Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Hidden Costs of Religious Belief

The prospects for successfully arguing that religious belief is worse for us on the whole than not believing are dim. We just won’t be able to get any clear, total picture of the positives and negatives associated with it, and even if we could, the question of associated benefit and harm is separate from the question of truth.

But our general affection for religion and the powerful, irrational urge we have to be religious often make it hard to us to see some really obvious downsides. Consider all the personal pain and ruined personal relationships that disagreements over religion have caused.

How much strife has there been between parents and children, friends, and family over differences of religious opinion? The amount is staggering. How many times has a father or a grandmother disapproved of a son or a granddaughter’s lack of religious piety? How many times have a son’s parents disapproved of his choice in a girlfriend because she is not of the right religion? How many love relationships have been ruined by the tension? How many marriages have been ruined by religious differences? How many children have suffered by being torn between parents bickering over whether or not to go to church, or which church to go to, or what they think about God? How many times has a son or daughter been heartbroken, lonely, or rejected because mom or dad disapproves of them on some religious grounds?

I suspect that there is hardly a single family in the United States where there have not been fights or emotional strain to some degree over religion. In lots of cases, family members get estranged and don’t speak for the rest of their lives. Relationships that are vital for human flourishing get completely destroyed over petty, pointless disagreements that are based on complete fictions. A person ends up being cut off and even despised by the people that they need and love the most over ideas that have no basis in reality.

Over the course of centuries, the amount of this kind of absurd suffering adds up to unimaginable levels. But since these sorts of harms are not the kind that will end up on the news, or get talked about openly, they remain hidden from view. The obvious question in all of these cases is, which is more important in the big picture—your relationship with your son, daughter, mother, or father? Or your adherence to a religious idea? Your marriage? Or a religious principle? The person you love? Or a religious impulse? The extended family relationships that a human needs to be happy? Or a religious idea?

1 comment:

paulv said...

I am not so sure that these costs are hidden. Countless families have fought over other seemingly as trivial differences such as family honor, perceived mistreatment, or grudges that have nothing to do with religion. All of these (including religious squabbles) cost a society, and the sum of all costs and benefits will determine how well one society competes against others, and how well it is able to reproduce.

Are societies that are free of religion, free of family squabbles? If squabbling turns out to be a natural process as siblings compete for reproductive advantage, then eliminating religious squabbles will have very little impact on the number of family squabbles.

To show religion is benefitial (or harmful) on the whole, we need only show that in a society with religion that the benefits outweigh (or don't outweigh) the costs. This is quite different than evaluating the cost to an individual, and whether the costs are borne equally by all individuals in society, and what sort of society we as individuals want to live in.

If cost to society was the only consideration, then perhaps professional football would be in much more danger than it is. All that lost productivity wasted on chasing a ball, or watching others chase it, and all the squabbling it causes between spouses must also be adding up to unimaginable levels.