strong statistics that link religiosity with murder rates all over the World. All over the World. At any scale... religious regions have more murder, religious countries have more murder, religious continents have more murder. Murder and religion are heavily correlated. This does not, as Pro so rightly reminds us, imply causation. Nobody should be saying that these statistics simply mean that "religion causes murder"; that would be a grave error in interpretation. But what's the alternative to this fallacious reasoning? What is the underlying story that causes both murder and religion? Perhaps it's poverty... perhaps it's political instability... perhaps it's violence. Indeed, those three things are correlated with both murder and religion. It's interesting to note, is it not, that religion thrives in hard times? If one were being frightfully cynical, one might make a statement such as "religion finds it easier to get its claws into the young, the old, the weak, the poor, the sick, the dying and the disenfranchised".
It upset me to read "Zuckerman's broad-brushing of the issue smacks much more of bias than science". I did not attack the bias of Pro's sources, although well I might have done. I withheld from such an attack without solid evidence. I ask Pro to explain what evidence he has of Zuckerman's bias. I have studied the report in detail and find, if anything, an admirable lack of bias.
"When considering these kinds of statistics on a global scale, there are too many factors involved. One cannot take the stance of "all things being equal.""
Well put, Pro, well put. It is very tricky to draw the right conclusions when studying something so complex as causation of effects in human society. We must always remember exactly what questions we are seeking to ask, and we must be open to some explanations that put our statistics in a different light.
Quite so, quite so.
Here's a confounding factor: religions often (from their high horses of claimed love for all) preach against atheists. Atheism is a moral wickedness, in many religions' eyes; indeed, false belief is really bad. If we look at the Bronze Age writings that form the core of certain Abrahamic faiths, we find that the right thing to do to people who believe in the wrong God is to stone them to death. Nice, that, isn't it, for religions that claim to be peace-loving, tolerant, modern and enlightened?
Let me remind the gentle audience of what the bible has to say about that:
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
- They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds,
- there is none who does good.
If your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ (whom neither you nor your fathers have known, of the gods of the peoples who are around you, near you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other end), you shall not yield to him or listen to him; and your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare or conceal him. But you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.
(An enquiring reader might also read Deuteronomy 17:2-5)
Bear in mind that there are people who believe that the bible is the literal Word of God and is inerrant and infallible.
Either way, it remains true that some once-religious people who "come out" as atheists lose their friends, their families and their jobs (especially in America). Now, would it not be fair to factor this kind of effect into any discussion on the effects of religion? I mean, if people lived longer and happier as part of a Mafia group in a certain region because of the effects of that Mafia on non-members, should we conclude that the group makes the World a better place? I should think not!
Thus I suggest that the fairest thing we should be doing is comparing countries that are mostly atheistic to countries that are mostly theistic to get an impartial assessment without conflicting effects. This has the added bonused of beating potentially biased surveys and including very large numbers of people in the mix... this produces accuracy. I invite Pro to raise the debate to this level. I note with joy that Pro's second link does exactly this: it makes the case that poverty causes religion. Now, it's interesting reading, and it asks us a new question: is it true that religion alleviates the depravations of extreme poverty? I assume that Pro thinks that it does (I do not) but I invite Pro to address this more interesting question.
Pro says "Zuckerman's article mentions that the most religious states, such as Alabama and Louisiana, have the highest rates of murder. They also tend to have high rates of gun ownership and lax laws " - again, I ask: please could we get to the beating heart of the issue by asking what the reason is for a correllation between gun ownership and religion; or lax laws and religion? What's really going on?
