Is fundamentalism
good for you?

A look at the evidence.

By Chris Tolworthy (homepage)
updated April 2006

Summary: small benefits, very high cost
Measurable benefits of religion
Let's look at the small print
Ancient benefits of religion that don't apply any more
NEW: Genuine benefits that still apply?
Alleged benefits of religion that don't stand up to scrutiny
What's wrong with religion for individuals?
What's wrong with religion for society?
Theocracies are always brutal and never work
Comparing religious and secular nations
Social capital: how to get the benefits of religion, without religion.
Finding happiness outside religion

Summary: small benefits, very high cost

Fundamentalism offers genuine benefits to the individual. When you compare one end of the religious spectrum (married couples who share the same ideals) with the other end of the spectrum (dysfunctional kids from broken homes), the benefits of religious fundamentalism seem very great. On the other hand, if you compare deeply committed church goers with committed skeptics, the difference is hard to see. But there is a difference. Unlike other social networks, fundamentalist religion does long term damage to society.



This essay is about the benefits of religion, or to be precise, fundamentalist religion. Fundamentalists are the people who have fixed beliefs that they will not consciously change. They claim to speak for God, which is a very dangerous scenario. Anyone with fundamental beliefs that they will never change is, in that regard, a fundamentalist. In this essay, "religion" means "fundamentalist religion" because most religions are fundamentalist in some sense.

This essay is not about forms of religious behavior that are open to change. For example, this essay is not about spirituality. Spirituality is a feeling of awe and humility before the universe, and being a part of the universe, which tends to lead to inner peace. A person can be spiritual without being a fundamentalist. Similarly, many people attend church for reasons other than fundamental belief. For example, to learn from others, to discuss morality, for the social life, etc. These people are willing to change their beliefs when faced with new evidence, so they are not fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are those who draw a line in the sand (the fundamentals) and say "this is absolute truth and I will never question it!" In other words, they reject all evidence from that point onwards. When people reject evidence, bad decisions are sure to follow.

Most of this essay is made of summaries and comments on other books or web sites. No apology is made for summarizing others' ideas at length, because they are good ideas and worth repeating. But this is just a summary and initial response, not a detailed argument. There are so many controversial ideas here that any attempt to expand on them or prove them all would be futile. So don't expect to find hundreds of footnotes, or a detailed defence for every claim. These are my reasons for rejecting religion, and if you don't accept them that's fine. Life is short, let's not waste it on endless debates.

Measurable benefits of religion

Some people claim that religion offers a better life. For convenience, I rely on the article by Elizabeth VanDenBerghe, “Religion and the Abundant Life” Ensign, Oct. 1994, 32. The author refers to various pieces of research that show measurable benefits for being religious (usually defined as attending church and praying frequently). The conclusions are broadly in keeping with my own experience (I was highly religious until age 34), so I see no reason to question them. The reader is free to read VanDenBerghe's article and follow her footnotes to see how each benefit was measured.

VanDenBerghe does not suggest causes, other than an implication that these benefits come from God. However, it is easy to find naturalistic causes for each benefit, so we can suggest alternative ways to get the same benefits.

First, religious people feel calmer, and more ready to try new things, as long as these things fit in with the religious group. Religious people are likely to be motivated to do well academically. However, this is a natural result of having supportive family and friends and a long term view. Anyone with those things will enjoy the same benefits.

Second, a religious person has an instant network of friends, so they feel satisfied and safe. However, friends can come from many places, not just from religions.

Third, a religious person believes that what they are doing has long term benefits. It is not difficult to see how this makes people happy. However, the same feeling can be had in charities or political parties where people volunteer for work that will do lasting good.

Fourth, religious people believe that they are pleasing God or the universe, so they have high self worth (unless they believe they are a sinner). However, the same belief can be had from any philosophy that says "what you are doing is right."

Fifth, religious people believe that God (or fate) will sort everything out in the end, so they have less stress. However, the same calm feeling and hence good results can be had by anybody who just accepts life as it is. Stress comes from internal conflict, not from rejecting God in particular. Indeed, if you focus on your 'sins' then you are likely to be more stressed, not less. Friends and low stress lead to general good health and longer lives, regardless of whether religion is involved.

