Active Thinking Topic 36 -  What is the Use of God(s)?

Tuesday 19 July 2022, 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm

Any replies to the organizer -

Venue: ZOOM online

Focus Questions

1. Most of the world's societies historically have required that everyone had to believe in the power of a favoured god or gods. Clearly these gods must have had some useful purpose for humans. What was it? [Note: "Does god exist?" questions are quite different from this question of value]

2. Australians in accelerating numbers have given up on formal religions, or just kept a skeleton allegiance for weddings, funerals etc. The latest census, like the one before it, shows a stark decline in formal religious belief. What is driving this move away from religion?

3. While Australians may have abandoned formal religion, have they (necessarily) also abandoned belief in any supernatural power (e.g. being favoured by 'Luck')?

4. Religions are all obsessed with human morality. Human morality is important to humans. Why would any god with independent agency and power be bothered with the trivia of human morality?

5. Some secular ideologies - for example, communism - have tried to supplant the authority of god(s) with the authority of a national political party. How successful has this been?

6. Humans are mostly a herding species who like to follow and imitate. How much has this got to do with their attachment to religious authority?

7. Being responsible for anything more than washing up the dishes is hard for a lot of people to handle. Would there be an evolutionary advantage in somehow displacing the mental burden of responsibility? For example our brains organize activities around 'drives' (food, sex, etc). You could think of these drives as executive command centres, or in computer terms, 'bots'. How about a 'bot' called God who could take the rap for all the hard stuff we don't want to own : "it was God's will, not my fault" ...?

8. Formal religions have obviously had a huge social role in lending colour, purpose, companionship and emotional security to societies everywhere throughout human history. What is it about life in modern Australia that has provided competition for these traditional religious roles? Why have some sects rejected such competition?

9. Why have very large numbers of people in some countries - USA & South America, India, the Middle East, Africa etc - continued to find religion useful as a central principle in their lives while even larger numbers of people in Euriope, Australia, East Asia have turned away from religion?

10. Christianity and Islam both got their real momentum after being harnessed to political power. There have been rather few politically ambitious individuals, past or present, who haven't seized on the religious ideologies of their own societies to advance their own agendas. This is because religions organize large numbers of people about a common purpose. How do religions and political power corrupt each other? Solutions?


Extra Reading

Thor May (2015) "The peculiar interest of god(s) in human morality". The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "For the ungodly, even as they dodge being stoned to death for apostasy or atheism, it is a perpetual puzzle why any god, mere mountain spirit or kitchen god, or a thundering master of the universe, would give a damn what humans do. And given the misfortunes of virtuous humans, and the prosperity of countless scoundrels, the ungodly search in vain for actual, non-magical evidence that god, gods, spirits or leprechauns do actually play moral favourites in any credible way with humans. For the godly of course, this kind of evidence has never mattered".]

Thor May (2016) "Count Your Lucky Stars". The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "What part does luck play in the success of individuals, enterprises and countries? Think of examples. From politics to careers to finding the love of your life, there has never been more advice available, yet at the end of the game, some people seem to have been lucky and others not. Why is this so? Can you really do much about it?" ]

Thor May (2014) "Does religion emerge as a product of complex systems?". The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "Why do people take up religions, persist with them, and abandon them ? Whatever you think of religions personally, or any particular religion, they seem to have been around forever amongst (most) humans, and seem unlikely to go away entirely amongst the species as a whole. Clearly though, particular cultures in various historical phases have many members who are attracted to religions or substitute ideologies, but tend to drift away from them in other phases. At a different level, women seem to be the most persistent believers by numbers, but religious hierarchies are almost always controlled by (humourless old) men… What is it in human psychology that generates these religious phenomena? Since religion is universal across human groups, yet not universal within groups, does it embody some optional extra mechanism in the complex systems we call mind? Is it species specific? … the questions are endless, and we can scarcely answer them here, but following a long human tradition, I have written a small allegory to explore some possibilities". ]

