Is Religion Beneficial?
Many will argue that belief in a god is beneficial to society even if there is no god. The reason being that if one believes a god or judge is watching them and has the power to punish them they will refrain from committing crimes.
It is all well and good for a leader or government to make laws, but they are only human. One human telling another to be moral carries little weight, whereas a god is recognized as supreme, knowing more than mere humans and having much more power.
Add to a god the idea that if we live right we will live forever, and if we fail to live correctly we will be punished after death, a believer has a double reason to act in accordance with moral law. The first is the promise of personal gain and reward, the second is fear of eternal terror and suffering.
Other humans can’t promise everlasting life, and they can’t threaten reprisal after death. So god is said to be a good alternative.
Even the Greeks back in 500 BCE debated this idea as we can see from the Critias fragment. This is part of a Greek play written over 2500 years ago, and yet it could have been written by any sceptic today.
“A time there was when disorder ruled Human lives, which were then, like lives of beasts, enslaved to force; nor was there then reward for the good, nor for the wicked, punishment. Next, it seems to me, humans established laws for punishment, that justice might rule over the tribe of mortals and wanton injury be subdued; and whosoever did wrong was penalized.
Next, as the laws held [mortals] back from deeds of open violence, but still such deeds were done in secret.
Then, I think, some shrewd man, first a man in judgment wise, found for mortals the fear of Gods, thereby to frighten the wicked should they even act or speak or scheme in secret.
Hence it was that he introduced the divine. Telling how the divinity enjoys endless life, hears and sees, and takes thought and attends to things; and his nature is divine, so that everything which mortals say is heard and everything done is visible. Even if you plan in silence, some evil deed, it will not be hidden from the Gods: for discernment lies in them. So, speaking words like these, the sweetest teaching did he introduce, concealing truth under untrue speech.
The place he spoke of as the Gods' abode was that by which he might awe humans most,-- The place from which, he knew, terrors came to mortals and things advantageous in their wearisome life -- The revolving heaven above, in which dwell the lightnings, and awesome claps of thunder, and the starry face of heaven, beautiful and intricate by that wise craftsman Time,-- From which, too, the meteor's glowing mass speeds and wet thunderstorm pours forth upon the earth.
Such were the fears with which he surrounded mortals, and to the divinity he gave a fitting home, by this his speech, and in a fitting place, and [thus] extinguished lawlessness by laws.”
The line I like the most is this one: “So, speaking words like these, the sweetest teaching did he introduce, concealing truth under untrue speech.”That seems to be the crux of the point of those who say that religion serves us even if there is no god. Proponents of that opinion are saying that morality is best served by lies. The end justifies the means.
In the last line we read: “and [thus] extinguished lawlessness by laws.” If that were really true I might even agree. But even after 2500 years of this writing, and since well before that, many people have been committing crimes in secret and in plain sight regardless of their religious beliefs. I’m sure the author knew that, and so do many believers. But even today the idea that religion has saved us is prevalent.
The fact of the matter is a bit different. Yes it was wise men who brought us the idea of morality ties to religion. But they were men and woman, not gods. They embodied the idea of morality and the hope that others would see its benefits as well. And that is the key.
Human are said in Christianity in particular to be immoral by nature. We need a god to give us morals and keep us on the right track. But in fact, this is not the case. Morality is demanded by cause and effect. We long ago learned that our best means of survival was in our numbers. This meant out best means of survival was in tribes or large family groups.
While one tribe would fight the other for food and territory among other things, within the tribe there were social and moral laws. As time went by these tribes merged and were extended until we have nations. Nations still war with each other, but have codes of moral and ethical conduct within themselves. This has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with human nature.
It is a human’s wish to be loved and to be able to give love. To have security so they can have freedom to pursue interests beyond watching their back in case the neighbour sneaks up on them.
Every culture of the world has a golden rule. They are all basically variations on the same theme. I wrote an essay on that subject and listed some of them. The point is that we all know the benefits of acting morally towards each other. We don’t need that idea to be enforced by a lie of reward and punishment after death. We have enough on the line with our current lives.
We also know that religion and belief in gods brings another kind of threat: The fundamentalist, zealot, and fanatic who commit crimes in the name of their god. We know that there have been wars fought over discrepancies in belief. Of course we fight over political issues as well, and then claim the right because our gods tell us to. More lies for the greater good?
In Europe for at least a few generations before the second world war life was uniform. My mother and her brothers and sisters were brought up in an ideal world. Everyone knew their place and what was expected of them by god and their society. Everyone in a certain region was of the same religion and the same beliefs. They had by all accounts a fairytale life. Many people didn’t feel the need to lock their doors or put bikes and tools under lock and key. Communities were small and crime was rare. Religion was working.
However, during and after the war all that changed for a number of reasons I won’t detail here. My mother now says that all of her brothers and sisters feel like they had been lied to all their lives. Even my grandfather by the end of his life felt the same way. His family had been patrons of the church for generations. Bishops and missionaries would come to the house every week for supper and drinks, and to collect some money. But by the middle of the war he put a stop to it because of what he then knew.
There has always been corruption in the church. In fact there has always been corruption in all religions. But there have always been people who hated it and tried to stop it as well. But a priest or a pope or any holly man is supposed to be above all that. That is why when scandals come out about child molestation, priests who consort with married woman, priests who take money, or any scandal at all hurts the faith of the masses.
When materialism and atheism first came to be it was feared we would all revert to chaos and immorality. It was a discussion of the time whether we had to be moral if there was no god. What was stopping us from doing whatever we wanted to do? Books were written about it like the Picture of Dorian Grey.
But that didn’t happen because we discovered that morality is not a lie. What is a lie is that we need a god to enforce it. Cause and effect enforces it and those who believe they can do what they like without consequence if there is no god, are quickly slapped across the face by cause and effect.
A lie for the benefit of all is not the answer. Rather the truth of the matter is the answer. I can’t say that no god exists. That is not the lie. The lie is that we are not moral beings without such a god. That lie is no longer required.
What is required is that we all teach our children that to be moral is for the good of all and brings rewards right here on earth in their lifetime. We need to teach them that greed is wrong and that when dealing with others, a win/win scenario is always possible and always preferable. We need to teach them that causing others harm brings harm to many and to themselves. Conflict brings conflict. We all know these things instinctively. Teaching our children cause and effect is far better than telling them they are sinners and need to be watched, just in case they do evil.
So even if we ignore all the negative impact of religion and the belief in gods has caused, and recognize that some people were tempered in their actions because of a belief in a god even if that god does not exist, we no longer need the lie. The truth should serve us far better.
We are all brothers and sisters. Not because we were created by a god, but because we are all one race: The human race.
To me, the Christian and all the rest of us, should focus on one thing and one thing only: Love each other as if the other is part of you. Instead of seeing ourselves as nations and religious groups, we just need to see that we are all one family. Gods and lies are not required.