Sixth, if a religion has some good teachings (like "help others" or "don't do drugs") then a strong belief will make the believer more likely to live that way. Similarly, to avoid cognitive dissonance, religious people are likely to do good things (like charitable work) that fits their self image of being the salt of the earth. However, the same will happen if a person joins a charity or becomes a prominent member of the community.

Seventh, if a believer marries someone who is equally committed, both people will have a lot in common, and hence a happier marriage. However, this is the case regardless of religion. If married people feel strongly the same on a range of issues, their marriage is likely to be very happy indeed.

Finally, religions only survive if they can replace the older generation with new believers, so they tend to encourage families (since children tend to follow their parents' beliefs). However, parents would probably spend even more quality time with their children if instead of going to church they went to family activities.

All these benefits can be achieved without religion, but it may take a little more effort. Religion offers a "one stop shop" that requires very little thought. It is thus particularly effective for those from dysfunctional backgrounds: alcoholism, gang membership, or loneliness. That is clear from the literature. So in summary, religion provides an easy route to various benefits, but there are other routes.

One benefit of religion that VanDenBerghe ignores is the social programs run by some churches: orphanages, soup kitchens, etc. These provide genuine benefits to many people, but are needed less and less in an advanced economy. This is one more example of where religion is useful when people have severe problems. However, there are always better solutions (such as a better funded state welfare system), but the better solutions require more effort.

Let's look at the small print

So far, the benefits of religion, as listed by VanDenBerghe, seem very impressive. But there are immediate problems. The most obvious is that not every religious person is happy, healthy, successful, etc. The statistics can be made to look good, but experience tells a different story. Religious people have bad stuff like everyone else. VanDenBerghe suggests that part of the reason is different levels of religious devotion.

According to VanDenBerghe, the greatest benefits of religion require a very high level of devotion. Those with lower levels of devotion do not enjoy those benefits. This is unfortunate since most believers are not highly committed, so will not gain the promised blessings. Believers might say that the answer is to become more committed, but this is like saying "solve poverty by becoming wealthy!" The question is, how? No religion has ever been able to maintain high levels of devotion from most of its people most of the time. So low commitment and low benefits are a fact of life for all religions.

Apart from the problems with unbelief, the evidence for great benefit from religion is sometimes based on statistical tricks. Take for example the happy marriage statistics. When both partners strongly share the same beliefs, the marriage is strong. This is not unique to religion. What is unique to religion is that, if one person changes their opnion, their partner is unlikely to change with them. So the rosy statistics at one end of the spectrum hide ugly pain at the other end. Other statistics are similarly misleading. For example, a network of friends only helps in a large church. Joining a small church can reduce a person's network of friends by making them different from non-members.

VanDenBerghe picks out the best looking results, but for most statistics, religion does not make any major difference to a person's moral behavior. For further details, see regular reports from the Barna Research Group. They have a good reputation for honest reporting of Christian statistics. In many areas, Christians do perform slightly better than the average, but in most cases the difference is very small, and occasionally Christians perform even worse.

Ancient benefits of religion that don't apply any more

Religion is nearly universal, suggesting that it might be built into our brains. This would indicate that religion gave us some great benefit in the past. It is easy to see how religion would have been extremely useful in ancient and prehistoric times. Steven Pinker gave a lecture that suggested several ways religion might have provided an evolutionary advantage or our ancestors. This is a summary of some of Pinker's suggestions:

Religion helps leaders to survive. If a leader can persuade his people that he represents God, he will gain food and protection and everything he needs to prosper. Those with this secret are called the priesthood. Note that the priest may be entirely sincere, and may not see priesthood in this way. But evolution does not depend on sincerity, it only depends on who is most successful at passing on what they have.

Before literacy was common, religion could have helped the ordinary people to survive. When most people could not read, there was a limit to how much knowledge they could have. Often the leaders would be the only people with the knowledge of how to run society. Religion helped the people to obey their leaders, even when they might not want to. When ordinary people knew much less than the leaders, obedience to leaders was the only chance of survival.

Religion is a good way to enforce moral values (on pain of eternal torment!) Moral values are blanket rules that are more or less good most of the time. When life is very confusing, and any mistake can lead to death, these simplified rules can help people to survive. Note that moral values are often based on facts that have now changed. For example, in the days before state welfare, good medicine and contraception, ill-considered sex could be disastrous, and so it was a great moral evil. But today most of those dangers have disappeared.

