Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 6

Religion as a source of comfort. The Australian philosopher David Stove, despite regarding religion as little more than a psychological “deprivation-effect,” nevertheless provides an interesting take on the subject of religion as comfort. Whatever negative feelings Stove experienced toward religion, his hostility to anti-religious secularism was even more intense, as we find in the following passages:
It does not come naturally to us now, [Stove writes] to think of religion as a source of misery: we are far too familiar with the immense amount of misery that has resulted from the absence of religion. We therefore think of religion rather as a source of happiness, or at least comfort. And so it is, to many of the countless victims of twentieth-century atheist-terrorist governments, and to a few people in the derelict post-religious societies of the West. But those governments, and those societies, are themselves among the products of the Enlightenment’s assault on religion. In 1770, when that assault was reaching its height, religion presented a very different face from the one it does now.

Religion could then be blamed for bloody wars; massacres, expulsions, and persecutions of heretics; the craze for murdering witches; innumerable exactions for priests; the suppression of thought and even of natural curiosity; the forced sexual abstinence of thousands of men and women; flagellations and countless other “mortifications of the flesh”; the terror of punishments prolonged eternally after death. Such things as these formed, of course, the commonplaces of Enlightened denunciation; but it cannot possibly be denied that all these aspects of religion were fertile sources of misery. It was all true, too true.

At the same time, it is equally undeniable that a list like the one I have just given makes a startlingly trivial comparison with the misery which anti-religious zeal has produced in [the twentieth century]. Indeed, it is hardly even a comparison: “not game but shame” (as they say). How many Spanish Inquisitions equal one KGB? How many St. Bartholomew’s Day massacres, plus expulsions of the Huguenots, would it take to equal the misery caused by Lenin plus Mao?…

The Enlightenment’s tale of the misery caused by religion is not only trivial in retrospect: it was always absurdly exaggerated even at the time. Take, for example, the belief in eternal torments after death. Of course it ought to have been a source of enormous suffering, and in some cases it undoubtedly was. But the fear of hell was never as vivid or constant or widespread as, according to the religious theory, it should have been: a fact which we know partly from the incessant complaints of the priests to that very effect. Stupidity, the occupations of common life, and the natural belief that hell is intended only for other people, were always enough to prevent most Christians from being made as unhappy by their belief in hell as they should have been…. The fact is the Enlightened took religious beliefs far too literally and logically: a piece of folly which religious people, for their part, were hardly ever guilty of.

Does Stove overstate his case? Perhaps. But even when we have made the necessary adjustments, his thesis remains eminently plausible. Yet Stove has one last observation that seals the deal. The Enlightenment, Stove avers, had nothing to say about the suffering caused by “the actual process of losing religious beliefs.”
Parting with religion is not always, indeed, an altogether painful process. But there is always pain in it, and in most cases the pain greatly predominates over every other feeling. It was a question often pressed upon the Enlightened, therefore, how they reconciled their professed concern for human happiness, with their willful assault on the principal comfort of human life… It is [a question] not easily answered… Accordingly, the Enlightened never did answer this question….

Hume, for example, ignored the following response by James Beattie to his [i.e., Hume’s] attacks on religion. People like Hume, Beattie wrote, should remember that “in the solitary scenes of life, there is many an honest and tender heart pining with incurable anguish, pierced with the sharpest sting of disappointment, bereft of friends, chilled with poverty, racked with disease, scourged by the oppressor; whom nothing but trust in Providence, and the hope of future retribution, could preserve from the agonies of despair. And do they [the Enlightened], with sacrilegious hands, attempt to violate this last refuge of the miserable, and to rob them of the only comfort that has survived the ravages of misfortune, malice, and tyranny!”

Even when every deduction has been made for the over-eloquence of this passage, I do not see, much as I admire and love Hume, what satisfactory reply he could have made to it…. Hume, though he was infuriated by the great popularity of Beattie’s book, never did reply. [Against the Idols of the Age, 84-88]

Does religion, then, on balance, cause more happiness than misery? That is, indeed, what the evidence suggests. Consider the following facts:
  • A large-scale 1972 study found that persons who did not attend church were four times as likely to commit suicide

  • Numerous studies have found an inverse correlation between religious commitment as abuse of drugs. One study of nearly 14,000 youths concluded that religion was the single best predictor of substance abuse patterns.

  • Several studies have found that high levels of religious commitment correlate with lower levels of depression, lower levels of stress, and greater ability to cope with stress.

  • Strong religious believers consistently report greater overall happiness and satisfaction with life. In one Gallup survey, respondents who agreed that their religious faith was “the most important influence” in their lives, were twice as likely as those with minimal spiritual commitment to describe themselves as “very happy.” [Patrick Glynne, God: The Evidence, 62-65]

Of course, the thesis that religion serves as a comfort to people is only a generalization: it does not apply to everyone. There are people whose misery is increased by religious commitment, and who should therefore avoid religion like the plague. But there are many more people who are comforted by religion, and who would be less happy (or more miserable) were they to lose their faith.

20 comments:

Mark Plus said...

