Religions and Drugs: Harm vs. Benefit

My son is going through the drug education program in his American elementary school called D.A.R.E. (wiki, govt).  I dislike the way the class is taught and so I have recently supplemented my son’s education with this graph published in The Lancet from November 6th 2010.  I like the graph because it broadens the overly simple dichotomy of  Not Bad vs Bad.  It describes each drug’s “harm” in terms of both harm to others and harm to self.  Though an improvement on the naive “Drugs are All Bad!” rhetoric, this chart is still missing an important component–“benefit”.  For my son to really understand drugs, it is also necessary for him to understand not only the harm but also the “benefits” a person gets from using a given drug.  I won’t explore the “benefits” of drugs in this post but instead use these thoughts to discuss religion.

I think we can fruitfully analyze religions similar to the way the Lancet authors analyzed drugs.  The chart below describes not only the social vs. individual harm caused by religion but also adds a critical “benefit” column. The first four religions are all Christian sects (“X” for greek first letter in “Christ”).  Each religion is then subjectively evaluated by yours truly for both its harms (blue) and benefits (green) to both self (light colors) and others (dark colors).

This chart could upset a lot of people.  For instance, in their exaggerating moments, religion-hating atheists may feel that religions, like drugs, are never beneficial and instead nothing but harmful.   Lots of folks won’t like the drug-religion analogy.  Additionally, the chart will anger anyone who thinks their religion is harmless.  Finally, people will rightfully debate the quantitative choices and the relative comparisons.

But let me head off the major criticisms by admitting that the chart is loaded with problems:

  • The numbers are completely subjective and arbitrary
  • One can not generalize about religion or even a given sect:  they all vary tremendously
  • The qualitative choices on this graph tell more about my biases than the religions themselves.
But hopefully, in spite of these foibles, some readers will still finds the principles of the chart helpful.  Hopefully this adds a visual tool to help think about religions from several angles.  It is amazing how many opinions I packed into that little chart, isn’t it?  So comment on the chart’s principles or on my evaluation of any given religion.  Tell us your favorite numbers. Let me know what you think!


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

76 responses to “Religions and Drugs: Harm vs. Benefit

  1. Steve Wiggins

    Very sensitively done, Sabio! People are slow to admit that religions cause as much bad as good in the world. The analogy to drugs is apt: both are attempts to find a “good feeling” when the rest of the world seems to fail expectations. If not drugs or religions, then what? Perhaps the life of the mind can fill the gaps.

  2. @ Steve
    Thanks for stopping in.
    “Sensitive” ! Them are fightin’ words — no one has ever accused me of that ! 🙂
    Sports, Music, Food and more are available for those who don’t enjoy romping in the mind’s various landscapes like us folk. But even those have their “harm” elements, no?

  3. Jen

    I like the visual and the framework it provides. I wonder how you would rank “no religion” or atheism/agnisticism. Hard to say how I would evaluate, but these may also be valuable stances in tackling the Big Questions. I share your bias for Zen it seems, but you’ve got me wondering about the perceived benefits of evangelicals. Maybe the joy that comes from zealous worship. Certainly a plus.

  4. Great chart and really great way to process faith world-views.

    I’m sure the “harm/benefit to others” rates would shift a little upon additional qualification. For example, Wahhabists in a closed, isolated community would be beneficial to one another far more than the “others” when they migrate and fail to assimilate in France.

    Also, good for you to address drug education this way. I remember finding that good/bad dichotomy so unrealistic that it rendered drug education as a whole into a running joke, leaving students without any realistic way to demarcate between healthy and dangerous experimentation.

  5. Interesting approach… but what do numbers mean without units?

    How would one go about verifying any of this?

    Are statements of opinion useful without justifications?

    If Wahhabism is overwhelmingly harmful to self as well as others, how does it continue to exist?

    (Just had to give you a hard time for a change.)

  6. @ Jen:
    Thanks. Yeah, I though about adding atheism but they are different from religious groups in many ways – lack of “congregations/temples …”, their only real unity is lack of belief. But you are right that they have enough in common to tell us something. It would be fun but I am not sure how to do it.

    Yeah, I might have been too generous with the evangelicals ! Must of have been the coffee talking in me early this morning.

    @ Brandon :
    Thank you. Absolutely, everything shift depending on context and the guy doing the evaluating — thus my caveates. Wahhabists may be beneficial in closed community except to the half of the community called “women” and I am sure lots of others inside that community are not safe. And since they aren’t isolated, we have ways to see their impact on others. All in all, not a pretty picture.

  7. @ David:

    I will get back to you on the other items, but concerning your question:

    If Wahhabism is overwhelmingly harmful to self as well as others, how does it continue to exist?

    Answer: hegemony or dictatorship.
    Similar situation with Asad in Syria or Gaddafi in Lybia ….

    The small green line is the wonderful benefit for the small hemogeny that screws the majority — great scam.

    [I love being given a “hard time” — makes me feel loved!]

  8. @ David:
    Concerning your question:

    Interesting approach… but what do numbers mean without units?
    How would one go about verifying any of this?
    Are statements of opinion useful without justifications?

    Sorry, the units are a “suffabyte”. With only 100 suffabytes possible for any group to give when combining self and other caused suffering.

    Sorry, I didn’t list these because I thought they were common sense. 😉

    But on a serious note:

    Here is a link to the article on drugs and how they measured harm to self and others. I imagine such measures would be tough to get right there yet alone with religion.

    What my little exercise does is (1) point to the fact that having such information would be nice and (2) show that we all have intuitions about this when we think of other groups — incorrect, poorly-founded, one-sided or otherwise.

    So, “are they useful” — yes, but only for dialogue purposes and to perhaps better add more complexity to how we evaluate things. Verifying would probably be close to impossible.

