Some Thoughts to An Angry Agnostic

Have you ever encountered a hostile online (or real-life) atheist/agnostic who heaps rage and scorn upon religious people?

I have met such people. I once foolishly pointed out on an atheist blog that the post contained factual errors. I was promptly described as a #%*&ing moron. Charming.

Whenever dealing with any angry person, it’s wise to ask whether there is a story behind the anger. To ask whether something bad happened to them, or to someone they care about. Many people do have a painful experience they are more than willing to share, and do appreciate being heard.

However, some hostile people relish debate as a point-scoring exercise, seemingly to elevate their own sense of self-importance. It feels to me like stereotypical male undergraduate behaviour*… though some people in their 70’s have maintained this level of psycho-spiritual development. Others are more like emotional two-year-olds. (But I digress).

Some hostile people are just bullies; they relish the opportunity to ridicule and humiliate others. They gain a sense of personal power through abuse. They find lashing out an effective way to relieve anger, or distract themselves from their own personal issues.

Lest this sound self-righteous, the traits I’ve described can be seen in religious people too… generally with less foul language, but the intent is similar! Hostility can attach itself to all manner of ideologies.

But this post has been triggered by my experience of a subculture where beating up on religion is in fashionable.

Some of the people who jump on this bandwagon are not like the bullies I’ve described, but are honest people with significant concerns about the influence of religion. Many in the global community are bemused by the current erratic US President, who came to power in part with the help of the religious right. Terrorist activities and the rise of Daesh are serious global concerns. Some religious groups are anti-science. These are concerns shared by many people of good will.

Some take this further. Religion is so harmful, they argue, children must be rescued from its horrible influence. Society must be purged of religion at every level because it is toxic. Science is King, and irrational religious beliefs must be attacked at every turn.

At this point, if someone is up for dialogue, I like to offer the following pushback to my imaginary agnostic/atheist friends:

Around a third of the world’s population identifies as Christian, and around a quarter identifies as Muslim. Only a tiny proportion of these are extremists!

Furthermore, social science research is increasingly suggesting rather than being harmful, spiritual practice, and especially participation in religious communities, is beneficial both for physical and mental health.

A study of 9000 Europeans aged 50 and over found the only activity associated with sustained happiness was attending a church, synagogue or mosque.

A hostile critic would say that this phenomenon can be simply explained; religious people have better social connections than other members of the population. However, this is not supported by the study; strangely it found that involvement in political and community organisations have a detrimental impact on the mental health of older Europeans on a long-term basis.

Boring metastudies (reviews of multiple studies) show that religious involvement improves longevity significantly. In the US religious involvement translates to living 7 years longer than the non-religious.

In another US study, frequent attendance at religious services was shown to be strongly correlated with the subjective experience of happiness Indeed a review of 850 mental health studies and 350 physical health studies found a direct relationship between religious involvement and spirituality and better health outcomes (see the section headed “what conclusions can be drawn from the researchhere

Now to nuance these claims: yes, severe mental illness is associated with religious delusions. Abuse in churches obviously causes severe trauma and distress. Rigid fundamentalist parenting, like rigid parenting everywhere, can wound young people. Some religious groups are intolerant: they haven’t always distinguished themselves by living out their ideals of love and grace. Some fringe religious groups are extreme and dangerous. Metastudies may have a US bias because of the sheer number of studies centred there. And no, just because something is beneficial doesn’t mean it’s true.**

However, I would hope understanding that religion often does help human thriving would give pause for thought.

You can deny this research, or nuance your religious attacks… but you can’t BOTH accept the scientific method AND claim all religion is harmful. Too many studies are pointing to its benefits.

And we all want greater human happiness and thriving, do we not? Even if the path by which others find fulfilment isn’t quite your cup of tea.

Thanks for listening!!!

* This is no doubt unfair on many male undergraduates!
**May I provocatively suggest that if something is beneficial, there might be something in it? Analogous to finding there actually are pharmacologically active ingredients in strange folk medicine? Perhaps that’s a conversation for another day…

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