When an atheist professor says religion ‘brings out the best in people’, you should probably listen…

Since the dawn of Dawkins a common jibe has been that religion is an evolutionary byproduct that is comprised of fallacious and unscientific ‘set[s] of beliefs about supernatural agents, and these beliefs are said to be the cause of a wide range of harmful actions’ [1].

Harmful actions is an understatement. I only need three digits to make my point: 9/11. Religion murders.

Furthermore, the Dawkinian argument asserts that religion leads to individuals performing actions that are costly, inefficient and irrational. Rid the world of religion and you’ll free humanity to be thrifty, efficient and rational, so the logic goes.

But renowned atheist psychologist Jonathan Haidt disagrees.

But why? In studying the empirical evidence of human behaviour, Haidt has found that people who actively belong to a religion are more selfless, and that religious belonging ‘brings out the best in people’ as moral agents [2]. For example, the most religious fifth in America give nearly five times as much as the least religious fifth [3].

Haidt charges Dawkins with the most heinous of crimes, being unscientific. Going to church, praying and the like are swiftly dismissed in our corner of the globe. Yet, ‘the very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship’ [4]. Haidt puts forward a compelling case that societies function most harmoniously when strong religious belonging exists.

Belonging creates communal meaning that transcend cost-benefit analysis. In Christianity, the imperative to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is one example. As a committed Christian, it comes as an essential part of your faith because it’s repeatedly outlined in God’s word. If you belonging to a Christian community, it doesn’t make sense to ask ‘why?’ or ‘what’s in it for me?’, it only makes sense to ask ‘how do I love my neighbour?

If you don’t belong to such a community, asking ‘why?’ and ‘what’s in it for me?’ make sense are and reasonable questions. I think you can see the result of this played out in the levels of giving in America I mentioned earlier.

Not only does this belonging create social cohesion and a selflessness that is essential for a healthy society, it also improves our mental health and wellbeing.

In reviewing 139 different studies of religious belief and wellbeing conducted over 30 years, the think tank Theos found a ‘strong positive correlation between personal religious participation and well-being, most notably mental health’ [5]. Furthermore, ‘it seems that the more serious, genuinely held and practically-evidenced a religious commitment is, then the greater the positive impact it is likely to have on well-being’ [6].

Contrast this to Britain today, where we are bombarded with tragic headlines about a mental health epidemic and we’ve appointed a Minister for Loneliness! I cannot help but wonder if there is a link between the fragmentation of our society, our falling mental health, and our loss of faith.

Haidt proposes something similar, ‘When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide’ [7]. Religion is often attacked for limiting freedom, but the side-effects of freedom on a society are rarely questioned.

Does all this evidence, then, prove religion is true? Absolutely not!

Haidt is being ‘entirely descriptive’ and I’m just following in his footsteps [8]. All I’ve done is provide some evidence that points towards religion being well designed for humans, particularly in comparison to secularism. It absolutely does not show if the designer of religion is humanity or God.  Saying it does would be much like that earlier Dawkinian crime and a clear stepping away from the descriptive nature of science, for myself as a believer or Haidt as an atheist.

There is an empirical link between religious belonging and flourishing individuals and societies. I certainly find it emotionally satisfying to be part of a community that loves one another and believes there is real purpose in the world. However, Theos go on to point out that religious adherence ‘needs to be authentic. As soon as the desire to achieve well-being becomes the goal of religiosity, rather than a side-effect, the whole system collapses in on itself’ [9].

One’s religion also needs to be held to be true.

Christianity goes all in and claims to be verifiably true, based on one single historical event. Right from its inception Christianity has claimed that ‘if Christ has not been raised [from the dead], your faith is futile; you are still in your sins’ [10].

In other words, if Jesus didn’t come back from the dead, Christianity is false. Everything else, the giving, the praying, the church meetings, etc. are completely pointless unless this particular historical event happened. Well, pointless apart from the social cohesion and mental health benefits.

The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is there, I believe it’s weighty and true. The question is, have you given it a fair hearing?

If you haven’t, I’d love you to join me at our upcoming Salt Live event looking into the historical accounts and evidence about Jesus.

See you there!

[1] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (Penguin Group, 2013), p. 290
[2] Ibid. p. 311
[3] Ibid. p. 308
[4] Ibid. p. 299
[5] Religion and Well-being: Assessing the evidence (Theos, 2016), p. 3
[6] Ibid. p. 4
[7] The Righteous Mind, p. 313
[8] Ibid. p. 315
[9] Religion and Well-being, p. 14
[10] 1 Corinthians 15:17

Photo by Bruce van Zyl on Unsplash

Ben Palmer

Ben Palmer
Ben works for a mentoring charity in London, but boasts a CV that includes a year of living as a monk.

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