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Beliefs and language are used to both represent reality and change reality. Or, language has covert, behavioral, and interpersonal functions. I find it interesting that the Quran, the Bible, or Nietzsche can be used for both peaceful and violent purposes, and, in each case, the people involved still call themselves Muslims, Christians, etc.
So, I think “beliefs” are sort of a red herring, in that an individual can profess particular beliefs but not behave in a way that holding such beliefs would imply. Or, it’s not the words that matter but how those words function in a particular context (a la “relational frame theory”).
Therefore, I think religion is a problem only insofar that some ideologies are more “poisonous” than others, or more behaviorally provocative in antisocial ways. (It’s easier to turn people into killers if their ideology contains words like “kill the infidels,” even though a tiny, tiny number of the millions who subscribe to such an ideology are killers.)
Because so many people deeply, deeply cherish the stimulus functions of their religious language/beliefs, indeed for many people it is their sole source of comfort and sense of profound meaning, I personally think trying to stamp out religion is cruel, violent, counterproductive, and foolish.
Yet, what to do, instead? I think pop atheism, pop skepticism, and public non-religious discourse don’t function the same way for religious people as they do for non-religious people. Or, religious people sense that non-religious discourse “feels different” (or is culturally or morally impoverished) or that it won’t get them money, sex, status, love, joy, and meaning in the contexts and communities in which they live.
I am trying to figure out how to show people that they can live enjoyable, successful, connected, deeply meaningful lives, using relatively accurate language and beliefs that don’t contain behaviorally provocative language like “kill the infidels” hidden somewhere on page 323, or whatever. Until we can offer something as powerful and healing as “Jesus’s love” (literally, seriously), I don’t think we really have a good argument for people to drop religious beliefs and practices (and “kill the infidels” will come along for the ride, in perpetuity).
On the non-religious side of the fence, I feel utterly free and joyous and fascinated (and sometimes uncertain, existentially barren, small, scared, horrified, in pain, etc.), and, overall, I really like it over here. And my “faith” is that humanity has available paths that will hugely reduce suffering and greatly increase joy and beauty (and other paths that will destroy us all).
But, man, how to get from everyone from here to there? I think a lot of people are doing it wrong, and that telling well-meaning, loving, cognitively dissonant, extremely politically savvy, often extremely smart, homophobic religious people that Jesus doesn’t love them and that religion is worse than Hitler is probably not that best strategy.
We like our maps of the territory, contradictions and all (vastly fewer there might be), because of what they do for us. And religious people like their maps of the territory, contradictions and all, because of what they do for them.
I think we can create better maps that honor (and evoke) scientific, humanist, and spiritual values, all *simultaneously*. And, if we can disseminate language that genuinely evokes and stabilizes love, awe, joy, camaraderie, tolerance, community, profundity, cooperation, transcendence, scientific compatibility, and altruism in healthy ways that are difficult to pervert… Well, I think religion *wants* to grow up. It just doesn’t know how. But it’s clearly trying. (And I think terrorism is a socioeconomic problem, anyway, not a religious one.)
[adapted from an email]