Several years ago Christopher Hitchens wrote a book called: God Is Not Great. The subtitle was: How Religion Poisons Everything.
To give Hitchens his due, the book is great fun. It is well written, tells a compelling narrative, and is chock-a-block with erudite references. And yet, sad to say, it is wrong.
One appreciates that that a master of rhetorical hyperbole would insist that religion poisons everything-- not just some things. The point, dare I say, is impossible to demonstrate empirically. For all the bluster of its proponents the atheist assault on religion is not based on rational or scientific thought.
It is often based on apocalyptic narratives, of the kind that Hitchens purveys with such skill. To his mind, the forces of light—those being the forces of science and reason—are engaged in mortal combat with the forces of darkness—those being religion and superstition. Sound familiar?
We ought to mention, if only in passing, another Hitchens parlor trick: subsuming all religions under a single “thing” called religion. One recalls that, a century ago, famed psychologist William James suggested that, while the human species has known many religions, we have no reason to believe that they contain a common essence, to the point where we might say that there is a thing called “religion.”
The other problem with Hitchens and his fellow atheists that they are playing with loaded dice. If anything good was produced by a culture that was based on Judeo-Christian values—e.g. experimental science, liberal democracy, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution—they give full credit to atheism. They refuse to believe that a culture based on religion has produced anything good.
But, if a nation or nations tried to impose a culture based entirely on atheism, as happened under Communism in the Soviet Union and Mao’s China—today’s leading atheists insist that these are merely pagan cults and cannot possibly discredit atheism. It’s heads-we-win/tails- you-lose.
Since these authors make it appear that no piece of information that could discredit their belief in unbelief, they are not following the scientific method. As Karl Popper famously remarked—in relation to Freud—if nothing can disprove your hypothesis, you are not doing science.
Were we to consider the Hitchens idea, namely that religion poisons everything, one notes—with no special Schadenfreude—that religion turns out to be good for your health, both your physical and mental health.
Recent scientific research has reported that religious belief contributes to the success of cancer treatment. This does not mean, of course, that mere prayer cures cancer. It says that those who are undergoing cancer treatments have better results when they hold to religious beliefs.
Speaking of cancer, you doubtless know that Hitchens died of it a few years ago. He was suffering from an incurable form of the disease and received the best medical treatment. Still, if it is not too churlish, one must note that people who believe in God do better under treatment.
So explains a recent study, reported in the International Business Times:
The first study analyzed patients’ physical health and found that patients who reported feeling greater levels of religiousness and spirituality also showed better health, greater ability to function in their daily lives, and fewer physical symptoms from the cancer and its treatment.
"These relationships were particularly strong in patients who experienced greater emotional aspects of religion and spirituality, including a sense of meaning and purpose in life as well as a connection to a source larger than oneself," lead author Heather Jim of the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida, said in a press release.
She added that patients who showed stronger cognitive aspects of their beliefs, such as the ability to integrate their cancer into their belief systems, also showed better health. However, their physical health seemed to be related to their beliefs, and not to the behavioral aspects of their religion and spirituality, such as prayer or service attendance.
I would have suspected that religious practices were significant factors here. Studies about mental health emphasize the importance of attending religious services regularly. They usually find that those who do attend services regularly have better emotional well being than those who do not.
Nevertheless, a cancer diagnosis sounds for many people like a death sentence, and it appears that religious belief allows people to deal with the idea of their own mortality more constructively and positively than does experimental science and atheism. You might know that one central tenet of modern atheism--dating at least to Bertrand Russell-- is people who are religious are simply too cowardly to face their death.
As for mental health, the study found that the emotional side of religious belief was more important than religious practice:
The second analysis focused on patients’ mental health, and here the researchers found that the emotional aspects of belief were more strongly correlated with better mental health than the behavioral or cognitive manifestations of religion or spirituality.
"Spiritual well- being was, unsurprisingly, associated with less anxiety, depression, or distress," the second study’s lead author John Salsman, who conducted the research at Northwestern University in Chicago, said. "Also, greater levels of spiritual distress and a sense of disconnectedness with God or a religious community was associated with greater psychological distress or poorer emotional well-being."
And it seems to have depended on how these people imagined God. If they saw Him as a benevolent and benign force, they did better than if they saw Him as an angry or distant being:
"When we took a closer look, we found that patients with stronger spiritual well-being, more benign images of God (such as perceptions of a benevolent rather than an angry or distant God), or stronger beliefs (such as convictions that a personal God can be called upon for assistance) reported better social health," lead author Allen Sherman of the University of Arkansas, said. "In contrast, those who struggled with their faith fared more poorly."
Perhaps religion does not poison everything. And yet, when you are thinking about atheism, examine the records of those nations that have tried to institute cultures based on atheism and show me what it has not poisoned.