Many Americans make the assumption that a person cannot be moral unless he subscribes to a religion. But philosophy is replete with ethical systems other than divine-command theory, some of which have been around for thousands of years. Why haven't teachers of philosophy been able to teach or convince the public that being moral does not necessarily depend upon believing in a divine being?

I think there are probably two main reasons: (1) Philosophers don't generally speak to or write for the general public, and most are not suited to the role of public figure . Religious leaders (pastors, priests, ministers) have an opportunity every Sunday to speak to a much broader range of people. (2) Philosophers have little beyond argument to support their view, whereas religious leaders can encourage belief in their views by promises of good things (heaven, divine forgiveness) and threats (punishment, hell). These considerations seem more than sufficient to explain the phenomenon.

Can the well-documented placebo effect in medicine be applied to the comfort religious belief gives many? In the case of religion, should such an affect be encouraged, discouraged, or dismissed? You could argue that none of us will ever know until we die, and if we were wrong in being religious we will never know we got it wrong. If various monks or nuns in various religions (to take an extreme example of devotion) got it wrong - and some would have to have had if you subscribe to the logical view that only one religion can assure you an afterlife, what possible advice can be given? If you feel someone is wasting their life on a misguided religious quest should you just preserve silence, salute the meaning it lends their life and leave well alone? What duty do we have here, if any? Philosophers understand the points involved better than most and can see through many misconceptions in religious belief that believers are unaware of. Each-to-his-own is surely a tragic cop-out.

This isn't really an answer to your question but, rather, a point I find interesting about the framing of your question. (You could still ask your question in slightly different terms, of course...) Although the idea of a "placebo effect" is common, there is actually some reason to doubt that it is "well-documented". A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine by Asbjorn Hrobjartsson and Peter C. Gotzsche, (May 24, 2001) argues tha t the trials aiming to establish a placebo effect are, for the most part, not sound. For example, in some cases the studies don't take into account the fact that the condition of some percentage of people will improve without any medication at all. Although the studies compare people who take medication with people who take a placebo, they don't always compare people who take the placebo with those who take nothing. This, as you might expect, doesn't settle the question, but...

Is there a common human need for faith? If so, what alternatives are there to religion? Science? Ethics? Hugely interested by this aspect of human nature. Do we basically all need to believe in something & belong to something, however discerning and self-sufficient we may pride ourselves on being? Thank you.

My first thought in response is that you ar raising an empirical question about human psychology that philosophers aren't in a very good position to answer. It is very hard to tell what is true of human psychology, in general, without looking at lots of different humans in different circumstances, etc. (Of course we do generalize about some aspects of human psychology from our own case all the time...the particular question you ask seems tricky to answer because it isn't exactly clear what sort of need you have in mind. We don't need faith like we need air and water, surely, i.e., we can live without it. Is the question whether it is necessary for something other than life itself?) A related question might be whether it is possible (or desirable) to live with only well-justified beliefs, or whether sometimes we have no choice but to believe things without sufficient evidence. There are (at least) two kinds of case: (i) we might believe things for which it is possible, in principle, to gain...

I've always been kind of puzzled by religious people who claim both that (1) their faith is devout and that (2) they are uninterested in converting people to their beliefs. I feel as though persons of this sort are trying to have their cake and eat it too; they want to affirm their faith, on the one hand, and be tolerant on the other. In an age where multiculturalism is lauded, this sort of pluralistic worldview can seem ideal. And yet, if you really believe that a person who does not acknowledge God will go to Hell, or that contraception is immoral, how can you NOT urge your convictions on other people? When it comes to religious belief -- especially beliefs which pertain to morality -- can "tolerance" be reconciled with true conviction?

It isn't clear to me exactly what the tension is. It will, no doubt, depend on the religion in question. Some religions do not hold that the non-believer will be punished or that there is a special religious basis for morality. In my experience, many who do believe that the non-believer will go to hell make an effort to "save" souls; those who don't may be shy or preoccupied with other things. Being uninterested in converting others is not the same as being opposed to it (though more on this below). On the broader issue of morality, I'm not sure why the religious person is in a position any different from any moral person. If believe that eating meat is morally wrong (for whatever reason), should I try to convince others to become vegetarian? Well, one's answer will depend on the broader moral theory one subscribes to. If I'm a utilitarian, I'll have to determine whether trying to convince others to be vegetarian will have the best consequences; maybe I'm terrible at such efforts and...

Largely the scientific community argues evolution as their leading theory behind the existence of life. The Church argues creationism. What if they are both wrong and in reality it is both. For anything to exist, it seems fair and logical to say - it had to have been created in order to exist and evolution is an obvious factor seen in daily life. So if true, could the two views merge one day?

Strictly speaking creationism says not just that life on earth was created, but that it was created by God; and evolution says not just that life has evolved, but that life emerged through evolutionary processes (and not God's act of creation). So they aren't strictly speaking compatible. One could, however, articulate similar views that are compatible. Some have suggested, for example, that God was responsible for the Big Bang, but things have proceeded according to natural processes since then. Compatibility or incompatiblity depends on the details of how you spell the views out.