« Supersize This | Main | Very (Snicker) Serious (Mmph!) People »

January 02, 2007

Thank God For Smoking

Megan McArdle writes:

Daniel Dennett continues his quest for the title of "stupidist smart person in the world" with his opinion that we can do for religion what we did to smoking. Let me see if I can phrase this in a way that Mr Dennett might understand: if smoking made us live forever, it would be very, very popular. Even if it didn't make you live for ever, but could convince enough people that it might, it would be very, very popular.

And more tangibly, if smoking made you demonstrably healthier, happier, increased your circle of friends, lowered your anxiety level,* offered an economic buffer against unexpected downturns, and vastly increased your storehouse of social capital, it wouldn't be quite so maligned. You may think religion is wrong, but the evidence of its beneficial impacts on the lives of believers is quite strong. Those effects almost certainly stem from the increase in community, purpose, and activity level a church offers, but until we recreate some institutions that offer the same benefits without the theism, it's a bit rich to compare religion to smoking. Even if we could make it go away, it's not terribly clear that we'd want to, or that society would be better off if we did. Churches do create a massive increase in total happiness, hence their popularity.

One sidenote is that our society really does suffer from a lack of community building institutions. I've long thought some Match.com style sites should arise that offer nothing but friendship opportunities, but for all I know, such ventures exist and nobody uses them. That said, isolation, particularly later in life, is a depressingly common affliction, with all sorts of deleterious effects on health and happiness. There's no bit of regulatory policy or tax subsidy that can make it go away, but it'd be nice if society thought a bit harder about addressing it. This is, I think, why I'm pretty soft on megachurches, which are remarkable pioneers in the construction of communities. I'd like to see their social capital innovations, and their better effects, replicated.

*This might be true of smoking, come to think of it. and Dennet is wrong on at least one particular: Smoking remains quite cool. That's why DC just had to ban it at bars, rather than letting it peter out on its own.

January 2, 2007 | Permalink


My advise would be to take a "sugar" pill everyday and pretend to yourself that it is god's gift to you of eternal happiness. The effect you commend is mostly just this type of placebo effect. If you market and package this placebo with the appropriate mumbo jumbo it will be as effective as the believe systems without the nasty side effects of hate, intolerance and insufferable aversion to reality that religion promotes.

Posted by: quickwood | Jan 2, 2007 12:32:09 PM

McDermott is delusional if he really believes what he wrote. We're going to get rid of the one constant of every culture in human history in 25 years by using the same techniques that have been (partially) effective against smoking. Yeah, 'cause anti-smoking measures are so much more powerful than all of the forced conversions that leaders have tried to impose upon various subjugated peoples. They're more powerful than mass killings, prison, decades and even centuries of indoctrination.

The simplistic thinking that religion is the cause of all the world's problems and that we can beat it with Deal or No Deal, downloadable ringtones and ready access to goat porn on the internet shows how having a Ph.D and a professorship is no sure indicator of clear thinking.

My prediction is that in 2007 we will continue to have the same proportion of arrogant assholes to the rest of the population as we did in 2006. Some of them will believe in some sort of religion, and some won't, again lining up with the ratios seen in 2006, 2005, 2004, and on and on. The only difference between this century and 1,000 years ago is that those who have a problem believing in a religion now feel like they can admit it. That is progress, but it is by no means the death knell for religion.

Posted by: Stephen | Jan 2, 2007 12:40:08 PM

As proof of the accuracy of my prediction, please refer to quickwood's comment.

Posted by: Stephen | Jan 2, 2007 12:41:16 PM

Wondering what life would be like without religion is like wondering what life would be like without language. Religion is as natural a human instinct as the urge to speak and we've been doing both about as long. And of course there are benefits to religion, just as there are benefits to having friction-skin on the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet.

Posted by: Horatio | Jan 2, 2007 1:11:48 PM

Here's what Dennett's actually talking about, instead of the reflexive religion=smoking-is-dumb reaction above: "Many religions have already made the transition, quietly de-emphasizing the irrational elements in their heritages, abandoning the xenophobic and sexist prohibitions of their quite recent past, and turning their attention from doctrinal purity to moral effectiveness."

Posted by: rilkefan | Jan 2, 2007 1:14:22 PM

"Wondering what life would be like without religion is like wondering what life would be like without language."

No, it's more like just getting on a plane and visiting the UK or Australia. Religion there isn't dead but it's coughing up blood. In particular it's past a tipping point where it's considered embarrassing to make a fuss about it in public and atheists can be elected to high public office.