Thor May (2014) 'What will be the dominant ideologies of the 21st Century?" The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "Ideologies are going to be with us forever. The question is how seriously the herd takes them, and who become the high priests for interpreting them to the unwashed masses. The 20th Century gave us some pretty horrible examples of ideologies used as vehicles for mass extinction while claiming to be vehicles for mass progress. There is no particular reason to expect that the 21st Century will be more enlightened in this regard amongst those people who always form the bulk of ideological foot soldiers. It is true that there are more formally educated people on the planet than ever before, and more available tools for critical thinking, especially in the online world. Yet it is also true that the tools for mass mobilization are more powerful than they have ever been, while their control passes with increasing rapidity to compromised governments, corporations and secretive elites. This secrecy makes a considered response to genuine threats especially difficult".]

Thor May (1998) "Good Man, Bad Man." The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "The unconscious assumptions that govern all our daily lives and opinions are almost incurably simple-minded. Philosophers have hoped that by making them explicit they can make them sensible. They are betrayed by their own selectivity, and an iron law of forgetting, which says that for every flash of insight from a stray mind in the marketplace, for every principled action by a functionary with momentary power, there will be a million acts of stupidity in the name of this slogan or that". ]

Thor May (2013) "The Agnostic's Survival Manual". The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Note: This is an ebook collecting many of Thor's reflections on religious stuff over a number of years. Ideas evolve, so not everything found here will necessarily be consistent with the writer's current opinions. Quote: "Dear reader, are you really hoping for a book of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’? Do you want gentle ideas and a comfortable corner in which to rest your half-formed prejudices? Alas, you have come to the wrong place". ]

ABS (28 June 2022) "2021 Census shows changes in Australia’s religious diversity". Australian Bureau of Statistics @  [Quote: "Christianity is the most common religion in Australia, with over 40 per cent (43.9 per cent) identifying as Christian. This has reduced from over 50 per cent (52.1 per cent) in 2016 and from over 60 per cent (61.1 per cent) in 2011. As in earlier Censuses, the largest Christian denominations are Catholic (20.0 per cent of the population) and Anglican (9.8 per cent). While fewer people are reporting their religion as Christian, more are reporting ‘no religion’. Almost 40 per cent (38.9 per cent) of Australia’s population reported having no religion in the 2021 Census, an increase from 30 per cent (30.1 per cent) in 2016 and 22 per cent (22.3 per cent) in 2011. Other religions are growing but continue to make up a small proportion of the population. Hinduism has grown by 55.3 per cent to 684,002 people, or 2.7 per cent of the population. Islam has grown to 813,392 people, which is 3.2 per cent of the Australian population." ]

David Chen (6 July 2022) "Religious group charged with murder over death of Toowoomba girl Elizabeth Struhs remanded in custody". ABC News @  [The defendants have declined to seek legal advice or assistance. Quote: ""Members of a religious group charged with murder over the death of an eight-year-old girl in southern Queensland have all been remanded in custody after appearing in court today. The seven women and five men, aged 19 to 65, were charged on Tuesday night over the death of Toowoomba girl Elizabeth Struhs. The girl died at her Rangeville home on January 7, 2022, after she was allegedly denied medical care for type 1 diabetes for about six days".]

The Sunday School Curriculum @  [Thor, comment: This is an example of religious education for kids. It seems to have trouble competing with the likes of Tiktok etc]

James Oaten, Yumi Asada and Emily Clark (12 July 2022) "Shinzo Abe's family history might provide some insight into why he was targeted by a man with a grudge." ABC News @  [Quote: "Shinzo Abe was renowned for his economic policies and nationalistic bent, but his legacy also includes an association with conservative religious groups and there is some evidence it is this reputation that made him a target. ... His alleged assassin, Tetsuya Yamagami, sought out Mr Abe, researched campaign events he would be at, made a gun, and, on Friday afternoon, shot and killed the political giant. ... Yamagami, 41, told Japanese police his mother was a member of a religious organisation and their family had been financially ruined after she made a "huge donation", Japanese media reported, citing police sources. ... Conservative Japanese politicians, particularly Abe's grandfather Kishi sought the support of Reverend Moon and his church in a sort of anti-communist alliance of civic and religious organisations," he said. The associations between conservative politicians and religious groups in Japan serves a very clear purpose — it helps win elections".