Religion is used to define Inequalities, segregation and rites of passage. Just as a tribe needed blanket rules, so it needed clear ways to maintain order. They relied on rules that could not be questioned: women must do A, men must do B, children must do C, etc. The alternative would be endless debates and bad decisions, because nobody had the education to really understand why the rules were there.

Religion requires sacrifices, and costly sacrifices show who is really committed to the tribe. This helps the tribe to survive by showing who can be trusted in times of crisis.

Finally, there may even be a benefit in believing in spirits in the sky, spirits in rocks, etc. If people don't know understand the complex laws of nature, and cannot tell which creatures are like them and which are not, it makes sense to assume that everything is alive: animals, rocks, or spirits in the sky. That way there is a chance of predicting what might happen next. This has a better success rate than random guessing, the only other option.

For most of human history, religion may have been the best available way to survive. But the rise of literacy (and especially the Internet!) changed all that. Now more people can understand why things are as they are. We can question the old ideas, understand their causes, and sometimes find even better solutions. Religion is no longer the best way to run society.


Genuine benefits that still apply?

  There are two areas where fundamentalist religious belief may give genuine benefits, even in today's more literate world. For details, see Clare Wilson's article on faith and gullibility in New Scientist (28 January 2006, p 37).

First, believers may be more willing to jump to conclusions. Skeptics are always skeptical and demand strong evidence, but believers will believe on less evidence. If the topic is a matter of life and death, it may be better to be gullible. For example, if there is a rustle in the bushes it is probably the wind, but it might be a tiger. The person who always says "it's a tiger!" will usually be wrong, but it might just save their life. Modern people do not often face tigers in the bushes, but with advances in technology the number of dangerous unknowns is still very great.

Second, believers may be more sensitive to subtle information that the concious mind does not notice. When they think they are getting spiritual guidance and inspiration they are actually picking up clues from around them. Hard nosed skeptics are less willing to act on vague feelings.

Third, the conscious mind always tries to make sense of the world. But no matter how big our brains become, the universe is always bigger. So there will always be questions that we cannot answer... yet. This can lead to great stress. Skeptics may be patient, but part of them still wants answers. The believer, on the other hand, has perfect peace. If there is some idea they cannot cope with, they leave it to God, and they sleep peacefully.

These are three areas where religion may have genuine and significant benefits. But in each case the strength can also be a weakness. Being too quick to believe leads to spectacularly bad decisions. Being at peace means you lack the pressure necessary to solve the really hard problems. Does the weakness cancel out the strength? The jury is still out on that one.

Alleged benefits of religion that don't stand up to scrutiny

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins: a book containing many detailed, testable answers provided by science

Apart from the measurable benefits listed above, people often claim these other benefits for religion. However, these claims are much weaker. Either the benefit doesn't exist, or it is easier to get the benefit without being religious.

Religion answers questions? Religion's only answer is "God did it." But religion cannot tell us why, or how, or why the God hypothesis makes more sense than the alternative. In contrast, science can tell why, how, and provide rational answers at every stage. Worse, religion requires us to accept that a vastly complicated God just appears without any reason. Yet science needs nothing more than few particles and forces. So religion has no answers and is extremely unlikely, while science has plenty of answers and its assumptions are far more probable.

Religion helps us face death? No, religion makes death harder to face. Evolution shows us that death is a heroic thing. Each generation gives its life so that the next generation has a better chance of survival. This heroism makes us happy because we spend our lives living for others. But some religions (such as Christianity) teach personal immortality, a selfish approach that makes no sense and will not make us happy. Science can make sense of death, but religion refuses to face the facts. Religion makes death easier to face when compared with complete ignorance, but harder to face when compared with a better knowledge.

Religions encourage charitable work? It is true that most religions encourage charitable work, but not as much as charities themselves encourage. And most charities are not religious. Meanwhile, religion has done more to cause pain and grief than any charity could ever hope to fix. The most effective solution to sickness and hunger is science. Science has solved more problems in the past hundred years than religion ever solved in the previous ten thousand. Yet religion has consistently opposed science, from Galileo to vaccines to birth control to stem cell research, every major advance is opposed by religion.

