What About the Hope Religion Offers?

Many Christians understand at least some of the criticisms their religion faces. After all, fundamentalist rhetoric, efforts by Christian extremists to retard medical research on the basis of their religious beliefs, religiously-motivated violence, and the persistent rape of children by clergy are not easy to ignore. Rather than engage in serious consideration of these very real problems, many Christians attempt to steer the subject away from the obvious harm done by religion and put the critics on the defensive. "What about the hope religion provides to millions of people?" "Even if you think there are problems with religion, you cannot deny the joy, consolation, or hope it brings to so many."

The essence of such claims seems to be that the good of religion outweighs the bad. I suspect that most theists use this claim strategically in order to force the atheist into a defensive posture rather than because they genuinely believe it. Of course, I have long suspected that relatively few Christians believe much of what they claim to believe.

That people desire joy, consolation, or hope is a point which we can concede. Of course we desire it! But how is it supposed to follow that this makes religion a good thing?

  • P1: Humans desire consolation.
  • P2: Religion can be a source of consolation.
  • C: Religion is a good thing.

Conceding P1 does little to bolster the theist's case. I'll even concede P2 as long as we note that religion can be a source of consolation for some people but that it is only one of many sources. How many modern Christians would choose their ancient superstitions over their families, friends, careers, financial stability, health, and all other potential sources of consolation far too numerous to list? If the theist attempts to revise P2 so that it states, "Religion is the only thing that offers hope," I can no longer concede this point. Even if we can somehow dream of implausible scenarios where this might be true, it will remain false in the overwhelming majority of cases.

Regardless, the desired conclusion (C) does not follow from the premises. But even if the logic was not flawed, all you have to do is substitute "religion" with "drugs" or anything else that can provide consolation to some. Just because something can bring happiness to some does not make it a good thing. Sexual sadists receive pleasure from the infliction of pain and suffering on others. Surely there are few who would argue that this necessarily makes their torturous acts morally acceptable.

Even if we grant that religion can sometimes provide comfort or hope to those in need, this does not change the fact that it is false hope. Lying to a child may make him or her feel better temporarily, but this does not make the lie either true or morally defensible.

But isn't the suffering caused by religion what we atheists should oppose rather than the beliefs themselves? We do oppose what religion leads people to do, but we also oppose it because it is irrational. Religion requires the believer to suspend rational judgment and to accept things as true without evidence that they are true. On this basis, I would oppose religion even if I could be convinced that it did far less harm in the world than it does.

An early version of this post first appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised and expanded in 2020.