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Meditation 914
Critique of Religious Faith
Religious Beliefs Are Harmful (Part 2)

by: Fred Leavitt

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Religious Faith is Beneficial

Church attendance is a social occasion. People meet future friends, spouses, and business associates at church socials. By accepting the traditional beliefs of their community, they become part of a team. Congregations form powerful voting blocs. Faith enables people to achieve feats that would otherwise be beyond their capabilities. Imagine having to walk across a long, narrow plank suspended between the rooftops of two tall buildings, with no net down below. The terrifying task would likely end in death. Yet walking would be effortless if the plank lay on the ground. A hypnotist or evangelist who convinced you that the plank was on the ground might save your life. Your unjustified faith might save your life.

Faith benefits at both ends of the happiness spectrum. It comforts and consoles, giving hope to people in foxholes, or starving, or enslaved'"if not for this world, then for the next. Bishop George Berkeley wrote, "I can easily overlook any present momentary sorrow when I reflect that it is in my power to be happy a thousand years hence." At the other end, successful people, cognizant of the fact that fame, power, wealth, and health are subject to fortune's whims, may believe that God will be touched by their thankful prayers and shield them from any downturns.

"This human world of ours would be inconceivable without the practical existence of a religious belief." Adolf Hitler

Philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that faith makes practical sense. He wrote that, if God exists, believers will be rewarded while disbelievers suffer eternal damnation. If He doesn't exist, belief and disbelief won't matter. In other words, faith separates children of God from benighted fools whose loving creator, if He exists, damns them to burn eternally in Hell.

But Pascal didn't consider all the alternatives. God may not be all-loving. She may be indifferent to humans, possibly even malevolent. That is beside the point: whether or not Pascal's wager is a smart one, having a reason for a belief does not make the belief true. Beneficial illusions are still illusions. Furthermore, given the hundreds of different religions, a small minority at most could possibly hold accurate beliefs. Most Americans accept that the Red Sea parted for Moses and angels sing in heaven, but they scoff at the idea of Zeus hurling thunderbolts or dances bringing rain. Would Pascal advise them to bet across the board?

Under Pascal's conditions, there is no penalty for incorrect beliefs. But consider a modification in which, if a loving God rules the universe, believers and nonbelievers fare equally well. But if Satan is top dog, nonbelievers are unaffected while believers suffer an excruciatingly painful death. Would you believe? The question is not just irrelevant, it's silly. If beliefs could be shaped that easily, the human condition would be one of unalloyed happiness. We'd have no concerns about war, pestilence, famine, or global warming, and we could eliminate the concept of God. He is, after all, only a middleman who rewards loyal subjects with eternal happiness. Why not just believe that eternal happiness is our birthright.

Anthropologist Marvin Harris also claimed that religious faith makes practical sense. Harris asserted that, despite appearances to the contrary, no religions decrease the potential for the well-being of their followers. People often require a manufactured "divine intervention" to get them to act in their best interests. For example, the Hindu religion bans killing cows, which is the only reason why cows are not routinely killed for their meat. The ban benefits Hindus, because cows are much more valuable to them for plowing fields and providing milk. Harris wrote, "Westerners think that Indians would rather starve than eat their cows. What they don't understand is that they will starve if they do eat their cows." For similar reasons, Jews and Muslims don't eat pork. Although a common explanation is that pigs are dirty--impure, unclean, and therefore not to be eaten--a more realistic one is that pigs are not adapted for arid habitats. Lacking sweat glands, they need external sources of moisture to control their body temperature, which is why they wallow in mud. They would be prohibitively expensive to maintain in the hot Middle East.

Wealthy people might have been tempted to raise a few pigs as luxury food for special occasions. In the long run, that would have endangered precious resources. So it was better to have people believe that God decreed, "Thou shalt, under no circumstance, raise pigs."

Continued > But Maybe Not So Beneficial