Clare Roth (2022) "The psychology behind why we believe in horoscopes". Deutche Welle @  [Quote: "What if I told you I could give you a very accurate description of your personality? Rate below how much you are able to relate to this text, from 0 (not correct at all) to 5 (very exact).
>> "You want other people to know you and like you. You tend to be critical of yourself and often doubt whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You have a great deal of potential which you have not always used to your advantage. While you have some flaws, you are constantly trying to improve. Sometimes you can be very sociable and extroverted, while at other times you are introverted and prefer to be alone. You prefer some change and variety and don't like to feel limited, but you also seek security in life. You consider yourself an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too honest in revealing yourself to others".]

Carey Dunne (10 September 2018) "A factchecker goes to psychic school: can you predict what happens next?" The Guardian @  [Quote: "... around one-third to one-half of Americans believe in phenomena such as telepathy and precognition. These beliefs fuel a $2bn psychic services industry that has been growing steadily since the 2008 recession. ... In the 1970s, the US army and the Defense Intelligence Agency launched a secret program that, among other things, trained intelligence professionals to become “remote viewers”, purportedly capable of clairvoyantly spying on events from a great distance. The army also entertained a proposal for developing a new military of psychic super-soldiers who would “sense plant auras, attain the power to pass [through] walls, bend metal with their minds, [see] the future [and] be able to see and hear other people’s thoughts”. These parapsychology experiments were, in part, a cold war government’s response to the fear that Soviets were using “psychoenergetic warfare”. The $20m Stargate Project was declassified and shut down in 1995 after a CIA report concluded that it had not produced any actionable intelligence information. Its legacy, however, lingers".]

Harriet Sherwood (17 October 2019) "Americans becoming less Christian as over a quarter follow no religion. Self-identified Christians fall by 12 percentage points in a decade. Fewer than half of millennials are Christians, survey finds. As many millennials say they never attend religious services (22%) as those who say they go at least once a week". The Guardian @ 

Ark Harris (15 November 2017) "Inside the first church of artificial intelligence". Wired @ 

Feifei Wang (n.d.) "What does the afterlife look like in Chinese folk religion?". Quora @ 

Brian Gallagher (30 May 2019) "The Worth of an Angry God - How supernatural beliefs allowed societies to bond and spread". Nautilus @ 

Ana Swanson (March 30, 2016) "Why women are more religious than men". Washington Post @ 

Sian Cain (16 July 2022) "Why is God a man? The woman who searched the world for a feminist religion." The Guardian @  [Quote: “The fundamental question of why God is a man in Islam, in Christianity, in Judaism, and in many others, it is because they were born in a social context of patriarchy,” she says. “Take Christianity – it rose up in a time of feudal lands, lords and kings. All of this is represented in biblical language we use today, so the way we relate to God serves male power and authority.”]

Zuhal Ahad (Mon 18 Jul 2022) "Send us a man to do your job so we can sack you, Taliban tell female officials - As economy collapses, women from Afghanistan’s finance ministry say they have been asked to suggest male relatives to replace them". The Guardian @  [Thor, comment : Male chauvanism is at the heart of almost all practising religions. There is an argument that this occurs because the dogmas of such religions stem from a time when women were treated as mere breeding cows. However, it is dominant also in so-called new religions as well as ideologies (count the number of women in the politburos of communist China or Vietnam). You could argue that a main purpose of religions/ideologies has been been boost male sexual control]

Sherryn Groch (July 17, 2022) "Why do smart people join cults? And how do they get out of them?
It’s not just doomsday bunkers and goat’s blood. Cults are all around the world, including in Australia. What are the red flags and how do cult leaders operate?" The Age @



What is the Use of God(s)?   (c) Thor May 2022

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