I’d like to answer your question on two levels: the effect on the individual believer, and the effect on society as a whole.
Personally, although I think the type of believer you’re talking about is mistaken, I agree that this, of itself, doesn’t pose a major problem to anyone else. If it suits that person, and if it gives them comfort in time of trouble, well, I don’t feel a strong need to deprive them of that.
But believing is not a cost-free exercise. Religion demands a huge amount of a believer’s time, energy, focus and, of course, money. Now, it’s up to each individual how they want to use those things, of course, and if they choose to spend them on their religion, they’re free to do so. But if you were planning to invest all those things in, say, a charity, would it be sensible to do so simply on the basis that you liked the idea of it? Or would you want to check out that it really exists first? That the people running it were legitimate? That it really is doing the good things that it claims to be doing? To out the truth of its claims, in other words?
I would suggest that it DOES matter whether God really exists or not, if you’re planning to invest a lot of your life pursuing religious activities.
Belief has other personal costs too: Christians are taught to think of themselves as sinners; in need of forgiveness; as deserving of hell if it had not been for the death and resurrection of Jesus. I don’t think these are psychologically helpful thoughts to have about ourselves so, again, if we ARE going to have them, it would be nice to know that there was a basis for them in truth, wouldn’t it? No point being laden with guilt and a sense of sinfulness if the religion that gave them to us is not actually true, is there?
And, connected with this idea of sin, religion limits our options. Of course we don’t have to believe in God in order to know it’s wrong to murder, rape, steal, be deliberately cruel to one another etc. We have evolved as a social animal, and our survival would be greatly jeopardised if it were socially acceptable to do these things. So I’m not talking about religion limiting our options to do things that we can all see would be bad. But it limits our options to do all sorts of things that are clearly NOT bad: various religions limit what their followers can eat; what they can wear; what they can do on “holy” days; what they can read; who they can mix with. These things are NOT necessary for health and happiness, or for a good life – so it DOES matter whether the god who supposedly imposed them really exists or not. After all, if the god doesn’t exist, there is no need to limit ourselves in these ways.
And there can be even more serious consequences for the individual believer too. Many religions, having their roots in times when these things were not understood as they are now, are deeply opposed to homosexuality and claim that homosexual behaviour is sinful. So if the individual believer is gay, or thinks they might be, there is a huge cost here, isn’t there, in terms of confusion and guilt? So here, too, it matters deeply whether there is good reason to believe it’s TRUE that the god in question actually exists. Because if there ISN’T good reason to think so, then individuals are suffering this guilt and confusion for no good reason.
So yes, I think the truth DOES matter, even at the level of the individual.
Then there is the question of how religious belief causes believers to interact with others.
Most religions – and certainly Christianity – aren’t content with just imposing their rules and beliefs on their existing followers: their aim is to convert others.
Again, if a religion is going to try to convert others to its beliefs, doesn’t it matter whether its beliefs are based in truth or not? Doesn’t it make a huge difference? What right does a religion have to go tell people that they must believe, and that they will suffer for not believing, unless the claims of that religion are based in truth?
And because religion is associated in many people’s minds with morality (an association which, as I suggested earlier, is quite unnecessary – there are very good evolutionary reasons why we value “goodness”), believers often look down on those who don’t believe, or who don’t share THEIR beliefs, and think they can’t be good or moral. Again, this isn’t a helpful way to approach other people: it’s divisive, for a start, and it’s very insulting to people who don’t share the beliefs but are in all respects as good and moral and kind and caring and fulfilled as the believers are.
If the claims made about the various gods are not true, then this is a purely negative consequence of religion, so again, it MATTERS whether it is true or not.
At a national level (in the UK), the law states that all schoolchildren must take part in a daily act of Christian worship; buildings and land used for religious purposes are automatically exempt from being valued for tax purposes; religious activities – including the costs of missionary work to convert others – are automatically treated as charitable and so are given tax-free status; religious leaders are automatically given places in committees considering ethical issues; and we have 26 Bishops in the House of Lords, having a direct influence on the legislation of this country. I could go on, but you get the idea! Religion is granted a lot of influence in this country, and at the taxpayers’ expense too.
Now, if there was good reason to believe that the claims of religion were TRUE, then there would be good reason for society to support religion in this way. But if there is NO good reason to believe that the claims of religion are true, then it is quite legitimate to challenge the influence that religion has, isn’t it?
So religious belief is far from just being a personal matter for the individual. It directly affects all of us, whether we want it to or not.
For all these reasons, I would argue that it matters very much indeed whether or not there is good reason to believe that there is a god.
Hope that helps.
Posted: January 1st 2009
See all questions answered by Paula Kirby