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The Santa Delusion: Why 'Religion Is Useful' Is a Terrible Argument For Religion

The argument from utility -- the defense of religion, not because it's true, but because it's psychologically or socially useful -- is freakishly common.

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The Argument That Eats Itself

Whenever I hear the argument from utility, I pretty much consider it a victory for my side. It's an entirely self-defeating argument, an argument that admits that it's wrong in the very stating of it. When people start arguing for the utility of their beliefs regardless of whether they're actually true, they've essentially conceded. They're essentially saying, "You're right. The things I believe almost certainly aren't true. I certainly can't make a good case for why they're true. Now will you leave me alone and let me believe them anyway?"

Well, if you want to believe things that you know almost certainly aren't true, you're certainly free to do that. I'm not sure what definition of the word "believe" you're using there... but sure. If for you, "believing" in God means "telling yourself over and over that God exists in hopes that you can make yourself really think it"... then knock yourself out.

But if that's what you think, then why are you bothering to argue with atheists? If you really just believe things because you want them to be true, why do you care what anyone else thinks about it?

I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt here. I'm going to assume that you're debating atheists because you want to test your beliefs against the people who will question them the hardest. I'm going to assume that you do, in fact, care whether the things you believe are true.

And I'm going to show the argument from utility for what it is: a last-ditch effort to hang onto a belief that you know isn't supportable, but that you're having a hard time letting go of. I know that religion is hard to let go of: I know that people have emotional attachments, psychological attachments, social attachments, to believing in God, and/or the soul, and/or the supernatural, and/or the afterlife. I've been there. I get it.

So I'm going to do you the respect of treating you like an adult. I'm going to do you the respect of assuming that you're mature enough to face realities that, at first, are hard to face. And I'm going to do you the respect of being straight with you: If you're making the argument from utility, if you're arguing in favor of wishful thinking, you're not living up to your maturity.

I will tell you here that life without religion can be really good. I'll tell you that life without religion can be liberating, that it can give you an intense and profound sense of connection with humanity and the universe. I'll tell you that atheists have meaning in our lives, and joy, and comfort in the face of hard times, and solace in the face of death, and a passion to do right. I'll tell you that atheism can be a safe place to land, and that, as the atheist community grows bigger and stronger, it's getting safer every day. I'll tell you that most former believers I know are tickled pink to have let go of their beliefs.

I'm entirely sincere about all of that. But it's not the most important thing. The most important thing about atheism is that it's almost certainly true.

And if you're defending religion because it's useful, regardless of whether it's true... then on some level, you know that.

Come on in. The water's fine.

(Note: The core analogy about Santa was swiped from Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist by Hank Fox. I'm an ethical atheist, and believe in giving credit where credit is due.)

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