September 27, 2007
Does god and religion satisfy other human needs?
In the previous post I listed four possible reasons why religion should not be undermined:
- God does exist and there is empirical support in the form of evidence.
- God does not exist but believing in god satisfies deep human psychological and emotional needs and that getting rid of those beliefs would lead to people feeling emotionally bereft of support.
- Religion and belief in god supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown.
- Religion is a useful tool for the ruling elites that enables them to maintain social order, by convincing oppressed people to accept injustice and inequality as part of a divine plan and defer their wishes for relief until the next life, where they are told they will reap great rewards.
Of the four, only the first argument really justifies preserving religion but it does not hold up. There is no convincing evidence at all that god exists and the only rational thing to do is to give up the belief.
All the other arguments are purely utilitarian, essentially claiming that even if religion is based on a false belief, it still has social value that makes it worth preserving. I hear this argument surprisingly often, so it is worth examining.
As for the second argument, if there is no god, then maintaining a belief in it for emotional psychological reasons makes as much sense as not eventually telling children the truth about the falsity of Santa Claus and fairies because we don't wish to harm them psychologically. Getting rid of childlike illusions is part of the growth to maturity and it is not clear why religious people need the crutch of god for emotional stability even into adulthood. Surely they would be psychologically stronger for facing up to the world as it is than in believing in something fake? An adult who grows up still believing in Santa Claus is much more vulnerable emotionally, and doomed to perpetual disappointment, than someone who grows up realizing that there is no mysterious gift-giver who is periodically going to give them what they want. As George Bernard Shaw: "The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than a drunken man is happier than a sober one."
The third argument, that religion and belief in god supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown, has been countered so often and so effectively by others that I will not address it again. I described some of the arguments against this position earlier.
The fourth and final reason for upholding religion is that it is a useful tool for the ruling elites that enables them to maintain social order, by convincing oppressed people to accept injustice and inequality as part of a divine plan and defer their wishes for relief until the next life, where they are told they will reap great rewards.
This is the most crass and is completely indefensible and will be rejected by well-meaning religious believers. But I think that it is the real reason why religion has survived so long in the face of overwhelming evidence for its falsity. State patronage has served religion well. Rulers realized long ago that you cannot rule forever using just force and fear alone. People have to accept that a few are meant to rule and that the majority has to accept being ruled by the minority. People have to accept that their ethnic group/tribe/nation is special and that it is morally right to subjugate and exploit other groups/tribes/nations. The god idea serves this purpose exceedingly well. If people can be convinced that everything is according to god's plan, that it was meant to be that their rulers were destined to rule, then half the battle is won. Those at the suffering end of this arrangement are pacified by being told that they have the consolation of rewards in heaven. In fact, the greater their suffering in this world, the greater the supposed reward, which is a very useful idea for exploiting people even more.
I have written about the useful role that belief in god has played in maintaining systems of oppression here and the cynical way that some non believers support such beliefs to achieve their political ends here.
It really comes down to this fact: If the kind of god most people believe in does not exist, then there is no reason to believe in such a god. It really is as simple as that.
POST SCRIPT: Boneheads on TV
Have you noticed the people in the background on live TV who try to get noticed by doing weird things? Apparently the name for them is "boneheads". The Australian TV show The Chasers (which has become one of my favorites) challenges Chas to see how many bonehead appearances he can make during an awards show.