Response to the New York Times Op-ed “The Moral Animal”

Note: This post was written when I had a pretty naive “New Atheist” view of religion. It no longer represents my opinion!
In an op-ed in the Times, rabbi Jonathan tries to articulate why  New Atheists’ “withering” attacks on religion haven’t resulted in its demise. Instead of trying to argue for the correctness of religious beliefs, he treats religion as just a system of morality and cites research that indicates that frequent church-goers are more altruistic. He also provides evolutionary arguments about why humans developed altruistic nature.

He poses a question that apparently puzzled Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, himself: why does natural selection favor altruists instead of the ruthless. He posits:

“Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals.”

He continues:

“[Religion] reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray.”

The reality couldn’t be more different. The new atheists, in particular, make a very good case about how religion poisons everything. Claiming to be the purveyors of altruism, religious people and institutions in the past have murdered non-believers, stifled free inquiry and science, treated women as inferior, condemned homosexuals, allied to racism and anti-Semitism. As an example, the Roman Catholic Church burned heretics alive at stake. Before the Age of Enlightenment, the terror of such fundamentalists was so widespread that non-believers could not publicly profess their non-belief lest they get killed. If you find yourself saying “but that’s the past,” try to remember the violent outrage over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. After a fatwa was issued against him, a translator of his book was stabbed to death, while a publisher and two other translators were severely injured in attempts to assassinate them.

The distinction between religion and morality becomes even clearer when expressed in the form of the Euthypro dilemma:

Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?

Having understood that being religious is at least not moral per se and plausibly immoral, claims that religion is good because it makes people more altruistic start to fall apart. Jonathan says,

“Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood…”

Even if we grant this premise (which we shouldn’t knowing the harms done by religion), it doesn’t make religion and its claims true. Although this op-ed doesn’t go further enough to answer this fundamental problem, the answer that believers generally give is quite akin to the one given by promoters of pseudosciences like homeopathy†: it makes people feel happy, so what’s the problem? Humans are fundamentally inquisitive and curious to know the truth. Arguably, even though ignorance and indifference towards truth may cause happiness, but that happiness is of lesser value than facing what’s true. Moreover, when one accepts that proposition: “something which causes happiness or is beneficial should be believed irrespective of whether it’s true or not”, they stop trying to know what’s true. This may seem not so obvious, but when talking to believers, I notice that they almost never argue about whether, lets say, God exists or not, but whether believing God exists is beneficial (just like those who cite research that supports the claim that religious people are happier, in defense of religion). Or, they shift the matter to why they’ve the right to believe whatever they want and one should not try to change their minds.  Thus, religion manages to stymie critical thinking, because freethought requires questioning all our core beliefs, and how can that happen when one of the core belief “God exists” is seen to be so necessary to a believer’s happiness and is thus unquestionable?

†Homeopathy has no plausible biological mechanism of action and consistently has been found no better in efficacy than placebos, in clinical trials till date.