IntroductionIn all of the following, we mean by “religion” the fact that religions exist in general. We mean by “positive” anything that advances personal well-being or the well-being of the society, and by “negative” anything that hinders it.
For each of the positive aspects of religion, we will also give a Humanist perspective. We have already discussed in the Chapter on Proofs for Gods why the positive effects of religion do not convince atheists to become religious.
Moral ValuesOne of the main arguments that are brought forward in favor of religion is that it provides a moral framework. The moral framework tells people what to do and what to avoid. This has several advantages: First, it guides society. It tells people that they should not steal, kill, and injure. This is the very basis of any society. Second, a religious moral framework provides legal security. Religious frameworks typically evolve very little over time. Thereby, they provide a constant that people can rely on. Through these factors, religious rules may have made the development of civilization possible in the first place. For example, the Abrahamic religions know the law of retaliation (often paraphrased as the “Eye for an eye”). This law limited the revenge that the family of the victim could impose on the family of the perpetrator. This limitation of revenge was essential in order to allow society to evolve the way it did.
A Humanist perspectiveHumanists have a different perspective on religious moral frameworks. The “eye for an eye” principle stems from the Code of Hammurabi — which predates the Abrahamic religions by several hundred years. The Abrahamic religions simply took it over. In the meantime, Western societies have given up on the principle, because it is now considered brutal. Humanists note that this is part of a broader patter, where what was progressive a thousand years ago becomes backward today. There are other examples. Some religions have justified slavery, the crusades, or the suppression of lower classes. Such values are outrageous today. And yet, the same religions that once justified these values present themselves as the guarantors of morality today. In Humanist eyes, this is contradictory. These religions have gambled away their trustworthiness. How could you delegate moral questions to a religion that once justified slavery? This mistrust does not just concern the past. Still today, religious moral frameworks fall behind secular values in many aspects. Most major religions do not fully support women’s rights, gays’ rights, and freedom of religion. All major religions conflict with Humanist values on one or more topics. Therefore, Humanists cannot approve of such systems.
Today, we know that moral frameworks can also be provided by secular systems. For example, the rule not to steal, kill, and injure is not specific to religion. Such moral frameworks have existed for millennia — inside religion, outside religion, and ascribed to a religion. Such frameworks also arise spontaneously in any group of people who have to make do with each other. These frameworks have then been developed further into legal systems. These legal systems perform so well that most countries favor them over religious frameworks. The Human Rights, in particular, have proven so fundamental that they are universally understood as a moral guideline in the Western world and beyond. This shows that moral questions do not have to be delegated to religion.
In fact, today’s Western values have little to do with Christian values: Human Rights, Freedom of Religion, Women’s Rights, Democracy, Republicanism, and Freedom of Speech have been created in opposition to Christianity 1. It is thus false to credit that religion with it.
All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.
CommunityThe second principal argument that is brought forward in favor of religion is the community that a religion can provide. Religious communities give adherents the feeling of safety, a sense of belonging, contact with like-minded people, and, ultimately, happiness. The community can also provide a safety net for those who are in distress. All of these factors establish a bond between the individual and the community by giving and taking from both sides.
This community has benefits that go beyond the individual person. Religious people (as compared to atheists) declare to have more trust in others, in their governments and in the legal system, to be less willing to break the law, and to hold stronger beliefs about the fairness of market outcomes 2. Trust, in turn, is the basic prerequisite for a society that wants to progress beyond clans. Thus, religious communities can play a significant role in creating and maintaining a society.
Going further, such communities can achieve things that are not possible for the individual alone. One example are the Monday Demonstrations in Germany, which ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. These demonstrations were also, at least in part, fuelled by religious opposition to the regime.
A Humanist perspectiveHumanists can point out that this “feeling of community” is not actually linked to the religion. It can be created by other ideologies as well. It has, for example, been used in communism and nationalism. A young girl would feel welcome and accepted in the “young pioneers”. A young boy would learn about comradeship and shared values in the “Hitler youth”. The problem is that the community feeling can lure people into a group, and can make them blind to the ideology. Therefore, we should never adhere to an ideology because we enjoy the community. We should only ever adhere to a community if we share the ideology.
Furthermore, as useful as the community might be, it also often leads to an estrangement to other communities, and thus to isolated cells of religious communities. The more estranged these communities become from each other, the more likely they are to despise each other. This may be one of the reasons why more than half of the world’s most violent conflicts run along religious or denominational boundaries.
That said, if people get together by their own choice because they share the same religion, and if they do so without shielding themselves from the rest of the society, then there is nothing a Humanist could have against that — on the contrary. Admittedly, atheist or Humanist communities have never achieved the social cohesion or intensity of religious communities.
Contribution to CultureA common argument in the West goes that religion has made extraordinary contributions to culture: A large part of our art is religiously inspired. Much of our finest music was composed by deeply religious people. Churches, temples, and mosques belong to the most impressive architectural achievements of humanity. Most notably, some cathedrals took generations to build. They could never have been completed if people had not believed in something that transcends their own life span.
Religion has inspired not just architecture, music, poetry, books, and paintings, but also philosophy, the laws, individual rights, and our social order in general. The very structure of our societies is based on religious values.
