The Good Cult

July 10th, 2012

Atheists and skeptics are burgeoning in numbers and influence. But even the most extreme nonbelievers concede there are benefits to religion. The most interesting example I’ve seen of this recently was this post by hard-headed rationalist Robin Hanson arguing that these benefits are so great that rational people should become more religious, since “far beliefs” like religion don’t affect our day-to-day lives much anyway.

People with religious beliefs, and associated behavior, consistently tend to have better lives. It seems that religious folks tend to be happier, live longer, smoke less, exercise more, earn more, get and stay married more, commit less crime, use less illegal drugs, have more social connections, donate and volunteer more, and have more kids. Yes, the correlation between religion and these good things is in part because good people tend to become more religious, but it is probably also in part because religions people tend to become better. So if you want to become good in these ways, an obvious strategy is to become more religious, which is helped by having more religious beliefs.

Let’s say I take Hanson’s recommendations at face value and accept that I should become religious. I am left with some nontrivial questions. I am currently an avowed atheist and was not raised in a religious family, so I have no ‘default’ religious position. Which religion should I choose? Is one equally as good as another? Is it better to become a Muslim than a Buddhist? My Scientologist friends seem happy… maybe I should join Scientology. I’ve seen reports in the news that make Scientology seem strange and unsavory, so maybe this isn’t the best option. However I’ve seen other reports that cast an unappealing light on some mainstream religious organizations, like Islam and Catholicism, too. Surely not all religions are created equal. By what criteria should I choose?

For that matter, what is a “religious belief?” Many religions worship a supernatural deity, but some varieties of Buddhism don’t seem to require belief in a Supreme Being. I’ve even heard it said that Buddhism doesn’t require any sort of belief in the supernatural, a point of view Stephen Batchelor advocates in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. Is this sort of “religion” as valuable as the more typical supernatural sort, or in order to get the full benefits of religion, do we need to believe in fairy tales?