Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Trouble With Opiates

Norm Geras poses a thought experiment and follows with a fair question:

Your friend suffers a bereavement, and in the weeks after it speaks to you - an atheist - about how she has felt strenghened and consoled by knowing that her deceased mother or husband or son has gone to God. Even as an atheist you don't - I'm confident in you on this score - deride her for saying it; you don't even tell her politely that she shouldn't rely on illusions of this sort. You just accept that her belief has helped her through a difficult time. How show that degree of human understanding in the individual case, and yet be unable to make the transition to comprehending it as part of a larger picture involving millions of people?
I have been in -- I am in, daily -- this exact situation, and Norm is right: I quietly sidestep almost every opportunity to undercut believers' consolations. (And it is only mostly because I am a wuss.)

Why not leave the matter there for everyone? I can give two broad reasons.

Because, first, religion is not only a source of consolation. The religion that brings consolation also brings side-effects carried forward from the contingencies of its historical origins: the sanctioning of intolerance, violence, bigotry, inequality, ignorance, authoritarianism, etc. If religion had no effect on the world apart from the consolations it provides, it would be roughly as worthy of cutting invective and blunt analysis as, say, the way people tend to overestimate their own attractiveness. That is a comforting delusion at least as widely held as god-belief, especially among riders of the MAX, but there is no ongoing war of books by public intellectuals on each side of the question, nor will there be any time soon, because while it is false, it introduces nothing of any consequence besides consolation.

Because, second, while religion is an opiate, the worthwhile insight of comparing religion with an opiate is the recognition that stopping the pain at its source is superior to finding palliatives in response to it. What is the source of the believer's -- or the plural, billions-fold believers' -- physical or emotional suffering? Wouldn't it be better to to find ways to remove the pain rather than settling for coping with the pain? Slaveholders loved citing the Bible and preaching the gospel because it gave firm assurances of justice without threatening the institution of slavery. Creationists want to stop inquiry because they take such great comfort in the answers they already have. The function of really-existing religious consolation has often been to preclude the search for the conditions that no longer require it.

I recognize that some forms of human suffering have very well-known sources that can only be delayed, never entirely prevented. Humans will always die, and because they will always die, there will always be grief. But the same point holds: actually prolonging life (as by curing a disease) is superior to clinging to pleasing visions of a disease-free afterlife. Yes, we can do both, and to the extent that the consolations don't interfere with the hands-on work of amelioration, there's no conflict and nothing to worry either side.

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