A Humanist perspectiveHumanists remark that religious cultural contributions are so prevalent because all other contributions were suppressed for a long time of history. At least in Europe, activities outside the religious frame were for a long time either unpopular or dangerous or both. During most of the past centuries, atheists were persecuted as heretics in Europe. The same is true for South America, where Christianity imposed its culture by the sword.
In Muslim lands, the situation was not much better. All historical interpretations of Islam condemned apostates to death. Christians suffered, too. During the Islamic Golden Age, Christians were not allowed to ring church-bells, to display religious symbols, or to proselytise. According to the Sharia at the time, they had to wear special signs on their cloths that identify them as unbelievers; they were not allowed to build new churches; and they were not allowed even to walk in the middle of the street.
It is thus not surprising that any artwork, and any expression of thought that we see from these places during these times were Muslim or Christian, respectively. Any contribution to society had to happen necessarily in the frame given by the dominant religion. Therefore, we cannot credit the religion with these contributions to culture. On the contrary, we have to blame the religion for violently suppressing all non-religious contributions. As Roy Sablosky puts it: “In a world without religion, Michaelangelo might have been free to paint something more interesting.”
All of this is not to devalue the religious contributions to our culture per se. On the contrary, religious artworks are some of the finest on the planet. To this day, religion remains an important source of inspiration — for composers, for painters, for architects, and for philosophers alike. This inspiration may even reach atheists, as the present book testifies. Religion has thus not lost its inspirational force. It has just lost its exclusive claim to it. Today, atheists participate with enjoyment and in some cases also with success in mankind’s cultural advancement: in the sciences, in the arts, and in ethics.
Social servicesIn Germany, the US, Ireland, and possibly other countries, religious organizations provide social services. They run hospitals, senior citizen homes, kindergardens, or social centers.
With such services, a religion materially contributes to the welfare of a society.
A Humanist PerspectiveHumanists regard such religious social services with caution, because they are usually financed with state money. It is the taxpayer who pays, and the religious organization that runs the service. In Germany, e.g., some hospitals are “Catholic” or “Protestant”, meaning that they are run by a church. Contrary to common perception, these hospitals do not get money at all from that church. They are financed by the state, and run by the churches. Thus, the religious organization is not a philanthropist, but a service provider.
This brings three problems: First, the religious organization reaps the praise for providing the social service. That is not fair, because the organization gets paid for it — just like any other service provider would. The state is thus financing a publicity campaign for that particular religion. The second problem is that the religious organizations will implement the service in a way that conforms to their values, and that these values are often at odds with the values of the state. As examples, consider the debate in Germany whether Catholic hospitals can administer the anti-baby pill to rape victims, the cases in Ireland where a religious hospital refused an abortion to a woman whose life was in danger, the debate in the US whether school vouchers shall also benefit Muslim schools, the debate in Germany whether religious employers may discriminate against employees of a different religion, or the debate whether creationism should be taught in school. In such cases, the religious organization does not even fully provide the service it is being paid for. Finally, religious organizations use their services also to promote their own ideology. Children, people in distress, and the old are particularly vulnerable to such advances. Thus, the state de facto supports the proselytism of the religion.
Therefore, from a Humanist perspective, it would be better if these services were provided by some other institution: the state, a company, or a secular charity.
Priests are not primarily concerned with good works. If that were their highest priority, they would become doctors, scientists, teachers, or artists — not priests.
CharityThere are numerous religious charities. These are at the forefront in the fight against poverty, warfare, famines, or epidemics — often under the most adversarial circumstances. In some places, where the state is not rich enough, not powerful enough, or entirely absent, religious charities are the only ones that provide such services. The people who work in these charities draw their strength also from their faith.
With such services, religion makes a material contribution to the welfare of society.
A Humanist PerspectiveHumanists can appreciate the service that religious charities provide. At the same time, they remark that religious charities also always promote the ideology of their religion. This can be very explicit, as in religious schools or kindergardens. It can also be subtle, by merely advertising the brand of the religion together with the provided service. Therefore, from a Humanist perspective, it would be better if the charity were provided by a neutral organization.
Fortunately, there exist numerous such neutral organizations: The largest charity, for example, is the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Despite its allusion to the Christian Cross and the Muslim Crescent, the organization is entirely secular. Nothing in its principles or statutes mentions God, Christianity or Islam. Even its symbol is not intended to be religious 3. The same applies to the other huge charities: Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders, and the charity organizations of the United Nations (like UNICEF) are entirely secular.
For private charitable foundations, the picture is not much different: Of the 10 wealthiest charitable foundations, only 1 is religious (The Church Commissioners for England, which manages historic property assets of the Church of England, and pays clergy pensions). The others are mostly driven by companies. They sponsor education, research, medicine, health, or child care . In the developed world, the efforts by churches are in any way dwarfed by their secular counterparts. No religion could have decimated hunger, disease, illiteracy, war, homicide, or poverty on the scales that the implementation of Enlightenment principles have4.
Thus, religion does not have a monopoly on charity. On the contrary, a large part of charitable work takes place outside religion. There is thus no need to bind charity to a religious organization.
