(This was posted in response to ongoing discussion of religion at a discussion group I attend on Tuesday Nights)
We seem to talk about religion,in our group, far more than any other subject (interesting, since from what I gather none of us belongs to any religious belief system) and it has me spending a lot of my leisure time (haha) thinking about religion and solidifying my personal opinions about it.
I have to start by admitting that I view religion from a fairly utilitarian point of view. I believe that it is a tool, and that, like any other tool, it has the potential to be used for good or bad means and that its proper value resides in whether or not it provides greater or lesser happiness for the individuals who use it or are used by it.
In my observations of religion and its uses I have come to believe a few major ideas: 1)that religion's usefulness is individually determined and inseparable from the particular individual's thinking processes and experiences (and therefore incapable of being universally useful). 2)that religion serves as an effective tool for protection of and from "the masses," and 3)that religion serves as an important component of deriving 'happiness' and 'meaning' in the lives of many individuals.
First, and perhaps most important to the members of our little group, it is important to acknowledge that there is no religion that has, or will likely ever, appeal or work for every person. Like most mass-marketed items and ideas, religion is a thing that must, necessarily, be marketed to the mass of people. It is meant to appeal to the largest numbers of people and therefore should target those of average intelligence, habits, curiosities, tastes, and vices. No successful religion would ever market itself to exceptionally independent,eccentric, determined, intelligent, and thoughtful individuals... these people are impossible to cater to as a group because they (we) are impossible to predict and convince and have such disparate and often eclectic interests that the singular argument/scenario that would possibly work for one would completely miss the mark for each other one. Beyond that, the self-motivated and intellectual individual is also not the target audience of religion because it would not even be useful to succeed in capturing our devotion.
Which brings us to 2)The primary usefulness of religion, to society, is to create a set of guidelines and ethos that are simple, clear, and protect/endorse the values and mores of the society/community as a whole. The reason it is useful, and I believe necessary, to have such a clear set of guidelines for "the masses" is because they are unwilling or incapable of taking the time and exerting the effort necessary to understand and clarify the difference between "right" and "wrong" for themselves.
We (the thinkers), on the other hand, are quite willing and insistent that we figure these things out on our own and are pretty much never going to violate the common principles of society (by raping, murdering, stealing, beating or otherwise violating others) in any way that will harm the community as a whole (though we might get kinky as often as possible ;) ). "The masses," on the other hand, without some sort of black and white list of do's and dont's, can often be counted on to act foolishly, selfishly, and without foresight. They will often act out of a desire for instant gratification and without consideration of the far-reaching effects their actions might reap. This is where church comes in.
There are many areas of life which law (rightfully, in my opinion) does not intrude. Law does not tell us how to teach and raise our children, law does not tell us how to treat our neighbors, our families, or ourselves. Law does not explain "why" it is wrong to murder, rape, or steal. Law does not act as the larger parent of the community-- the church assumes that role. And as the larger community parent I believe religion is very useful and good-- as long as its powers and influences are not abused.
Last, I believe that religion serves a very useful and positive role in the lives of billions of people the world over. In the individual practice and ritual of religious faith, most believers find a sense of comfort and meaning that seems irreplaceable and (I believe) worthy of admiration. While religion, as a political entity, may have been the frame of extreme cruelty and mass murder, I think it has been the source of the greatest quantity of individual happiness and satisfaction in the history of its existence.
For the mass of its adherents, religion is the friend they can rely on when they face their darkest humiliations and most painful afflictions, religion is the parent they run to when they are suffering and afraid, it is the shelter they depend on when they are feeling alone and confused, it is the mentor they turn to for wisdom and advice on facing the hardships and losses of living, and religion is the singular hope that sustains them when they face the death of a loved one or of their own impending mortality.
While many people, such as we, may not need the solace and guidance of God or faith, it is apparent that the majority of humans desire to have it and thrive under religion's certainty and structure.
Perhaps the need for religion IS stupidity, cowardice, laziness, or insanity. I would like to think, though, that it is not. I prefer to believe that the desire to have faith in God or religion is simply a symptom of the natural human desire to explain things that seem inexplicable, to justify the hurts and injustices that life will always mete out, and find a dependable source of comfort and undying love, even if the whole world seems to be against you.
So, I feel that religion is useful and good, in the end. I believe that, for the people it works for, it produces far more happiness than unhappiness. I believe it is a useful tool to guide and contain 'the masses' and their whims, and most of all, I would hate to deny or lessen the personal happinesses it brings to individuals who need it and use it in their lives.