This interesting post by Lawrence Boyce on the wall by of the New Humanist group on Facebook : “A question which often arises in the many religious debates to which we have recently become accustomed, is: does religion make people good, or at least better than they would have been without religion? Typically, the believer brings up the case of someone who was inspired to do tremendous good on account of their faith. The sceptic responds by saying that the good deeds would have been performed regardless, because the person in question was fundamentally honourable in a humanistic way. The believer maintains that, au contraire, the good stuff would never have happened without religious belief as the prime motivator. The sceptic then questions the integrity of doing anything merely in response to divine fiat, and so it goes on.
I would like to advance a metaphysical proposition to the effect that religion does indeed make people better, but that this is nothing to be proud of, rather it should be a matter for concern. I was particularly struck with this notion while reading about the athlete Jonathan Edwards in a recent article from the Times . Edwards, as I’m sure you know, was an international triple jumper. He won a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics and has held the world record for the last twelve years. He was also a committed Christian, and it was a regular occurrence for him to come off the track and speak to the waiting reporters about his faith in God and his local church.Wonderful stuff. The only fly in the ointment being that on retiring from athletics and finding himself with a little time to think things through, he promptly lost his faith. Oops!
But what struck me is how Edwards, both then and now, acknowledges the crucial role that religion played in his life. “Faith was the reason that I decided to become a professional athlete, in the same way that it was fundamental to every decision I made. . . . Looking back now, I can see that my faith was not only pivotal to my decision to take up sport but also my success. . . . Believing in something beyond the self can have a hugely beneficial psychological impact, even if the belief is fallacious.” These are just a few choice quotes from the article. So if somebody who was once a true believer is still telling us that faith was a prerequisite for his sporting success, then I really think we ought to sit up and take notice. The plain fact of the matter is that without God, he would never have triple jumped further than any man had triple jumped before. But how can this be if God does not even exist? Where does the extra “energy” come from, if it does not come from the famous tin of sardines which Edwards carried everywhere in his kitbag as a symbol of the power of Jesus in his life? In short, how can a delusion change anything at all?
The answer is that religious belief is not something which may be maintained in isolation. Instead, the believer is part of a sprawling and diverse community which spreads all around the globe, as well as forwards and backwards in time. In order for Edwards to be buoyed up in his faith, it must be shared by millions of others, essentially so that he doesn’t feel a complete idiot. But such a proliferation of religious belief is not without cost, as any casual inspection of a newspaper will reveal. Put bluntly, Edwards’s gain is somebody else’s loss. There is a cost to the faith-based component of his success, but it is not one borne by Edwards himself. Rather, the cost falls upon the countless numbers who have suffered at the hands of religionists throughout history and in the present day. So the next time you hear someone claim that their faith has inspired them to perform great works, or to lead a happier and healthier life, don’t think, “that’s nice.” Don’t even think, “that’s bollocks.” Just think, “somebody’s paying for that, quite possibly in blood.”