The role of emotion in maintaining religion

As I have said before, I grew up being very religious and actively involved in church and Christian youth activities. I enjoy meeting old and close friends and relatives, many of whom I have known since my early childhood. Growing up, they all had known me as a practicing Christian, even more so than your regular Sunday churchgoer since I was an ordained lay preacher and regularly conducted services that many of them had listened to as members of the congregation.

Most of my relatives and childhood friends are still religious. When I encounter them now, many have heard on the grapevine of my apostasy and start up a conversation about faith, sometimes out of curiosity as to why I renounced my own belief, at other times to try and bring me back into the fold.

This happened again recently and during the discussion, the question was posed to me as to what, as an atheist, I could offer someone whose lot in life was wretched and hopeless. She said that at least religion could promise that person a better life in heaven, something that they could look forward to, and thus make life on Earth, however harsh, at least bearable.

It made me recall an Andy Capp cartoon where he and his wife Flo are stopped by a perspiring man carrying a heavy suitcase who asks them how far it is to the railway station. Flo replies that it is just a short distance away. The man perks up considerably and goes off. Andy then asks her why she said that since the station is a good way away. Flo replies, “The poor man looked so tired that I thought it would cheer him up.”

This is probably the main appeal of religion, that it provides hope (even if false) that enables people to face life. Religion provides a strong emotional appeal, providing people with something to look forward to so that they can face the present, however harsh, with a greater degree of equanimity.

It is this feature of religion that Karl Marx described as the “opium of the people.” What Marx was objecting to was that such an attitude had the effect of preventing people from protesting the injustice of their situation and seeking to change it. As he said in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (February 1844):

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

Marx was accurate with his metaphor of opium for religion. It not only takes away pain, it also dulls the will to action. Perhaps religion persists because it is a form of addiction, removing us from the realm of reality just as effectively as heroin or cocaine, and is just as hard to relinquish. What the promise of heaven does is to ease the pressure on us to improve life on Earth. It is the ultimate cop-out.

But if we do not have religion, we are forced to take action. In the Andy Capp cartoon context, that translates into not lying to the person as Flo did in order to help that person feel good in the short run, but to either help him carry his suitcase so that his journey would be easier or to add wheels to the suitcase so that his journey is made easier.

The emotional appeal of religion is strong. It is appealing to think that there is some sense of cosmic justice where good is rewarded and evil punished. It is nice to think that in the afterlife, those who suffered unjustly will be rewarded and that there is a heavenly war trial where all those who have been responsible for willful and major human suffering would face their ultimate comeuppance. I think that it is this emotional appeal that keeps people faithful to religion.

Just yesterday, the news media reported that Ken Lay, the disgraced Enron head, had died of a heart attack just prior to his sentencing. Many people, appalled at the high life he led while swindling thousands of people of their life savings, were hoping to see him brought down from his life of luxury and spend his last days in jail. Some people expressed disappointment at the news of his death, that he had escaped the hardship of jail but expressed hope that he would pay in the afterlife. This is a common enough reaction and presumably gives those feeling aggrieved some consolation.

But atheists know that no such cosmic justice exists. The fate that evil people ultimately face is the same as the fate that anyone else faces, and that is death. Paradoxically, this need not be depressing but actually can serve as a call to action. If this is the one life that we have, it becomes clearer that our obligation to ourselves and to others is to make sure that it is the best it can be, so that everyone had a chance at a decent life.

If we seek justice, then it has to be done by us right here on Earth. That buck cannot be passed. That is the message that atheists have to offer to people. It may not have a soothing effect but is more likely to lead to concrete action.

POST SCRIPT: Minor Milestone

In checking the statistics for this blog, it appears that on June 30, 2006, the one million hit mark since its inception on January 26, 2005 was reached. Thank you very much to all those who visit, read, and comment. It has been a pleasure to write and, I hope, to provoke thought and discussions.

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