Not all but most of my atheist friends think religion is just comforting lies, a retreat from hard realities into infantile fantasy. And, hey, to the extent they point at silly literalist ideas about such things as Noah and the Flood and call that the sum of religion, I can’t say they’re wrong. What’s more, while I respect religion in the abstract, I don’t see myself ever pushing religion on anyone.
However, this attitude that religion is an escape from the truth is largely backward. Most humans still live in a tough world and don’t have time and emotional energy for pursuits that don’t serve them. Rather than being impractical, religion is actually quite pragmatic. It’s largely not about rejecting hard truth; it’s a device for holding onto meaning and purpose — things that are very true — especially when confronted with tragedy and doubt. And religion can also help people share and mutually validate their joy.
I’ve just re-read C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. It’s short, and if you haven’t read it, your education is incomplete. Pay attention to the Tao, if that is new to you, and Lewis’s metaphor of “men without chests.” We are not purely rational beings, and while our instincts admit altruism, how are we to value altruism above selfishness? How is the rationality of the head connected to the primitive instincts of the lower animal, symbolized by the groin? What is that chest connecting top and bottom? Morality is a negotiation between human beings, but it’s not an arbitrary one. There is a Tao, a right Way to act in a given situation and trying to follow it and explicate it develops one’s “chest.” You can kick a log with your bare foot; you can use it for firewood or a stool. Your choice is not arbitrary; nor is it strictly rational. Of course, that’s not to say that the right choice is clear, unique, or predetermined. The Tao is perfect justice, subject to neither the head nor the groin; all codes are at best tools for trying to approach it. The Tao Te Ching, the core text of Taoism, begins, “The Tao that can be named is not the true [or eternal] Tao.”
By attempting to explicate the Tao in the service of group cooperation, religion allows human societies to cohere in sizes beyond the hunter-gatherer band. Religion is slippery and nonrational because it engages axiomatic truths about proper perception and behavior, which are not subject to logic, being more fundamental than logic and impossible to neatly codify — religion is a process and its trappings not what it’s ultimately about.
None of this is to argue that a particular religion is the right religion, or that all religions are equally good.
But the idea that religion is just a shuck for morons is wrong.
One of my friends observed that some of us are born gay but none of us is born religious. If he said that none of us is born with a particular religion, I wouldn’t quibble. I may agree that religion is not inevitable; it is not just the same as those tendencies we are born with, like hyperactive agency detection; and naive animistic belief is not religion, not in the sense I intend it, which is an observance with ritual and codified modes of behavior. We’re not born religious, maybe, but we’re all born with the capacity for religion. And religion may well be a precondition for civilization, science, and progress. Without it, we may not have been able to organize in groups sufficiently large to support job specialization and a scholarly caste.
Of course there are examples of superstition and religious credulity holding back science; the separation of Church and State is an important modern development, helpful to the advancement of freedom and social justice. But I don’t think it is either possible or desirable to try to eradicate religion.