Is religious belief healthy?
One of the things that often comes up in my conversation with religious believers (mostly Christians, per circumstance) is that even if there is no God, to dissuade someone from faith is still somehow morally reprehensible. Most often, they run down a laundry list of ways in which the institution of religion—independent of the veracity of its truth claims—makes a positive impact on the world.
A derivative of a common example used is that of an elderly woman on her deathbed. Perhaps she has been a non-believer her entire life, but she finds that as her life comes to a close she is fearful of its end. She decides to suspend her skepticism about religion and posit belief in some God. Wouldn’t it be wrong to convince her otherwise? “No Grandma, there is no God, when you die your mind will cease to function and your body will rot!” I’m no counselor, but this doesn’t seem to be comforting.
What about the social function churches (and other religious institutions) serve in our culture? Churches can provide a sense of belonging, a safety net, and very basically friendship shared over common interest. Furthermore, an exorbitant number of homeless shelters, food pantries, soup kitchens, free medical clinics, rehab programs, etc. are operated by religious institutions around the world.
Religious organizations can also provide a moral foundation. Though I do not subscribe to any sort of ultimate morality, in a very Machiavellian sense religion does act to provide a basis for social contract in society. While I personally would argue that this kind of social contract is constantly in flux and needs to be modified yet, there is an equal and opposite point that religion, for better or worse, does present a starting point for morality and legality.
So religion does have positive affects. On the other hand, I am sure that few who read this essay can deny the existence of negative effects caused by religious belief.
Religious belief can cause emotional distress. Many Christians, for instance, feel pressure to feel and act according to certain behavioral prescriptions. When they fail to meet these standards, which are often times unreasonable, the result is self-loathing. In addition there are systematic theologies that present a very negative view of the individual. For example, hyper-Calvinism postulates a God who has pre-ordained those who will be saved and those who are reprobate. Imagine an individual indoctrinated with this belief. When their prayers are not answered, it is not far-fetched to assume that God has chosen them for damnation and does not care for their petitions.
Religious belief can cause social tension. Apologists are quick to point out that it was evangelical Christians in the north led the abolition movement. Christians have been at the forefront of many social reforms. At the same time; however, they seem to gloss over the fact that southerners used the same Jesus to support their pro-slavery positions. Post-Reconstruction whites used the bible to justify slavery. So lets just go for broke and call it even, yes? I’m not so sure. It is safe to say that an overwhelming majority of non-believers think that to theist-led “protection of traditional marriage” is ridiculous. It is also safe to say that that Christians support Israel primarily for religious reasons, and do not approach Middle East peace objectively. These are only two examples of a countless array of positions held by theists that seem to be in direct contradiction to reasonable courses of action. Thus, religious belief can be detrimental to others. I would use the example of cigarettes. Cigarettes cause damage to the lungs of the individual smoking them, but cause even more damage through second-hand smoke. I think that Christianity (and other religions… I am an equality-loving liberal, after all) cause damage to the individual psyche, but also to those around them.
Religious belief can oppose progress. I consider myself to be an intellectually fair person. I try to objectively read what the opposition publishes and produces. Thus, I was, much to my distaste, reading Ken Ham last year. A friend saw I was reading Ken Ham and excitedly expressed to me, “I think it’s so exciting that God created the stars to look like they are millions of years old, but really they’re only 6,000 years old.” Scary. I recently watched the movie Inherit the Wind about the Scopes Monkey Trial. And while the movie took many dramatic liberties to vilify fundamentalist Christianity, I think the moral stands true that religion does stand in the way of intellectual progress. All religions are an attempt to make metaphysical claims about the universe. Scientific discoveries sometimes overlap these claims, but often challenge them. Thus the religion is forced to either reject science or give up a conservatively held belief. More often than not, I fear, the former happens.
These are just a few ways in which I think religious belief can be unhealthy, both for the individual and for the community at-large. What comes to mind is an analogue of belief in Santa and belief in God. It is perfectly acceptable to belief in Santa Claus during ones years as a child. As one transitions into youth it is natural and healthy to shed belief in Santa. If by adulthood one still believes in Santa, it is most likely a symptom of psychological disorder. In the same way, religious belief served a purpose for humanity thousands of years ago. During the Enlightenment society began to shed some religiously held beliefs. As we enter the next phase of humanity, to not give up the obsolete belief in God seems dangerous. Look no further than 9/11.