I couldn't find a nice description of the raw facts on the internet, so I've composed my own, based on the most populous countries in the World (>100,000,000 people). I include population, degree of religiosity and intentional homicide rate (per 100,000 people per year)
China (1.4 billion) - 41% religious - murder rate 1
India (1.3 billion) - 84% religious - murder rate 3.5
US (0.32 billion) - 66% religious - murder rate 4.7
Indonesia (0.26 billion) - 81% religious - murder rate 0.6
Brazil (0.20 billion) - 92% religious - murder rate 25
Pakistan (0.19 billion) - 98% religious - murder rate 7.7
Nigeria (0.18 billion) - 98% religious - murder rate 20
Bangladesh (0.16 billion) - 99% religious - murder rate 2.7
Russia (0.15 billion) - 58% religious - murder rate 9.2
Japan (0.13 billion) - 29% religious - murder rate 0.3
Mexico (0.12 billion) - 56% religious - murder rate 21.5
Philippines (0.10 billion) - 95% religious - murder rate 8.8
As you can see, there is a positive correlation between religiosity and murder rate. Now, I am not making the fallacy of jumping straight to "therefore religion causes murder" - what I am saying, though, is that if you want to be sure that "religion makes the World a better place", you've got an awful lot of work to do explaining why it seems to be the other way around.
In Nigeria, half the Muslim community agree with the death penalty for leaving Islam and there are regions with strict apostasy laws.
In Pakistan, 64% of the population want the death penalty for converting from Islam .
In Bangladesh, it's a much more tolerant 36% of people who think that men, women and children should be killed for non-belief .
If you add up the populations of Pakistan and Bangladesh, you get more than the population of the US. Looking at these people, about 50% are convinced that it is the morally correct thing to do to kill people who lose their faith. I don't think that you can fairly ignore these facts when asking "does religion make the World a better place?".
p.s. I am going to use the next round to further the case that religion, in fact, makes the World a worse place. I will use Round 5 for summing up and final rebuttals. I just thought that I'd give Pro a chance to focus a little more globally before I brought the big guns out :)
Afterdark forfeited this round.
I agreed to post a filler here to allow for Pro and I to have equal debating space (see comments).
I am enjoying the debate and want it to be fair... it's not that I haven't a lot to say, but it will probably benefit the gentle readers (and me) that I am forced to be concise in my final round! I trust that I will not lose points with the voters for this choice.
Once again, my apologies for my prior forfeit. Thanks to Con's generosity in giving me some extra time to respond, I've been able to examine their argument a little more completely. Having done so, I find myself in the interesting position of having to defend the specific beliefs, as opposed to the practices, of Islam—a religion I do not personally subscribe to—and given some of Con's sources, I admit that I'm not sure I'm able to. I was not aware of the statistics regarding the acceptance of stoning apostates in Islam, and I must say I find them rather concerning. I am not familiar enough with the Koran to determine whether this sort of devotion to Sharia law is justified in the text, or whether it counts as extremism, so I can't comment one way or the other. If this concession is enough to lose me the debate, then fair enough; I truly can't defend it.
However, the Psalms are poems, meaning that vivid imagery and anecdotal descriptions should be expected, and as far as the verses from Deuteronomy cited by Con, they speak specifically of apostasy within the nation of Israel based on their covenant with God, not seeking out nonbelievers from other nations, which seems to be what a lot of people assume. This covenant is null and void in the Christian faith due to the sacrifice of Christ, and as far as Judaism is concerned, the general consensus is that while the death penalty may be moral in theory, it should not be put into practice (not to mention that the standards of evidence required to even convict a “guilty” person are so steep that it's virtually impossible anyway) . Additionally, if a Christian makes grand proclaimations about the bible's commands to love one's neighbor before marching off to hate their neighbors, I'm not sure the blame for that lies with religion so much as human hypocrisy.
It's definitely true that atheists have been mistreated by religious people on the basis of their nonbelief, but it's very much incorrect to assume that those discovered to be religious aren't similarly mocked, abused, and discriminated against by atheists (although less frequently, I imagine, given atheism's comparatively small demographic). The rise of the movement dubbed “New Atheism” seems to operate on a platform that the religious deserve to be treated this way.
Con asks "is it true that religion alleviates the depravations of extreme poverty? I assume that Pro thinks that it does (I do not) but I invite Pro to address this more interesting question.” Admittedly, I'm not sure what Con means by this. The source I provided seems to make a good case for religion having a positive effect on those suffering poverty, and as Con has not explained what leads them to believe otherwise, I can't be sure what point they intended me to address. The circumstances of extreme poverty? Its causes? Its effects? On a personal level, or a societal one?