If you really want to help people, you create a soup kitchen, or a free medical clinic, or a school — [not a church].
A packageA religion offers not just moral guidelines, the principle of charity, a community, and a cultural dimension, but an entire package of values. These include ethical values, rites, legends, beliefs, and a sense of life. This way, the religion can offer a coherent whole, which covers most aspects of everyday life — literally from the cradle to the grave. The value of this package is greater than the sum of its parts: it is a nearly complete guideline to life. In this system, everything fits together, and everything makes sense. There are no moral, metaphysical, or philosophical questions left open. It is a rail to hold on. This is a very attractive property of a religion.
A Humanist perspectiveHumanists point out that this coherent whole is of little use if parts of it are at odds with modern values. All major religions have a value system that is incompatible in one or more points with the Human Rights. In such a case, Humanists hold, it is better to have a patchwork of values rather than a coherent whole that contains foul apples.
Fortunately, Humanism itself is now old enough to also qualify as a coherent whole. Humanism provides moral values, a philosophy of life, a scientific dimension, and a political standpoint. All of these fit together and work in tandem. Together, they have brought more equality, more knowledge, more health, and more prosperity to more people than any of the previous systems. This makes Humanism a comprehensive life stance in its own right.
We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.
Religion is but a vehicleA religion provides a comprehensive package of moral values. This package provides a moral framework for all those who do not have the power or ability to develop their own. In this sense, religion is just a vehicle for a comprehensive guide to life. Religion may have its problems, but it is a necessary tool to convey a higher message.
This is the argument that Demopheles brings forward in Arthur Schopenhauer’s “Dialog about Religion”. Demopheles argues that religion is like a jug that holds the precious water. It makes no sense to break the jar and to carry the water with one’s hands. One has to make do with the jug as a necessary inconvenience for a higher good. Quite possibly, argues Demopheles, the metaphysical content of religion is wrong, but the ethical one is right. This can already be seen from the fact that all religions quarrel on the former, but agree on the latter. One should thus not worry about the details of religious dogmata, but rather appreciate the work that religion as a whole has done to domesticate mankind.
A Humanist perspectiveIn Schopenhauer’s dialog, Philaletes replies: Untruth may never serve as a vehicle for truth. If we permit untruth to be taught, and be it with good intentions, we open the door to malicious abuse at devastating scale — which is indeed what happens with religions.
What Schopenhauer could not know is that we now have a very tangible proof against Demopheles thesis: In Western secular countries, entire populations are doing just fine without religion. These countries prove that it is very well possible to carry the water without the jug.
Humanists believe that the key to a healthy and ethical society lies not in religion, but in education. The goal must not be to find ways to convey a message to under-educated people, but to educate these people.
In the dark, it is good to take a blind man as guide.
But you should let go of him by the day.
A Reason for LifeOne of the most burning questions of our human existence is why we exist. What is our purpose in this life? What should we do with our lives? Why do we get up every morning? The most popular remedy to these questions is religion. A religion can tell us why we exist, what is our purpose of life, and what we should do with our lives. This can be very reassuring. It gives us a place in this universe, and a direction to follow. It allows people to literally live a purposeful life.
An atheist may point out that the religious dogmata do not really provide an answer, because they just shift the question from us to the deity. For example, a believer may say that she exists because God exists, but she cannot tell us why God exists. However, God’s existence is not a very essential question for people. The existence of a god is a philosophical, meta-physical, supernatural, out-of-this-world conundrum. People can live their lives without worrying why God exists. They can also accept that they cannot understand why God exists, because he is supernatural. Their own existence, however, is a very tangible experience for them. It is very important for them to know why they are there. By answering the question about their own existence, and by neglecting the question about God’s existence, the religion answers the question that is more essential for people.
A Humanist perspectiveHumanists do not find religious perspectives on the sense of life convincing, because they ultimately reduce everything to “because God wants it that way”. As an alternative, Humanists put forward a philosophy in which people give sense to their life on their own.
That said, if religions give people a sense of life, and if it is a peaceful one, then who could object to this?
In what way is it comforting to know that God loves you, and that he once deliberately drowned everyone on Earth because they were “full of sin”, and that most people in the world are sinful now — including yourself?
RitesReligions typically offer a set of rites. These can be religious feasts, lent periods, prayers, ceremonies, or rituals. These rites serve several functions.
First, they give a structure to the year. Without feasts, every day would be like the other. With the feasts, there are dates to look forward to, days that feel special, and dates that are the occasion for family gatherings. People like this.
Second, the rites give a structure to life. They mark important moments such as birth, coming of age, marriage, and death. Without such marking points, life would be just a sequence of days. With them, it is a sequence of milestones, which is more attractive to people. The proverbial “white weddings” fall into this category.
Finally, the rites tell people what to do when they are in despair. If a loved one dies, you feel desperate. Religious rites cannot give you the person back, but they can at least tell you what to do: pray this and that, participate in this ceremony, sing this song, perform this ritual, and say these words. This frame reassures people. It is also a way of expressing grief in a socially accepted form. The same goes if you did something wrong and you feel remorse. Religion cannot undo whatever you did, but it can at least tell you what to do: confess to this person, pray these prayers, perform this ritual cleansing, say these words. In this way, religious rites give people something to cling to when their minds are in trouble.
