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The Opium of the People

In this blog I have often portrayed the advantages I see in being an atheist compared with following a religion. But like all worldviews, atheism has some disadvantages as well. Religious people have three advantages over atheists, as I see it: they have a church which provides a benefit to their social life, they tend to donate more to charity, and they are happier.

All of these factors are documented in fairly credible studies so I don’t think they can easily be explained away. But, of course, I am going to try!

First, the social aspects of religion. There is no doubt that attending church helps bond people and gives them a group they feel they can belong to, get support from, and generally identify with.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping non-religious people from forming groups based on their shared values or interests, such as skeptics in the pub, atheist outreach, or groups based on any other activities (amateur astronomy, computer users, stamp collecting), but there is no doubt that church groups just seem to have an extra element the others lack.

There are negative aspects to this too, because being part of an in-group means that others are the out-group. So strongly bonded church groups do create a sort of “us and them” mentality. I have heard many members of one particular Christian sect ridiculing other Christians just because they belong to a slightly different group with almost indistinguishable beliefs. And their opinion of other religions and the non-religious can be even more extreme.

Another problem with these groups is that it discourages receptiveness to new ideas. If a person socialises with others who believe the same thing – however ridiculous those beliefs might be – they are unlikely to expand their horizons to encompass anything new. So a church group is like a trap which is hard to escape from.

What about charity? There are stats which indicate religious people do donate more than others. Unfortunately the stats don’t distinguish between donations which go to genuine charities and those which just go towards the church they belong to. Looking at the money involved in running some churches and the lavish lifestyles of some of the church leaders I would say that a lot of that charitable giving is wasted.

So now the big one: happiness. Research indicates that religious people are often happier. This observation is complicated by the fact that the most happy societies are those which exist in the least religious countries (Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, etc). What’s going on here? Well it seems thet religion gives some individuals greater happiness but it reduces the happiness of society as a whole.

Why are religious people happy? Research indicates it is almost entirely due to the social cohesion they get from belonging to a group, but surely some of it must also relate to blissful ignorance!

So religious happiness might be a bit like the state of euphoria some people get from taking drugs. It’s not real, but it’s good while it lasts. And also like using drugs or alcohol, some people become happy and good natured and others turn bad.

As Karl Marx said: “religion is the opium of the people”. He realised the good and bad aspects of religion. Here is the full paragraph containing that quote: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” And following that: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

So the analogy of religion as a drug leads to the idea that by being a “user” of religion the person avoids confronting real problems of the world and possibly improving the world to the point where real happiness is possible. Certainly denial seems a common attitude amongst religious people. And that is where the problem really arises.

But real happiness seems very difficult to achieve, so maybe the fake version provided by the opium of religion is the best alternative we can hope for. But that’s a rather unhappy thought!

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