– by B. T. Newberg
What good do we do? Last time, we tackled the question of harm. Now let’s consider the potential good.
We should be careful not to let this become a self-congratulatory fest. We must be even more critical here, as it will be so easy to let personal bias slip in.
Before you read, please voice your opinion in this poll:
Why does benefit matter?
If we follow a strict non-harm clause, such as the Wiccan Rede (“Harm none, do as you will”), then benefit would seem unnecessary. So long as we harm no one, we’re free to do as we please.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but is there really any time when we’re not doing harm to someone or something? Having a job means someone else can’t have it; living in a home means less habitat for other wildlife. An ethics of non-harm really means minimizing and/or balancing out the harm you inevitably do.
Incidentally, the reason why we’re asking about benefit to society is because benefit to oneself seems less a matter for public debate. What you do for yourself is your own business; when it affects society, it’s worth discussion.
There are some arguments we often give which are not so hot. We’ll consider those first.
- All paths are valid
- Whatever works
- As long as I say I don’t know whether the gods or magic are real or not, it’s okay
The most obvious problem is that none of these are arguments for benefit. They are, if anything, defenses against charges of harm. Nevertheless, they are often used to justify Pagan practices, and that role can easily be confused with demonstrating benefit.
The first is plain relativism, the second plain vagueness. Though common Pagan aphorisms, they fall flat unless embedded within arguments with considerably greater nuance (see entries on each of these in our HPedia).
The third warrants a little more explanation. Some seem to think that all it takes to be naturalistic or to resolve potential ethical issues is to say “Hey, I don’t know if gods and magic are real or not, I’m just doing what seems to work.” Tanya Luhrmann calls this “convenient ambiguity”, and suggests it allows a long period of experimentation during which positive emotional experiences build up that eventually persuade one of the intellectual truth of gods and magic. Moreover, no matter what you might say as a caveat, one’s ritual words and actions serve as role model for others who may interpret them literally. Thus, one who offers a disclaimer but does nothing else different can serve to spread ideas that even they (supposedly) don’t believe in. So, not only does this not demonstrate benefit, but it may show potential for harm.
Some arguments are much better, though none are faultless. For each, I’m going to be throwing up counter-arguments to serve as points of discussion.
1. Psychological benefit
Most typical arguments for benefit fall into this category. Of nineteen effects recently listed as benefits of naturalistic ritual, at least fifteen can be classed as psychological benefits to the individual, many of which also make for more responsible citizens of society.
One problem, though, is that psychological effects are often hard to confirm. If we cannot verify them, are they any better than a non-naturalist’s claim that spells can affect the weather?
Many effects are empirically-straightforward sensations, such as an enhanced feeling of gratitude, and therefore require little testing beyond trying it out yourself. However, does a subjective sense of gratitude actually translate to more generous behavior? That’s more difficult to say. It’s a testable hypothesis we can pursue.
Moreover, we should be specific about exactly what kinds of benefits we expect from our practices. Otherwise, we run the risk of emptying our claims of all meaning. Just like an astrological sign, so infinitely interpretable as to fit nearly any situation, “psychological benefit” can become little more than a Barnum effect.
2. Social solidarity and cooperation
The remaining benefits of the nineteen listed earlier relate to prosocial values. Religion is often credited with bonding society together, both by academics (e.g. Durkheim, Geertz, Wilson) and lay people. Naturalistic Paganism may bring people together, and encourage values conducive to a healthy society.
There are several problems with this argument. One problem is that it’s not unique to religion: even if does aid cooperation, it’s not the only game in town. Secular ideas like justice and law have been found to elicit prosocial behavior as much as religious ones. Another problem is that religion can divide as much as it unites. Finally, even as religion encourages cooperation within groups, it tends to foster animosity between groups.
Like psychological benefits, social benefits can be difficult to test – though not impossible. Luke Galen has surveyed studies of the prosocial effects of religion, and found encouraging results.
3. Liberalizing influence in religion
A third argument suggests that naturalistic forms of religion provide a liberalizing influence. I don’t mean politically liberal, but liberal in terms of progressive religion. Naturalistic forms of religion are usually progressive, and may provide a needed counterbalance to more conservative, traditional forms.
Sam Harris offers an argument to the contrary. He thinks liberal religion provides legitimacy or justification for extremist religion.
4. A place for those with nowhere else to go
Finally, naturalistic forms of religion may offer a haven for those who feel called to spirituality but don’t believe all the hocus pocus. In that case, it may be a social benefit just to provide a home, or better yet a way forward, for those struggling people.
If that’s true, it would have to survive Sam Harris’ critique (above) in order to show it’s a legitimate benefit and not just preying on the vulnerable.
More good than harm?
After reviewing both the arguments for harm and for good, which do you think are stronger? Does the good outweigh the harm?