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.