Examining the claims and doctrines of the world’s major religions reveals clearly that there are profound controversies. There is one claim, however, for which there is virtually no disagreement: Religions provide comfort and satisfaction to their adherents.
I think this is an understatement. Religious faith provides spectacular rewards to its followers. These include intense feelings of euphoria, transcendence, hope, joy, absolution, security, immortality, purity, purpose, and belonging. It is not difficult to see how an individual’s life can be vastly improved and to rejoice that the means is available. I see no harm here.
There is another common feature of faith practice, perhaps not so readily acknowledged. Praying, attending worship services, tithing, and participating in various rituals are regular or repeated actions, behavior that satisfies the definition of habitual.
Habitual or frequent engagement with rewarding stimuli has a well-understood side effect. The participant usually develops a dependency on the activity. Depending on the perceived level of the benefits, the dependency can achieve remarkable motivation in driving the individual to seek further engagement.
I suggest the faith habit may be one of the most addictive habits known.
Now, I expect this statement will stimulate an incredulous response from many. After all, our culture is steeped in profound respect and reverence for faith. To imply it is anything but virtuous is equivalent to blasphemy. But consider this: Faith is an all-in emotional commitment that strengthens with time. It is unusually resistant to argument, reason, or contrary evidence. The prospect of losing all the benefits listed above is terribly daunting to most people. Try to recall an instance of someone, once sincerely committed, abandoning his or her faith without years of trauma and/or study. I hope you can agree that the above statement is possibly true.
So what could be wrong with a rewarding harmless compulsion? I did not mention two side effects that I feel are not benign—and are probably toxic. These are superiority and certainty: that is, thinking you are better than someone of a different faith or no faith and lacking any doubt about the truth of faith-based beliefs. I propose that, together, these attitudes can eliminate any natural or acquired barriers to actions causing harm to others.
For example, the 9/11 hijackers were young men who were middle-class, educated, and relatively unscathed by the civil turmoil in the Mideast. They were raised from childhood in the Islamic tradition of total surrender to the will of their god. These men were not “pretty sure” they were being fast-tracked to a martyr’s paradise; they were absolutely certain of it. If they had had the slightest doubt that what they had been taught to believe was actually true, I do not believe they would have boarded those planes.
What struck me forcibly was this: Suppose they had been prevented by some tiny doubt. How would that same amount of doubt prevent them from doing something good? Would they be unable to help a neighbor in need? Would it prevent them from feeding a hungry child or helping an old lady cross the street? I say no, and I think you do also.
This is an extreme example of a conclusion I have arrived at. Certainty and superiority license people to harm others. I will provide a few more modest examples.
*The inquisitors were certain they were saving souls.
*Hitler was certain that the proper destiny of mankind was racial purity.
*“I believe a soul appears at conception, so I will prevent you from using any future medical treatment resulting from stem-cell research.”
* “The Charlie Hedbo massacre was a sacred duty.”
*“You may not believe in God, but I will make sure your children hear they are ‘under God’ every day of their education.”
It was not difficult to list the above examples, and I think I could extend them indefinitely if it were needed. What I found impossible to do was make a list from the opposite perspective. I invite you to list, if you can, examples of good results stemming from certainty and superiority—good results that cannot be achieved if, instead of being certain, one is almost certain. I could not come up with a single one.
I have concluded that certainty and superiority do not help us cooperate or build healthy societies. They encourage in-group bias and tribalism. They promote prejudice and intolerance. In terms of human welfare, they offer nothing of value except perhaps to the individual who believes he or she is so privileged.
I think they are dangerous.
I want to emphasize that this is not an indictment of religion. It is the identification of two bad attitudes that are often part of religious faith. I do not know if religious leaders can advise their flocks that they are not necessarily better than the “others.” I do not know if all the wonderful and benign benefits of the faith can continue to comfort the faithful if they have to accept the fact that, regardless of how unlikely it seems, it is nevertheless possible that they could be mistaken.
And, of course, I could be mistaken about all this. But I think it is probable that there is merit in what I have claimed. It is a good cause to make some effort to neutralize or diminish the pervasive dissemination of attitudes that have filled the world with hatred, persecution, and violence.
Examining the claims and doctrines of the world’s major religions reveals clearly that there are profound controversies. There is one claim, however, for which there is virtually no disagreement: Religions provide comfort and satisfaction to their adherents. I think this is an understatement. Religious faith provides spectacular rewards to its followers. These include intense feelings …