Religion is Not Just a Placebo

I recently wrote about empirical evidence which might identify a correct understanding of the practices of prayer and laying on hands. While researching this topic I encountered a video in which Sam Harris, a famous atheist, acknowledges some benefits of religion. This includes but is not limited to the fact that religion can act like a placebo:

Sam Harris acknowledges religions can be beneficial as a placebo, and he even suggests he could invent a new religion devoid of content which might have the placebo benefit of religion without any of the negative side-effects. I wonder why Sam hasn’t actually invented such a religion if he really believes that claim. Either the negative side-effects of religion aren’t significant to motivate his action in creating a Church of Sam, or else he already knows at some level that the Church of Sam would be ineffective compared to the existing major religions of the world.

This cuts against points he makes elsewhere because he elsewhere indicates Pascal’s Wager doesn’t work because people can’t will themselves to believe something they know is false, and he also elsewhere states that people have no real control over what they believe. Instead, if something appears as logically true to that person, their brain in some sense forces them to believe it even if they don’t want to. If those facts are true, Sam couldn’t just invent a religion we know to be false and use it as a placebo. The religion would need to be genuinely plausible and inspire genuine faith.

Sam criticized Pascal’s Wager at least in his recent talk with Jordan Peterson, and also more concisely in this article. I may rebut Sam’s criticism of the wager some time, but it’s really pretty trivial to rebut; he claims that rational people can’t simply will themselves to believe something for which there is not evidence, but Christianity has tons of evidence. Moreover, religious belief is properly basic and even programmed into the human brain.

Here’s another video relating to the placebo effect. Wittingly or not, Lissa Rankin makes a great case that the placebo effect is miraculous in the literal sense, saying:

[The placebo effect is] “concrete evidence that the body…can make unthinkable things happen to the body…you need look no further than The Spontaneous Remission Project, a database compiled by the Institute of Noetic Sciences…You think there’s such a thing as an incurable illness? I swear, if you go look at this database, it will blow your mind.”

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