Con suggests that “It's interesting to note, is it not, that religion thrives in hard times? If one were being frightfully cynical, one might make a statement such as "religion finds it easier to get its claws into the young, the old, the weak, the poor, the sick, the dying and the disenfranchised."” One may very well make such a statement, as it certainly bears to be considered. But one may also appeal to the words of Jesus Christ and note that “it is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick.” The disenfranchised have more reason to wonder if an ultimate justice will be served than those who are privileged. The old and the dying have more reason to wonder what comes after death than those who have decades left. The poor and the sick have more reason to seek miraculous help than those who aren't suffering. Maybe religion finds the downtrodden because they're the ones actively looking for the answers it provides.
In the same vein of frightful cynicism, however, one might suggest that atheism finds it easier to get its respective claws into those who refuse to bend the knee to any authority besides themselves—after all, if there's no God, what authority could be higher than one's own? This would certainly serve as an explanation as to why so many regimes marked by unspeakable violence and bloodshed at the hands of their governments in the last century or so have been spearheaded by avowed atheists (the usual suspects being Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Pol Pot, but let's not forget Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro, Mengistu, Mussolini, and Kim Il-Sung, among others).
And while we're asking questions, can people who reject religion's gods, and nonetheless cling to the greater part of their moralities (a concept condemned by Nietzsche, and more recently, Michael Onfray) even claim their moral opinions as secular in the first place?
As far as my claim about Zuckerman's bias, I didn't intend for it to be quite as harsh as it was apparently received. The way that he presented his statistics (at least to me) read as though Zuckerman was encouraging his readers to conclude that religion causes murder without any attempt at elaboration, which we have both agreed is not a fair assessment to make off-handedly with only the brute data.
Con's chart of religiosity and murder rates doesn't seem to be accounting for Eastern Religions. If I'm not mistaken, Shinto is the dominant belief system in Japan, and China has a large number of Taoists. As for the rest, I would hold that extreme poverty, illegal drug and gang activity, and low human development would account for the violence in most of the countries listed, and that religious belief could easily result from the effects of that violence, as stated above. That seems to me like it would be sufficient to explain the correlation.
However, one question I think is central to this debate is at what point, exactly, could we count the benefits of religion as greater than its sins? Does the number of lives saved by religious altruism make up for the lives lost to religious extremism, for instance? And can religious extremism be considered true religion, since its actions (in every case I'm aware of) go directly against the teachings it claims to espouse?
I'm afraid I ran out of time to locate better-rounded sources as requested, but I would suggest acquisition of the Handbook of Religion and Health from Oxford Press for a collection of meta-studies on the correlation of religiosity and quality of life.
 http://en.wikipedia.org... [I'd normally avoid Wikipedia, but it's the most concise source I could find]
I'll start by thanking Pro for an intelligent and thought-provoking debate. I'm a little sad that it'll all be over in the blink of another eye and would enjoy another debate with Pro on a related (or non-related) subject. Kudos; keep it real!
I've got to squeeze a lot into this last round, so apologies for brevity in some areas that could easily suffer greater scrutiny. I've also left myself less than an hour to post this last round; and I'm tired and a little groggy from the Bank Holiday in the UK that finished yesterday (it's 6:30 AM here), so, again, apologies if this round lacks the focus and impartiality that it properly deserves.
Whilst Pro nobly concedes that it's almost impossible to argue against a belief being bad, as opposed to an action, I must admit that by my own professed standards of evidence, it's not really fair for me to try to win too much ground on the basis of beliefs without evidence of how those beliefs translate to measurable actions; however, I do beg the gentle reader consider some beliefs: for a start, I beg the gentle voter consider whether a more sinister reality than merely belief must necessarily follow (even if we cannot easily measure the effect) from a significant group of people believing that gruesome death is an appropriate punishment for non-conformance to a set of metaphysical beliefs. I precisely share Pro's sentiment when she says of the statistics about this belief "I must say I find them rather concerning".