  9. Thanks for the link. I did a quick skim and it looks like a useful study — mainly in pointing out that there’s no apparent rational basis to the UK’s categorization of drugs as legal or illegal.

    Their methodology relies on the judgement of (supposed) experts on recreational drug effects. There’s no comparable body of experts on religious effects, so unfortunately an analogous methodology is impossible…

    One benefit here is to change the question from “is religion X right” to “is religion X beneficial”. For almost no value of X do practitioners of X ask that question. Probably historically practitioners of each religion have mainly considered that other religions are wrong, rather than that they are harmful. (I’m not sure.) Nowadays, even fundamentalists seem to consider other religions primarily harmful — false, too, but their harmfulness is more salient than their falsity.

    If that’s right, then it’s probably a transformation wrought by unacknowledged influence from secularism/atheism, and a big step in a good direction.

  10. Fascinating analysis David, thanx. The transformation from Right-vs-Wrong to Benefitial-vs-Harmful is incredibly important. Of course religions which believe damnation is due to wrong belief would count “Wrong” as “Very Harmful” of course.

    But to think that secularism has eaten away at these “beliefism” religions and are asking for more operational definitions of benefitial vs harmful is a hopeful note in an otherwise discouraging world.

    Can’t we just get a bunch of folks who study religions do declare themselves experts experts and create a credible, justified list of numbers? I figured all my readers would realize I should qualify for that, but it seems there is no confidence. Alas.

  11. Do you have information about how that drug chart was calculated? It seems completely wrong to me, and I wouldn’t recommend that your son experiment with drugs in the order implied by that chart.

  12. Oh, I just checked the article in your 12:33 comment. It gives a different (and slightly better) ranking, but I am still completely mystified by some of the placements.

  13. @ JS Allen
    Glad you found the link. The point of this post is NOT to go into drug use — though I find that totally interesting. So risking derailing the post, what is your favorite order to tell kids to experiment with drugs, if they must? :0
    Oh, and do tell me what you think of the graph that chart that I was trying to focus on.

  14. Sabio – Bravo. That chart on drugs and harm is excellent. Applying it to religions – nice.
    How often does it make sense to answer a question with a question? Very, very often. “Do you believe religion is harmful?” Well, what religion, and harmful to whom? . . . .
    The exception to the above might the question of interest in having sex asked by one’s lovely spouse. Then it hardly ever makes sense to answer the question with another question. A simple, silent affirmative made by enthusiastic disrobing would be the wise response, in my opinion! But maybe that’s just me.

  15. The religion chart is an interesting exercise. IMO, religions don’t exist to fulfill some utilitarian social aim, but instead attempt to codify some metaphysical “truth” that transcends earthly utilitarian aims. In addition, people rarely choose their religion from a menu (religion is overwhelmingly culturally determined), and in cases where they switch from their dominant cultural religion, it is almost never because of a cost-benefit analysis.

    Having said that, it is perfectly fair to point out the earthly side-effects of a religion. We all do that, especially when criticizing other religions.

    I think you might be underestimating the “help to others” components of Catholicism and Islam. Both have a strong emphasis on charity, and there seems to be strong evidence that this emphasis results in action. In Pakistan, charitable donation amounts to 5% of GDP, which is just about the highest in the world.

    I think Christianity and Buddhism both place some value on letting go of the “self”, so maybe the “helps self” bucket should be small?

  16. [OK, let’s see if I can trigger the spam filter]

    On drugs and kids, the right answer is always to tell them “never do it”. However, I think it’s important to be honest about what’s really entailed, since they are probably going to do it anyway. The DARE curriculum is deplorable, IMO, and has probably contributed to many kids going off the deep end when they tried drugs and thought “This is nothing like what my teachers said! Drugs are awesome!”.

    In general, there are 2 important bits of advice for kids:

    1) Delay as long as you can. Every year older you are, is an extra year of mental maturity that will help you deal with the challenges. The kids who start the earliest end up the worst off. There are areas of life where you want to always be ahead of the clique, but this isn’t one — always be the last in your clique to make the decision, and make it on your own terms. Only misery can come from rewarding peer pressure when the risks are high; throw them bones in the low-risk areas, but keep your head on straight otherwise. And if you can’t set and keep boundaries, you have no business experimenting.

    2) You’re experimenting with an activity that alters your mental function. The capacity for self-deception is huge. Research the risks, attempt to put in place specific safeguards ahead of time, and set up clear, objective tests that you can use to warn yourself that you’re falling into a snare. For example, read the stories of 20 people who spiraled out of control and ruined their lives in alcoholism. Then distill their stories down into 5 general “traps”, and set up your alcohol habits such that it is impossible for you to fall into any of those traps — and be prepared to pull the plug if you detect any hints that you’re bending the protocol to get closer to a trap. Of course, the safeguards aren’t there to make it completely safe — if you ever think you’re perfectly safe, you’re lying to yourself and it’s time to pull the plug. The safeguards are just there to keep you alive until you eventually decide that you don’t want to do drugs anymore.

    Now, the specific order is completely dependent on the personality of the kid and how old they are. Statistically speaking, weed and alcohol will be what they start with anyway, but I think GHB, Ketamine, and Mushrooms are the safest. GHB has often been used to cause harm to *others*, but is essentially harmless, and even more resistant to physical dependence than Ecstasy. I’m absolutely shocked that they put LSD in the safest category. The safest route is probably going to be something like: Mushrooms, Ketamine, GHB, weed, ecstasy, cocaine, LSD, crack, meth, heroin — and of course, there is no virtue in climbing the whole ladder. [wildly subjective, based on watching many people throughout my life and how they turned out, but I think way better than the chart]

    Also, they shouldn’t even consider things like Butane, Benzos, and Dextromethorphan, because if that’s the only drug they can get, they obviously aren’t in a stable enough environment to be wrestling with addiction anyway.