A Humanist perspectiveFrom a Humanist perspective, such rites are mainly a waste of time. At the same time, it seems that people do find comfort in such rites. Therefore, there have been several attempts to offer secular rites instead — most notably in atheist regimes, but also in Humanist circles. For example, in Germany, the German Humanist Association offers secular rites for weddings, births, and funerals 5. However, these secular rites have never really caught on. In particular, they have never achieved the popularity of religious rites.
PrayerMost religions know some way of interacting with the supernatural. This can happen through prayers, meditation, or wishes.
Praying can have very positive effects. A prayer lets you think about your day, reflect your behavior, discover your wishes, and speak out your fears. In this way, praying contributes to your self-awareness. A prayer can also help you structure your thoughts, and prepare for upcoming difficulties. As it turns out, the mere planning of the things ahead can already give you peace of mind. A psychological experiment shows that students who were asked to plan the things they had to learn had lower levels of anxiety and better concentration than a control group who was planning an unrelated event — and comparable to those who worked on actually learning for the exam (Ralf Dobelli: The Art of Thinking Clearly / Chapter 93).
In cases where the prayer is directed to a particular deity, it can also give the adherent the feeling of being heard. This can be very comforting — in particular for people who are usually not heard. The idea that someone listens and that someone cares is very reassuring.
A prayer can also give the adherent the impression that they can somehow influence their future. Even if that is an illusion, it still helps people cope with their fate. Psychological experiments show that people can withstand more pain if they have a button that stops the pain — even if that button does not work. This phenomenon is known as the “Illusion of Control” (Rolf Dobelli: The Art of Thinking Clearly, p.55).
Finally, just the belief that prayer is effective may already bring about the desired effect. For example, if a person suffers from a psychosomatic illness, and if that person prays for betterment, then the illness may indeed abate. This phenomenon is known as the “Placebo Effect” , and prayer is one of the classical application cases.
A Humanist PerspectiveHumanists note that prayer has provably no effect other than psychological. Thus, adherents are dedicating their time to an illusion.
At the same time, this illusion apparently really helps people. If that is so, then what could a Humanist have against it?
Acts of worship improve the mortal, not the god.
AfterlifeAlmost all religions promise some continuation of life after death. In the optimal case, this continuation takes the form of paradise. Thus, a religion can take away the most essential human fear — the fear of death.
A family member of mine is an example. In old age, she was unable to walk, and bound to the bed. She spent years just lying in bed. And yet, she would rejoice whenever I came to visit her, shouting “Hooray, I am still alive!”. She lived in a world where she felt protected by God, and where she was sure that she would join her husband in Heaven one day. This conviction made life easier for her.
The belief in the afterlife helps people cope not just with their own death, but also with the death of a loved one. It is easier to accept the death of a family member if one can believe that the other person is in a safe place.
A Humanist PerspectiveHumanists can demur that few people in the West actually believe the stories of life after death. People do not usually rejoice when someone dies, in the belief that this person would be in Heaven. This is because they know fully well that Heaven is nothing more than wishful thinking. This is not just a modern phenomenon. In the 13th century, King Louis IX of France led a crusade with the goal to make Egypt Christian land. When their soldiers were defeated, they decided to surrender. One of the soldiers proposed instead to have themselves killed so that they all go to Paradise. Yet, the soldiers prefered to be captured rather than sent to Paradise (Y. N. Harari: 21 lessons for the 21st century; M. Francisque Michel, M. Ambr. Firmin Didot, M. Paulin Paris: Memoirs of John, Lord of Joinville, p. 443). This shows that even those who set out to spread the Christian faith do not believe in its stories. The same goes even for the most conservative strains of Islam: On November 13th, 2015, the Islamic State orchestrated suicide attacks on Paris as a revenge for the French military offense in Syria. At the same time, the Islamic State declared that all people who died in the French offense were martyrs who would be in Paradise. So then, the Islamic State should actually be grateful that the Frenchmen sent so many of their brethren to Paradise. Yet, they seem to be angy about it (Y. N. Harari: 21 lessons for the 21st century). When Armin Navad, a devout Muslim, tried to commit suicide at the age of 14 years in order to reach Paradise, his action caused not admiration, but shock (plus severe physical wounds and a root of doubt that made him one of the most vocal ex-Muslim atheists 6). And the reason is that most people, religious or not, know fully well that life after death is just a pious story. And hence, most religious people are just as afraid of death as atheists.
The only people who really believed in Paradise in the case of the Islamic State were the suicide attackers themselves. They believed that they go to Heaven when they blow themselves up. And this is the ugly face of the belief in the afterlife: Suicide attacks happen mainly because the attacker has no fear of death. The fear of death is a natural barrier to one’s behavior. Once that barrier is removed, people are capable of the most horrendous acts. If people are no longer afraid to die, the principal obstacle to warfare is eliminated.
