Is Faith Good in Practice? Risks and Benefits of Religious Belief
The purpose of this article is to put aside questions of absolute truth and think about religion and faith in terms of the real-world consequences of an individual's beliefs. Personally, I think that capital-t Truth is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain by reason and argument alone, or by our senses alone. Hard line atheists who firmly believe that there is nothing supernatural want to be shown evidence that I feel no human being is capable of digging up on their own. If an all-powerful being had His or Her own reasons for eluding humans, and had many supernatural powers beyond those of humans, they would be quite capable of eluding human reason and the human senses (even when our senses can be enhanced by machines). So, if you put aside the probably futile search to find a proof that God exists or doesn't exist 100%, you're left with deciding on matters of faith based on what's right for you personally.
French philosopher Blaise Pascal is famous for saying that it's best to sort of "bet on" the Christian God's existence and the truth of the Christian faith. He said that:
- If God exists and you believe in Him, you gain eternal salvation.
- If God exists and you do not believe in Him, you are eternally damned.
- If God does not exist and you believe in Him, you lost nothing and gained nothing.
- If God does not exist and you do not believe in Him, you lost nothing and gained nothing.
So in his mind, it was better to take the "safe bet" offered by faith than to not believe and risk damnation.
But do we really gain and lose nothing by choosing faith? I think he's oversimplifying that. For example, if I have faith but my religion turns out to be false, then when I die my afterlife is still just as uncertain as if I had not had any faith at all. If I have faith and my faith tells me to fight in a holy war, and I lose a limb, I will have suffered immensely for a faith that may or may not be true. If someone's faith changes and that causes a rift between them and their family, that's also a consequence that could happen.
Belief in God vs. Following a Religion
Religions do not simply demand belief in God and that's that. They tend to use belief in God as a starting point, after which there are hundreds of other beliefs put forth that you must accept, and many actions throughout the year and time you must devote to them to prove your faith. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, for example, there are weekly gatherings, as well as holy days throughout the year that are observed with things like ritual, fasting, storytelling, song, reading from the Bible or Qu'ran, etc. These are community events, where everyone participates.
If you think from the atheistic perspective, you could be devoting all this time and effort to nonsense for no reason, and that means that you're sacrificing the most precious commodity you have in your one, limited life: Time. Is religion worth the time you devote to it, or the effort or the resources? Pascal acts like faith costs nothing, but it only costs nothing if you're believing a faith without practicing it. Christianity says belief in Jesus is sufficient for salvation, but it is also seen as a mere starting point towards living a righteous life. I don't really think God would be too happy with someone who lived an evil life, never read the Bible or went to church, etc., even if they claimed to believe.
Social and Psychological Risks and Benefits
So, what are the risks and benefits of spending that time and devoting it to religion?
Well, some of the benefits may include:
- More secure marriage and family life, if you share religious beliefs with your partner.
- Support from the religious community you are a part of.
- Opportunities to do charitable work and to donate to causes you might not otherwise have encountered.
- Regular encouragements for living a better life.
- A sense of guidance in life, even the possibility of spirituality-based counseling.
- Feeling a sense of identity and purpose.
- Feeling that you belong to a "tribe" of other believers, like you're all one extended family.
- Having your religion to go to for answers to difficult ethical dilemmas.
- Having religion in common with people when you socialize.
- Certain countries have political benefits for being part of a certain religion.
But, with all these possible benefits come possible negative consequences or risks, such as:
- Alienating yourself from different-minded spouse, family member, friend, etc.
- Encouragement to look down upon or shun people without the same religious beliefs as you. (Having an us vs. them outlook)
- Getting involved in political or even military conflict between your faith and others.
- Being associated with negative stereotypes associated with your faith.
- Restrictions about diet, lifestyle, sex, and who it is acceptable vs. unacceptable to marry.
- Obligations to do things that take time, money, and effort.
- Obligations to follow religious leaders, even if you personally dislike or disagree with them on certain things.
There's also the issue of doubts that will inevitably arise if you choose a path of religious faith. Will you be able to handle all the arguments against your religion, both arising from within and from without?
I think that most people choose religion not necessarily for capital-t truth reasons, but for reasons that are more mundane and practical. For example, if I am gay and I want to marry another woman, I'm probably going to look for a gay-friendly religion or denomination that will accept my life choice and allow me to marry my partner. They usually are looking for an identity and a community, because that is a very powerful human psychological need that we all share. It's also because, I feel anyway, that ultimate truth is elusive, even beyond human comprehension. But we can understand things like what kind of groups we want associated with, how we want to raise our children, what ethical principles are most important to us, and what makes us truly happy. So I think when atheists talk philosophically about the existence of God, they're missing a lot of the smaller reasons people have for following certain religions.