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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Does Religion Make People Nicer?

This article of the same title gives a qualified "yes," with the main catch being that religion makes believers nicer to members of the same religion. Also worthy of note is the experiment where they had volunteers take a test in classroom which they said was haunted by the ghost of a past student. The researchers found that the ghost story helped cut down on cheating. Brilliant! I should try using that the next time I supervise a test.

For my own part, I think most religions create and prevent suffering in about equal amounts. I think the best counter-example to the idea that religion makes people nicer is the religion of the Aztecs.

The Aztecs were not a fortunate people in terms of land. It was poor in resources and only supported a few basic crops. As they had nothing to trade, the only way they could acquire other things was to raid or conquer neighboring tribes. I imagine they felt some guilt about this, which helps explain the nature of the Aztec religion.

The Aztecs had a grim view of the world. The purpose of life was to fight and die for the glory of the gods. They also believe the sun required regular human sacrifices or it would fall out of the sky and the world would collapse into chaos. These beliefs, I guess, helped them rationalize their constant warfare. However vicious these beliefs were, it appears they helped maintain order in their society through several centuries.

Bronislaw Malinowski once observed that there are no people, however primitive, without beliefs in religion and magic. I think the oppostie is true as well. Build all the flying cars you want, there will still be people who read their horoscopes.

If there can be any great religious teaching, I think the best was elucidated by Bill and Ted of San Dimas: Go Forth and Be Excellent to Each Other.

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