Posted by: Mark B. | Jan 2, 2007 1:44:41 PM

I am compelled to point out the big elephant that wallows in this room full of apples and oranges: the fact that throughout history, organized religion has led more men to hate, marginalize, maim, and kill his fellow man that pretty much anything.

So yes, it would indeed be nice if we could have the fellowship, peace, community, and support without the one-upmanship, materialism, dogma, moral superiority, and bombs.


Posted by: litbrit | Jan 2, 2007 1:51:37 PM

A topic that has occupied me for a long time. From Dennett:

Those who are secular can encourage their own children to drink from the well of knowledge wherever it leads them

One of the striking things about the leading opponents of religion is that they often have a faith in the alternatives that they don't submit to anything close to the same kind of scrutiny and criticism. I think it seems obvious to many that we should drink from the well of knowledge wherever it leads us, as Dennett says, both because we have a cultural faith in the value of knowledge for its own sake, even if it leads to unhappiness, and because we just intuit that it's going to be happier in the long term to know than to be wrong in the matters religion specializes in, as it often is in other areas. I, at least, had such ideas for many years. But when I actually questioned them the way I had questioned religion it became apparent to me that they weren't so obvious at all, and that at least some aspects now appear just wrong to me. In any case they deserve as much scrutiny from those inclined to skepticism as religion does.

A related point, one that came to mind recently when reading Neil's very natural reaction to Jesus Camp, is one that Ezra makes, and can be expanded in a couple directions. It appears that religious belief and practice makes people happier and healthier. Some studies try to control for the merely social and other nonspecifically spiritual aspects of religion and still find benefits from spiritual practice, though those social and other not specifically spiritual aspects are also helpful and important, and it could be that practices like meditation might be equally valuable. I think the two kinds of benefits reinforce each other in ways hard to reproduce in a secular way. For example, many people have some interest in some quasi-spiritual practice, such as meditation, but relatively few do it. Many religious believers do pray and worship, however, because there's a practical, social and intellectual framework for it that motivates them. Among the points difficult to reproduce in a secular way, worship and a larger, more promising meaning of life for more kinds of situations come to mind.

Of course, many people do fine without religion. But that doesn't imply that others, and maybe even some of the nonreligious, can't do better with it.

The loudest critics of religion generally just assume that the alternatives are superior, but at present it appears they aren't. Those who are concerned with the harms of religion (a topic I'll join in a moment) ought to be at least as concerned to provide some at least equally helpful alternative. That may be possible, or it may actually not be possible to achieve the benefits of religion without having the risks associated with it today. It's irresponsible for the critics to work to overturn religious belief without an equally good alternative, or without some proper argument that even without such an alternative we still should oppose religion, something I've yet to see in any fit way.

This isn't something we can just treat statistically. Religion has very different effects on different individuals. I believe that some people, in some religious contexts, are better off getting out, even if it means losing their faith. However, that seldom seems to me to be the case. Most believers I know, even ones struggling with religious issues, seem to me better off with their faith than they would be without it. I've seen lives damaged by religion, and I've seen lives damaged by its loss; both can have drastic consequences, though usually the effects are more subtle.

It's almost always possible to deal with particular problems presented by religion (prejudice, whatever) without overturning religious faith. I think most people, especially in our culture, naturally gravitate to the religious beliefs and practices that work best for them. Anyone who's tempted to join the crusade against religion ought to consider carefully the consequences on the particular individuals they may affect. I now regret the days in which I broadcast anti-religious messages to friends and whoever else would listen, and see that I did some damage that can't be undone. It's hard to know how such things will affect people, and I now feel it best to let others find their way and give them only the input they ask for when it comes to arguments against their faith. If their faith is harming them or others, I try to deal with those problems specifically rather than attacking their whole faith.

I find that the critics of religion are almost universally inexcusably sloppy in assigning blame to it. There is very little in the goods and bads of religion that isn't a result of things that occur also in secular settings. Surely things like hate, prejudice, war and so on are things that occur just as sadly and spectacularly in secular settings as religious ones, as the great wars of the last century illustrate. The overall benefits and harms of religion are very hard to sort out. Was religion the problem cured by the Renaissance, or was it the cause of the Renaissance? Both, in very complicated ways, but people tend to read the history the way that suits their prejudices on either side.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 2, 2007 2:21:46 PM

Anyone who says that smoking doesn't increase your circle of friends hasn't huddled with a few other hardy, desperate souls outside in the pouring, freezing rain for the sake of a few blessed puffs. Now that's community, people.

