the necessity of religion?
I’ve read a number of articles and book chapters over the last month or so that have started to change the way I think about religion. After leaving Mormonism and becoming a secular humanist and atheist, I thought the superiority of my new views would be self-evident to anyone who took the time to consider my views. That superiority led me to think that the world would also be a better place without religion – give everyone secular humanism and all superstition and irrationality would disappear, we’d have world peace, etc. Over the last 9 years since I arrived at that position, I have softened my views somewhat. I now have respect for some religions (e.g., Quakers), who seem sincere in their beliefs and don’t make outlandish truth claims that are easily falsifiable by science. Others I continue to disdain for their abuses of power and absurdist claims. Ergo, I no longer think all religion is bad.
But even this position has recently begun to change as a result of a number of recent studies I’ve read. Several of these show a strong correlation between IQ and secularity: the smarter you are, the less religious you are (Nyborg, Helmuth. 2008. The intelligence-religiosity nexus: A representative study of white adolescent Americans. Intelligence 37:81-93.) Other studies have shown that elites have long thought of religion as a tool to keep the masses under control (similar to Marx, yet different at the same time), for example: That religion was a fraud designed to keep lawlessness at bay was a notion which was being openly expressed 2,500 years ago in Athens. (p. 120,Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin. 2010. Morality and Immorality among the Irreligious. Pp. 113-148 in Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1 – Issues, Concepts, and Definitions, vol. 1, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.)
The forefathers of the US were not religious, but were believers, and they saw the “social control” element of religion as useful: How could the most influential people of their time and the paragons of elite society reject religion amid a populous of dogmatic believers? The answer, of course, is that they were not anomalies, but representative of their time and status. The principle founders of the constitutional government of the United States were not atheists, but they were not Christians either. They were Deists. Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Madison all tended to understand religion in its pragmatic application in social control and rejected supernaturalism, but held to the notion of a creative force in society. They believed, though some to a greater degree than others, in an unobtrusive supreme being who created the universe, but paid scant attention to earth’s occupants. In their views, this “clock-maker” did not suspend natural law, answer prayers, or magically procreate with virgins. (p. 235,Cady, Daniel. 2010. Freethinkers and Hell Raisers: The Brief History of American Atheism and Secularism. Pp. 229-250 in Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1 – Issues, Concepts, and Definitions, vol. 1, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.).
And, finally, Lincoln also thought of religion as a tool to appease “the fools”, as he calls them:Lincoln never joined a church, did not believe in revealed truth, and saw no reason for prayer in his own life. Biographers have strongly disputed the characterization of Lincoln as a Christian. Soon after Lincoln’s death his long-time friend and personal security guard, Ward Hill Lamon, presented The Life of Abraham Lincoln to an unreceptive American reading public. In it, Lamon asserted that Lincoln was a man of great conviction and spiritual want, but alas, a man of little faith. “Mr. Lincoln” he wrote, “was never a member of any church, nor did he believe in the divinity of Christ, or the inspiration of the Scriptures in the sense understood by evangelical Christians.” Lamon even quotes Mary Todd as stating, “Mr. Lincoln had no hope, and no faith, in the usual acceptance of those words.” In the 1880s, one of Lincoln’s long-term associates opened up to the Louisville Times on the subject of the former president’s beliefs:He went to church a few times with his family while he was President, but so far as I have been able to find he remained an unbeliever. . . . I asked him once about his fervent Thanksgiving Message and twittered him about being an unbeliever in what was published. “Oh,” said he, “that is some of [secretary of state] Seward’s nonsense, and it pleases the fools.”Yet the myth persists as to Lincoln’s religiosity. Due to the myth of the “Great Emancipator” and Lincoln’s status as the country’s most beloved leader, many Americans refuse to accept Lincoln’s ambivalence towards religion.” (p. 240,Cady, Daniel. 2010. Freethinkers and Hell Raisers: The Brief History of American Atheism and Secularism. Pp. 229-250 in Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1 – Issues, Concepts, and Definitions, vol. 1, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.)
Karl Marx obviously thought of religion as an opiate, but in his thinking it was designed to keep the masses from revolting against the bourgeoisie, not to actually provide them with a facile belief system that aligns with their lower-order thinking, which is the implication of Nybor’s article. As a sociologist, I’ve long held that Marx was generally right in his view, but now I’m questioning that position. Maybe religion is, in fact, necessary for “the masses” and not for “the elites” because the masses CAN’T think about the world in any other way. Admittedly, a recent study just came out showing that elites in the US are just as likely to be religious as they are irreligious. Even so, maybe religion is, if not a good thing, a necessity for people who are simply not intelligent enough to think about the world from a more rationalistic perspective.
Now, before the religious readers out there start labeling me “arrogant,” or “bigoted,” or “elitist,” or something else suggesting I’m denigrating religious people and suggesting they are less intelligent, keep in mind that I’m just trying to grapple with data and research that suggests this. And the obvious implication, if the data are to be believed, is that religion is, at some level, necessary for “those” people. I’m not trying to say that I’m: better, superior, more intelligent, etc. I’m simply trying to wrap my head around these findings. What do the rest of you make of them?