Can belief in God be a good thing?

I received this email from long time fan of the site James, who recently had an experience with his mother he thought was worth sharing. I’ve received this kind of question pretty often, and I thought it might be good bring it up again to clarify my position. Here is James’ letter:

I really liked yesterday’s TGA bonus episode. Couldn’t agree more that End of Faith is my favourite of the books you mentioned. Letter to a Christian Nation is a close second, mainly because it’s kind of a quick-reference handbook of decent retorts to ridiculous Christian arguments. The show made me think of a recent conversation/debate I had with my parents, actually… it kind of made an impact on me so I figured I’d share.

Just for background: My dad’s a Catholic who grew up in Montreal North in a family of 8 kids, with a VERY devout mother, and a few aunts who were (still are) nuns (they must be doing something right because they seem to live forever). Anyway, he pretty much gave up his faith at a young age when a flood destroyed their home and the Church (to which his parents donated a large percentage of their extremely meager earnings) refused to give them any help, effectively leaving a family of 10 on the street until the Red Cross stepped in. He basically shares most of my viewpoints on religion, but takes a bit more of a Deist perspective when it comes to the creation of the Earth/Universe (fairly harmless as far as beliefs go)… but he tends to keep it all to himself because of my mom.
My mom is a United Protestant who likes going to church but doesn’t go as often as she would want to, and I was raised United as well. We pretty much went to church at Christmas and Easter, said prayers before bed, and grace on special occasions. I never really thought of my mom as particularly religious, until a conversation we had a couple of weeks ago kind of threw me for a loop.

They had come out to visit me in Calgary and we were sitting at a restaurant having dinner, about a bottle of wine in, when the topic of religion somehow crept into the conversation. Being someone who both loves a good debate, and has trouble keeping his opinions to himself, I started going off on how ridiculous the idea of a “sky god” was, while my dad sat uncomfortably silent, and my mom looked at me with a combination of anger and shock. She then told me that belief in God was a personal opinion and that I should respect people’s right to believe what they choose, to which I gave her the standard atheist response of  “if you told me you believed in unicorns and tree fairies, would I be expected to respect that belief without question too?” I think I also threw in something about intellectual laziness just for good measure. Anyway, completely unexpectedly, she started to get extremely emotional – tears started welling up in her eyes and her face started turning bright red. Stifling a sob, she choked out “someday, when things get really tough, you might find that you need that faith in God and Heaven”

At that point, a couple of things hit me. The first was the confirmation of my belief that crying truly is the female default setting, and anything else is only a temporary state of disequilibrium. But more importantly, from what she said, I realized that her belief in God must stem almost entirely from her intense desperation to someday be reunited with her father, who died about 10 years ago, and whom she was extremely close with and respected immensely, when she passes on. That got me thinking. Setting aside my preferred viewpoint of dealing with death when it happens, realizing its finality, mourning, and eventually moving on, I started wondering if belief in God for that reason was really so bad. Yes, it’s a crutch that she is using to help her deal with difficult emotions, but ultimately, so what? I suppose it all kind of harkens back to the “there are no atheists in foxholes” cliché; If you need faith for no other reason than to keep you going, and you’re not hurting anybody else, who am I, as a devout non-believer, to try to convince you that my way of thinking is the right one?

If all religious belief were that innocuous, I really wouldn’t have any reason to arm myself with as much knowledge as I can as to why God doesn’t exist, because it ultimately wouldn’t matter. Unfortunately, I think Bill Maher’s right (one of the few things I agree with him on) when he says that if things keep going the way they are, humanity’s in for a rude awakening.

So I’m wondering, do you think my “so what?” interpretation of her belief is reasonable, or am I missing something? I know she would fall into Sam Harris’ hated “moderate” segment, but that said, I fail to see how trying to convince her, or anyone of similar belief, of anything different would in any way make the world a better place.

It’s can be difficult to know just what to do in these kinds of situations. Odds are most of you have close family members who believe in God, and I don’t doubt most of you skirt talking about it just to avoid a situation like the one James was in. A newspaper in Colorado once asked me if I thought it was OK for people to believe in God. Naturally, I said “of course it is”, curious as to why he would ask such a stupid question. I don’t imagine I could ever really tell someone straight up that they weren’t allowed to think perhaps there was a God in this universe, one who granted people’s wishes and prayers, and who offered the reward of eternal life for those who chose to believe.