Posted by: Farinata X | Jan 2, 2007 2:26:39 PM

"And more tangibly, if smoking made you demonstrably healthier, happier, increased your circle of friends, lowered your anxiety level,* offered an economic buffer against unexpected downturns, and vastly increased your storehouse of social capital, it wouldn't be quite so maligned."

This strikes me as a massively weird sentence.

Smoking does make you happier. It does lower your anxiety level. These are some of the reasons why a substantial chunk of humanity developed the habit. They are also the reasons why anti-depressents are commonly prescribed to aid quitting smoking - the weed has anti-depressent qualities.

And even weirder, tobacco obviously increases your circle of friends and increases your storehouse of social capital. You mention bars elsewhere in the post. Bars are selling nothing but socialness. It's a helluva lot cheaper to buy bottles of booze and drink at home - folks go to bars for nothing but the socialness. And, as you note, bars want to be houses of liquor and tobacco. That is precisely because liquor and tobacco are drugs of socialness.

What makes smoking so maligned has nothing to do with these factors, and instead, has everything to do with the single fact that modern society has discovered that tobacco has rather nasty long-term health effects.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 2, 2007 2:32:50 PM

Sanpete, I'm in near-complete agreement with you. I was referring to organized religion and its attendant ills, not the spiritual journey of personal religion, which can, incidentally, lead some to a place where they're just fine not believing in anything at all (I am not a non-believer, just not a Capital-B Buh-LEE-vah).

Posted by: litbrit | Jan 2, 2007 2:34:54 PM


I'm surprised that you would trot out that line of thinking. Arguing this way is like saying that every serial killer has had genitalia of some sort, so we should chop everybody's naughty bits off. Until quite recently in human history, everyone either actually believed in some sort of religion or kept their doubts quiet.

Which is more evil - slaughtering whole villages because they are of a different faith, or jailing and killing practitioners of Falun Gong because their beliefs are seen as a threat to the State? It would be nice to be able to set up an entirely atheistic society, cut off from the rest of savage, superstitious humanity, to see if such a society would actually be a place of tolerance and love, with no war, no crime, no want or need. I personally believe that the human capacity for evil is enough to overcome even the lack of a god to blame for our actions.

Dennett's claims about what is happening in religion today are monumentally ignorant of both what is happening now and the history of the world's various faiths. That some Christian denominations are refusing to join others to put Creationism in classrooms does not prove his point.

As for the effect that religion has, a concentration camp Seder, a wafer and wine hastily eaten in a cave, and keeping one's beliefs and customs alive while watching one's fellow Cherokees die on the Trail of Tears is hardly analogous to the "power" of a sugar pill. Whether religious belief contains power outside of itself can be argued, but that its power can be replicated by the placebo effect is laughable.

Finally, the church in places like France, Britain and even Australia is doing suprisingly well, considering that its demise in these countries has been predicted over and over again. It's just that its loss of societal power has forced and enabled it to conduct itself as a church instead of as a political entity.

That is a development I would like to see for all faiths, especially considering that Dennett's predictions have absolutely zero chance of ever coming true. Religion will always be with us. If nothing else, let's stop wasting our time trying to make ourselves feel better for having broken free of its shackles, and work toward creating a world in which all people, non-believers and believers together, can embrace ideals such as equality and the dignity of all human beings.

Posted by: Stephen | Jan 2, 2007 2:42:43 PM

I'm surprised that you would trot out that line of thinking.

Stephen, I'm not trotting out any line of thinking per se, and I apologize if I didn't choose my words to better make my point. And that point, is, simply that we can't have a conversation about religion being good for human beings without also noting that it has, for so very many, been rather bad in that they lost their property, family, or even lives as a direct result of organized religion. Perhaps one word I should have used was extremism.

Look, I am still seeking answers. Oftentimes, I feel I know even less now than I did when I was younger, if that makes any sense. But one thing I can say with relative certainty, based on having been christened a Methodist, educated in a Catholic convent, then a Mennonite Missionary school, then a public high school in Miami at which most of my friends were Jewish, then a state university at which most of my friends were Baptist, Jewish, or atheist, is that the few organized religions I have experienced firsthand all tend to emphasize the notion of otherness. One must view oneself as Other from society at large. This always troubled me.

The comfort I get from prayer, as well as from the rituals I've cobbled together, over the years, for my own Church For One, has nothing to do with a placebo effect nor the smugness and certainty of sitting in a multi-million-dollar architectural gem full of people singing together and agreeing that the awesomeness of their guaranteed afterlife is a done deal. Further, the good I can aspire to has more to do with loving my neighbor and putting my money where his hungry children's mouths are than it does with hating some group of people because their Person In Charge has a different name and bio than mine.

