My Heinlein quote did not go unnoticed. I was challenged on Hobbes, a local forum, to defend the charge that religion is the “oldest, largest, and least productive industry in all history.” As if I didn’t have better things to do, I stayed up half the night writing a 3000 word response on the topic of “Prostitution vs. Organized Religion: Which is more productive?” Enjoy – if you dare.
Before evaluating the virtues of religion and prostitution, I have qualify the original quote in my profile. The definition of “industry” is vague because if “industries” such as being a hit man or a crook counted as an “industry,” then proving that religion is the least productive industry in history might be very difficult. But religion and prostitution are two well-known institutions, and evaluating their relative productivity is straightforward. There are three things we need to determine: One: What is productivity? Two: How productive is prostitution? Three: How productive is religion?
First, what is productivity? Most dictionaries define “productive” as “Producing or capable of producing.” (American Heritage Dictionary) This is a circular definition, since it begs the question of what is being produced. A bum produces a lot of nothing, a crook produces a lot of loss, but no one would say that they are productive people. Webster’s defines “productive” as “Having the quality or power of producing; yielding or furnishing results; as, productive soil; productive enterprises; productive labor, that which increases the number or amount of products.” This is a bit more useful. According to Webster, a productive individual is one who creates some sort of a product of other value. The definition is still circular however, because it does not answer – a value to whom? Were Attilla and Hitler “productive” because they achieved their value of killing so many of their enemy? Some people would argue so, but if productivity is subjective to the individual or society, comparison is impossible, and both of our arguments fall apart.
So, some objective standard is needed of what “value” must be produced to make one productive.
In the Aristotelian tradition, we can start by looking at some individuals who are generally described a being productive:
Engineers, architects, mechanics, scientists, entrepreneurs, CEO’s.
What individuals are commonly described as being unproductive?
Crooks, lazy slobs on welfare, adults who live in their parent’s basement, beggars, rich playboys, unemployed men who don’t even try to get a job.
What traits do the productive people have in common that the unproductive ones do not? The answer is obvious – the most productive men spend their lives creating things that are necessary and beneficial to human life, while the lazy ones are moochers who live on the productivity of others without contributing anything in return. Thus, the value that must be judged when evaluating the productivity of someone is the benefit their actions provide to human life, and the consistency with which their lives are dedicated to creating those values. A productive mechanic is one who is good at his job and consistently performs it with expertise and dedication. A productive artist is one who creates great art that inspires other men to achieve things themselves. An unproductive mechanic is one who is poor at his job, lax at performing, or inconsistent in doing it well. An unproductive artist is one who has no skills in creating art, or who creates degrading art that makes men depressed and un-inspired to achieve anything. Thus, when evaluating the productivity of prostitution vs. religion, we have to evaluate which one provides a greater value to man’s life.
First, prostitution. What benefits does it provide to man’s life? Obviously, it fulfills one of his man’s strongest urges as a human being – sex. It’s easy to observe that men go to prostitutes to have a good time, and enjoy the experience. On the other side, the prostitutes provide their services voluntarily and make a decent living in the process. Both sides benefit, and the fact that hookers work in nearly every country in the world suggest that there is a great demand (and proportionally a great perceived benefit) for their service. The picture is not all rosy, of course. In America, where prostitution is illegal in most places and no government oversight of abuses exists, prostitutes face serious physical, financial, health, and legal challenges in the process of providing their services. However, is this an necessary aspect of prostitution?
If we look at states and countries where prostitution is legal or at least social accepted – such as Nevada, Japan, China, and parts of Germany, the situation is very different. Prostitutes have the same legal protections as all other workers, and can settle disputes in courts rather than on the street. They regularly undergo testing for STD’s, take the appropriate precautions, and are even rated on the quality of their services. To the extent that their business is legal, there is little connection with organized crime, at least any more than there is in any other business. In the most socially liberal countries, sex is viewed as entertainment, and wives will pay for their husband’s visit to the brothel as a gift to be enjoyed. While I personally disapprove of prostitution, it remains a fact that all involved parties enjoy the experience or a least benefit from the experience sufficiently to repeatedly engage in it. If you want to see the high-class, professional, and safe services legalized prostitution can provide, check out the Bunny Ranch in Nevada.
Now on to organized religion. Religion is probably as old a profession as prostitution – it is possible that when the first woman realized that she could get big chunks of meat from Thug and Ug in exchange for showing her privates, some witch doctor in her tribe found out that he could also get meat for preventing volcanoes, bringing rain, and scaring off the spirits of the dead.