The sad truth is for all of it’s beauty, life can be breathtakingly cruel. Here we are, adrift on a large cooling rock orbiting a ball of nuclear fire, trying to live out our lives in peace and tranquility. We get to meet others like us, befriend them, make them part of our lives, and spend the rest of our lives with them. The problem, of course, is we are terribly fragile, and mother nature is a cold hearted bitch who will smack your ass into an early grave if you give her the chance. So invariably, the ones we care the most about will lose their lives. Their absence fills us with grief and pain. For some, it’s too much to bear. In our moment of weakness, the attraction of religion cannot be denied. They will chose to believe in it, even if it doesn’t make sense, simply because it “feels right” to them.

What would I gain from tearing down their belief system? Not much I imagine. It doesn’t sound like your mother was trying to brainwash you with her religion too much, and the fact that you still have a relationship with her despite your “godlessness” at least proves she can live with the fact you are a non-believer. This is perhaps the most important factor here. I don’t mind someone believing in God; I object only when that belief prevents people from forming new meaningful relationships with other human beings (religious hatred is a bitch). At the end of the day, we should all acknowledge the hubris of our own thinking, and finally admit we really don’t know shit.

I wouldn’t tell a dying man begging for his last rites there is no God. It certainly wouldn’t do him any good. What is he going to do, contemplate his non-existence after he dies? The whole reason I hate religion is because of their dead certainty there is a God. I accept the fact that so far, the evidence is severely lacking, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the limits of my own knowledge. That’s what bugs me the most: when people aren’t willing to question their own assumptions.

I always sympathize with people. I can’t help it; I’m a big softy at the end of the day. If someone believes in God but keeps that belief private, who am I to criticize them? I object to the influence of religion on public affairs, but I’m perfectly happy discussing it in the context of theology alone. If your mom really does believe in God because of her need to reconnect with her father, I cannot help but feel sympathy for her. I would tell her that I am inspired by her love, and that I wished what she believed really was true. Perhaps that is the redeeming thing about belief in God: at the very least, it demonstrates how powerful our hope is we will meet our deceased loved ones again some day.

Comments (4)

  • avatar

    CybrgnX

    No I would not critise someone who is dying. I supported my dying mothers believes in anyway to ease her journey. But her belief was not ‘GOOD’. It has her irrational belief that prevented her from dying quickly and comfortably instead the intesnse pain she suffered. Her belief stopped her from getting the ‘illigal’ drugs that could have given her more comfort.
    If my time comes the rational part of me knows the ‘illegal’ shit is just BS. I WILL get the drugs I need, I WILL have the suicide needle ready. Whether I become addicted to the drugs is no ones plucking business. Suicide may be illegal so have the DA blow his brains out along with a couple cops and come arrest me.
    So anything that interferes with rational decisions is BAD. So there is no ‘good’ in religion unless self-delusion is considered ‘good’. Which we can see from society most people do like delusions.

  • avatar

    Sabio Lantz

    We all have silly beliefs and habits – theists and atheists alike. At times, should just cut each other some slack.
    My mother dieing of lung cancer smoked up to the last minute. A doc, 2 days before she died, tried to lecture on that — come on !

  • avatar

    quandmeme

    Just to sidetrack from one of your last points, where you mention that religion should be kept out of public affairs. Could you explain your take on that recurring skeptic comment to me, a theist?

    It seems like every philosophy orders the way any adherent votes or makes political $ contributions. I have assumed that if someone believes that education is a waste of time then they would oppose the spending of money on schools in such a way that their private beliefs are given public effect.

    So help me with that, are theistic world-views in public affairs bad because they are inconvenient for you? Or is it something about a supernaturally-derived philosophy being less likely to engage in debate within a purely empirical context?

  • avatar

    quandmeme

    I am repenting and commenting on topic. I don’t go around telling kids that there’s no Santa (on my mind because I told my 8 year-old my thoughts on him this week). I will call a kid’s belief in Santa “good” if it is based on reasonable evidence (to that kid) and the kid acts in a manner consistent with his belief.

    I am frustrated by my fundamentalist (my label) republican fellow church-goers and just can’t even get into their heads to see how they could see the world the way they do in light of their faith. (Viz. of all Christians, we Mormons should be the most pro-environmental and anti-war IMO). However I will call a worldview which I don’t like “good” if I think that adherents really have reason to see the world that way and/as evidenced by they really live according to those beliefs.

    If I’m honest about it, I can’t judge the “goodness” of other beliefs based on whether I like the outcome–because that just ends up judging how close that system is to my own beliefs. I can only judge them by their intellectual/spiritual sincerity.

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