I am not religious. However, this post is not about my beliefs (or non-beliefs), but rather about whether religion should be regarded as a good thing. For me, being primarily interested in people’s happiness, the question is: does religion bring more happiness into the world, or not?
The Advantages of Religion
What’s good about religion?
* Religion can provide a strong feeling of security
Believing in a higher power who looks over the world can provide substantial comfort. It simplifies people’s lives and diminishes feelings of incomprehensible and overwhelming complexity, as well as concern about the lack of order and uncertainty, which can be very unsettling.
* Religion can reduce the fear of dying
Fear of death is in our bones, and everything which reduces it can be beneficial to our happiness. Religion does this by telling us that God will take care of us and that our life will continue in some form after our death.
* Religion can give us hope
No matter how bad the situation is, the belief in a divine power which metes out ultimate justice can provide an almost inexhaustible source for hope and optimism from which we can draw new strength.
* Religion can give us a mission and energy
Any task we believe in can be a very strong source of energy and motivation. Religion can provide such a task. Think about Mother Theresa: her belief gave her the energy to help increase people’s happiness and decreate their suffering, all while making herself happier. Even atheists must struggle to not develop sympathy for the driving force behind these actions!
* Religion can give us guidance on how to behave in society
It’s true for the Ten Commandments and all similar rules: having guidance that directs people to do what is good (e.g., don’t steal) can be very beneficial to the happiness of the individual obeying these rules, as well as for the happiness of the society (provided they are good rules, of course!). This is especially true in cases where there would be no other “law” to take its place (leading to chaos).
* Religion can make people socialize
Meeting with others for religious events is more than just practicing faith. It is an opportunity to meet old friends and make new friends, sing together and socialise. This can be a very powerful source of happiness, as many research studies in the field of happiness have shown.
* (?) – Please add your ideas below!
The Disadvantages of Religion
I only see one main disadvantage of religion, but it is a big one: Religion poses a threat to logical reasoning, and therefore puts at risk all the benefits we receive from analytical thinking and critical reflection.
For example, the price we pay for the feeling of security and simplicity (see above) is that we don’t reflect on our belief which we’ve accepted as the truth (otherwise, it does not work). If this state of non-reflection is “locked” in a belief which is causing unhappiness (e.g., kill everyone who denies my god) it can be fatal – literally.
Religion’s threat to critical thinking can be observed in many situations. For example, a staggering 29% of Americans believe that creationism should be taught in science class in schools (either exclusively or along with evolution). This does not provide a healthy ground for human progress, which is based on logical reasoning and constant reflection.
Conclusion I (for you are not religious)
Religion offers major benefits, as well as a substantial drawback. So how should we deal with this two-faced power?
Firstly, get an appropriate view of religion. Non-religious people, such as me, should acknowledge that religion can be a major contributor to people’s happiness. It may be a source of happiness we are unfamiliar with and don’t think we need (maybe because we were lucky to have sufficient alternative sources of happiness), but we should not try to take it away from other people – especially not by arguing that there is no god, which misses the point entirely.
We should also keep in mind that logical thinking (which we should value very, very highly) is not an end in itself, and we should not make it become “our god”. For example, imagine the following scenario: you are terminally ill and know you have only weeks to live. Despite having been a highly sceptical and non-religious being all your life, you now feel the draw of religion, which could remove your fear of dying and diminish your pain (just accept this scenario for a second, it may happen). Who would not turn to this method to diminish the pain, and why?
Conclusion II (if you are religious)
If religion makes you happier, appreciate that you have discovered this source of happiness. However, keep in mind that religion is not founded on a scientific analysis and that it poses a threat to analytical reasoning and critical reflection. Especially in situations where religion guides you to take actions that cause unhappiness for other people, it is important to keep this in mind.
Also, all proponents of religion should understand that being religious is a personal choice. As soon as that belief intimidates or otherwise negatively affects other people’s free choice in any form (e.g., by educating pupils based on a religious belief), it must be fought against rigorously. Everybody should consciously decide whether they want to follow a religion, being fully aware of its advantages and drawbacks.