An objection to reality that many of those that believe in gods will promote is the idea that people are better off if they embrace such myths. As an example we have a recent letter-to-the-editor type of format for this claim here in the Indiana Gazette …
Science hasn’t proven the existence of God, but it shows conclusively that you’re much better off if you are a believer. In fact, in the next few moments, nonbelievers may find themselves praying for a change of heart. Whatever your beliefs, I can assure they will play a pivotal role in your life and your business.
It’s not the science of God that’s important; it’s the science of belief.
Ask writer and researcher Tom Knox. His research may well have moved him from atheist to believer. Knox published his summary of myriad scientific studies on the subject in the U.K’s The Daily Mail. And a recent Gallup study of nearly 700,000 people confirms his findings.
It is a matter of scientific proof, not postulation, that belief in God makes people happier, healthier and more charitable. It gives them higher self-esteem, lower blood pressure and a reduced likelihood to smoke, drink or do drugs. People who believe in God are less depressed and recover from depression 70 percent faster than their nonbelieving counterparts. Their immune systems are stronger. They have better emotional and mental health. They have stronger marriages. And if all of that’s not enough, try this one on for size: Believers live an average of seven years longer than nonbelievers. Oh… my… God!
For all of the negative attention given to religious people, the benefits of belief in God are nothing less than, well, miraculous.
OK, so there are two specific aspects to this that merit some attention, let’s look at each in turn.
First let’s assume this is true
If indeed believing in ancient myths yields some benefits then the next question to ask is the rather obvious one – how can you in all honesty start believing in stuff that you know is not true and know is not real?
Suppose I offered you One Million dollars to truly believe that a magical pink unicorn will appear in your yard when nobody is looking, would you then actually believe it to be real? You can of course fake the belief by telling everybody around you that you now believe it, but you would know in your heart of hearts that it was not actually real at all, and the magic pink unicorn would of course also know that you were pretending and so would never appear.
That illustrates one very real problem with the thought that people should just believe stuff because they are better off embracing a delusion, it really is not a choice as such, you simply cannot opt to start, or for that matter stop, believing, but instead we are all persuaded to embrace specific things as true for many different reasons. Sometimes those reasons are rational (once you grasp that adding 1 to 1 yields 2, you can never be persuaded that 3 is a better answer), and sometimes those reasons are cultural and emotional; when everybody around you in your social circle tells you that being Baptist, Catholic, Hindu, Muslim is true and best, most generally align themselves with that and may in fact not give it all that much thought.
Second, is the claim true, are you actually better off?
Notice that no actual evidence is cited, but instead the author simply claims that a pew research poll confirms, or the Daily Mail story confirms, etc… without actually giving you a reference to check, but he still may indeed be correct, so let’s suspend such judgement for a moment.
First of all the suggestion is that we should ask Tom Knox. The problem here is that no such person exists, because Tom Knox is the pseudonym of British writer and journalist Sean Thomas.
The Daily Mail article he has in mind is this one, and dates back to 2011, so yes, his “proof” is a 3 year old tabloid article from a paper that does not really have a great reputation for either accuracy or honesty when it comes to either science or health, but I’m not being fair, because it still may be all correct.
Mr “Knox” lists a string of claims, that might or might not be true, and to be frank, I’m not going to dig into every single one, because for every such list, you will find a similar list that makes a case for you being better off for not believing nonsense … for example I’ve seen claims that atheists have stronger marriages, are better educated, are less likely to be addicted to drugs, are less inclined to abuse their spouse, and that the vast majority of people in prison are religious.
All such claims from both sides of the argument tend not to be as simplistic as presented and often if you dig you discover that the correlation does not really confirm that belief or non-belief is the true cause.
Take the prison claim as an example. It is indeed true that the percentage of non-religious people in prison is far lower than that number of non-religious people in society in general, and so it might be tempting to assert that being non-religious makes you far less likely to be a criminal. Oh but wait, that correlation assumes that non-belief would motivate you to not be a criminal, when in fact there is a far simpler explanation. If you were unfortunate enough to be sent to prison then there are distinct benefits to wearing a religious mask while there – you gain an instant community of friends who will support you in a very hostile environment, you also gain practical benefits (Mormons get Hot Chocolate), and it helps to have references from a cleric to get parole, etc.. So using this metric does not actually establish any causal relationship at all between criminality and belief.
Do religious people live longer? In general Seventh-day-adventists have a longer lifespan, ten years longer to be precise, but that is once again not due to their specific religious beliefs, but rather due to the very very strong emphases upon health within their community … no smoking, drinking, vegetarianism, strong pressure on the obese to reduce weight, strong emphases on regular exercise, etc… It is this specific health obsession within a community that will press you to conform and not the belief itself that yields the practical long term lifespan outcome.
Are religious people happier? There is of course a benefit that may indeed be derived from being part of a social community that will support you, but once again that benefit comes only from being a member of that community and not from actually believing specific things.
What can we really conclude?
So the bottom line is this – the idea that you should believe myths simply because you can then gain social benefits is not exactly a compelling argument that the myths are actually true at all, but rather is an attempt to bribe non-believers into embracing irrational beliefs. The fact that is it like this might also explain why beliefs tend to thrive, they basically offer a small survival advantage.
Things however are changing, there is a slowly rising realisation that believing stuff that is not actually true at all also yields distinct disadvantages. (Embracing bad ideas often motivates bad behaviour – An extreme example would be ISIS)
We now have a rising number of people who have access to vast amounts of information that was previously not accessible, and as a result there is a rising tide of rationality. Regardless of our belief or non-belief, we are still basically social creatures and need a social context within which we can gain the distinct benefits that such social communities offer. In the past religion was the only game in town, and so those that opted out were in effect isolated. But with a rising tide of nones (people of no specific religious affiliation), new forms of social interaction are starting to rise up and offer viable alternatives. This includes meet-ups such as skeptics in the pub, or Humanist meetings, or Sunday assemblies.
The game is changing, the vast flow of new information, the Internet, is enabling the non-religious to also form social circles that offer a similar degree of community and social support, and so the Internet is once again demonstrating its ability to disrupt a historical monopoly.