Saturday, October 29, 2005


Is spirituality a good thing?

(See the end for a brief definition, if you want.)

Consider the belief that there is no world beyond the physical world. At the moment I’m interested in examining not potential arguments for that belief, but rather the implications of it.

If there’s no world beyond the physical one, the institution of religion could still be useful. It makes some people happy, it keeps kids off drugs, whatever. Religion does some good stuff. On the other hand, religion does some terrible stuff, too, like found America. (Just kidding. I love America.) Whether the good that religious institutions do outweighs the bad is an empirical question I wouldn’t know how to address.

But if there is no world beyond the world, then whether or not religion as an institution is a good thing, the false spiritual beliefs that those religions prescribe must be doing net harm, right? To my chagrin, I can’t say so for certain, because there exist arguments in favor of entertaining spiritual beliefs even if they’re false. I can think of a couple: (1) They might compel believers to behave better than they would have otherwise, and (2) they might provide comfort – that is, the beliefs might be goods in their own right. (1) I’m skeptical of, but (2) could be compelling. Both are, again, empirical questions I’m unable to answer.

Of course, it’s easy to think of ways that false spiritual beliefs would be harmful. If you think you will survive death, then you are likely to make poor intertemporal consumption decisions. If you think scriptures are a shortcut to the truth, you are likely to abnegate a lot of valuable philosophical debate. If you think you and your affiliates are the only people who will be admitted to Heaven, you are likely to put yourself through a lot of unnecessary pity. More generally, if the world is one way and you believe it’s another, then on net your error is far more likely to result in harm than benefit.

However, judging from the overwhelming number of religious people, it might be that the psychological benefits of believing in a spirit world outweigh the various harms resulting from misperceiving the real one.

I would not expect anybody, however religious, to argue with the above potential negative effects of false spirituality. Religious people (like all people) assume their beliefs are correct; it would be strange for them to defend the utility of their beliefs under the assumption that those beliefs are wrong.

Yet the question concerns me, because I think spirit, God, etc. is wishful thinking. I want to know whether I should desire that they all stop believing nonsense, or whether I should instead be thankful for it.

The aforepromised definition: Let’s define spirituality as “A belief in and preoccupation with a world beyond the physical world.” Include notions of thought, mind, ethics, and other computational-cognitive phenomena in the physical world, but banish notions of soul, God, and other non-falsifiable phenomena to the spirit world.

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