A new way to look at “Religion gives people comfort, so don’t take it away”

You may have heard this one. It’s not an argument that religion is true, it’s an argument that it’s useful. It’s invoked to discourage skeptics, and it rests partly on the maddening assumption that critiquing an idea is equivalent to forcibly ripping it out of someone’s hands. It usually leads to heated discussions about whether or not religion truly makes believers happy, or whether its comfort outweighs the guilt and fear that are often part of religiosity.

But there’s another major problem with this argument. When people say that religion makes us happy, they mean believers. Naturally it doesn’t do any good for nonbelievers.

The problem is that we’re all nonbelievers, every person on earth — because religion isn’t one thing. It’s divided into warring camps. Believing one religion (or sect) makes you a nonbeliever of all the rest. Even a universalist who claims to believe in the truth of all religions can do so only by denying the exclusivity at the heart of most religions — and so the universalist is also a nonbeliever as far as the true believers are concerned.

With that in mind, look at any one religion and ask, Does it add to the happiness and comfort of all the people who don’t believe in it?—and who, by the way, represent the overwhelming majority of the human race?

Does the existence of Islam, for example, add to the comfort of those of us who aren’t Muslim? Does it make the world a safer, more just place? How about the effects of Christianity on the Muslim world? What about Zionist Judaism—should we ask the Palestinians about that one?

Many religions, especially those we’re most familiar with in the West, seem more interested in building their own exclusive Kingdom of God than in bettering the outside world. They think they’re improving the world by advancing their religion. If only all those other religions would get out of the way, there would be no conflict! If people would just accept our truth, they wouldn’t have to feel bad about us telling them and their children that they’re all going to hell.

Of course there are religious believers who do work for peace and justice for everyone, and not just for members of their group. But that should be the standard of “comfort” by which a religion is judged—the complete picture, and not just the perks for insiders. Let religions try to outdo each other on that score for a change.

12 thoughts on “A new way to look at “Religion gives people comfort, so don’t take it away”

    • Yeah… though in fairness, we should acknowledge that there is some material about helping the needy in both the Bible and Quran, and presumably many other holy books as well, but from what I’ve seen they never make altruism a top priority; it’s mostly about the need to spread the faith. The other beef I have with a lot of Christians who volunteer their time and money for work in impoverished areas is that they tend to simultaneously support reactionary politicians who ensure that more people are in need of charity.

      • There are a lot of problems with religions. Like walking into a fun house and no matter what direction you look there is a grossly distorted image of reality… sigh

      • A fun house – I like that analogy. By the way, I’m in the middle of Libby Ann’s post, “How I Lost Faith in the ‘Pro-Life’ Movement.” Fascinating. Thanks for highlighting that on your blog.

      • You are most welcome. Some confuse my stance on such things – I don’t think that equality is anything like those most vocal about it seem to understand it. I try to put myself in the other persons shoes and ask what would be fair, all things relative. Most people who talk about equality do not seem to have a fucking clue what they are talking about. I think it harms the discussion in general. So, in as few words as I could muster I’m saying that I think her piece is important 🙂

  1. I’d question whether a person’s own religion actually makes them happy. I’d say, if anything, it contents them, but knowing that at the end of all this there just might be Hellfire (no Christian can know for sure if they will be granted access to Heaven, considering the manifold reasons for banishment to Hell) would seem like a pretty stressful way to live your life.

    • I agree – and I think it would depend somewhat on the specific content of a person’s beliefs, and how troubled they are (or aren’t) by things such as the problem of evil. I grew up in a church that taught that all who weren’t born again Christians were going to hell. So even if you didn’t doubt your own salvation (and we were taught that you couldn’t lose it), there was still that uncomfortable matter of what happens to the rest of the world, including unsaved loved ones. But for the purposes of this post I thought, all right, suppose we grant for the sake of argument (or at least not challenge) that it makes you happy… what about the effects on everyone else?

  2. The dichotomy of belief is certainly interesting. If it helps you be a “better” person, awesome. But its sad that its necessary to have something as paper thin as religion as a catalyst rather than self-actualization and reflection. Good post!

    • Thanks! And I think that self-actualization and reflection are part of the experience of many religious believers, but too often they assume (or are taught) that religion is necessary for those things.

  3. Pingback: What is it with religion and women? | Love versus Goliath : A Partner Visa Journey

  4. Pingback: Religion and Happiness | The Psych Life

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