Is Religion Good for You? The Question is Wrong.

In the Huffington Post today Victor Stenger takes to task studies that link health benefits with religious observance and asks whether or not religion provides a health benefit.  He concludes:

Religion blinds, deafens, and numbs us to the reality around us and though this may temporarily soothe our anxieties, like drugs or alcohol, there is a painful price to be paid down the road for such cowardly denial and self-defeating ignorance. Not only can we be both well and good without God, we can be better.

My problem with this kind of analysis is that it considers “religion” to be a single entity.  Some religions may numb, deafen and blind people to reality and soothe anxieties.  On the other hand, I correspond with people whose faith has led them to social work with prisoners, the homeless, those who are in pain and dying.  This is not a form of religion based on comfort or the avoidance of unpleasantness.

In arguing against the dangers of “religion” Stenger writes: “The idea that you will live forever gives you a false sense of a glorious self that leads to extreme self-centeredness in this life. Furthermore, you may live in constant fear that any sin you might have committed will condemn you to an eternity of suffering in hell.”

This belief he criticizes, of Heaven and Hell, eternal punishment or reward, is not a description of all religious belief.  The Hindu ideal, for example, is not to earn an eternal life but to escape the endless cycle of birth and death.  Buddism does not have Heaven and Hell.  Heaven and Hell are not even the main focus of all Christian belief.

Stenger notes that if you are religious you “may not exercise your own best judgment in matters and allow yourself to be controlled others who claim sacred authority.”

This is true.  People are at risk of not thinking for themselves and giving others authority over them.  This is not only true of religious cultures but of secular cultures.  There are many ways in which our American consumer culture causes us to give others authority over our manner of thought.

When you argue against giving others authority over individual thought, does this extend to any system of belief or practice that comes from a community, for example your ethnic or national culture, your social class, your education, constant bombardment of marketing messages?

Again, there are some forms of religion that ask people to follow the authority of religious leaders without question.  But this is not true of all “religion.”  The Jewish faith asks its followers to submit to right practice, but it also has a long tradition of argumentation, debate and questioning of the meaning of its sacred texts.  Unitarian Universalists have built their whole religion on questioning.  They don’t require any fixed belief- up to and including belief in God— they only “affirm and promote” various ideals such as “the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.”

No one is generically “religious.”  No one believes in “religion.”  Rather individuals believe in a religion or they practice a particular form of faith or worship.  (Not all religions are based on correct belief, many are based on correct practice.)

I agree that it is probably right to debunk studies that ask if “religion” is healthy.  It is far too broad a question to be meaningful. By religious do you mean attending church (in which case the community involvement may provide the benefit), meditating, prayer, dietary restrictions, sexual prohibitions?  Does “religious” mean reading theology and studying great works of devotional art, poetry and music?  Does it mean belonging to a group with a sacred text or does it mean expressing appreciation for nature through ritual dance and sacred feasts?  Does religious mean Christian or Muslim or pagan or Buddhist?

In find that I generally agree with atheists in the type of religion they do not believe in.  The God they do not believe in, the one that denies scientific fact and asks people to turn over their lives to an authority, to stop thinking and feel secure knowing that they will be rewarded, is one I cannot believe in either.  It is also one that many religious people do not believe in.

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