  17. i really enjoy this chart and analogy. although your chart is “completely subjective and the numbers are arbitrary” i think you and i have come to similar conclusions. it would be really cool to go denomination by denomination and sect by sect, but that would be a doctoral thesis, not so much a blog post. i’ve also enjoyed the conversation afterwards and the view of Wahhabism. why is Sufism rated so high?

  18. @ Andrew:
    Thanx man.

    @ JS Allen :

    Concerning Drugs:
    Thank you kindly. You made me think about this. Not there with my kids yet but your experience and insight are valuable. Thanks. That was great info.
    Concerning Religion:
    We disagree. Religion is exactly there to fulfill some social calculus. But you are right, people rarely choose their religions, though they think they do. BUT when they switch, it is almost always from a cost-benefit analysis (usually unconscious).
    Perhaps I did underestimate Catholicism and Islam’s good works — their bad works probably clouded my decision when I made the graph. Thanx.
    What Buddhism says about “Self” and what it does for self are two different things! 🙂

    @ Zero:
    Glad you enjoyed. Yeah, so there you are a self-declared (albeit liberal loosy goosey – smile) Christian and we agree on much of our intuitions. Thus I think this graph can be useful for dialogue.

    Wahhabism, form my understanding, was created to destroy Sufism. Sufism is inclusive and does not believe in violence. But I could be very wrong. Speaking of which, did you see my review on Monsieur Ibrahim? I think you would enjoy it.

  19. Earnest

    I think the methamphetamine risk bar drastically underestimates harm to others, but I concede that’s not really the point.

    I think this is a great way to analyse both drugs and “the opium of the people”. I agree with the comment that containment in a small community limits at least the number of others harmed, although those harmed might have more intense harm befall them in the absence of a neutral free press, for example.

  20. Earnest

    @ JSAllen:
    1. Delay, delay, delay onset of sampling any mind altering substance including alcohol and tobacco. Lots of literature to back this up.

    2. GHB has been shown to cause episodic coma alternating with confused combativeness, can be a real handfull in the ER setting. More dangerous than you suggest.

    3. Otherwise I tip my hat to you for your realpolitik regarding what our kids realistically will stumble upon in this dangerous world.

    4. postscript: some samplers think drugs are awesome and spiral into addiction, some have minimal desire for a repeat experience. The evolving science suggests that those who spiral have a neurotransmitter deficiency which often responds robustly to a patient- specific psychiatric medication. If given that medication these patients can lose the urge to consume their drug of choice.

    5. Post post script: I feel that my own psychiatric medications have suppressed a large portion of my previously held religiosity.

    6. So can we treat religion with psych meds?

  21. @Earnest,

    Yes, I realized that about GHB after I posted. As far as I recall, the two biggest causes of hospitalization were coma from mixing it with alcohol, and acid burns from cooking it up without using ph paper and accidentally using too much sodium hydroxide.

    Speaking of propensity to addiction, a part of that can be predicted by genetic tests, available from places like I question the wisdom of recommending that kids use such tests, though. Better to just assume that you have an addictive personality.

    You raise a very interesting point about psych meds suppressing religiosity. This relates directly to a post over at my blog where Sabio and I were discussing how memory is one aspect of achieving “right feeling” — that is, seeing connections and responding the right way emotionally. I’ve been planning to post about how autistic people often miss connections that are there, while schizophrenics see connections that aren’t there. Nobody wants to go through life completely missing the most significant emotional cues, but nobody wants to be the crazy guy who sees significance everywhere. I find that to be an incredibly interesting topic — how can we objectively tell how far to one side or the other we are?

  22. @ Earnest & JS:

    I think that “seeing connections” is a huge part of the religiosity of certain types of peoples. I have wanted to post on this for a long time too. I think I have a hyper-connectivity module that has driven much of my religiosity days. I have noticed that most people do not have such a high degree of connectivity as myself. I have come to see it (as you say) as a double-edged sword. I no longer valorize it. Instead I try to use it instead of letting it use me. Blogging being one such case. “Valorizing” it would be the religious move.

  23. Monsieur Ibrahim is on my video cue from the library. i agree on Wahhabism and how it was created in response to the Sufi’s. i would put the Sufi’s along the same lines as Liberal Xn in forms of violence to others, and maybe a little higher on violence to self, because all that whirling can cause a form of bulimia. 😉 nah, i was just wondering why they are rated a little higher in the violence category as compared with Liberal Xn. i would rate them the same but i don’t have the same background as you or experience as you may have with them.

  24. @ Zero
    Yeah, my violence rating on Sufis was arbitrary — I really know not from whence I speak on that one. Wish I had some Sufi readers. Besides scant readings, my esposures to Sufism are:

    (1) Doing meditation/prayer in Sufi masjids while I lived in Pakistan – by swayings. I love it. My body sometimes even naturally rocks during some meditations. Sort of like Jewish prayer.

    (2) Oddly enough, I was deeply effected many years ago by a Western psychologist/author who has learned much from Sufism : Robert Ornstein. I think you would have been a Sufi, if you were raised Muslim, or perhaps a Nichiren follower if born in Japan. Fun to think of the “what ifs”.

  25. Love the chart! I tend to agree with much of the claims – Mormonism missed the list though – would be nice to know where they fit. There is also a movement with Shia Islam that is quite intriguing – led by the Alma Kahn (I think that is his name).

  26. i naming sufism and nichiren, you have covered 2 of my fav world religions. it is fun to think of the what if’s and i think you could be right on both accounts.

  27. Rasmus

    After having visited the middle east I would find it very difficult to call any version of Islam “more harmful” than good.

  28. @ Rasmus,
    Wish you could tell us why.
    I lived in several Muslim countries and my calculus is different, but I would love to hear yours.

