Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that. — Richard Dawkins
With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. — Stephen Weinberg
A while back, I partly overheard a young couple in the Coffee Shop discussing the influence of religion on our behavior. The man said something about religion causing the Spanish Inquisition. But the woman rejected that notion and replied people are horrible to each other even without religion.
And that’s how it went. The man pointed to the Inquisition, the Crusades, September 11th, and so forth, while the woman kept saying those things could have happened anyway. They were still going at it when I left. It seems September 11th changed a lot of things, but it did not end the perennial debate over whether religion on the whole is a good or bad influence on our behavior.
On that issue, two positions have long seemed equally improbable to me: That religion is always good or that religion is always bad. Yet, I’ve heard people argue both those positions!
What is the truth?
One clue comes from a fairly recent study conducted by two researchers at the University of British Columbia, Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan. They found experimental evidence suggesting that simply thinking about an omniscient, morally concerned deity substantially increases the odds a person will behave altruistically.
At the same time, Brad Bushman of the University of Michigan seems to have found equally valid experimental evidence that suggests thinking about a judgmental, vengeful deity substantially increases the odds someone will behave aggressively against others.
Both studies agree that how someone thinks of deity might significantly influence their behavior. And if both studies are right, then religion can influence us to do both good and evil. I suspect that conclusion will jive with most folk’s own observations.
If religion can influence us to do both good and evil, then it would seem just as unfounded to oppose it on the grounds that its influence is necessarily evil as it would seem unfounded to support it on the grounds that its influence is necessarily good.
I began this essay by quoting Dawkins and Weinberg. Neither person, so far as I know, would argue the influence of religion on our behavior is entirely evil. Yet, I think both might hold the negatives outweigh the positives.
That’s a view likely to be endlessly debated. As for myself, I find the older I get, the more I incline toward the notion that the influence of religion on our behavior is more often evil than good. But that’s just an intuition, a hunch, and I know it could easily be wrong.
Finally, I would like to note that nothing discussed here directly addresses the questions of (1) what influence religion might have on our well-being, and (2) whether religion is overall good or evil. Both of those questions are simply beyond the scope of a short essay dealing with the moral influence of religion on our behavior.