Pro says that the Psalms are poems that should be given poetic license; Pro says that Deuteronomy contains prescriptions for other people; Pro suggests that much of the Old Testament represents an old covenant that is null and void. Pro suggests that the Jewish consensus is the rather contradictory position that stoning to death is moral but should not be practiced. Pro suggests that we should not tar religions with the same brush as we might use for extremists. I ask: "and what, exactly, is an extremist"? I feel that Pro, like most Christians I know, is a sensible, rational, kind and intelligent force for good in this World. Most religious people are moderate and sensible and kind and good. I don't (unlike some of them) attribute their goodness to their religion... in fact, I believe that most people I know are sensible, rational, kind and intelligent and a force for good in this World (and I believe that there's good reason why natural selection through group selection made us that way); religion's effect is hard to measure but from my personal experience, religion never does what it claims (makes people kinder or more moral).
The idea that Psalms can be undermined by the attribution of poetic licence (not treated literally) will offend a certain number of Christians; are they extremists? The idea that Deuteronomy should be seen as applying to others will likewise offend a certain number of Christians; are they extremists? The idea that the Old Testament is somehow "null and void" because of the "new covenant" is not biblically supportable (in fact, Jesus is quoted as saying that he comes not to change the [Mosaic] law) and will offend a significant number of Christians; are they extremists?
I have met Christians on this site who are quite happy to cite the bible as sufficient justification for the idea that homosexual acts are a sin (whilst using sophistry to distance themselves from the Bible's pro-slavery stance); I've also met Christians on this site who take the view that slavery may well be moral because the Bible seems to be for it... are they extremists? I know this: families are literally torn apart because a son is gay; that sentence needs correction: families are literally torn apart because they are religious; homosexuality is not a choice, religion is.
I'd like to know what Pro thinks about Christians who consider the bible to be inerrant and the literal word of God: are they extremists? If a person believes the story of Adam and Eve literally, believes the story of Noah's Ark, believes that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, believes that atheists are fools that do no good, believes that it's moral and appropriate to stone children to death for disobedience to their parents... are they extremists? I've met people on this site who literally stand for bringing back stoning-to-death because the bible prescribes it... are they extremists? Does their existence or, more properly, do their beliefs not demonstrate the responsibility that religion has for making the World a worse place?
I'd like to focus the gentle reader's attention to the fact of James Inhofe. He is currently, for the second time, Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Environment. I have absolutely no idea what he believes (although he often waxes lyrical about it); what worries me, in the context of this debate, is that a man can win political points in America for coming out publically and saying such completely ****ing stupid things as he does . I beg Pro and the gentle reader to really listen to what James Inhofe has to say.
James Inhofe is potentially the most powerful man on Earth in terms of setting policy regarding man-made climate change, limiting carbon emissions, limiting agricultral chemical run-off, pollution, etc... and he says that there's no such thing as man-made climate change and he seems to think that Bronze Age texts (specifically the book of Genesis) prove that fact. What's worse is that he uses Romans 1:25 to peddle the idea that any climate campaigners are essentially working for the devil by worshipping false gods (worshipping the creation not the creator).
The Catholic church peddle the idea that condoms are universally wicked; the result of this is absolutely, specifically and directly that innocent men women and children suffer horribly and die because of the unnecessary spread of AIDS in Africa . I blame religion for this effect; are you with me? I say that it is a far greater offence that the largest organised religion on Earth preaches things that directly cause the suffering and death of my innocent and powerless human brothers and sisters than it would be for a married African man to occassionally rubber-up and sleep with a prostitute on the way home from work (much as I, like the religious, question the morality of this action).
Religious belief, I charge, causes one to have certain opinions on issues such as gentically modified crops (how could you believe in a creator of all life and not be profoundly worried by the idea of mankind having the hubris to tinker with that?). I don't say that GM is universally good... indeed, there are atheistic scientists who urge caution about some aspects of the GM debate; what I do claim, though, is that religion predisposes you to lean a certain way... and, like the Catholic church with sex, condoms and AIDS, this leaning literally causes the suffering and death of significant numbers of innocent men, women and children every year. In this case, Golden Rice  could prevent suffering, blindness, illness and death by preventing Vitamin A deficiency. And we are talking about the lives of tens of millions of human beings every year.
