December 21, 2007

The Social and Emotional Benefits of Religious Belief

There was a thought-provoking opinion piece written by an atheist in a recent New York Times dealing with religion and politics. I found the part about the social and emotional benefits of religious belief to be one of those intriguing topics to which I have devoted insufficient attention here. I need to think about this more, but I did want to share some initial thoughts while it is fresh in my mind.

From the article:
Belief certainly provides benefits regardless of whether God exists — not least social acceptance among other believers and the comfort of a promised heaven. It must be awkward to be an atheist in Mecca or Jerusalem — or Iowa.
I see little to disagree with here. Although the author does go on to shoot down Pascal's Wager and say that he feels the cost of belief outweighs any potential gain, this statement about social acceptance and comfort stood out for me.

Even though we atheists have a reputation for being more comfortable with the isolation many of us experience as a result of our refusal to go along with the belief of the majority, I suspect that few atheists would turn down greater social acceptance if the price were not so high. At this point in my life, I am fairly comfortable with the realization that I am not going to be liked or accepted by everyone. But this was not always the case. There was a time when this sort of acceptance was an important goal worth pursuing. Still, acceptance is not something I actively avoid.

The combination of social acceptance and comfort (even if it is a false sense of comfort) are understandably attractive to many. Even if the comfort that comes from a belief in afterlife is false, no one truly knows until it is too late. We atheists have to find our comfort elsewhere, but this is not always an easy sell to believers.

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