BY BEN BURNETTE
Religion has its benefits. That’s true of pretty much all religions and has been throughout history. Religions bring cultures together. They provide a stable metanarrative on which societies build values, customs, and rituals, all of which, in turn, contribute to social cohesion. Many, if not all, religions promise an afterlife, thus offering a consolation prize of sorts to those who may not be the most fortunate in this life. As a Christian myself, I can attest firsthand to the comfort my faith brings me. It’s nice to know I have a community to turn to when things get rough; it’s nice to feel that I’m playing a role in some bigger plan; and it’s nice to hope in the redemption offered by an afterlife.
In recent years however, there has been a growing trend in intellectual movements to see the psychological and sociological benefits of religion as evidence against its veracity. Some scholars, perhaps most famously Marx with his quip, “Religion is the opium of the masses,” but also many others, take a cynical view of these benefits, positing them as evidence for the human origin of religion. The argument in support of this line of thinking goes as follows:
If there is no God, there must be some explanation for the origin and persistence of religion.
This is a basic “If A then B” premise of an argument. However, the idea that the benefits of religion can be used as an argument against religion is logical fallacy, namely that of affirming the consequent. Those who say that there are sociological and psychological benefits of religion, and therefore it is untrue and there is no God have an argument of the form, “if A then B. B, therefore A,” which does not hold up to scrutiny.
It’s certainly true that religion has sociological and psychological benefits to societies and individuals who adhere to one, and these benefits could constitute an explanation for the origin and persistence of religion. It’s also true that if there were a benevolent and loving God, we would logically expect any form of worship He endorsed to have both sociological and psychological benefits for those who practiced it. Thus we could also construct an argument of the following form:
If there is a loving God, He would design a religion that benefited people.
Obviously if people did things that were good for them, we would expect psychological and sociological benefits of a religion of divine origin. Here too we could commit a logical fallacy by affirming the consequent and say that religion’s psychological and sociological benefits are evidence of its divine origin, but that would not be any more valid than saying that its benefits were evidence against it.
Now, I confess I was perhaps a little lazy in the way I structured my argument before. One could argue that religions are dissimilar to the point of mutual exclusion, yet they all seem to provide the benefits I have named. Arguably, for example, Hinduism and Mormonism differ to such a degree that the same God would not have designed both and therefore at least some of the religions must have human origins, rather than divine ones.
This argument is, I believe, correct but incomplete. It’s true that, in their present forms, it seems unlikely the same God orchestrated all the major religions of the world. Again though, this is not an argument against the existence of God. All religions are really attempts at putting humans in relationship with something bigger than themselves. What that thing is can change, as can the way people attempt to attain relationship with that object, but the desire for connection with something bigger has always been a feature of the human race. If God existed though, and was responsible for creating humans, it makes sense that he would design us for relationship with Him. That is the point that really lies at the core of my argument. Almost all cultures throughout human history have had a concept of the divine and have attempted to connect with it in one way or another. Many people have found that connection and feel immensely rewarded because of it.
Does the ubiquity of human desire for some kind of God necessarily entail that one, in fact, exists? No, it does not. It does, however, lend credence to the idea that religion should be taken seriously, and dismissed as something devised only to provide social utility.