Then there is the large set of people who believe in Paradise, but not enough to kill themselves. The problem is that they believe not just in Heaven, but also in Hell. Over the millennia, the threat of hell has terrorised millions of people. Still today, the Internet is full of people who ask whether they go to hell for this or that. My own grandmother was terribly afraid of hell. With hell, religion has not actually taken away the fear of death. Rather, it has amplified and instrumentalized that fear. All major religions have jumped on that train.
Thus, the promise of life after death is a double-edged sword, which has been exploited for demagogic purposes at times. However, as my family member testifies, there are truly cases where it helps someone cope with their fear of death. Thus, even if the promise of heaven is delusional in Humanist eyes, it may have its raison-d’être.
So, now, if I ask myself, where is my childhood? — or, where is the time we spent as a family in the park along the Alster, long before my mother died? Well, physics says that it’s still there. That happy crowd, that sunlit moment, they are where they always were and always will be: in 1967. My mother was born in a place, in a moment, and died in another place, in another moment. Her conscious life connects those two space and it always will. That, to me, is a comforting thought.
Thanking GodThe abrahamic religions require their adherents to thank God for the good things in life. At the same time, they insist that God is not responsible for the bad things in life. While this is contradictory in atheist eyes, it serves an interesting purpose: It forces people to think of the good things in their life. Since they are encouraged to thank God, and discouraged from blaming him, they have to come up with good things that they can thank him for. Thinking about the good things in one’s life is a great strategy for finding happiness.
Furthermore, the very act of thanking may also have positive psychological effects.
A Humanist PerspectiveFor a Humanist, it is contradictory that we have to thank someone for the good things in life, but are not allowed to blame him for the bad things. It is but a cheap trick to solidify the position of the deity.
Besides, it is unfair to thank a god for works that have been done by humans. For example, if someone recovers from an illness, they should not thank God, but rather the doctors who have spent 5 years of their life studying medicine, or the scientists who have spent their life finding the medicine that cured the illness. Heaping all the glory on God devalues the effort that humans have put into it. So far, God has not eradicated a single illness from this world. Science has. Thus, people should be thankful to humans rather than to God. They should donate to the organization that helped them, and they should spread the word of the science that cured them. Instead, they just pray.
Of course, people can also do both: They can pray and they can thank the people who helped them. If both are combined, then there is nothing a Humanist could object. On the contrary, thanking God is a way to become more aware of the positive aspects of life.
I have food, clothing and shelter. At this moment I am warm at 25°C — despite the outdoor temperature of 5°C. A huge array of products are available that make my life easier and better: I can watch 80 channels on cable with my TV, I can video-chat with nearly anybody in the world, and I can travel almost anywhere, too. My point here is simple: We take it completely for granted, but life in the developed world is utterly amazing. Absolutely, utterly, amazing. Who created all of this? Did God? Certainly not.
HappinessReligion has a positive effect on personal well-being. The vast majority of studies suggests that religion is correlated positively with happiness . Religious people are more satisfied with their lifes, they are better at coping with stress, less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, less likely to suffer from depression, and less likely to consider suicide.
To understand the link between religiousness and happiness, let us turn to the factors that make people happy. Research is converging on the following factors 7:
- many and deep human relationships (friendship, marriage, community)
- altruistic acts
- making lists of things for which you are grateful
- cultivating a general attitude of gratitude
- sharing novel experiences with a loved one
- deploying a ready “forgiveness reflex” when loved ones slight you
- Religion gives the believer a community, and promotes marriage.
- Religion encourages charitable activities.
- Religion encourages “making lists of things for which you are grateful” — otherwise known as prayer.
- Religion cultivates a general attitude of gratitude towards the supernatural.
- Religion allows sharing novel experiences with a loved one — again a function fulfilled by prayer.
- Religion encourages forgiveness in general, and forgiveness towards the supernatural in particular.
Another important factor is that religions provide us with a meaning of life. People can bear almost any dispair if they see a deeper reason for it. What has been used extensively to justify suffering is in fact a recipe for happiness. In Nietzsche’s words: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In addition, religion provides emotional comfort, helps cope with injustice, and encourages a healthy lifestyle. Furthermore, religion can bring psychological peace of mind, as Pamela Milam explains: Spirituality helps followers examine their feelings and mindfully witness their own fleeting emotions. Ultimately it helps us have a calmer outlook, lower blood pressure, and a more even-handed approach to dealing with life’s stresses 8. With all of this taken together, religiousness objectively correlates with a happier life.
A Humanist PerspectiveHumanists can only admire the fact that religiousness makes people happier. Interestingly, this only works when there are less religious people around as well. In countries where all people are very religious, the overall happiness is below that of secular countries.
Happiness is not a goal.
It is a by-product of a life well lived.
Coping with injusticeAll major religions know some higher entity that delivers justice. In the abrahamic religions, this role is taken by God. He punishes the wrongdoers in the afterlife. In the Indian religions, the role is taken by karma — bad deeds will entail suffering in the coming life. In the Chinese religions, an abstract entity called Heaven watches over injustices, and acts accordingly.