  29. @ Society
    Glad you like the chart. Yep, lots of sects were left out.

  30. Earnest

    @ Sabio and JS:
    I look forward with great interest to further discussion of “improper” (non-normative) degrees of connectedness. For myself, at one point I recall great connectedness to a photo I saw of a holy person of sorts being carried by a servant so the holy person would never tread on bugs, and suffer the karma related to killing the bugs. I drifted into a lite version of this religiosity for a while. What are the parameters of this religion?

  31. @ Earnest
    I understand the illusion to Jainism, but don’t understand what you are asking or trying to say.

  32. Earnest

    Thanks Sabio I forgot it was Jainism. I was wondering where it fell in the spectrum.

    More specifically, it seems like the Jain holy person is simply transferring the harming of bugs to another human agent. This seems even more harmful to me as the person who is carried is in denial of the harm they must impose on the world by simply existing. The effort to avoid harm ends up causing more harm as the feet that touch the ground now trample even more heavily with each step.

    Looking at this example, I wonder if any religion could ever be entirely beneficial or entirely harmful?

    Perhaps not. It seems that some evil is always present in the perception of outsiders who stand to lose in some way; some good is always present in the perception of those insiders who stand to benefit.

  33. rautakyy

    Good post.

    I have a friend who from time to time changes addiction. When we were kids it was chips. He could eat a bag of chips before the movie even started. Then it was beer and after that it was vodka. Now he has changed to a minor sect of christianity. While vodka was propably the most harmfull of these to himself, he was not a violent vodka addict. So, the harms caused to others have all the time been pretty much on the same level, because of who he is. I bet if he was an aggressive guy, he would be aggressive in religious behaviour also.

    Many religious people claim their faith is about the absolute truth, but if one actually seeks the truth they rarely simply choose the one next door. Hence religion is about cultural backround and identity. There is often also some form of wishfull thinking for the afterlife. I suppose that is OK, but if we take the historical aspect, almost any religion (that actually has any history) there are also the demagogues leading masses into violence. It is very difficult to separate between them in that field. Was the conquest of Jerusalem by jews (in biblical times or few decades ago) representative of their religion. What about the conquest of Jerusalem by the muslims or by the christians?

    If religions were about the absolute truth and were evaluated solely on ideological matters, then the measurement would be by general ethics. By those standards pantheist religions are usually more ethical as they do not condemn the practitioners of other religions, or atheists for that matter, into eternal pain after death.

  34. @ rautakyy
    Good Points. As to your last paragraph, I (probably like you) don’t think “religions are about the absolute truth”, no matter what they claims, because the evidence (as you say) is otherwise.

    Likewise, neither do I think you can judge a philosophy simply by the actions of those who claim to embrace it. That is a complicated matter also. I like empirical claims — those we can judge! Smile.

  35. rautakyy

    The world is cruel, but I am still smiling.

    It is a complicated matter to judge philosophies. For example, I am a socialist, and I think somewhere along the line Mr. Stalin was also a socialist. What he did as a dictator had mostly nothing to do whith socialism. They were the actions of a tyrant. Yet, I do not percieve myself to have the right to strip him of his identity as a socialist. Not even now he has died decades ago. Many religious adherents are vigorously claiming other adherents of the same religion as “heretics” or that they are not representative of that religion. But who is then? If you put a particular religion into your chart, who is representative empiric example of that religion, if there are other adherents who claim she/he is not following the true teachings of said religion, while she/he may believe she/he is and vice versa.

    If religions were not just philosophies and even one among them would actually represent a god, that god would be, in my opinion, responsible for the actions done in its name. If the said god had the power to stop evil, it would also have the responsibility to do so.

  36. @ rautakyy
    I am not really sure of what you are suggesting. Many religions allow humans free will to cause all sorts of harm without intervention. I understand this dilemma but I did not incorporate it in this chart.

  37. I am an atheist and I don’t find anything in your chart offense or upsetting.

    Religions are equally valid – which is to say that there’s none more valid than any other – but that all religions have benefits and harms is also not a contested thing.

    The issue is that that harms done by religion are far reaching, and are entirely voluntary – which means that the harm of religion far outweighs the benefits – and the harm is completely unnecessary.

    We can rid ourselves of the harm of religion through education and affluence.

    While making a chart to show the religions differences on the scale is interesting, but it’s not clear what factors are being rolled into the chart.

    What kind of harms and benefits are being represented? The data and methodology of compiling it is unclear.

    Are you factoring in the number of sects or splinter groups – are the fact of these being deemed harmful?

    Are you including historical events such as crusades, inquistitions? or is this modern day activities only – so suicide bombers and abortion doctor shooters?

    Are you including the wasting of school funds fighting over the attempts to shoe horn ID/Creationism into science classes? Electing politicians who will suspend or limit research funding?

  38. Hello Random,
    Yes, you are right. The chart is not supported by any data. And indeed such data would be very difficult to obtain for many reasons. It is just my way of show some soft intuitions in graphic form. It helps to expose a style of thinking.

    You said:

    which means that the harm of religion far outweighs the benefits.

    I likewise feel that statement can not be shown to be empirically true or false. And thus it is more of an unsubstantiate opinion. I am just not confident it is true or even meaningful. But many atheists agree with you.

  39. Hi Sabio

    I guess the problem with the statement that religion results in more harm than benefits is entirely dependent on how you define harm.

    it’s not so much the statement, but what is signified in each part.

    Religion’s immediate harm is to the individual believer – religion, having no evidence to support it’s claims, is a false belief, no matter how many truth nuggets there are – in the broadest sense, there is no reason to accept any religion.

    So then you have to determine what else is meant by harm – and what the impact of the harm is.

    At the very least, religion is a means by which we excuse our difficulties in not getting along with each other.