Religion creates a stable society? It is true that religion encourages obedience to authority, and a willingness to put up with problems. But this is disastrous when the authority decided to go to war, or makes other bad decisions. And individuals seem less able to solve their own problems: fundamentalist Christians are more likely to divorce than their less religious neighbors. A much better alternative is to have a society of skeptics. Skeptics are stable because they find rational solutions and are highly suspicious of charismatic leaders. Secular Scandinavia is more stable than the religious Middle East. Secular New England creates more wealth and is less likely to vote for war than the religious Bible Belt.

Non-religious people may appear to be less stable because they are less respectful and argue more. But that is how they solve problems. For example, Britain is less religious than America, and has higher levels of reported violence (typically, fights breaking up outside pubs). However, Britain has a much lower murder rate. We fight but we don't kill. (Some people put America's high murder rate down to gun ownership, but other nations like Canada, Finland and New Zealand have high levels of gun ownership but lower murder rates. For more on the correlation between religion and murder rates, see Gregory Paul's article, discussed below.)

Religion gives great emotional experiences? So do family reunions, classical music, football games, or national flag waving events, depending on personal interest. In my experience (34 years a devout believer), these experiences are very rare, and can be more reliably produced at a great concert or musical. Usually the feelings identified as "the spirit" are very small, no different from what would be felt when watching a good movie or learning something interesting.

Religion provides miracles? Miracles have been studied many times, but happen no more often than would be expected through chance. Occasionally a small study will seem to detect a positive effect, but other small studies find negative effects. Small studies are prone to statistical noise. Meanwhile, the religious people have historically oppose many scientific advances that have gone on to provide real, world-changing miracles.

Prayer is a great comfort? The comfort effect (the placebo effect) is real, and will be discussed later. The other aspects of prayer, a time to meditate, and talking through problems, can be duplicated without religion. If a person discusses their problems with a real friend instead of an imaginery freind, they are more likely to find a real solution instead of a placebo.

What's wrong with religion for individuals?

One problem with religion is that, according to VanDenBerghe (and common sense), the benefits only apply if people believe. But if people look at the harm done by religion to the world, or if you find the arguments for God to be very weak, they will find it very difficult to believe. If the unbeliever lives in a religious family or religious society, their unbelief creates divisions and the benefits of religion are thrown into reverse. They have a weaker family, less happiness, more stress, and so on. This is explored in more detail in "Religious doubt and health: exploring the potential dark side of religion." Critics might say that this is true in any group, if people are different, problems arise. But the problems are greater with religion, because loss of belief affects every part of a person's life. Also, questioning religious fundamentals is a sin, so a believer cannot meet an unbeliever half way..

No religion has ever been able to keep all its members at a constant high level of belief. And as long as religions cause the problems described below, people will reject religion and leave. Everyone who leaves, particularly if they are married to a believer, feels the dark side of religion.

Experience suggests that another large group that is damaged by religion can be called the "reluctant attenders." This group has barely been studied, but should be. In every church there are many people who attend but do not enjoy it. Some are children or spouses of believers, some are single but feel guilty if they don't do what their church says. These people do the minimum they must, and may appear to be good members, but their heart isn't in it. Depending on how they behave, they may be placed either in the "believer" or the "unbeliever" category, but they need to be studied in their own right.

There are many other areas where religion appears to harm individuals. For example, a December 1999 Barna report compared divorce rates. Born Again Christians have the worst record, and atheists have the best. There is a large amount of anecdotal evidence, and isolated statistical evidence, indicating negative things about religious people. See for example "Religion's Devils," where the author refers to various studies showing that religious people are more likely to cheat on tests, more likely to have abortions, find it harder to make friends outside their church, and so on. But these are small things compared with the benefits listed earlier. This essay will focus on just on the big issues.

What's wrong with religion for society?

A Nazi soldier's standard issue belt buckle, with the motto "Gott Mit Uns" (God With Us)

Religion might do some good at an individual level, but it does a great deal of harm at other levels. These things have been discussed many times before, so will not be examined in detail.

Almost all wars are supported by churches of some kind. From the medieval Crusades to the Bible Belt's support for the invasion of Iraq, wherever there is a war, there is a church saying the war is a good thing. (The image at the right is

Famine and pestilence are much worse in poor states, and fundamentalist states are usually poor. Critics might argue that this is confusing cause and effect, but is it really a coincidence that no fundamentalist state has ever been wealthy?

