09 January 2014

The "comfort" of religion

Atheists are sometimes told that we should stop undermining religious belief because even if it's objectively false (or at least extremely unlikely to be true), it serves as a great comfort to people.  This concept amply repays serious examination, but the results are not what the religionists claim.

The obvious way that religion "comforts" people is by reassuring them that death is not really the end of their existence.  This, I suspect, is the main reason why religion has taken such deep root in the human mind for so long, and why religious people often react with such irrational resentment when it is challenged.  A little thought, however, reveals a serious danger.  Insofar as a person believes death to be less final and terrible than it actually is, he will place a correspondingly lower priority on avoiding it, which may translate into taking risks he would never otherwise take.  This is not just theoretical.  There was a period in my life when I was seriously contemplating suicide.  If I had believed that death would be followed by an afterlife, perhaps pleasanter than the present one -- well, I might very well not exist today.

More generally, false beliefs almost inevitably become dangerous if a person believes them strongly enough to act on them.  I would find it very comforting to believe that I had a million dollars in the bank, but if I genuinely believed that, and began acting as if it were true, I would quickly run into all kinds of problems which could have been avoided by accepting reality.

The danger of increased risk of death due to belief in an afterlife applies on a species-wide level as well.  The reason most humans have clung so desperately to this comforting idea for all of known history is that death was inevitable -- everyone eventually died, no matter what they did.  Now that we're on the brink of a technological solution to the problem, one of the obstacles we face is a visceral discomfort with the idea of eradicating death, rooted in that "comforting" belief that death is not so terrible after all and is, in any case, God's will.  Even many atheists have adopted a philosophical and rather bovine (and unconvincing) passivity in the face of death, as a substitute comfort belief to replace the afterlife; and this too is sometimes an obstacle, though in general a higher proportion of atheists embrace transhumanism than of the general population.

(There is one life-after-death scenario I consider somewhat plausible, but only a fool would count on this actually happening, and it has nothing to do with religion.)

Another "comfort belief" of religion is that problems in general are less urgent than they seem because there is a deity watching over us and protecting us, or because what appear to be problems are part of a divine plan.  Again, the danger inherent in such ideas is obvious -- why take concrete action against a threat if a higher power is protecting you against it anyway, or if it's all ultimately for the best?  We can see this concretely in the American fundamentalist disdain for protecting the environment -- they really believe that God won't let anything too terrible happen to us no matter how badly we damage the planetary life-support system (I've seen the story of God's rainbow promise to Noah invoked in this context), and/or that it doesn't matter anyway because Jesus is coming back soon.  People who sincerely hold such beliefs are endangering themselves -- and the rest of us who have to live on the same planet with them.

Finally, let's not forget the real purpose religion has usually served historically -- social control by elites.  Most religions don't stop at providing comforting beliefs -- they also have a priesthood of some sort which claims to know, or even to be able to influence, what sort of afterlife ordinary people will have, very often based on how submissive they are to the dictates of that same priesthood.  This confers incredible power over whole populations of dupes, without even any need for the usual uniformed thugs to enforce it.  Thus even the supposed "comfort" beliefs have in practice more often been instruments of fear and control.  And those beliefs are revealed as being not merely an error, but rather a shabby, cynical lie, fabricated to manipulate those who believe it.


Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

How can I ever forget that as a child raised in the Catholic religion, one of the first things I had to memorize was this:

"Who made you?"

"God made me."

"Why did God make you?"

"God made me to be happy with him in heaven."

So many years ago I learned that, and it is still there in some file somewhere in my brain.

And there it remains. One of the first thing I was taught as a FIVE-YEAR OLD! was that the reason for my existence is to go to Heaven! Naturally, a five-year old who has not yet reached the age of reason ate this happyo-pie up: angels, harps, halos, and all.

The only part about actually living on Earth I remember from those days is that I am a wretched sinner, who constantly gives God a sad and that I needed to be ever watchful of my devilish tendencies. Five years old.

Richard Dawkins calls that sort of indoctrination a form of child abuse, and I agree.

Get 'em while they're young and impressionable [see how much I remember?] and you've got 'em for life, if you scare the beejebus out of them.


09 January, 2014 07:35  
Blogger Ahab said...

Excellent post. Belief in a pleasant existence after death can motivate people to make dubious choices here in life. (Blowing oneself up in the hopes of earning 72 houris comes to mind.) At the very least, it can lead to people failing to appreciate this life.

Belief in an afterlife can also distract people from this life for a different reason. During my Christian days, I lived in daily terror at the thought of going to hell. The terror was so consuming that it prevented me from appreciating the life in front of me, since I was fixated on avoiding eternal torture. When I deconverted, I was truly free.

09 January, 2014 09:13  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm always stunned to hear how much trauma a religious upbringing causes, even to people who eventually left religion behind and became perfectly well-adjusted. I'm very lucky to have grown up without religion.

09 January, 2014 10:33  

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