This promise of justice is, of course, an empty one in atheist eyes. Religion promises that wrongdoers will be punished in the hereafter, but that is merely wishful thinking. And yet, it fulfils an important purpose: It helps people accept that there is injustice in this life. If an injustice happens and the perpetrator slips away, atheists can do nothing except being angry about it. Believers, in contrast, know that the last word has not been spoken. They can trust that the perpetrator will find their just fate in this life or the next. This gives them a peace of mind where the atheist has no such remedy. The same is true for suffering in general: Religions can give people the confidence that all suffering will eventually find a “happy ending”.
Let me give an example here: I had a friend who had a dispute with a colleague. The conflict continued for some days, but they could not come to an agreement. Finally, my colleague talked to their boss. The boss listened, and sided with my friend. He said he would talk to the colleague. From that moment on, my friend considered the problem solved: he had his fair hearing, he got the satisfaction that his boss agreed with him, and he was sure that justice would be done. Hence, he resumed his normal work relationship with his colleague. He was wise enough to never ask whether his boss really talked to the colleague...
A Humanist PerspectiveHumanists observe that the promise of supernatural justice has two effects: On the one hand, it reassures people. It helps people accept that they cannot solve all problems on Earth in our lifetime. Thus, religion provides an important emotional support to people who suffer, or who witness suffering.
On the other hand, the promise of supernatural justice can also make people accept injustice more easily. For example, the promise of supernatural oversight has been used to justify climate change, the caste system, slavery, the crusades (“Kill them all; God will recognize his own”, Wikipedia / Cædite eos), or suppression of the lower classes. In all of these cases, the argument went: Don’t worry about injustice, God will sort it out later! Thus, the very same reasoning that makes believers accept injustice that they cannot counter can also make them accept injustice that they should counter.
This principle is at work not just in historical times, but also in the present. Statistically speaking, people in more religious countries tend to be more resigned concerning their plight. They are more likely to believe that they cannot influence their own fate, leaving things to destiny (see my essay Why are poor countries poor? / Values). While this resignation may be a reasonable psychological protection mechanism, it may also lead to a passiveness that actually fosters the adverse conditions in such countries.
Thus, we find ourselves in a delicate dilemma between cases where a plight has to be accepted (and where religion can help), and cases where any deferral to later justice would be a gross irresponsibility.
Personal StrengthReligion can not just make people happy, it can also give them personal strength. Millions of people, some of them politicians, scientists, or celebrities, define themselves by their religious belief. Such a belief does not just guide people, it also supports them in times of distress. Patients with a difficult illness, prisoners in abusive regimes, people who live in poverty, military servicemen, and people with trouble in their life can all draw strength from their belief. Religion gives them guidance, hope, emotional stability, and force — in bad times as in good times.
One possible reason is that religion can deliver a truly repentant from their bad conscience. As a theology professor explains: Religion can help us make peace with the things we have done 9. Another possible reason is that religion boosts our self-esteem: It tells us that we are worthy to be loved (or at least observed) by some higher power 10. Yet another factor may be that religious beliefs are usually unfalsifiable. Thus, a believer can believe in something that can never be proven wrong. This is a comfort that only religion can provide.
Interestingly, this positive effect applies not just to the large religions, but also to the newer religious movements. I have talked to a Scientologist who told me the following story: He was caught in a trap of drug addiction and joblessness. There was little hope he could ever get rid of his addiction. Then he got to know the teachings of Scientology. He started learning more about this group, and he began attending regular meetings with Scientologists. Through this faith, he could free himself from his addiction. He got a job, and he put his life back on track. Through Scientology, he had achieved something he considered impossible before. Today, he volunteers for recruitment at Scientology.
This story suggests that faith itself can help people get their life back on track.
A Humanist PerspectiveHumanists can point out two problems of this approach: First, people can find personal well-being in any religion — even in Scientology, as we just saw. This bears the danger that weaker members of society fall prey to all types of dubious groups and preachers: televangelists, sects, faith healing groups, or indeed Scientologists. People tend to mistakenly associate the ideology of these groups with their own well-being.
Second, the personal strength that a religion delivers can turn into the conviction that one’s own faith is infallible. People to whom this happens are so convinced of their faith, that no rational argument can discourage them. This is dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. If such people want to circumcise their sons, marry off their underage daughters, or fly an airplane into a skyscraper, they will do it. Their faith gives them strength that transcends human law. It also grants them exculpation where no such exculpation should be granted. Thus, the personal strength that religion delivers can turn into blind conviction if it is taken too far.
These are, however, extreme cases. The vastly more frequent case is where religion really helps people cope with their life. In particular, religion provide perspectives that go beyond the human life. With this, they can offer people a comfort that secular systems, by definition, cannot offer.
HealthWe have seen that religion can give personal strength, help cope with injustice, give hope for the afterlife, make people happier, and give them a reason for life. All of these are positive effects of religion that are hard to reproduce with secular systems. But that is not all. Religion has one more very palatable effect on people’s well-being: It makes people healthier. Thousands of studies have analyzed the link between religiousness and health, and many of them find a positive correlation (Wikipedia / Religion and health, Wikipedia / Psychology of Religion, Harold G. Koenig: Religion, Spirituality, and Health: The Research and Clinical Implications, 2012, Iulia O. Basu-Zharku: The Influence of Religion on Health, 2011The Economist).
