The Swiss Army Knife or the Utility Argument for Religion & Faith

I have always wondered what basis people use for the Utility Argument for religion. I get this more from my Hindu and Buddist friends.  Here are a few examples of how this goes:

a) I do not profess to the dogmas of religion and religious practice. I consider religion a spiritual journey that gives me inner peace.

b) I belong to a mission/church/temple/sect etc. and it gives me a sense of belonging and community.

c) I perform religious ceremonies or practices more to bring my friends and family together and am not really doing it as part of any belief framework.

d) (My Favorite) – I pray since it gives me inner peace and hey it is not like I am asking you to do the same.

e) And finally look at all the charity and humanitarian work going on with the churches and temples. Wouldnt you want to be part of something noble that makes a difference in people’s lives.

So basically it is religion “lite”. I see a few interesting issues and let us unpack this. There need to be some basic guidelines we need to operate under. Everyone is entitled to believe in what they like and feel comfortable with as long as:

  • You are not proselytizing
  • You are not shaping public policy 
  • You are not shaping education policy in public schools
  • You are not providing charity with a precondition of acceptance into your religious worldview

As Sam Harris puts it, ” beliefs matter and individual beliefs matter”. There is a monumental difference between what “feels good” vs what is true. Remember the definition of Faith is acceptance of a proposition with LACK of evidence.  If your practices provide you “utility” and do not violate the above guidelines that is ok …..but it still does not make it TRUE!

There are a lot of institutions that are providing charitable programs and funding without the slant of religion (ex. OXFAM; Doctors without Borders).

Outcome-based prayer has been proven to be ineffective via multiple studies. If the answer is “I am praying to calm my mind and not really ask for any outcomes from a theistic deity” then all you are really doing is meditation!

There is a myriad of ways that you can foster a sense of community. It can be based on interests or it can be based on activities. My point is being part of a church or a temple is not the ONLY option to meaningfully participate in a community.

And by the way, most of these people who will tell you that their approach to religion is a benign, mild spiritual approach have their children in Sunday school/classes learning inane mythological stories and dogmatic practices. Apparently, the utility and spiritual approach that they profess is not germane for their children. This double standard is evident in the Hindu Missions where (in Sunday school) children are being fed this tripe while at the same time the adults are having a “spiritual” discussion on the meaning of life and religious concepts.

I only wish that people would understand that they can get all the utility value that they perceive is being provided by religion, without it.

But then this is wishful thinking……

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Separation of Church and Confused State

On May 5th, the Supreme Court delivered a historic verdict when it upheld the right for government institutions to have Christian prayers, prior to the start of local city council sessions. The issue, originally raised in Greece NY, relied heavily on a prior 1983 decision where the court upheld the Nebraska Legislature to having prayer sessions prior to starting sessions.

Never mind that in the town of Greece NY, more than 90% of the sessions were catholic prayers and the plantiffs on this case were a Jew and an Atheist. The larger issue is how does this infringe upon the separation of church and state and the original intention of the founding fathers.

This is an interesting decision, since if you look at the religion split across the US, based on the recent Pew Poll, there is a significant increase in the “unaffiliated” group.

SCOTUS ruled 5-4 on this issue and the main reasons given were as follows: “Defending a practice used by the town of Greece, N.Y., the majority ruled that opening local government meetings with sectarian prayers doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause as long as no religion is advanced or disparaged, and residents aren’t coerced”.

In her dissent Justice Kagan wrote  – “”When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another,”

There my fine feathered friends is where the rubber hits the road. This is one where the conservative majority of SCOTUS tipped this decision. But this interpretation is just plain wrong, akin to working back to the question from an answer.

What this means now is any town council can start their session with a prayer and not just any prayer but a Christian prayer. This violates the basic constitutional rule that the government should be impartial to matters of religion and not favor one over another (even if it is as trivial as starting a session with prayer).

Town supervisor of Greece NY, whose town board meets once a month said, ” Prayer was not intended to isolate or convert anyone. If they feel comfortable with joining us in the prayer, they can have a moment of silent reflection while the prayer is offered

Let’s take this example and work it another way. Let’s say that the city council was predominantly made of Atheists and prior to start of a session assume they had a brief discourse where they thanked science and debunked faith and god (not specifically coercing anyone as stated by SCOTUS) what do you think will be the logical outcome?

In the words of the great George Carlin – ” I’m Completely In Favor Of The Separation Of Church And State. My Idea Is That These Two Institutions Screw Us Up Enough On Their Own, So Both Of Them Together Is Certain Death ”.

Realize that SCOTUS is the law of the land but this ruling amongst a few others in the recent years makes you wonder if it is time to the conversation of “non partisan” judges or term limits for SCOTUS.