The empirical evidence suggests that people in high income countries report greater life satisfaction that people in poorer countries. These wealthier countries (for example, ones in Western Europe) also tend to display less religiosity than poorer countries. It looks like a significant number of people can dispense with religion if they have enough tangible wealth. Or, conversely, that poor people turn to religion as a magical attempt to acquire the goods they would otherwise buy if they had sufficient income.

gregnyquist said...

Mark Plus: "...wealthier countries ... tend to display less religiosity than poorer countries. It looks like a significant number of people can dispense with religion if they have enough tangible wealth. Or, conversely, that poor people turn to religion as a magical attempt to acquire the goods they would otherwise buy if they had sufficient income."

Since I tend to regard religion more as a symptom than a cause, I would explain the effect of wealth as making people more hedonistic and therefore less attracted to religious morality. As far as poor people turning to religion to use magic to get stuff, I doubt that's what's happening. Poor people are generally less well educated; often they are not as intelligent; hence they are attracted to the more irrational elements in religion, i.e., to superstition. The positive effects that religion has among the middle class in the United States is highly correlated to church attendence; that is, it's not necessarily adherence to religious doctrine that provides any utility, but going to church and being involved in a community. Again, note that the issue of conduct is generally more important than the issue of doctrine—despite what Rand would have us believe.

Neil Parille said...

I should mention that, contrary to what I implied before, Leonard Peikoff does not include (so far as I know) theism as an inherently dishonest idea.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, it's wonderful to stumble upon such an excellent, fascinating blog.

Only one possible problem in pointing out the fallacies of goofy Randism to those who already see though it, well that's it.

Those who are deep in it, will turn themselves into pretzels justifying everything AR said because she said it. That in itself is a cult symptom.

In other words, believe the leader and suspend reason. Does that reek of er, religion, irrationality and subjectivity? Well, not reflected back from the crazy mirror of objectivism.

Bravo, keep up the good work.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for your kind comments. We've been building up a fair amount of stuff over the last few years. Hopefully there's plenty interesting for you to rummage thru...;-)

- Daniel

zamyrabyrd said...

Hi,

I just figured out how to use my google account for commenting on blogs. I had just exited another discussion about AR but could not get through the stone wall of their treasure trove of stock answers.

What I don't get is those who have already exited cults cannot see that objectivism has ALL the characteristics of a cult and even more. I was even thinking of starting my own blog since AR's writings were indeed a bad influence on my development until I found this one.

I felt afterwards I made a mistake in arguing specific points about the lady and not going a level higher. The point is, with cultic personalities, you cannot just debate their ideas, because there will be an answer for everything. Rather ask the question WHY the personality is so tied up with the ideas and the fact that one has to accept the whole package.

After all, one can like the music of Wagner but not have to defend his questionable behavior. With AR, it is a complete lifestyle--philosophy, psychology, economics, ethics, "morality", art, music, reverence for the leader, etc. One become an expert in everything, has an answer for everything, just by joining up.

And like cult members, one gets the all-important membership card of superiority vis-a-vis the rest of the addled, amorphous human mass.

I think I will enjoy reading the rest of the posts here.

ZB (was "anonymous")

Daniel Barnes said...

ZB:
>After all, one can like the music of Wagner but not have to defend his questionable behavior. With AR, it is a complete lifestyle--philosophy, psychology, economics, ethics, "morality", art, music, reverence for the leader, etc. One become an expert in everything, has an answer for everything, just by joining up.

Yes, ZB. The "cultic" tendencies in Objectivism stem largely from Rand's assertion that the correct philosophy is fundamental to all successful human endeavours, such as art, literature, science, ethics etc. As, according to herself, the only correct philosophy is Objectivism, this leads to the conclusion that all art, literature, science, ethics etc that preceded it is to a greater or lesser extent - mostly greater - erroneous, and even perhaps immoral. This makes it something of an intellectual mousetrap for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the eternal appeal of doctrines of effort-free authority have to clever and even well-meaning people. After all, all you have to do is master a number of fairly simple philosophic bromides, and you can now instruct any scientist or artist as to whether their activities are Philosophically Correct!

There are any number of good criticisms of Objectivist doctrines, many of which you will find here. IMHO the two key ones that help you spring the Objectivist mousetrap harmlessly are 1) that Objectivism turns out to be, on examination, in great part little more than a series of word-games and verbalist jargon (the legacy of Rand's unfortunate reliance on Aristotle's theory of definitions) and 2) the enormous gap between Rand's claims and the verdict of empirical science.

The basic ARCHNblog text for 1) is here, in Karl Popper's famous critique of Aristotelian essentialism from his "The Open Society And Its Enemies". The examples of 2) form much of Greg's book, as well as a huge number of posts here.

JayCross said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JayCross said...

I consider myself as an Objectivist and I certainly don't consider Ayn Rand my "leader." When psychologist Michael Hurd was asked if he considered himself a "follower" of Ayn Rand, he replied "I'm not a follower of anyone."