Religious states, such as modern Islamic states or medieval Christian states, routinely use torture. In a recent American Senate vote on the use of torture, nine senators voted to approve torture. Eight of them had a 100 percent approval rating from the Christian Coalition, and the ninth was a Christian fundamentalist.

Numerous parts of the world are in violent conflict over land, and those conflicts are based partly on religious identities. The Israel-Palestine dispute is only the best known example. Religious people are often so convinced that they are right, that they will kill others: bombing abortion clinics for example. Or Moses committing genocide against the Ammonites and others.

What we call "terrorism" (i.e. very small scale wars) usually has a religious motivation. Naturally, each side says it's the fault of the other side's religion.

Learning is discouraged if it seems to contradict church beliefs. For example, fundamentalist Christian universities are distrustful of comparative religion that shows Jesus or the scripture in a negative light. From Galileo to Intelligent Design, religions have often opposed science.

From Joseph Smith to David Koresh, charismatic leaders often abuse their people, using ecclesiastical authority for coercing sexual privileges, sometimes leading to child abuse (as in recent widespread Catholic scandals), or even mass suicide.

Religions generally encourage large families, leading to overpopulation which in turn leads to environmental destruction and poverty and all their bad results.

Modern Christians may reject the extremes of the medieval Inquisition ans witch-hunts, but they still persecute when they can: just ask any gay rights group for examples. On a lesser level, pagans are called Satanists, and Atheists are called unpatriotic, and generally stopped from taking public office in America.

Religions often oppose life-saving medical advances. Take stem cell research for example. It has been estimated that this research could prevent painful and often deadly conditions in 128 million Americans, yet most religions oppose it. Another example is healing. Many believers in spiritual healing are slow to call conventional doctors, and have higher levels of sickness and death as a result (for details, see rationalist web sites that keep track of these things.)

Religions often oppose women's rights and allow the spread of AIDS, by discouraging the most effective forms of contraception. Bertrand Russell gave another simple example in his famous pamphlet on why he was not a Christian. If a man with a syphilis married a woman without telling her of his condition, the "no divorce, no contraception" rules of the time would force her to stay with him and bear him children until she died.

Religious parents sometimes disown, abuse, or even kill children who bring shame on a family for reasons that are ultimately based on religion. Or in some cases torturing people in order to exorcise an evil spirit. This is more common in the east but is not unknown in the west, judging by the occasional news story. Christians may claim that they don't do that, but read the Old Testament: some of this behavior, such as stoning people for blasphemy or disobedience to parents, is recommended in the Bible.

Religions opposed democracy by supporting the "divine right of kings" for thousands of years.

Religions destroy indigenous cultures through missionary work.

Religions supported slavery for many centuries (see Ephesians 6:5)

From the Taliban destroying Buddhist statues, to Christians campaigning against plays they have not seen, or books they have not read, religion destroys and censors art and literature.

Serial killers and abusers sometimes believe they are obeying Satan, a being created by religion. It is also worth noting that there are almost no atheists in prisons. Of course, this could just be due to prejudice. Perhaps Christians get better treatment, so atheists keep quiet or convert? This is the source of much debate on the Internet.

The kind of state desired by popular evangelical groups in America can only be described as fascist. That is, it would be authoritarian (dictated by God or his representatives), nationalist (this is particularly true in America, God's chosen nation), often racist (if previous centuries are any guide), and often militaristic (again particularly true in American fundamentalism, where the main role of the state is to protect the nation by military means).

Religious labelling creates divisions which encourage conflict. For example, there were no religious wars in India/Pakistan before the British arrived, and most people had the cafeteria approach to religion. But the British insisted that each person be labelled by just one religion, and divisions followed. Similarly, ancient Rome was happy to let anyone believe in any God as long as they also paid lip service to official gods, but the Christians insisted on creating a clear division between them and others, with deadly results for their own followers.

The list could be made much longer Religion has harmed society in many ways, while the alleged benefits to society are far less clear.