    So, by eliminating or minimizing the alleged differences and barriers to getting along, we are forced to deal with what’s really making us not get along with each other.

    Which is xenophobic fear – which religion directly speaks to: purity – to allow others is to contaminate the faithful

    and xenophobia was a needful survival thing when we lived in small nomadic tribes

    but it’s not useful in the modern world, and is harming us

    religions that claim to be the one true one, is to hold a group above and apart from the rest of humanity

    the reality is, no one is better or worse inherently than anyone else

    so we need to put aside the systemic mechanisms that continually assert that any group is better than all others

    because when one group feels and thinks they are better, then it turns into a mission to impose that “betterness” on everyone else

    That goes for America thinking it’s the world police, to theocratic seeking religions (which Christianity is one, putting itself as above secular civil law)

  40. rautakyy

    Random Ntrygg, very good points indeed. Segregation is in the root of all evil. And at the moment it is once again raising its ugly head. To me it is freightening how the religious conservatives in christendom have once again found the ideological connection to the nationalistic right wing extremism. And once again they found it from the “enemy within” – antisemitism. This time it is a nother semic religion and ethnicity they fear, but the reasons are as valid as during the thirties of the last century. Imagined conspiracy.

    While that said, not all religions require segregation. Many old pantheistic religions held the gods of other people in equal value as their own, or even found them just to be the same gods as their own but whith different names. This tolerance is what was their demise when the monotheistic religions begun their world conquest.

  41. Hello Ntrygg
    You will find that my site is not very tolerant of gross generalizations about religions — mainly because they are inaccurate due to the variety of religions and ways of holding religion that exist. So you are right, that claims obviously depend on how you define a religion, and their is huge debate on how to define religion. Since you are new to my site, I thought I’d make this preface.

    Perhaps you may read these posts of mine:
    1. Religion does not exist
    2. Defining Religion
    3. Religious Prescriptionists

    You see, you wrote (for example)

    At the very least, religion is a means by which we excuse our difficulties in not getting along with each other.

    This oversimplifies the various functions religions serves in peoples lives and through the gross generalization misses much.

    Of course, I understand your many objections to xenophobia, exclusivism. snobbery, and think it is at that level that we should analyze.

    Many atheists don’t appreciate my approach — but I thought I’d put it more out front there so you can reject it more easily if we disagree.

  42. @ rautakyy
    Thanks for pointing out the variety of faiths and how, while being religions, may at times do the opposite of what people who generalize about religion are rightfully complaining about.

  43. Earnest

    Good to see this thread active again.

    How can religion be found to be beneficial, even when subjected to athiest-level scrutiny?

    There is an evolving concept in addiction medicine of “hedonic tone”. I would define hedonic tone as one’s overall satisfaction with one’s lot in life. If you have all kinds of societal advantages, yet are dissatisfied with your situation, you have low hedonic tone. If you are indigent and have lots of medical problems and are starving and yet you are happy with how things are, you have high hedonic tone.

    The thought is that there are a number of methods of achieving hedonic tone, such as excercise, meditation, work, child-rearing, sex, drugs, medication, religion, the list goes on and on.

    I suggest that if religion increases hedonic tone, it has some intrinsic value to the person who experiences this subjective benefit.

  44. “At the very least, religion is a means by which we excuse our difficulties in not getting along with each other.”
    -(Random Ntrygg comment above)

    -obviously said by someone who hasn’t spent too much time in church or on committees there within. in a broad-brush sense, i could see how this is true and how tribalism apparently reigns (albeit that misses the grand tradition within the tribe that breaks apart the tribe) but on a micro-level this does not hold.

  45. well, it is because religion is so ill defined that makes it a useful tool for political and dictatorship ends.

    It is hard to say what specifically Christianity is, when there’s around 35,000 sects of just that one.

    Generalities are all we have when dealing with topics where there’s so much variation.

    I am Canadian, so am more familiar with the Abrahamic religions – so it rather startled me when I bought a humour book called 99 Places Death May Take You and it detailed the afterlife beliefs of 99 distinct religions.

    I was familiar with the you die and go to a bad place or a good place and knowing there was some religions that believed in reincarnation

    but that the vast majority of religions are reincarnation, experience gathering, do overs – rather than having one life as a dress rehearsal for permanent afterlife placement – that blew my mind.

    Abrahamic type faiths are the minority in the faith world.

    but all religions come down to beliefs that have no basis in evidence – that to my mind, is the important distinction and bottom line.

    So the details of any one religion, or worse, any one version of the same religion – are less important than the common attributes of all religions.

    1. no evidence for supernatural claims

    2 scant evidence for story claims – other than some locations and some characters did exist – there’s nothing to suggest that the religious stories were based in anything other than other religion’s stories.

    as much as we know about death, we really don’t know what if any thing happens other than the body ceases functioning and begins to break down.

    anything else is entirely speculation

    so, the particulars of claims don’t carry more weight than the main claims, which lack evidence

  46. Sabio

    I am having some difficulty with your statements that your site isn’t tolerant to generalities about religion while the posts are very detail/data oriented appearing charts that are quantifying – by your own admission – no data at all.

    So if we can’t speak generally about religion and the apparently detail oriented posts aren’t about actual data –

    You’ve rather interestingly illustrated the essence of the problem of discussion between believers and non-believers

    for believers – it’s the details that are critical – but there’s no data to be detailed

    for non-believers – it’s the broad strokes that matter, since there’s no data in the details.

    so there is no possible arena for discussion

  47. @ Random Ntrygg
    You are right, with all the varieties of Christianity there are, you can’t tell which type of Christian you are talking to. Zero1Ghost is an example of a very liberal, progressive Christian. You’d be surprised at what he believes and still considers himself Christian. So you kind of have to as folks before you go off on Atheist evangelistic rants.

    I suggest more focused, careful challenges can be more productive.