As for smoking and the quitting thereof, I think Dennett should have come up with a much better and more apt analogy for religion and the disempowering thereof. At least apples and oranges are both fruit.

Posted by: litbrit | Jan 2, 2007 3:30:02 PM

Litbrit, I appreciate the distinction you make, but I think what I've said applies just as well to organized religion as to personal, and some points actually apply more to organized religion, which appears to be more effective for many, possibly most people. But personal religion is also a very valuable thing for many.

Stephen, isn't church attendance very low in Britain and France? (Don't know about Australia.) Good point about the placebo claim, which vastly oversimplifies whatever is going on with religion.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 2, 2007 3:30:46 PM

Thanks for the followup remarks, litbrit. I don't think we are very far apart in our views, if they are actually different at all.


Yes, church attendance is quite low. But religion is far from dead in those countries, including Christianity. All I have is anecdotal evidence, but I believe that religious belief is being transformed in these countries rather than dying out altogether. And I do wonder if there is a bit of underreporting going on: "Church? No, I don't attend church," but they don't mention perhaps Alpha, or a Bible Study in a home, or the ways in which people have put together systems of belief that might not conform to traditional ideas about religion but are still religious beliefs.

Posted by: Stephen | Jan 2, 2007 4:05:25 PM

Stephen, I take exception to the notion that it is of little import to "break free of your shackles" as though this were some sort of self indulgence. It reminds me of the standard Republican trick of condemning their critics as being hysterical and reflexively negative for pointing out their wrongheadness, lies, and slanders. You know, lets just move on here, lets just be bi-bartisan. My snarkiness is well earned. Having been brought up since a small child until my young adulthood in a fundamentalist baptist family (in the "Alabama" area of Pennsylvania ), I do not speak from hearsay or abstraction. I never let my family convert or baptise me because of my independent spirit and deep seated drive for free inquiry. I regularly debated ministers and missionaries on the substance of their faith and doctrine as a youth. Once you understand the essential authoritarian nature of religion and its practice you do not see its benefits as "healthful" Indeed I agree with other commentators who make the reasonable point that the claimed benefits of religion are not measureable in any meaningful way. Certainly, if you are to assert positive benefits you must also take into account the known dangers and deleterious side effects. The real choice that every individual needs to make is: When will I choose to be responsible for myself. People who do so may be quite surprised at how liberating it is. Certainly it is clear to me how the nation has fared in these recent days with a religiosly driven politics where the president believes his actions are sanctioned by god. While his followers are waitng for the last days. Nice isn't it, the last days. Why be responsible, when you can have a ready-made set of excuses for your every failing. Divine providence, or my sins will be forgiven by the true God who I follow.

Posted by: quickwood | Jan 2, 2007 4:15:46 PM

"I've long thought some Match.com style sites should arise that offer nothing but friendship opportunities, but for all I know, such ventures exist"

Friendster? Facebook? Myspace?

Posted by: Petey | Jan 2, 2007 4:19:09 PM

Stephen, I take exception to the notion that it is of little import to "break free of your shackles" as though this were some sort of self indulgence.

I said nothing of the sort, nor could a reasonable person conclude that I implied that "it is of little import to 'break free of your shackles.'"

The rest of your comment is an egocentric, self-satisfied and condescending lecture, the point of which, it seems, is to celebrate your greatness at the expense of your parents, friends and all the religious believers who have been unfortunate enough to cross your path.

Don't accuse me of maligning people with "lies and slanders." I did nothing of the sort. Nowhere have I said that atheists are bad people, or that all the world's ills are the result of people who don't believe in one god or another. But let me quote you:

If you market and package this placebo with the appropriate mumbo jumbo it will be as effective as the believe systems without the nasty side effects of hate, intolerance and insufferable aversion to reality that religion promotes.

If I can't prove that religion is a benefit, neither can you prove the preceding. All you have is correlation, not causation. And please, please don't dredge up some sort of quote or whatever about some person who did something horrible because "God told him to." Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and a host of other horrible characters never claimed to be acting upon God's instructions. But I don't make the claim that Atheism itself is the cause of their atrocities.

It sounds like you have made a conscious effort to distinguish yourself from your family, particularly a close-minded view of the world in which their beliefs are the only right ones and they spend much effort and time trying to convince others of the superiority of their own opinions.