Theocracies are always brutal and never work

An execution in Taliban-run Afghanistan

The goal of organized religion is for the whole nation to be run according to religious principles. In other words, the nation becomes a theocracy. But theocracies are always horrible places: the more religious a country is, the poorer it is, and the less human rights it has. Look at the Islamic countries for example. Christianity is no better: the last time that Christianity had a great hold on the west, we called it the Dark Ages. Some academics don't like the term "dark ages" because there were still patches of light. But overall, people were more hungry, had less freedom, more disease, worse food, they died younger, and so on. It was a horrible time to be alive. Whenever religion takes control, the people suffer.

Critics might say that America is religious yet very wealthy. But that statement combines two false ideas. First, America, though more religious than its neighbors, is still mostly secular. Just look at the Hollywood entertainment that people choose. In the market of ideas, Fundamentalist Christianity is still thankfully only a small part of the whole. The second false idea is that goodness can be measured by its wealth. By that measure, Mafia crime lords are good people and their victims are the bad ones.

Religion is incapable of running a nation, even according to its own standards. For example, Jesus is supposed to bring "joy to the world" and "peace on earth," but look at Europe in the 1600s and 1700s. This was the Protestant revolution, the great experiment in running society according to the Bible. The experiment failed horribly. For over a hundred years, every country tried to live by the Bible, but the result was endless disagreements, leading to endless war. In Britain in the 1600s, for example, King James (of King James Bible fame) fought against the Puritans, and each side tried to be more Bible-based than the other. This just led to bloodshed. By the end of the 1700s, thinking people could all see that religion and politics should never mix, hence the separation of church and state in the United States constitution. Compare the fervor of late sixteenth century religion with the restraint of late eighteenth century religon. They learned their lessons hard way.

Of course, each religion says that it is different and all the others are wrong. As long as it does not gain complete power, it can hide the damage that it does. For example, the Mormon church ran a theocracy in Utah in the late 1800s. The church presents a rosy picture of life under prophet and governor Brigham Young, but for the other side of the story read anything by Michael Quinn, or look at the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The most fanatical Mormons thought it was a great place, but nobody else did.

Comparing religious nations and secular nations

Religion makes nations worse. If you compare the wealthiest and best educated nations, the more religious nations come off worst. They have a lower life expectancy, higher murder rate, more abortions, higher child mortality, and so on. In general, the USA is at one end of the scale (most religious, worst quality of life), and the Scandinavian countries are at the other end (least religious, best quality of life). For more information, see "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies - A First Look" by Gregory S. Paul

Paul's paper contains just initial findings, and more work needs to be done, but the message is clear: secular nations do better than religious nations. Here are some of Paul's graphs that illustrate the point. Note the general trend in each case: more religion is bad, less religion is good. I have selected those graphs that have the easiest trends for non-statisticians to see, but Paul measured many other indicators as well. Sometimes the trend is not easy to spot with the human eye, but statistically the trends are significant.

Of course the USA is still a much better place to live than, say, the third world. But of course, the third world is also a lot more religious, and a lot more corrupt. Another point to note is that religion works best where people cannot think for themselves: when they are either mixed up (such as street children), dependent (such as alcoholics), or lack education (so must rely on more educated leaders). In these cases, as noted above, religion offers some genuine benefits. But if people are educated and can think for themselves, they can do much better.

Finally, please note that the alternative to religion is not state atheism or any other mad scheme. The alternative to religion is skeptism. Skeptisicm toward religion, toward atheism, toward politics, towards everything. In these societies, all ideas have to be proven, and only genuinely good ideas are used. The alternative to God-fearing America is not Soviet Russia, but boring Scandinavia.

Social capital: how to get the benefits of religion, without religion.

Religion is popular because, to some extent, it brings people together and makes them happier. United happy people work better, live longer, perform better, and have various other advantages. But religion is an indirect route to happiness: many religious people are not happy at all. It makes more sense to seek happiness more directly. Get all the benefits without the costs. The real strength of a society comes from social capital, also known as "networks of trust." Social capital refers to the benefits of all the social networks that let us live together peacefully, get things done, and make friends.

Social capital comes from not just churches, but from talking to neighbors, joining, scout groups, political parties, football clubs, local charities, amateur dramatics societies, village halls, business groups, choirs, schools, businesses that care about their employees, support groups, Internet forums where you know each other as individuals, clubs, even bars, and so on. Indeed, since churches claim a special status (absolute truth!) they are exclusionary and weaken a person's links with other networks. If you strongly fit into a church, you cannot fit in with competing churches, or those people who come from competing churches.