Four reasons have been proposed for this [ibid]:
- Religion encourages healthy behaviors (through prescribing a certain diet and/or discouraging the abuse of alcoholic beverages, smoking, etc., religion can protect and promote a healthy lifestyle)
- Religion provides social support (people can experience social contact with co-religionists and have a web of social relations that can help and protect whenever the case)
- Religion influences the psychological state (religious people can experience a better mental health, more positive psychological states, more optimism and faith, which in turn can lead to a better physical state due to less stress)
- Religion benefits from “psi influences” (supernatural laws that govern “energies” not currently comprehended by science but possibly understandable at some point by science).
Quite naturally, atheists will not find many arguments in favor of the last point. But that does not change the fact that religion objectively correlates with better health. This correlation is sometimes broken down along two axes:
- “religion”, as the practice of a moral framework, which leads to healthier life choices.
- “spirituality”, as the inner confidence in some higher power, which helps people cope with stress and adverse circumstances.
A Humanist PerspectiveHumanists note that the positive effects of religion on health come at a price: Besides useful rituals, religions also prescribe rituals that go from the useless to the harmful. Consider the damage done by genital mutilation alone. Or consider the habit of marrying off girls in their puberty — still widespread in many countries. Both practices are supported by local religious beliefs, and both practices are objectively harmful. Religion just splashes out a whole bunch of practices, some of which are admittedly useful, but many of which are actually absurd or damaging. This is because the practices are not the consequence of scientific study, but of evolutionary trial and error over the millennia.
In some cases, religion effectively works against a more healthier life: In the US, Charismatic Christianity has achieved legal exemptions from the duty to vaccinate children. It has also been granted the right to prefer faith healing over effective medical treatment — at the immediate disadvantage for the concerned children.
All of these critiques stand their ground. However, they do not change the fact that religion correlates with a healthier life overall. As long as that happens in the frame of the law, there is nothing that a Humanist could object to it — on the contrary.
In the past, when doctors believed they could cure a patient by letting him bleed, a religion may have saved lives purely by keeping its adherents in the church and away from the hospital.
Protection from evilA religious person can pray to gods in order to ask for protection from illnesses, bad luck, accidents, or being fired. Even less religious people may find comfort in the idea that there is someone above who watches over them. And even if God, or praying to God, has provably no effect on the physical world just the thought that it might help can be comforting.
Atheists have no such comfort.
A Humanist PerspectiveA Humanist (and any atheist) can retort that supernatural methods provably do not provide any protection against physical danger. They are an expression of hope, but ultimately remain wishful thinking. Worse, they can lull a believer into a false sense of security, making him or her feel protected while there is actually no protection.
Therefore, the protections against the imponderables of life are the same for atheists and theists. They include:
- Get a good education
- Select your life partner carefully
- Take your work seriously, and do a good job at it
- Take care of your body, monitor your health, and exercise regularly
- Follow all safety instructions prescribed by the law
- Handle your data and your digital identity responsibly (see, e.g., my Practical guide to data security)
These measures provably reduce the risk of disaster. In order to reduce the damage once it happened, you can
- subscribe to a health insurance and an accident insurance
- build up a financial buffer
- have a network of friends and family
These measures may sound pedestrian in comparison to the array of methods that a believer can use. However, unlike the supernatural methods, the “atheist measures” provably reduce the risk of damage. They are thus a useful way to spend your time.
It is much more sound to take the risks you can measure rather than to measure the risks you’re taking.
Making Society Better
Happier SocietyReligious beliefs make people happy. This suggests that we should all become religious, so that our society will be happier.
Unfortunately, the solution is not so simple. A UN study has measured happiness across countries in the world 11. It shows that the most happy countries are all non-religious. The most unhappy countries, in contrast, are all very religious:
1 Denmark 7.8 Least religious
2 Finland 7.6 Least religious
3 Norway 7.5 Least religious
4 Netherlands 7.5 Least religious
5 Canada 7.5 Less religious
6 Switzerland 7.5 Less religious
7 Sweden 7.4 Least religious
8 New Zealand 7.4 Least religious
9 Australia 7.4 Least religious
10 Ireland 7.3 Less religious
... 146 Congo (Brazz.) 3.8 Most religious
147 Tanzania 3.8 Most religious
148 Haiti 3.8 ?
149 Comoros 3.7 ?
150 Burundi 3.7 Most religious
151 Sierra Leone 3.6 Most religious
152 Central African Rep. 3.6 Most religious
153 Benin 3.5 More religious
154 Togo 3.0 More religious
As the UN report explains, 80% of the inter-country differences can be attributed to the same few reasons: the material, social, and institutional support that the country provides. Comparing the top four to the bottom four countries, average income is the most stunning difference: it differs by a factor of 40. Thus, in defiance of a common mantra, happiness quite plainly correlates with wealth. This is true both on the individual level and on the national level: people who are richer than their compatriots are happier, and people who live in richer countries are happier overall4. Other differences are: healthy life expectancy is 28 years greater, people are much more likely to have someone to call on in times of trouble (95% vs. 48%), to have a sense of freedom (94% vs. 63%), and are less likely to perceive widespread corruption in business and government (33% vs. 85%). This suggests that it is not religion that makes people happy or not, but overall country performance.
