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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.

"But religion is useful. It makes people happy. It comforts people in hard times. It makes people better-behaved. And losing religious faith can be traumatic. So what difference does it make if it isn't true? Shouldn't we be perpetuating it anyway -- or at least leaving it alone? Why do you want to persuade people out of it?"

Atheists hear this a lot. The argument from utility -- the defense of religion, not because it's true, but because it's psychologically or socially useful -- is freakishly common. If you spend any time reading debates in atheist blogs or forums, you're bound to see it come up.

Now, when atheists hear this "But religion is so useful!" argument, our most common response is to say, "Is not!" We eagerly point out that countries with high rates of atheism are also countries with high rates of happiness, ethics, and social functioning. (This doesn't prove that atheism causes high social functioning, of course -- in fact, it's probably the other way around -- but it does show that high social functioning doesn't need religion.) We'll point out the many, many examples of religious believers who cheat, steal, murder, and generally behave very badly indeed... entirely undercutting the notion that religion provides an unshakable foundation for good moral behavior. And we'll point to ourselves, and to other atheists we know -- people who clearly don't need religion, who are living happy, ethical lives without religion, who in some cases are even happier and better without religion -- as the most obvious counter-arguments we can think of to this argument.

These are all fair points. I've made them myself, many times, and I will no doubt make them again. But there's a basic problem with all these wonderful fair points.

They make the argument from utility seem valid.

And I don't want to do that. I think the argument from utility is absurd on the face of it. I think the entire idea of deciding what we think is true based on what we want to be true is laughable. Or it would be, if it weren't so appalling. I've seen this argument advanced many, many times... and it still shocks me to see otherwise intelligent, thoughtful adults making it. It is preposterous.

So today, I want to dismantle the entire premise of the argument from utility. I want to dismantle the entire premise that it's reasonable, and even a positive good, to believe in something you have no good reason to think is true... simply because it makes you happy.

The Santa Delusion

Let's draw an analogy. Let's look at another dearly treasured, deeply held belief about how the world works.

Let's look at Santa Claus.

Millions of children are made very happy by their belief in Santa. They have fun imagining the presents he's going to bring them. They like visiting him in the department store. They enjoy hearing stories about him, singing songs about him, drawing pictures of him. They get a thrill from putting cookies and cocoa out for him by the fireplace (or the gas heater, or whatever), and seeing them gone the next day. They get more and more excited as Christmas gets closer and the day of his visitation approaches.

What's more, millions of children probably behave better because they believe in Santa. The desire for really great presents, the fear of getting coal in their stockings instead of presents... this has almost certainly made many children behave better. It's probably resulted in thousands of cleaned rooms, thousands of finished homework assignments, thousands of un-punched siblings. At least during the month of December.

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