To Richard Dawkins
It would appear the only reasonably justifiable answer to the healthy role of religion in society is always, and has always been, to provide a framework for the innate functions of conscience in healthy human beings to have a socially well organised footing, to do good within a society. That is why you lost the debate… but;
It would also appear that organised religion has always and always will use a supernaturally fabricated framework whereby the feelings of guilt shame and remorse, the natural controlling mechanisms of a functioning conscience are controlled through irrational belief systems that are dictated through social power hierarchies that allow other agendas than simply sustaining the healthy consciences of people to be played out within the society. The bad bits.
The human psyche is composed of three elements. The base drives, the ego, and the conscience. Sociopathy is simply the absence, severe underdevelopment or suppression of conscience. There is in fact very little in terms of intractable human ills that are not the result of individual and group forms of sociopathy in varying degrees. The failure of conscience is seen in everything from paedophilia, to financial fraud, to acts of violence, to genocide, to corruption, to reckless environmental destruction and negligence, and all in between. This is a no brainer and virtually impossible to argue against. Evil is not accidental by its very nature, it is egotistical and servicing the ego and its connection to it basic drives that seek satisfaction. Natural disasters are not acts of evil and are incurable for the most. Eventually even the sun dies and this is not evil.
Human conscience is simply a neurological function that like other neurological functions can be built and strengthened and made central to individual and social action, and/or eroded, abused damaged and neglected by social action and exploited by the need for humans to feel safe within a group.
The science of studying the neurology and neuroscience of how the conscience functions is THE only way for science to show the way forward to actually improving the treatment of humans by other humans. Better stuff does not and cannot make us better people, only better functioning consciences can do that. The science can be coined curatology from the Latin cura “to care”.
Religion is just a mind hack through seductive belief systems that appeal to an ego that wishes for supernatural life and a connection to forces “better” than itself without having to suck it up and take on the responsibility that a truly adult conscience demands. It is a childish cop out with magical fantasies for the devotee and a superior ego power trip for the priests.
Sociopaths of the garden variety are actually the biggest social problem we face and are like the weeds that choke the productive garden plants. They are many small parasitic problems that amount to a big problem. It is even possible to identify empathy and lack thereof with fmri, though I am sure that many judges, police and folks of power might find this a problematic test. As such I predict a very long time before it becomes a standard diagnostic intervention to assess the real causes of injustice. That people don’t care is always at the heart of the crime, and faking remorse is a no brainer when it can’t be verified scientifically.
I dream of a society where a person who does not care about the other members of society (and beings and places and the integrity of things) can be identified and cured. The frightening fact is that so much of the ageless biotechnologically advanced future we are rapidly moving into does nothing for the human soul. [I hear you cough and scoff… “well he just said soul, what sort of science is that!”]
A short, long or even epic perusal of religious literature and practice will reveal a very telling thing. All the functions and existence of the human soul that are not magical in nature are simply the functions of conscience. The conscience if not a magical force and just useful evolved neural equipment for harmonious group living IS the soul. Your conscience is your soul. Think about that. You can even listen to it speak when you weigh up such matters as betrayal and personally beneficial negligence. Loose enough sleep and you might even hear it for real in a religious hallucination.
This is all ridiculously rational and kind of obvious after you hear it, I know. Realising that the voice in your head and feeling in your heart that stops you hurting others and rejoices when they succeed is nothing more than a bunch of mirror neurons, and yet still requires the utmost reverence and respect is a sobering thing when compared to everlasting life and protection from omnipotent deities, but hey…. a round world that orbited a pretty regular star didn’t turn out that bad.