What benefits does religion provide? Zathras listed a few alleged benefits of religion: new technology and military tactics, colonization of the new world, and the invention of the printing press. Let’s not forget great works of art such as Michelangelo’s David and the Sistine Chapel, monasteries that preserved and carried on knowledge during the Middle Ages, social institutions such as charities, schools, and universities. It’s undeniable that all these things have benefited mankind.
Speaking from personal experience, I have benefited greatly from the Jewish religion. A Jewish organization helped my parents come to America, placed me in private school so I could learn English, sent me to summer camp for many years, paid for my trip to Israel (which was an awesome experience that I thoroughly enjoyed), and even funded my tuition at Texas A&M for a number of years. In addition to these material benefits, I learned a lot about history, philosophy, ethics, the Hebrew language, and social interaction while attending Sunday school and then helping to teach it for three years. Many of my religious teachers were very intelligent and inspirational individuals who taught me many things both in the classroom and by example.
So, it’s indisputable that religion has done many good things for man. Is this sufficient to evaluate the productivity of religion? Consider some industries that are not considered productive despite doing some good things, such as the mafia or quackery. The Godfather did many favors for his friends, such as breaking the kneecaps of people that got in the way of his friends, but he also ran a violent crime ring that caused much more suffering than good. A quack, who sells a fake remedy for all ailments, also provides some benefit to people: the placebo effect often makes people feel better, and the alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs contained in remedies were often effective and making their users feel better. However, despite the benefit he provides, the quack also defrauds people, does not fix their underlying health problems, and often addicts them to his “medicine.” Both the mafia don and the quack provide a benefit, but a wholly benevolent person and a real doctor could provide a much greater benefit to people without the accompanying harms. Thus, when evaluating religion, we must consider the total effect, not just isolated benefits, and evaluate whether the benefits religion provides are essential to its nature, or side effects that are not necessary tied to religion.
To make such an evaluation, we have to determine the essence of organized religion — what is its basic characteristic? The Heritage dictionary defines religion as “Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe; A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.”
So, the essential trait of religion is not that it commissions works of art, funds charities, builds universities, invests war machines, or sponsors scientific achievement – all these things are done by other individuals as effectively, or even more effectively (especially when it comes to science) by other institutions and individuals. The essence of organized religion is that it is an institution dedicated to the belief in and worship of the supernatural. What is the supernatural? Heritage dictionary: “Of or relating to existence outside the natural world; Attributed to a power that seems to violate or go beyond natural forces; Of or relating to a deity.” Thus, religion is the worship of that which is outside of the natural world. Because the supernatural cannot be directly perceived by the senses or understood by reason, the theist claims that it can only be revealed, (or is best revealed) by divine revelation, emotional conviction, faith, and other non-rational and indeed anti-rational means. The essence of religion is not a rational, systematic, empirical, causal exploration of our world, but faith in the non-rational, the arbitrary, the supernatural, the uncaused, and the unseen. In short, the mystic says: “Believe it because I say so.” Or, “Believe it because this book says so.” Or, “Believe it because it feels right” Or, “Believe it, or you’ll be burned at the stake.” This is the essence of religion: faith. How does one have faith in the unseen? By suspending reason. Mysticism only survives to the degree than man is able to suspend his reason and “just believe”, ignoring all facts to the contrary, ignoring reason itself. In short, religion can only survive to the degree that it can surprise reason in man. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Faith is believing in what you know isn’t true.”
How does religion force men to abandon reason, and what is the result? Since the time the witch doctor first discovered that he could gain power and wealth by promising to bring rain and scare away ghosts, mystics of one sort of another have been propping up the supernatural and trying to silence the advocates of reason.