Others are less individualistic and simply allow Objectivism to pinch hit for all of their opinions, views, and preferences. But it's not Objectivism that does that to them; if it weren't Objectivism, they'd go for scientology or some get-rich-quick seminar, which unlike Objectivism, explicitly tell you that guru or master has the "secret" to the good life. Objectivism does not do this. Some people are just mentally weak and eager for a movement to give meaning to their lives. Therefore, such people can turn even individualistic creeds into cults.

As the Despair.com saying goes, "Always remember that you are unique - just like everyone else."

Now, you could make the fair point that Rand surrounded herself with sycophants. Fine, but that's on her. That's not what she preached, and what she preached is what matters more than how she acted.

Jonathan said...

Hi,
This is off-topic but I didn't know where else to post it:

When I click on "'ARCHN' Online: Read it or buy it now" on this site's front page, I get sent to a page which reads "Book files do not exist."

J

Kelly said...

“Others are less individualistic and simply allow Objectivism to pinch hit for all of their opinions, views, and preferences. But it's not Objectivism that does that to them;” The trouble is that somehow the opinions, views and preferences of objectivists all seem to be pretty much the same. Very little in objectivism is left up to the individual, there is an “objective” answer to almost every question.

Damien said...

Kelly,

You said,
“Others are less individualistic and simply allow Objectivism to pinch hit for all of their opinions, views, and preferences. But it's not Objectivism that does that to them;” The trouble is that somehow the opinions, views and preferences of objectivists all seem to be pretty much the same. Very little in objectivism is left up to the individual, there is an “objective” answer to almost every question.

Yes and that is a serious problem. For a philosophy that claims to be individualist, it doesn't let the individual do much thinking for themselves. It even claims that some things can be objectively verified that can not be objectively verified. One example is who is a better signer, or which movie is better?

Daniel Barnes said...

Jonathan:
>When I click on "'ARCHN' Online: Read it or buy it now" on this site's front page, I get sent to a page which reads "Book files do not exist."

Hey Jonathan,

Thanks, the link is fixed now.

zamyrabyrd said...

I don't know if this is the right thread but I was always interested WHERE AR took her ideas from. She said on the Mike Wallace interview (1959) that her philosophy, apart from a "thank you" to Aristotle, came completely from herself. (The Nietsche influence fairly shouts out from her novels.)
I had a hard time accepting "sprung from the head of Jove" when she pontificated on just about everything, until I found out she had a running correspondence with Isabel Paterson, considered one of the founders of "libertarianism". They apparently fell out in 1948. I would be personally interested if anyone else has information or thoughts about this.

ZB

Neil Parille said...

ZB,

Check out Steve Cox's bio of Paterson, The Woman and the Dynamo.

Dusty Rose said...

Congratulations on starting an interesting discussion. Cannot resist the temptation to jump in with my two cents...

I read most of your posts and some of your links. It appears to me that most people who participate in the discussion fall into one of the following categories: either complete acceptance of AR ideas ("Ayn Rand could not have said, or done, any wrong"), or complete rejection ("everything AR ever said is garbage").

Ayn Rand said that being in the middle of any issue is evil. Well, let me be evil, then... because I am in the middle here.

It is true that Ayn Rand committed several important mistakes. You point out many of them on your blog (good job!). My personal "favorite" mistake of hers is her statement that "man has no instincts" (see John Galt's speech and AR Playboy interview). This is pathetically false - of course man does have instincts!

Having said this - I'm still grateful to Ayn Rand. She liberated me from guilt. She confirmed my right to live for my own happiness and to do things for my own pleasure - the right that I always suspected I had, but was not quite sure until I read "The Virtue of Selfishness". (For the record: I prefer AR non-fiction to her fiction, and quite frankly, I find her fiction tedious).

Ayn Rand gave me the confidence to say "No" - be it to the beggar on the street, or to my relatives who believe that they have a blank check on my time. Thanks to her, I'm now able to say "No" without any remorse. This is precious, and her mistakes pale in comparison to this.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi DR,

Excellent post (and I like your handle...;-)). We've often said that Rand is best used just as you have suggested: as a form of personal inspiration. There is much to be gained from this approach to her work. However, if you take her actual doctrines literally you will end up in trouble. I also agree with you re fiction vs non-fiction. The virtues that make her an excellent polemicist in the essay-sprint are terrible liabilities over the novel-marathon. I find The Fountainhead and Atlas almost unbearably predictable and repetitive - you know exactly, almost to the word, what a character will say two pages before they say it.

Red Grant said...

____________________________

I find The Fountainhea and Atlas almost unbearably preditable and repetitive - Daniel Barnes
____________________________





Not to mention contrived.

It's like dealing with mannequins instead of flesh and blood human beings.

Jay said...

The only wooden character I saw was John Galt. As far as I'm concerned he was completely one-dimensional and added nothing that Francisco couldn't have done. Francisco also should've gotten Dagny in the end.

Also, Hank Rearden is far from a predictable character. He experienced the same self-doubt and inner conflict as the rest of us.

Red Grant said...

My referrence to the characters "mannequins" in Ayn Rand's novels is that:


she invents characters to "micromanage" or manipulate by detail the readers.