It is a natural inclination to believe that a human being who thinks that there is a big sky-daddy watching their every move will behave more morally; it is all of our gut reactions (even atheists) to think that anybody who fears eternal suffering will limit their own bad actions... and yet, in reality, murder rates are not obviously negatively correlated (quite the opposite) with religiosity. Furthermore, there is good evidence to support the idea that religious beliefs cause palpable damage in the World. I urge the gentle voter to find against the motion; religion, contrary to our instinctive assumptions and religion's own claims about itself, does not the World a better place make!
If you don't do it for me, do it for our grandchildren's environment that James Inhofe is happy to see damaged; do it for the millions of innocent men, women and children who die in Africa every year from AIDS or Vitamin A deficiency: vote Con!
I have thoroughly enjoyed this debate and have come to have a lot of respect for Pro; however, I charge that Pro has not provided sufficient evidence of any positive effect of religion that could matter as much as the profound negative consequences that I hope I have demonstrated it has. I beg the reader remember that we are debating a World-wide issue that includes not only your own personal religion but all religions. And I remind the voter that I do understand that most religious people are decent human beings who make the World a better place; that was not the issue under scrutiny; the idea here is: would those people be as good without religion? I charge that they would... how about we all (perhaps arrogantly) accept credit for our own decency and stop attributing our worth to our metaphysical beliefs? Or, if you're not happy accepting credit for your own decency, attribute it to the wonderous marvel of group selection; I know that I do!
A significant tip of the hat to Con for their respect and generosity. Nice to know that religious debates still have the capacity to end on a professional note. Let's do it again sometime (preferably when I'm not under a thousand deadlines)!
As all the following points are directed specifically at Christianity, I will approach my rebuttals from that perspective as far as my character limit will allow (which is less than I would like, sadly).
First of all, religion is not as simple as we'd all like it to be, and as such, it needs to be handled carefully. It's safe to say that people who have spent their entire lives studying the biblical texts, thousands of years of exegesis, theology, and hermeneutics, and careful examination of the bible's original culture, heritage, treatment, languages, and context are going to know a lot more about how Christianity should be practiced than the average soccer mom or politician. Just like an actual medical scientist with a degree and ten years of university education is going to know a lot more about vaccines than a talk show host. It's the church's job to communicate its truths just like it's the medical community's job to communicate its truths (although there will invariably be dissent in both camps on certain issues, and one cannot guarantee that the masses will listen). If the church has failed in this commission, that's hardly the fault of Christianity itself, which actually condemns failure to properly instruct. Credit where credit is due.
Con asks the question of what makes someone an extremist. My definition of an extremist is someone who takes an idea farther than it was meant to go, and subsequently causes harm. This can apply to religion, politics, civil rights... any opinion one has passion for, which is why we must be careful not to appeal to our emotions before we have considered our reasoning.
“from my personal experience, religion never does what it claims (makes people kinder or more moral).”
From my personal experience, religion never fails to do so. To each their own?
“The idea that the Old Testament is somehow "null and void" because of the "new covenant" is not biblically supportable (in fact, Jesus is quoted as saying that he comes not to change the [Mosaic] law) and will offend a significant number of Christians; are they extremists?”
There are a few problems with Con's statement. Firstly, I never actually said that the Old Testament is null and void in Christianity. I said that the old covenant is. They are not the same thing. Secondly, what Jesus says in Matthew 5 is “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” The word “change” does not appear in any translation I've been able to find, so saying Jesus is “quoted” as saying it is a bit of an exaggeration. Christ's sacrifice fulfilled the law and established a new covenant with all people. This covenant was built on the foundations of the old one, which is why many of the moral precepts in the Old Testament (the ten commandments, for instance) are still applicable, but the laws concerning what is clean and unclean, or laws discussing the judicial punishments for sin in the nation of Israel, etc., are not. My original point still stands. Any Christians who believe that the entire Mosaic law still applies to them have hugely misunderstood their theology (and seeing how few of them are willing to actually follow the 900+ laws contained therein, I'd say we have a hypocrisy problem as well).
"I know this: families are literally torn apart because a son is gay; that sentence needs correction: families are literally torn apart because they are religious; homosexuality is not a choice, religion is."
I am unaware of a single passage of Scripture that endorses the appalling treatment of homosexuals that the church has engaged in. I am, however, aware of thousands that condemn it.
