Religion Gets Good Results

December 3, 2009

Some may think that a good result is about the last thing that one would associate with religion, but that is to take the perspective of the nonbeliever. For many believers, religious practices are critical for achieving desired goals. This confidence in the practical value of religion has been manifested throughout most of human existence, even though the content of religious beliefs and the form of religious practices may have changed. You sacrifice a lamb to obtain a favor from Zeus; you pray to God to cure your cancer. Nothing could be more practical -- especially now that we don't have to worry about the logistics of obtaining sheep or cattle for sacrifice.

The recent controversy over possible inclusion in health care reform legislation of provisions that would reimburse the "costs" of prayer healing and other forms of spiritual care made me think of this topic, but I'm not going to address that specific issue. My colleague, Derek Araujo, has already written about this topic. I want to address a larger point that ties into aspects of the ongoing debate about whether and to what extent we -- the atheists, agnostics, and humanists of the world -- should be critical of religious beliefs and practices.

There is a school of thought that holds that critique of religion is largely passé. We should focus instead on constructing secular counterparts to religious institutions and practices, promoting not just ethical alternatives to religious moralities, but also ceremonial and social alternatives to activities connected to religious institutions. The key, often unexamined, premise supporting this view is that there is little need to combat religious dogma: most believers are supposedly Harvey Cox clones who cling to a vague, insipid spirituality. All we need to do to nudge them over to a thoroughly secular worldview is to let them hold their bingo games in our churches ... er, buildings.

To some extent, this view is abetted by those liberal religious who have commented on the "new atheists." Almost universally they claim that the new atheists are arguing against phantoms because they are using a concept of God -- a personal deity who rewards and punishes and answers prayers -- that believers have forsaken.

I view the religious landscape differently. Yes, there are many liberal religious who believe only in a very attenuated deity, but for most believers, in the United States anyway, God retains substantial meat on His bones. (This is a metaphor, not an endorsement of the Incarnation.) They believe, in part, because God is so thoroughly involved in their lives. They turn to God because He is the answer. He provides direction. He answers prayers.

He gets results.

Until substantially fewer people stop leading God-permeated lives, it is unlikely that we can establish a truly secular society. I have written elsewhere that I do not see humanism or atheism as a missionary movement. Our goal is not to persuade everyone to give up religion. But we do have to persuade a substantial minority of the population to give up religion -- at least dogmatic, all-embracing religion -- to prevent religion from having an undue influence on our society and our public policy. And to achieve that end, we must be forthright in our criticism of religion. The God who gets results will not be rejected because we offer dance lessons at secular centers. The God who gets results will be rejected only when people cease to believe that He is the way to get results.