The purpose of religion is to keep people from inventing their own religions.
From Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut:
The prostitutes worked for a pimp now. He was splendid and cruel. He was a god to them. He took their free will away from them, which was perfectly all right. They didn't want it anyway. It was as though they had surrendered themselves to Jesus, for instance, so they could live unselfishly and trustingly---except that they had surrendered to a pimp instead.
Rationalist critics of religion often argue, explicitly or implicitly, that if people would give up their foolish adherence to religion they would stop being a whole lot of bad and stupid things that they are because of their religion.
Religion fosters credulity and superstition, it encourages people to surrender their free will and their better judgment, it teaches them to avoid solving the problems of the here and now to concentrate on a better life in a made-up world to come after death or it tells them that the way to solve problems in the here and now is to propitiate a made-up super-magician who will make them happy if they will just do a bunch of stupid and bad things that the super-magician's earthly henchmen tell them to do.
Faith, that is the belief in things unseen, is willful stupidity. Faith is believing that what your eyes and ears tell you is secondary to what your imagination allows you to wish were true instead. Faith is a belief in nonsense. To have even a little faith is to believe in nonsense and to open your mind up to all kinds of other nonsense.
People invent religions in order to pretend they don't live in this world, they live in some other world where magic is real and fairy tales come true.
I think that's true. I just don't think people will stop doing that if you convince them that religion, faith, and a belief in "God" are a waste of time.
People invent religions because they are credulous and superstitious.
Take away their religion and they'll just replace it with something else that's very much like a religion. They'll put their faith in their pimps instead of Jesus.
(Some people, thinking of certain televangelists, might argue that a lot of believers are doing just that while thinking they are putting their faith in Jesus.)
Teach people to put away as a childish thing their faith in God and adopt a rational, practical, scientific approach to life and it won't be long before they'll make a religion of science.
They will turn scientific texts into scripture and make secular saints of famous, dead scientists.
They will allow scientific authorities to set themselves up as a quasi-priestly order.
It has happened several times since the dawn of the Enlightment that the enemies of scientific progress have turned out to be other scientists who have become as complacent and arrogant as princes of the church to whose power, authority, and comfort any change in the way of doing things or thinking about things comes as a threat.
It sounds like science fiction to say that a day might come when the scientists have allied themselves with the reigning political and business powers, just as the cardinals and bishops did, and people are given "scientific" reasons to go to war or commit genocide.
Then you remember the Nazis.
And the careers of Edward Teller and Wernher von Braun.
In such a time and place it might be the people of faith, the Dietrich Bonhoeffers or the Berrigan Brothers, who are the sane and sensible ones.
I don't know.
All I'm saying is that, given my low opinion of human beings, I don't think that a scientific, rational mind is any more inoculated against stupidity and evil than a mind that trusts in the divinity of Jesus Christ.
It's not that I am any great fan of religion.
It's just that I am not a fan at all of any argument that goes, "You are stupid because you think things I don't, and the only way for you to stop being stupid is to think exactly as I do."
To which, I'm sure, some visitors to this little storefront chapel of mine are probably saying, "Oh sure, Lance. Mr Tolerance, Mr Open-mind, that's you."
I like to compare some rationalists' critiques of religion to a classical musician trying to convince people that a symphony by Beethoven is far superior and infinitely more worth their time than polka music or disco.
I imagine that such critics understand that the reason people like polka music and disco is for the dancing.
There are critics of religion who see the opportunities religion provides for dancing.
But there are some who are more in the position of someone who is tone deaf trying to convince people that music of all kinds is a foolish waste of time.
To get to the point, to have faith is not by definition to be superstitious, unless you insist upon a definition of superstition that makes any way of looking at life that is not purely empirical, rational, and materialistic superstitious.
Which excludes a great deal of human behavior besides religion.
There is, at any rate, a difference between the Christian Scientist who refuses an operation because he plans to cure himself through prayer and a surgeon who prays for strength and guidance before operating, even if you want to call them both superstitious.
There are plenty of people, some of them surgeons, some of them physicists, biologists, chemists, and geologists, who are by training, inclination, and habit empirical, rational, and generally materialistic, who are not content with what science has taught them about how the world works, because it doesn't answer other questions.
Why am I here? What am I to do about it? How do I go about living a decent and happy life?
For many of them, and for many people who aren't scientists, philosophy is enough. They can invent a rational system of ethical and moral behavior that doesn't include God.
I don't see how such a system is any better than one that does include God except that it doesn't include God.
But I can't see how including God necessarily makes an ethical system better or more compelling.
Most people aren't satisfied by the answer to the questions, Why am I here and what should I do about it, being, You're here because of a gigantic cosmic accident and all you can do is make the best of it.
I don't see any way of making them satisfied with that.
But I don't think people should be satisfied with the answer I got from Sister Mary Francis when I asked her why we're here and what we should do about it.
"God made us because He loves us and He wants us to be good and well-behaved so that we are worthy to join Him in heaven after we die."
I was in first grade when I asked her that and even then I wondered why if God loves us so much and wants us to be with Him in heaven He didn't just put us in heaven to start with?
Or why didn't He make earth a Heaven?
These days I'm unhappily of the opinion that He didn't have anything to do with putting us here. But when I was younger I was satisfied with Jesus' answer to my question.
We're here to love one another.
That struck me as a gift. Love. The ability to give it and receive it. You don't need love in heaven.
I guess I still like Jesus' answer.
I like it whether or not Jesus's divinity has anything to do with it.
I like it said the way Kurt Vonnegut's son, Mark Vonnegut, the doctor, says it.
"We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is."
But if I were feeling a bit more religious, if I could work up a little more faith, if I could be superstitious enough, I'd like the way Kilgore Trout says it in Breakfast of Champions better.
of the Creator of the Universe,
Other pulpits heard from: