The cost of religion

Sometimes people will ask, “What’s so bad about believing in God? Even if it’s just a myth, it still gives people hope and a sense of purpose. What harm does that do?” If it were simply a matter of motivating people to live good lives and hope for the best, we might say it does no real harm at all. But that’s not all there is to it. There’s a cost to religion. Consider this argument, made by Heather Hughes on the Knoxville News Sentinal web site.

The main comment I seem to hear from atheists regarding Christianity is, “Prove it.” The truth is I can’t. But isn’t that sort of the point? If I could provide solid, undisputed scientific evidence of God’s existence, there would be no need for faith. That trust is an essential part of following Christ.

Faith, in other words, is when you put forth the effort to make yourself believe something for which there is no evidence. As a matter of fact, faith is when you drive yourself to believe things that are actually contrary to the evidence:

Often atheists, and at times even Christians, struggle to believe based on valid questions, many of which I can’t answer. I don’t know why there are natural disasters or why some lives are cut short due to sickness or violence. Even something as simple as why skunks and gnats exist is something I find myself asking occasionally.

But I have to return to that trust that I mentioned and just accept that God’s ways and thoughts really are higher than our own.

Faith, in other words, turns out to be ordinary gullibility—believing things that are contrary to fact and reason, just because “you’re supposed to.” Gullibility has a deservedly bad reputation, because gullible people deceive themselves and open themselves up to exploitation and abuse (and sometimes even self-inflicted abuse). And yet, when you take this same approach to believing things, and call it “faith” instead of gullibility, suddenly it becomes virtuous. People actually admire you for your ability to confront the evidence, and deny it. And that’s the cost of religion: it makes a serious handicap sound like an admirable virtue.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that religion causes gullibility, or that only religious people are gullible. People are more than capable of being foolish all by themselves. But the cost of religion is that it actively discourages gullible people from recognizing or addressing their problem, and worse, it actively encourages them to become even more gullible, in the name of strengthening their “faith.” Hence people like Heather Hughes, arguing that paper cuts are evidence for God.

That kind of self-inflicted gullibility would be bad enough if it were limited to religion alone, but it isn’t. Read the right-wing commentaries on Obama, who is supposedly socialist, communist, Muslim AND Nazi, all in one. How do people get so unhinged? How can any rational person end up believing things that are so far removed from reality, and that even contradict themselves?

By faith. Once you embrace the idea that it’s a virtue to believe things in spite of the evidence, your beliefs are free to wander wherever whim or fad may lead them. The more extreme and unevidenced your beliefs, the more remarkable believer you are. And thanks to religion making a virtue out of unevidenced faith, you want people to be impressed with what a remarkable believer you are.

The consequences are beginning to be seen in our nation today. The faith-based community is racing to see who can prove themselves to be the most faithful, and is producing front-runners who sound like absolute lunatics, at least to the reality-based community. And many of these believers are in positions of political power, and are making decisions that affect the lives of millions, based on whatever beliefs happen to be popular at the time. But the consequences of these decisions won’t be faith-based.

That’s the cost of religion. It encourages people to isolate themselves from reality, and to vote for leaders on the basis of beliefs that have been rendered impervious to fact and to reason. Those leaders are making decisions that have real-world consequences that have burned us in the past and may do so again in the future. And oh look, today is voting day in the USA.

Good luck America.