[This is a repost of an earlier piece.]
I’d like to propose three conceptual models for religion in society:
Religion is this harmless, pleasure-giving plus in each person’s life. It is sweet and good and loving, a fluffy little bundle of joy that could not possibly hurt anyone. Everyone who has it benefits from it, and everyone agrees that more people should have it. Society itself benefits from having it.
Religion gives immense pleasure to the people who have it. However it does have claws and teeth, and does occasionally harm people when in a bad mood. The vast majority of people who have it benefit from it, but it remains fully capable of drawing blood. It is still a plus in most people’s lives, and though society should keep a wary eye out for the teeth and claws – it should still be a prominent part of society.
Religion is incredibly dangerous, a streamlined predator that menaces not only those who have it, but also those around them. It is only safe when caged – it doesn’t even have to be in a bad mood, it only has to be itself, and someone will get injured or killed. On the general principles of free will and self-determination, people should probably have the right to have it, but it should stay safely caged – private – at all times. Free will and self-determination are bedrock principles and good for society, but society overall would definitely be better off without having religion itself running around loose.
Of course we’re all aware that large numbers of people see religion as The Kitten. Religion is only positive, only loving, and it could not possibly hurt anybody.
As to religion as The Cat, it seems to me that the majority of agnostics, and probably even atheists, see it this way.
Yes, they would admit, there have been such unfortunate incidents as the Crusades, and the Inquisition. And sure, there are those idiot parents who, because of their faith, deny life-saving medical care to their children. And, yes, okay, there was that Jim Jones thing, and the Heaven’s Gate thing, and sure, Scientology is this nutty fringe culty thing that victimizes its hapless adherents.
But overall, religion gives people hope and solace and stuff like that. Besides, if nothing else, it keeps the dangerous idiots from rising up and killing us all. In the main, it’s just not all that dangerous, and has had little impact on history or the overall shape of society today.
As to religion as The Tiger, you’d actually have to work at it to make a convincing case. Because, hey, where’s the harm? I mean, seriously, here we are in a world of modern wonders – you know computers and jet planes, surgery and antibiotics, schools and libraries and democracy – and yet we still have religion. It doesn’t seem to have hurt us. Besides which, in this uncertain world, it does give people hope and comfort.
You’d probably guess I’m in this third camp. I see religion as The Tiger and nothing but The Tiger. I’m disturbed that more people don’t see it as I do, but I guess I’m not all that surprised.
Still, I’d like to make the case.
[And I'll try to do that, starting in Part 2]