Sunday, April 26, 2009

Thought Experiment: The Fake Safety Net

The two most commonly encountered arguments for religion - that is, the ones you'll get at cocktail parties or on the bus - are 1) that it's true, and 2) that's it's good for you. These are typically unclear in the minds of theists, and they are usually conflated. Tell me how many discussions you've had like this one: Religious person says religion A is true (#1 above). You ask them why they disbelieve in religions B and C, point out the inconsistencies in their own religion, and their inconsistencies in how they determine what things are true. Then the religious person swtiches to some variant of #2 above, "But what about all the good religion A does" or "people would have no morality without religion A". And they often give examples of real religious people who led lives which you would probably agree were productive and amazing, and made the world a better place; proof positive that religion is good, right?

As for this change in rhetorical tack, I don't think religious people do it consciously; in general when some proposition we hold dear is under attack, we slide around without realizing it to preserve it by discussing it from another angle. But the problem is that not only are there two completely separate questions here (is it true, and does it make people do good things), but by most reckonings of morality, including religious ones, the second is pointless to discuss before the first is established.

Thought experiments are useful because they can put the familiar in an unfamiliar context, and allow us to think more critically about it. For example: I'm starting med school in the fall. Let's say that as summer 2010 approaches, someone comes to the school and gives a presentation to recruit us to go to a developing country with a horrible infrastructure and an oppressive government, and have us do the preliminary work to set up NGO-based mental health clinics. Part of the benefit to us of volunteering with them, they explain, is that the group is financed by a super-wealthy philanthropist who not only has piles of money, but massive political and diplomatic pull in the country in question in order to clear the way for us and keep us out of trouble if the local thugs ever give us a problem. What do you think I would say? Damn right I would join that group and get on the plane and get right over there.

As you might predict, with a safety net like that, I would be more aggressive and fearless in my mission than your average NGO person might be working in the same environment. Fortunately in the course of establishing the clinic, we end up never having to call on the string-pulling services of our mysterious benefactor; that said, during the summer there are still a couple close scrapes with this police state's thugs which we brush off rudely, assuming they were already taken care of in advance, because the local government knows we (and our patients and employees) are de facto untouchable. At the end of the summer we fly back and present our accomplishments to the med school.

The representative of the mysterious benefactor applauds our work and says "Bravo, and I'm glad you're back in one piece. Because that whole diplomatic and political
backing bit was just a smoke screen to make you feel safe and therefore motivated to be more effective in your mission."

Would I be really angry, and justified in feeling that way? Absolutely. Of course, I also easily concede that by believing in this false safety net, we might have accomplished more. Does that justify this yahoo having lied to us - and justify that we consequently put our employees and patients in danger, since they've been nonchalantly telling the secret police to go f*** themselves every time they show up looking for bribes?

Of course, the clearest parallel here is to missionary work (and interestingly, missionaries are indeed sometimes the target of violence even though they're spreading the Word into new realms supposedly under the protection of their deity.)

The exact same moral argument applies to religious claims to moral motivation in general. If it's immoral to lie to someone about false comforts to inspire them to greater deeds, then there's no point in the discussion moving on to "look at all the good it does" until the first question - whether it's true - has been abundantly established. It has not.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Placebo effect?