I'd say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Posted by: Stephen | Jan 2, 2007 5:26:42 PM

Quickwood, now that you've broken free of your religious shackles, as you see it, try breaking free of your prejudices against religion. You might be quite surprised how liberating it is.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 2, 2007 5:35:07 PM

Because religion causes cancer? Huh?

While I certainly acknowledge that many nasty side effects of the human condition (willful blindness, complacency, self-righteousness, fierce and raging anger, hatred, conformity, etc) are propogated through religious institutions, they are also effectively propogated through atheistic ideologies, right-wing nonreligious radio, ethnic identifications, and just about everything else.

One of the weird things about our current political situation - a lot of very religious people appear to elect very bad leaders, but most evidence suggests that a lot of those horrible leaders are nonreligious, don't actually effectuate religious ideology, and then remain horrible.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Jan 2, 2007 6:48:37 PM

I would engage this, but it is utterly idiotic.

You have to stop reading MM as if she had a clue. She always steers you wrong.

Posted by: wcw | Jan 2, 2007 6:50:32 PM

Thanks Stephen and Sanpete. I have no problem with a forth wright debate. I do not have a prejudice against religion by the way, I have a first hand experience of THE RELIGION that our current rulers say affirms their every decision. I do not need quotes for this point of view, find them yourself, they are in abundance. I also have never claimed that atheism is superior to religion in terms of moral values. Rather I believe it is a question of personal responsibilty. Rejection of the essential bullying nature of religion does not mean that answering it back is intolerant. You are perhaps on to something in one important respect. Ones experience and choices as a youth are life shaping, so what ? The baptists I was brought up amongst knew for sure that Catholics were doomed to hell and firmly believed that the Methodists and Presbyterians were on a very slippery slope.( And I have numerous condemned friends who understand me just fine also ) And yes, they were Nixon supporting, Vietnam war loving, bible fearing Republicans. In other words not much different than the current 33% or so that are the backbone of the current republican elite. The Episcopalians are currently in disarray as the conservative flocks are running to the exits over issues of gay marriage and female clergy ie. it is too tolerant for this "liberal" sect. These New Pharisees you urge me not to be prejudiced against will find no difficulty exercising their views against YOUR freedoms. They do however respect someone who stands up to them. They may not LIKE you but they will back off. What is the difference ( for example ) between these fundamentalists who operate charter schools and bible day camps who inculcate intolerance and promote a theocratic vision of governance and the madrassas schools that are shaping fundamentalist islam ?? Not much in my view. Is this prejudice, egotism or fear ? Not to me, it is called learning from experience and calling a spade, a spade.

Posted by: quickwood | Jan 2, 2007 7:13:25 PM

PS. I took the approach in these posts that I have, in order to arouse debate. It seems I succeeded too much for some ...also, I too do not actually believe that a "sugar Pill" or placebo will have a real world effect. The underlying point is that claims about the health and psychological benefits of religion are not well founded, & have little if any scientific basis ( perhaps more than ID, but not much. )

Posted by: quickwood | Jan 2, 2007 7:23:23 PM

Quickwood, I do think you have a huge chip on your shoulder where religion is concerned, and that it colors your views very much. Stephen and I have also had considerable experience with conservative religious believers (and he's probably more sympathetic with some of your complaints than you imagine). I don't think your analysis is very careful or fair. On the question of scientific evidence regarding the benefits of religion, there are some severe difficulties in pinning such things down, but the evidence does seem to be against you, as far as science can tell. Try this handy review study if you're interested in the science:


Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 2, 2007 8:06:35 PM

Sanpete, Thanks again. I will check the link out in a bit. I prefer to think about my aversion to religion more along the line of an "inoculation" It is unpleasant but when effective prevents future infections. One thing I have noticed with interest is that few here seem really concerned about the extremely negative impacts of religion in our internal politics. My own personal policy is that you may have all the religion you want, go to the church or spiritual place of your choosing, pray morning noon and night, believe in whatever, the spaghetti monster just do not push your views on me or darken public policy with intolerance and state sponsored "religious morality" or undermine the constitution that guaranteees all of us the freedom to be religious or NOT. It is my view that the religious simply want to be more important, more moral, more saved than WHOEVER THEY DISAGREE WITH.
This does not constitute a "chip on your shoulder". It constitutes a disagreement. The reason the "religious" do not approve of my take on this is that I am firmly asserting my right and choice to be free from the ministry that they believe we MUST also share with them or we are PERSECUTING THEM. A nice trick. Again I prefer to be responsible for myself. You do not need God to do so.

Posted by: quickwood | Jan 2, 2007 8:48:35 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.