The key to make social capital work is being tolerant and willing to adapt. So there is no place for "absolute truth" in a healthy society. If ideas become fixed and permanent (i.e.the ideas become 'fundamentals'), and loyalty becomes absolute, a group has no incentive to improve, and its members will find it difficult to leave. If such a group comes into conflict with another group with different beliefs, religious faith becomes a barrier to cooperation, and society is weakened..

Finding happiness outside religion

For many people, perhaps most people, the question "is religion good for you" comes down to one thing, "does it make me happy?" The importance of this question is summed up in the memorable exchange between Arthur Dent and Slartibartfast in Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy"

"What does it matter? Science has achieved some wonderful things of course, but I'd far rather be happy than right any day."
"And are you?"
"No. That's where it all falls down of course."
"Pity," said Arthur with sympathy. "It sounded like quite a good lifestyle otherwise."

So any discussion of "is it good" must end with a discussion of happiness. The god news is that people can be very happy without religious fundamentalism, and many are. Science has identified many routes to happiness, and they can all be met through non-religious social capital. This 14 point guide to happiness is from "Human Happiness - Its Nature and Its Attainment" by Michael W. Fordyce. The additional comments are not by Fordyce.

  1. Be More Active and Keep Busy. The easy way to do this is to join some community organization and get involved!
  2. Spend More Time Socializing. This can be achieved through community organizations, and becoming friends with work colleagues. In contrast, religion often creates barriers with work colleagues (unless they share the same values).
  3. Be Productive at Meaningful Work. Again, a well-chosen community group can do this. In contrast, a church may not be the best way to use your talents, and often wastes your time in meetings. You are unlikely to reach your potential in a one-size-fits-all church.
  4. Get Better Organized and Plan Things Out. This one is up to the individual!
  5. Stop Worrying. When a person becomes part of an organization they can compare their behavior with the behavior of others. They can see that others make mistakes as well. It is easy to reach the standards set by peers, but much harder to reach the standards set by a god.
  6. Lower Expectations & Aspirations. No expectations are higher than perfection and passing he Final Judgement. It is much easier to base expectations and aspirations on mortal peers.
  7. Develop Positive, Optimistic Thinking. If a person rejects the apocalyptic view common in Christianity, they are likely to see that the world (or at least west) is becoming a better place, compared with fifty or a hundred years ago. There are still serious problems, but there are also political solutions.
  8. Get Present-Oriented. Most religions have eternal life as a goal. The alternative is to live for the present..
  9. Work On a Healthy Personality. The best way to do this is to get out and mix with other people. If a person closely follows the beliefs of a church, they will have less in common with other people, and so find it harder to cooperate with the majority of society..
  10. Develop an Outgoing Social Personality. See previous point!
  11. "Be Yourself". Religion teaches that people are sinners who must change. The alternative is for a person to accept themself as they are.
  12. Eliminate Negative Feelings & Problems. Most religions teach that people are sinners, and the world is a terrible place that is getting worse. These thoughts can be eliminated.
  13. Close Relationships Are #1. Religion can create serious divisions as noted earlier. But a less dogmatic view allows people to adapt to be like the people around them, and thus have closer relationships with more people.
  14. Value happiness! Religions teach that happiness will come naturally if a person is righteous, and people will be blessed later for enduring bad things now. It is better to seek happiness now, directly, rather than indirectly or later.

    All of this takes a little effort. A person needs to get out and see what community groups are available, and learn social skills and spend time and effort cultivating friendships. Religion is much easier in the short term, it require no thought, and everything is provided in one place. No wonder religion has thrived throughout history! No wonder religion gives deceptively positive results in the short term. But religion also has the high costs discussed earlier. So it is better to seek those benefits in other ways, even if this takes a little more effort.


In conclusion, religion was the best available option for society in ancient times. And it is sometimes still the best choice, if a person has problems with addiction, dysfunctional upbringing, illiteracy, etc. But most people can do better. The fact that religion is instinctive does not make it right. The fact that many people believe it does not make it right. The fact that there are certain real but limited benefits does not mean it is the best choice. We can do better than fundamentalist religion. And if we want a better world, we must.

my homepage