Happiness will ultimately come from the path you carve for yourself, the people you surround yourself with (and choose to love), and the acceptance of situations you cannot change (i.e., your ability to move on). But none of these can happen if you don’t have enough to eat and adequate shelter, and if you don’t take care of yourself.
Better SocietyReligions mostly want their followers to be generous, honest, peaceful and healthy. Therefore, we would expect religious people to fare better overall than non-religious people.
At least in the US, atheists tend to be better educated and richer than theists. This does not mean that atheists would in general have a “better life” than theists, because there are more things to life than education and money. On issues such as happiness or health (not measured in the studies), religious people may well score better than atheists. Also, such positive correlation between atheism and education does not tell us whether one of them caused the other. However, it indicates that religion does not automatically improve all aspects of life.
The same holds on the macro-geographical scale. Countries that are more religious 12 tend to be
- more corrupt
- less developed
- less democratic
- less free
- less peaceful
- with less life expectancy
- less happy
This does not mean that religion makes society worse. It just means that it does not make it better. And this is the elephant in the room: Despite all the good things that religion claims to promote, and despite the considerable power that it wields over society, it does not make society better. It just does not work.
Religions are like wisdom teeth.
Even though they were crucial to our ancestors, today they are unnecessary, and they bring nothing but frustration and pain. Also, they provide us with no wisdom.
Why these countries underperformThere is a variety of reasons why poor countries are poor. I discuss them at length in my essay Why are poor countries poor?. Some factors are actually due to religion itself. For example, the denigration of women has a direct negative impact on 50% of the population. The focus on rituals instead of health, good government, or literacy has set the priorities wrong. The estrangement that religious belief generates between the different communities may be one of the reasons for over half of the most deadly conflicts in this world. In the abrahamic religions, the insistence on producing children contributes to the overpopulation, and thus ultimately to the undernourishment, in these regions. The general teaching that everything that happens is the will of the gods may make people complacent. The promise of life after death may even make people see life as a transitionary phase, in which there is little use investing.
Other reasons for poverty are plainly outside religion’s control: foreign interventions, dictatorships, natural disasters, or averse climate. Hence, this book does not say that religion would be fully responsible for the misery in these places. Rather, it says that the misery in these places is responsible for the religiousness there: The more adverse the circumstances, the greater the need to cling to the supernatural.
Better Society (2)We have seen that religious countries are less happy than secular ones. Furthermore, they are less well developed on nearly all socio-economic accounts. A common objection goes that religious societies may fare better on accounts that are not so easily measurable. Consider, e.g., the care for the poor, the stability of families, or altruism. A Gallup poll, e.g., finds that people who attend religious services are more generous 13. They are also more likely to help others 14. Religions also foster care for the elderly, and stability of maritial relationships. Apart from this, they provide an overall spiritual environment. Religions make people appreciate the grandness of creation, guide them towards a less materialistic life, give them spiritual fulfillment, and bring them closer to God. This, in turn, makes religious societies more aware of the transcendent dimension of life.
All of these items can be considered advantages of religious societies. Yet, even in combination, they do not outweigh the advantages of secular societies. It is true that elderly people often lead a lonely life in secular countries. In return, they also live around 20 years longer. It is true that secular people may be less altruistic than religious people. In return, secular societies have better socio-economic indicators and better welfare systems, meaning that less people need other people’s help to survive. In Germany for example, only 0.4% of the general population live on public social support 15. As a consequence, very few people in the developed world would want to change their life with a person in the developing world — notwithstanding all the talk of spiritual fulfilment that poor people in developing countries supposedly enjoy. All the discussion of closeness to God, or a more happy, nature-oriented, or spiritual life in religious countries cannot hide the fact that life in these countries is worse on almost all accounts. This is why many more people emigrate into secular countries than into religious countries. People vote with their feet.
In view of these facts, the admiration of religious societies appears to be little more than a nostalgic idealization.
What should the empirical evidence for religion be? It should produce peaceful, strong, secure people who are right with God and right with the world. I don’t see that evidence very often. So then I find myself with the Pirahã. They have all these qualities that I am trying to tell them they could have. They are the ones who are living life the way I'm saying it ought to be lived, they just don’t fear heaven and hell.
- Philipp Möller
- Aldashev & Platteau: Religion, Culture, and Development
- International Committee of the Red Cross: The history of the emblems, 2007-01-14
- Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018
- Humanistischer Verband Deutschlands
- Armin Navabi: Why there is no god, 2014
- John Medina: Brain Rules
- Pamela Milam: How Religion and Spirituality Affect Our Health, 2014
- Philip Moeller: Why Religion Is Linked With Better Health And Well-Being, 2012-04-15
- Clay Routledge: Is religion good for your health?, 2009-08-31
- United Nations: World Happiness Report, 2012
- Gallup: What Alabamians and Iranians Have in Common, 2009-02-09
- Gallup: Religious attendance relates generosity worldwide, 2009-09-04
- Gallup: Worldwide highly religious more likely help others, 2008-10-08
- Focus: Immer mehr Menschen sind auf Sozialhilfe angewiesen, 2013-10-28