“I've met people on this site who literally stand for bringing back stoning-to-death because the bible prescribes it... are they extremists? Does their existence or, more properly, do their beliefs not demonstrate the responsibility that religion has for making the World a worse place?”
I've seen atheists who believe that the only problem with Communism is that it didn't kill enough believers. I've seen atheists use Charles Darwin to promote and excuse eugenics, murder, rape, and racism. I've seen atheists who claim that anyone who subscribes to religious belief should be thrown into psychological institutions and tortured until they're “cured.” Is the world improved by their existence or beliefs? In my previous argument, I addressed that the bloodiest democidal regimes of the 20th century were almost exclusively spearheaded by atheists, despite the fact that, from a global perspective, atheists are an incredibly small demographic. Is that not reason to be concerned? Furthermore, if a Christian promotes slavery because of Deuteronomy, I can show him Galatians 3:28, which proclaims that there is no slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female, because we are all equal under Christ. However, if an atheist promotes slavery because of naturalism and survival of the fittest (after all, Slave-Making Ants do precisely what their name implies, why shouldn't we?), I have nothing to offer him but pseudo-philosophy and an ethics lecture which he would be well within his rights to dismiss as insufficient evidence. Is that enough reason to condemn non-belief as dangerous?
“James Inhofe is potentially the most powerful man on Earth in terms of setting policy regarding man-made climate change, limiting carbon emissions, limiting agricultral chemical run-off, pollution, etc... and he says that there's no such thing as man-made climate change and he seems to think that Bronze Age texts (specifically the book of Genesis) prove that fact. What's worse is that he uses Romans 1:25 to peddle the idea that any climate campaigners are essentially working for the devil by worshipping false gods (worshipping the creation not the creator).”
Strange, that, seeing as the very book of Genesis names Man as the steward of Earth, and discusses his responsibility in its subsequent corruption after the Fall. The bible also discusses how creation declares the glory of God. What reason could we possibly have to want for its destruction? Someone who cannot be bothered to read anything more than what they personally find useful is a hypocrite, and someone who thinks that the bible has anything significant to say on a topic as isolated to modern science as climate change (or GMOs, for that matter) is someone I won't hesitate to accuse of using religion as a cover for their personal biases. However, once again, we cannot necessarily blame religion for its idiots.
“The Catholic church [peddles] the idea that condoms are universally wicked; the result of this is absolutely, specifically and directly that innocent men women and children suffer horribly and die because of the unnecessary spread of AIDS in Africa . I blame religion for this effect; are you with me?”
This is actually nowhere near as cut-and-dried as people think it is. Abstinence, fewer sexual partners, and monogamy are doing more to halt the AIDS crisis than condoms  . Strangely, all three of those sound suspiciously like Christian teachings.
"in reality, murder rates are not obviously negatively correlated (quite the opposite) with religiosity."
Con has not addressed my rebuttals on this point.
Finally, I actually would stand to disagree with Con that group selection accounts for morality and renders religion unnecessary in that regard. Group selection is a logical concept, but not a realistic one. After all, while a tribe that shares its food equally among its members will be stronger than a tribe that does not, tribal members that exploit the altruism of their fellows and hoard whatever food they can grab will be much stronger and better off than those they are exploiting, and will therefore be better candidates for natural selection. Even positing social consequence (i.e., they choose not to steal food for fear of a punishment from the tribe) falls flat because it requires there to already be a moral understanding in place (i.e., stealing food is wrong, and deserves to be punished). Morality of the kind that humans currently possess is not realistic through an evolutionary lens, because the “selfish gene” cannot (and has no reason to) act in the best interests of the group, only the individual. Even kin selection only explains altruism within one's genetic group.
As far as this debate goes, here's what I acknowledge:
But I also believe this:
In conclusion, this debate has not seen me at my best. I feel it is only right to admit defeat, as I agree entirely that I have not provided sufficient evidence that religion, as a whole, makes the world a better place. I do believe that Christianity, at least, is a force for good, and I believe I can (and have) made that point to one degree or another, but as far as the topic at hand, I acknowledge my lack of a strong case. I thank Con for an insightful discussion, and hope the voters will bestow their points on the deserving winner.