    There are many kinds of stances on “Science” but that does not stop me from questioning any given persons’ understanding. Same for “Democrats”, “Patriots”, “Republicans”, “Atheists” and much more. A huge variety exist for these. I saw you tout the 35,000 sects thing before. I don’t think it is helpful.

    Likewise, you said, “but all religions come down to beliefs that have no basis in evidence.” These generalization are less than helpful and not ‘scientific’ at all. Religions vary hugely, they make variety of claims, they are not all about an afterlife. Many religious claims are for what makes good people and good societies. It is not all foolishness. You won’t find sympathy on my site for
    rants — atheist’s or theist’s.

  48. @ Random
    Speaking in generalities about “Religions” is like speaking in generalities about “White People” or “Canadians” or …..
    I don’t find it particularly helpful.
    If you are using the “Tu Quoque” argument against me to say, “Sabio, you yourself speak in generalities and have unsupported data, so you have no room to talk.” Then, I worry that my feedback to you may not be helpful.

  49. @ Sabio

    generalities are where the conversation starts, until you do know what the particulars are for a given person in the encounter

    then the parties are able to discuss their individual claims and particulars – but until you get past the first part…..

    for me, I beleive that each person is the expert of their experience – so if 10 people tell me they are Christian, then they are – no matter what the other 9 say about the one.

    Moreover, my particular situation is that I am looking at existence in a very big picture, so everything rounds up to me – I leave details behind and look at long term patterns and trends

    I am not using this Tu Quoque argument, never even heard the expression before – what it appeared to me

    was that you said we couldn’t talk in generalities – but you were talking in details – as if those details were data points – and they are not

    so, mostly, I am confused as to what we can talk about when generalities are not allowed, but there’s no details to discuss since you’re making it up

    which is what religion does

    so, I am just confused as to what the rules of your blog are

  50. @ Random Ntrygg
    Please read my posts on:
    (1)”The Myth of Definitions“?
    (2)”Defining Religion
    (3)”Religion Does not Exist

    Then maybe you’ll understand why I think generalizing about Religions is not very helpful. I am not talking about the nature of generalizations.

  51. Earnest

    @Random Ntrygg

    It sounds like you are proposing that we cannot know anything for certain about something that other people may have made up in their own minds. Fair enough. However, if you push forward and state that therefore this concept that we call generically religion is not worth discussing, the conversation is basically already over.

    Some of us, including myself and Sabio, are interested in the behavior changes which can be observed between people with religion (or drugs) in their heads and people who do not have this brain effect. I personally find these behavior modifications fascinating.

  52. She-zer

    You’ve been talking about benefits and harms in a very general way as though any religion will benefit or harm all individuals equally. It may also be useful to look at how individuals are affected at the level of their own psychological health. Everyone is not equal – some people can make complicated moral decisions which vary based on circumstances and others need proscribed rules (right and wrong to be black and white). Therefore different religions serve individuals at different levels – a fundamentalist religion which has strict laws of personal behaviour may enable a reformed criminal to cope better with society than a religion which leaves many moral areas to be grey and open to interpretation.

  53. “well, it is because religion is so ill defined that makes it a useful tool for political and dictatorship ends.” -Random Ntrygg

    there are instances of this. there are also instances of exactly the opposite. there are the churches that supported the Nazi’s and there are the churches that actively or silently opposed the regime. Same thing throughout history. Religion is a complex animal. to say “it’s all bad” or “it only adds to bondage and manipulation” misses the other half of the conversation where religion is good and it liberates and frees people.

    There are trends in religion, in each denomination and in each worshiping community. It’s an ill-defined and unpredictable thing because people are what make these things up and people are rather ill-defined and unpredictable.

    I only ask you to know both sides (note: i did not say ALL sides) of statements like “…there’s no details to discuss since you’re making it up… which is what religion does.” This is what any social contract does, we make it up as we go along. it’s part of the story we tell ourselves. the question becomes, what then are we basing our story on? a book, some branch of science, a religion, a culture, a concept or ideal, an event in history? religion uses all of these things as do most movements.

  54. @ Sabio

    interesting, I have read the three blogs and see that you are all a few steps ahead of me, so it’ll be fun to catch up.

    @ Earnest

    I didn’t mean to make an agnostic argument, I’m just a few steps behind the discussion

    I just think that we each define ourselves in relationship to culture, each other, our interactions – and it’s not possible for me to define you or anyone else to define me.

    While it’s true that we can’t know what’s in someone else’s head, we can indirectly understand through cultural representations of people – relating to characters in books, tv, movies – we can understand even if we can’t know.

    so, we can’t then say “as I am, so is my group” because each person in the group will have individual differences, which means their “group” is a little different than my “group”

    so the only true anything of a given group, is the individual making the claim – with no understanding that individuals only define their place and position relative to the overarching group – the collection of individuals – no one individual gets to determine the characteristics of the whole sum total group.

  55. @ She-zer
    Yes, I agree. One religion could help someone and harm another — it all depends on its use. That is from an individual level of analysis which is one useful way to examine a phenomena. But we can also analyze groups and over time. In this way, Social policy and religion can benefit from two other types of questions:

    (a) though some are hurt and some benefit from a policy, which is the greatest? Just because a small number benefit, should we keep a practice that harms more than helps?

    (b) a policy may help most people in the short run but in the long run hurt everyone. Government spending can do that.

    So, you are right. There are lots of ways to look at this. My model is meant to illustrate some of the complexity — not point at a solution.

  56. @ She-zer,

    Interestingly, I found a study agreeing with your point but as applied to parenting. Thought you’d enjoy it since you have a young child.

  57. rautakyy

    There have been people who have found a message of love and understanding from within their religion like Martin Luther King, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Mahatma Gandhi, to name few most famuous. (Actually I would like to add a jew called Jesus of Nazarene to the list though it has been such a long time since him.)

