In the book of Proverbs, chapter 31, we are instructed as to the proper use of beer and wine.
Let beer be for those who are perishing,
wine for those who are in anguish!
Let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
Part of the attraction of alcoholic beverages is that alcohol physically deadens the brain, starting with the parts that allow you to perceive and reason clearly. If life is good, you don’t necessarily want that, because it diminishes your ability to experience and appreciate the good things available to you. But if life basically sucks, then maybe you are better off being too drunk to know it, just like the Bible says. On the other hand, some of us might suggest you’d be better off improving your life instead of just stupifying yourself to the point that you can no longer see how bad it really is.
What’s interesting is that you sometimes hear Christians arguing that their faith plays a similar role to beer and wine. What harm is there in faith, they ask, if it makes people feel better about their lives? Let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.
Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the people, but I think it’s more biblical to make the analogy to beer and wine. Alcohol is a more social intoxicant. People get together for a beer and a laugh, in a way that opium addicts do not. Plus there’s a broader range of intoxication with beer (though I must confess I don’t have much of a basis for assessing the experience of opium addiction). Beer is more socially acceptable.
But does beer really improve your life? If you’re having a beer or two at a party, that might be a plus, but if your drinking starts to assume biblical proportions, and if the whole point of your drinking is to forget how bad your life is, then most people would call that negative and even harmful. Beer becomes a bad thing when it gets to the point that it’s rendering you incapable of seeing and thinking clearly. It’s a form of giving up, of resigning yourself to a life that will never get any better, and that is more a thing to be escaped from than a thing to improve.
When people are talking about religion, and when you show them all the reasons for why their faith is unlikely to be true, and when they come back with the argument that religion is nevertheless a good thing because it makes people feel good, that’s the “bad beer” role of religion. That’s people resigning themselves to life as it is, without hope of improvement, under the soothing intoxicant of pleasurable fantasies. What beer does via chemical action on the physical brain cells, religion does by short circuiting the programming by which you make sense of your perceptions. You can look at the truth, but can no longer see it, because the religion has deadened your mind as effectively as a six-pack. Drink and forget your poverty, and remember your misery no more.
Suffering is a bad thing, and reduced suffering is a good thing. But the best way to reduce suffering is to eliminate the cause, not to just ignore it. Just like beer, too much religion is not just an escape from suffering, but a cause of it as well. There’s nothing you can achieve by stupifying your own mind that you could not do better at with a clear head. When you face reality on its own terms, without drug- or religion-induced hallucinations getting in the way, you’ve got your best shot at making it better for yourselves and those around you.