June 23, 2019

But Isn't Religion Good for People?

sculpture wood child

If you've been an atheist for more than 10 minutes, you've probably heard this one. "But isn't religion good for people?" I often hear it after pointing to the lack of evidence to support any claims of supernatural entities. In this context, it seems to be an appeal to ignore the truth because it feels better to believe a falsehood.

The idea seems to be 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 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 when they die. Or maybe someone close to you is struggling with the death of someone important to them and wants your agreement that their loved one is "in a better place now." I don't know about you, but I'd have a hard time dismissing such questions in my usual manner in these moments. I can understand why one might find believing a falsehood might, at least temporarily, be pardonable. I'm sure there are also counterarguments for providing such false comfort.

In a broader context, do you think it can be 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 we be justified in recommending it even if we recognized it was false?

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 of religion, whatever they might be, outweigh the costs.

I would be surprised to find many atheists who would 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.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2008. It was revised and expanded in 2019.