    For some reason people who would define them selves as fundamentalists (those who strive to find the true meaning of an alledged god) are often also the fanatics with tribal morals. Why is that? For some reason they often feel their god is such a helpless entity, they need to defend it by force and violence. I would percieve the true problem of religions in the indoctrination of a possibility of a higher morals than everyday ethics. That the fundies get their way in a society. Of course this does not only apply to religions, but other ideologies as well.

    Or is the problem that most of the truly large and powerfull religions are in fact rotten in the heart? That if you are fundamentalistic about their message, it reads kill everybody else and it is just right they are tormented in the next life, because they do not believe our truth. That kind of abstraction of morals would better explain why they hold so much power, than that their inner message of love is so compelling to people. Am I being pessimistic?

  58. @ rautakyy
    I tend to try and not make huge generalizations about religion here but keep the conversation focused. Though this diagram does generalize about harm and benefit, its main role is to expand our view of religion and stop people from thinking in simple terms of Bad or Good. Instead I add “social vs personal” and degree of harm and benefit to broaden the simple bad vs good.

    I suggest taking care not to rant against religion here in broad strokes. I tend not to read such comments carefully and often don’t even respond to them.

  59. She-zer

    @Sabio – thank you for the link, very interesting. Great to hear that people acknowledge that different kids need different styles of involvement from parents. Likewise different religions can suit or harm different people. I have practised Vajrayana Buddhism for almost 20 years now and feel I am a kinder, more decent human being because of that practice, but I don’t feel this path would suit everyone.

    Although I would love to be able to find a way to sort out which religions are most beneficial for most people I think that can only ever be done by an individual. History has shown the futility of trying to outlaw certain religions, adherents do not like being told they cannot practice what they believe, so I do not believe we can ‘stop’ a ‘mostly harmful’ religion, nor should we try to. I’m afraid you need to rely on religious leaders and teachers to guide their followers. The best we can do is encourage education and information about all religions, and hopefully spread tolerance slowly around the globe.

  60. JSA

    To riff on Sh-zer’s point– Religions (and cultures) will suit different people differently, but it doesn’t stop there. This asymmetric benefit can have a strong selection effect, where people who aren’t suited to the culture are bred out of existence, and people who are better suited to the culture thrive. This creates a continual feedback loop, contributing to the ossification of the religion or culture over time and making it more difficult for distinct cultures to understand one another.

    It’s tempting to speculate about whether it is genetics or religion which is the chicken or the egg, but it turns out that it’s probably neither. This is what I was talking about in the “Chinese Serotonin” post over on my blog. It could very well be something that was triggered by virus responses in ancient times.

  61. @ She-zer
    You said:

    so I do not believe we can ‘stop’ a ‘mostly harmful’ religion, nor should we try to. I’m afraid you need to rely on religious leaders and teachers to guide their followers.

    I would have to disagree with you strongly there.
    Waiting for the Nazis to fix themselves would have been a huge mistake.
    Likewise for destructive, violent religions. Likewise for religions that stop science, subjugate women and much more.
    I applaud those outside of religions who try to stop their atrocities.
    But perhaps you weren’t thinking of these things when you wrote that.

  62. BTW, She-zer, JSA is a Christian and rather orthodox. He is abnormally bright, a bit odd, tons of experiences (including a Buddhist stint) and sophisticated in his stuff! [Did you like that intro JSA?]

    @ JSA
    Great riff. I agree. The complexities due to feedback loops are mind-boggling.

  63. JSA

    Far too kind!

    Speaking of complexities, these would be fun things to model with your son using python. From simple rules, extremely complex interactions can arise.

    Oh, and I meant to tie the drugs and religion together — I always thought it was highly appropriate that catholic nations in Europe drink wine, and protestant nations drink beer. And the link between genetics and drug choice is the theme of the song that kicked off Moby’s career. I bet he would agree with the sentiment that “religion fits the face”.

  64. yes, that DARE programs continues to raise concerns – are they still trying to block parents from knowing what’s being taught to the kids?

    it’s funny how some parents are so resistant to schools teaching sex, but give no thought to how the school is presenting drug information

    honestly, I don’t know why schools should do either, since there’s such a difference of opinion that no matter what they teach, there’s going to parents who disagree

    and if schools teach false reefer madness type information, then they end up undermining everything else that’s taught in school

  65. rautakyy

    JSA, the Polish are Roman catholics, but I think they favour beer, much like the Bavarians. Finns are Lutheran protestants but though beer is traditional so is vodka. The Russians are vodka drinkers and Orthodox catholics. (Did Sabio Lantz mean you are a vodka drinker when he said you are “rather orthodox”? 😉

    Seriously speaking, the different main religions in European areas do have a strong connection to local culture. Lutheranism, which allows suicide, for example is the main religion here in Northern Europe where the pre-christian tradition saw suicide as an honourable way out of a dead end situation. So, accepting it in religious terms was propably more of a recognition to the social and cultural realities people lived in. But such a thing as acceptance for suicide is a very difficult thing to put into the benefit/harm chart in the original post.

    Sorry Sabio, I did not even realize my post could be interpreted as a rant against religion as such, as I also metioned some of my heroes, who were known to draw love from their respective religions. My attempted point was that religion is a two edged sword, in that both good and bad things may come of it as your chart shows.

  66. @ JSA
    My son has played with “The Game of Life” by Conway and thus seen the principle of beautiful, amazing, inspiring complexity spontaneously emerging from unintelligent, simple, boring initial settings and rules. It is a great lesson indeed. I wish many theists would learn it. They think God started with complexity. Others, like yourself, are not threatened by this insight because you feel your god just created the simple rules because he knew how they would unfold and finally create Earth, Israel and Jesus. So he could sit back and watch it happen — right?

