January 19, 2008

"But Isn't Religion Good for People?"

If you've been an atheist for more than 10 minutes, you've probably heard this one. I seem to hear this one after a successful argument about the lack of evidence to support any claims of supernatural entities. The idea behind this is that even if the foundation of religious belief (i.e., that some god or gods exist) is false, religion might still be worth keeping around. There are many variants of this line of thought, so I'll pick what I think is a particularly thought-provoking one for this post. Can you imagine a scenario where you would advocate maintaining a probably false belief simply because the belief provided some benefit to the believer?

The first thing that springs to mind involves some type of death scenario. Perhaps a loved one is dying and seeks comfort by asking you whether you think they'll go to heaven. Or maybe someone close to you is struggling with the death of someone important to them and wants your agreement that they are "in a better place now." I don't know about you, but I'd have a hard time simply dismissing such questions in my usual manner. In such situations, it seems reasonable to suggest that believing a likely falsehood might, at least temporarily, be pardonable. Of course, I can also think of counterarguments for providing such false comfort.

In a broader context, do you think it is ever acceptable to endorse a false belief? What if we had scientific evidence that religious belief was correlated with general well-being, positive mental and physical health, relationship satisfaction, and the like? Would this matter or not?

It often comes down to weighing the pros and cons, doesn't it? Suppose that religious belief was reliably linked to good health. Would we be willing to overlook its links with intolerance and hatred then? What we often end up asking ourselves is whether the benefits, whatever they might be, outweigh the costs.

I would be surprised to find any atheist who would be willing to argue that all forms of religion are bad for all people in all circumstances. It is more about the massive costs of religion not being exceeded by the benefits, especially when the costs are more likely to impact nonbelievers than are the benefits.

H/T to The Secular Outpost

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