The Greeks discovered reason 3000 years ago when the philosopher Thales proposed that nature should be understood by replacing myth with logic. They founded mathematics, optics, the theory of the atom, logic, geometry, and a system of ethics based on man’s happiness as its goal. When religion took over the Western world, the Greek’s ideas were lost, and the known world plunged into 1500 years of darkness. During the Dark Ages, life was a short, brutal, primitive, and thoroughly religious experience. The government was dominated by tyrannical thugs who forced their enslaved populace to fight bloody wars. The church dominated all levels of society, from the local parish to the highest advisors of the king. Monks did carry on all the intellectual work of the medieval society – but only because anyone no one dared to study anything but the teaching the church after a sufficient numbers of purges, stakes, hangings, and stonings to demonstrate the dedication of the Church to stamping out reason. In 1349, over a third of Europe died because men believed that the plague was a sign from God and did not attempt to find out its source by any means other than fair. When great men like Copernicus and Galileo tried to discover the workings on the solar system, they were denounced and persecuted by the Church. Can you name all the great inventors, scientists, and writers who were burned at the stake or had their tongues torn out because they chose to believe what they saw with their eyes rather than what some raving mystic told them to “just believe”? What about the millions of Jews, Muslims, Witches, and Gypsies killed by a bloody power-grab justified by religion during the Crusades? As Johannes Cardinal Wildebrands said, “when religion sanctifies hatred, it lends to that hatred a special ferocity. Normal moral inhibitors are erased.” But forget the Dark Ages. In today’s America, The Kansas (and Texas!) Board of Education is a perfect example of religious mysticism at work, with its violent opposition to the separation of church and state and the teaching of science in the classroom. In science as in life, faith and reason are diametrically opposed. The scientist says “Here are the facts. What conclusions can we draw from them?” The theist says “Here is the conclusion. What facts can we find to support it?”
The rediscovery of Aristotle by St. Thomas Aquinas, who tentatively wrote than reason is not always incompatible with faith, reason was rediscovered, and the Renaissance of the western world began. To quote myself, “The foundation of Western culture is the reliance of reason rather than faith to find out the basic facts of reality. By the use of reason, great thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, Francois Voltaire, John Locke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson, discovered that man had certain unalienable rights, among them the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. While the Islamic world plunged ever deeper into the stagnation of religious fundamentalism, the great minds of Europe and America woke up and asserted the right of every man to live for his own sake, and the proper function of government as an obedient servant, not master of the people. They recognized that voluntary trade to mutual benefit was superior to slavery and servitude, whether to a king or to a mob. When the Founders established the United States of America, they set up the greatest experiment in history to test their newly-found values. The experiment, for a while at least, was a great success. The civilized world experienced never-before seen prosperity, economic growth, and increases in the longevity and quality of life. Religion did not die out in the West, but the Founders recognized that the role of government was to protect men’s rights, not to enforce morality, and allowed men to their own meaning in the universe. Western civilization was far from perfect: slavery, war, and suffering persisted — but to the extent that men recognized the right of every person to his own life, their societies flourished.”
In short, the rise out of the misery of the Dark Ages was a factory of reason over faith. “For the first time in modern history,” wrote one Enlightenment writer “an authentic respect for reason became the mark of an entire culture.”
America, the child of the Enlightenment, was founded by men who realized that religion everywhere tries to tangle itself into the government and puts itself in conflict with reason. This is why the First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...” This is why John Adams said “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion, ” Thomas Jefferson said “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than on our opinions in physics and geometry. . . .”, James Madison said “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together”, Benjamin Franklin said “But scarcely was I arrived at fifteen years of age, when, after having doubted in turn of different tenets, according as I found them combated in the different books that I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself”, Thomas Paine said “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of….Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and of my own part, I disbelieve them all”, and Ethan Ellen said “Denominated a Deist, the reality of which I have never disputed, being conscious that I am no Christian.” The Founders realized that if organized religion were tied to the government, it would forever more try to use the state to prevent men from using their minds, just as it had been doing for centuries in their former home, England.
Thus, whenever man has improved his condition, reason dominated. Whenever faith took center stage, men blindly followed the mystics into poverty and slavery. The history of the twentieth century is no exception. In one country after another, men worshiped not God, but the State, as a living, breathing mystical entity that had all the attributes of a god. Blinded by collectivism, the follow Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Kim, Pol Pot into suicidal policies and atrocities against their own neighbors.
In conclusion, the “productivity” of religion has consisted chiefly in destroying man’s reason – his basic means of survival. Certainly, as a primitive form of philosophy, religion served a useful purpose. All men need philosophy, but religion has rarely, if ever been an adequate substitute for man’s reason. As an institution that dominated society for millennia, the Church got a thing right every century or two– just as a mafia boss takes pity on a victim every now and then, and does “favors” for his friends. However, even when compared to a prostitute, to the extent that it has suppressed reason, religion has been a great destructive force. In our primitive tribe, the prostitute was a capitalist – exchanging value for value with satisfied customers. The witch doctor however, was a destroyer of values, with his hostility to reason and false promises of a supernatural repayment for the very real suffering he inflicted on earth.