June 12, 2012

But My Faith Brings Me Comfort

False comfortSince realizing I am an atheist, I have received countless questions from Christian family members, friends, and even complete strangers who learn that I do not share their beliefs. Sometimes they seem to be genuine attempts to understand my position; other times they are transparent insults or attempts to convert me. But what nearly all have in common is that they are relatively easy to answer. In this post, I'd like to talk about one of the few exceptions, one that I have never felt like I've answered as effectively as I'd like.

What is the Harm in Believing if it Makes Me Feel Good?

The essence of this question is as follows:
Setting aside for a moment the issue of whether my religious beliefs are true, they bring me comfort and even joy. My faith sustains me in difficult times, providing a sense of connection and resilience when I need it most. I understand that you think what I believe is false. But even if you are right, my faith isn't hurting anyone and it makes me feel better. How can that possibly be a bad thing?
My first line of response usually emphasizes the fact that wanting something to be true does not make it true, even if one wants it to be true really badly. But this person is saying they don't particularly care whether their faith is true. True or not, it brings them comfort.

I have tried to address this issue many times here at Atheist Revolution, but I can't say I've ever done so to my own satisfaction. And when I've addressed in face-to-face conversation with believers…well…I've never been remotely satisfied with what has come out of my mouth.

It is undeniable that religious belief has caused (and continues to cause) great harm in the world. But that isn't particularly relevant to the individual believer asking me this question. They are not harming anyone directly, and trying to make the case that their beliefs indirectly shield the extreme behavior of others seems shaky even though I think it is a valid argument.

Some Possible Responses

Here are some of what I consider to be among the better responses I've heard. This is by no means a complete list, so please add to it if I've omitted anything that strikes you as important.
  1. By relying on faith, you leave yourself ill equipped to engage in viable problem-solving. When things get tough, your faith may cloud your judgment. Critical thinking is hard work, and it must be practiced if one is going to do it effectively in periods of turmoil. Too often, faith is simply an excuse not to think.
  2. Individual religious faith often leads one to support religious organizations that engage in harmful acts (e.g., the Catholic Church). Thus, the money an American Catholic contributes to his or her church can end up funding efforts by the Church to oppose condom use in Africa.
  3. Faith comes from a place of fear and uncertainty. The more we learn about our world, the less likely we are to fear it. Perhaps reallocating the focus you invest in faith to learning would reap dividends.
  4. Faith actually undermines one's self-concept by leading one to attribute success to divine forces instead of talent or hard work. Moreover, faith can lead to inaction when the believer simply leaves things up to his or her preferred god(s).
  5. Faith leads one to thank one's preferred god(s) for positive circumstances instead of thanking those actually responsible (e.g., doctors), and this may undermine helping behavior.
  6. When large numbers of people (i.e., an overwhelming majority of a country) rely on faith to feel good, societal damage is almost inevitable. Accountability gets undermined, as nobody accepts responsibility for their behavior. Even elected officials feel comfortable claiming divine authority for their whims.
  7. Truth, even when uncomfortable, is a greater good than positive feelings. The comfort provided by faith is false comfort, and it can distance us from the unpleasant realities that we ought to face.
What I keep trying to find a clear way to articulate is the idea that the ability of a belief to bring comfort is not a valid indicator of the belief's worth.
It is no defense of superstition and pseudoscience to say that it brings solace and comfort to people…If solace and comfort are how we judge the worth of something, then consider that tobacco brings solace and comfort to smokers; alcohol brings it to drinkers; drugs of all kinds bring it to addicts; the fall of cards and the run of horses bring it to gamblers; cruelty and violence bring it to sociopaths. Judge by solace and comfort only and there is no behaviour we ought to interfere with.
--Isaac Asimov

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