    @ rautakyy
    That was fun — thanks for playing with JSA! He needs friends. 🙂

  67. She-zer

    @ Sabio – I was refering to trying to ban a religion rather than encourage change. I think ‘banning’ any religion is more likely to cause more harm than good – if people feel victimised they entrench and solidify their position rather than open up to new perspectives. You then end up with situations such as jihad. You can try and change a religion’s actions but frankly that is more likely to be sucessfully accomplished from inside a religion itself – an internal reformation is likely to be more successful than external sources demanding change. So really I do believe that the only way to solve problems of subjugation of women and banning science are by increasing education in the surrounding world and offering information. You cannot force people to stop believing or change their beliefs.

    I won’t comment on Nazism as I have not considered it a religion – political states may be dealt with in a different way (although Britain’s failure in Afghanistan doesn’t seem to indicate that war works).

  68. rautakyy

    She-zer, I agree whith you about the negative effects of banning a religion. As you say, increased education might hopefully lead to society where even the religious leadership would be better informed about the diversity of the world and forms of culture and hence more tolerant.

    About nazism I am prone to think Sabio has a point. After the WWII a Finnish high ranking officer and writer Olavi Paavolainen, who had his own history of admiring the nazis before the war, wrote that nazism was a European religion. His admiration of the nazies died as he realized how they underrestimated their enemies because of their alledged racial supremacy. And indeed he had a point as the followers of nazism liked to say they do so for rational reasons, but most of their reasons where emotional. Very much like religious feelings, or simply fanatical. The nazis had their own rites and such. The nazi propaganda affected both peoples hope for future, but also need for conservative security.

  69. @ She-zer & rautakyy,
    I largely agree with both of you. Thanks for the info.

  70. Earnest

    @ Sabio: I have intrusive deistic thoughts every time I play with Conway’s Game of Life!

    @ Ntrygg: the entire sociopolitical structure of addiction recovery care is being shaken up as we speak by a 5-10 year volcanic eruption of new neuroscience. I consider DARE to be, to be kind, unsophisticated. Keep your eyes open for far more scientifically sound versions of DARE to be coming out in the next couple of years.

    @ JSA: great post on Chinese serotonin, I encourage the other readers of this thread to check JSA’s site out.

  71. Sabio, I like your chart and as you admitted your goal wasn’t to create a chart with accurate findings as much as it was to move away from good and evil the modern trend of attempting to get rid of good & evil ( And this is mainly what most religions are attempting to do ) I believe that is a program promoted by evil and we think it will level the playing field but as long as there is two halves to the brain this will never happen. And as far as teaching about drugs by those who have never done drugs “Well”and I’m not advocated going out and doing drugs just to see the difference. Also religions are not all the same as it has been watered down to. Some religions are external and others are internal the good or bad benefits are different according to method . Some 60,000 people have died in Mexico because of drugs mainly weed would it be different if it was legalized I don’t know but it would be worth a try but Alcohol is legal and it causes a lot of suffering and their are still moonshiners. I only did LSD twice back in the seventies and I read a lot about before hand and I tripped in a traditional sacred way many people I have talked to since then usually exclaim Wow my trips were never like that. I believe all religions are representing cosmic law on the planet and it’s here to stay. And I think it’s true that every year you can put off doing drugs will bring you closer to not having to do drugs. I enjoyed the thread.

  72. I really like this idea. I came looking for the benefits of drug use chart (disappointingly left out by prof. Nutt), and found this great extension.

    I totally dig the subjective approach: the idea is important, and if a social scientist picks up on it and does a more ‘objective’ study, then all the better.

    I agree with Steve that the comparisson between drugs and religion is valid, but perhaps for more than just ‘good feelings’. Many people turn to both to seek meaning, insight and self-growth too. What we can learn about our selves and the world from introspection, meditation and psychoactive drugs can be of unparalled benefit to us, and also, I believe, the world.

    So, the only adjustment I might make to the chart is the benefit to others of practises such as Zen Buddhism, or Quakerism, or Sufism, or Taoism. In my experience of practising some of these, the apparent impact on those immediately surrounding me has been remarkable: making me more available for listening, supporting and spreading joy.

    Cheers Triangulation!

    (As an aside, I coincidently play in a conscious hip-hop group called Triangulators, from Bristol UK. Interesting we have found similar names for similar explorations! Keep walking the middle way)


  73. @ Bright,
    Thanks. Interesting how you found this post.
    Yes, drugs and soft religion can be helpful — but both can be harmful. Two edged sword.
    I have seen the harshness and superstition of both Taoism and Zen when in Asia — and seen the softer side too.

    Concerning your band, that is cool.

    @ timetales,

  74. I was just watching this film on Japanese Buddhism and I remembered your diagram. The film was done in 1977 and is, in my opinion, very interesting. The question of whether a particular type of Buddhism is for oneself or for others appears around 33:10.

  75. Thanx, Takis.
    Buddhism is highly idealized in the West. This is a long conversation — I have posted a little on it. David’s Chapman’s blog tells more.
    I can imagine one describing Christianity as being about “losing ego, and becoming one with Christ”.
    Remember, those practicing Pure Land or Zen Buddhism are real people who come at it with very mixed intents on how to use it in their lives.
    There is no ideal religion, there are only particular practitioners.

  76. I understand, we’ve talked about it before. I just found the video interesting for semi-historical reasons. A Brit in the 70s going to Japan and looking into the society that functions fine without the god of christianity. I wish I had seen this video, or realized that such things existed, when I was young. I would have turned away from religion much earlier. I understand however that, in practice, Buddhists have many superstitions and beliefs. Indeed, there is no ideal religion. This is why I reject them all. But, nevertheless, it is very interesting to see how different societies function within the systems of beliefs they have created.

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