Any important or powerful idea is potentially dangerous to the very degree to which it is important or powerful. It is as foolish, therefore, to blame mechanized industry for Hitler and Stalin — or to blame advanced physics for Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as it is to blame the message of Jesus Christ and the sacraments established for our spiritualization for the Crusades and the Inquisition. Why, then, is this such a common foundational argument for atheists and materialists?
The faulty assumption of materialist reductionism notwithstanding, religion is treated as a separate entity, a thing apart from “the rest of life.” There is contradiction, here, on the part of materialists, but also on the part of “religionists.”
Materialists, for their part, want to have their cake and eat it. On one hand, we have atheists like Sam Harris who propose to study religion as any other “natural” phenomenon. That is, Harris wants religion to be a strictly sociological, anthropological, and neurological event, codifiable and quantifiable, but without the qualia of real experience. The religious person would balk at such an approach, not entirely without reason. To study the physical attributes of red light, or the biochemistry of a raspberry, is yet quite distant from the experience of redness or the feel and taste of a fresh raspberry. In answer to the faithful, however, there is surely something to be learned from, say, studies of the neural correlates of religious experience. The materialist will be forever barred by the nature of things from his true goal: religious experience cannot be explained away by mere brain states. Though not the place to go fully into the topic, it is relevant at least to point out the relationship between drugs like mescaline and DMT and religious experience. Drugs like these may provide a “sneak peek” into the world of mysticism, but do not produce — outside of traditional, sacramental contexts, at any rate — the lasting constructive shift in perspective and behavior which arise quite naturally from meditation and deep prayer. Even the so-called “God helmet”, touted by unsophisticated atheists as proof that God is all in the brain, seems to produce nothing but a hazy sense of “presence” with literally none of the hallmarks of authentic contemplative experience, and certainly no lasting change in the participant. If anything is proven thereby, it is only that there are indeed brain-states correlative with religious experience, but that tells us precious little about the nature of that experience. Seeing how the brain responds to the color blue would give a colorblind scientist no notion of the feeling of “blueness”.
Even with this desire to study religion from the outside, as it were, and to treat it as a fully “natural” event (leaving aside the purely Western need to distinguish with absolute sharpness between nature and supernature), the materialist still wishes to hold religion at arm’s length from human culture-at-large. This distinction is artificial and quite unnecessary, but the secularist will call it justice.
It is from this violent analysis of human nature that arises the attack of atheists like Richard Dawkins that the religious person is mentally deranged and that religion is a psychological anomaly requiring eradication or cure. (For mercy’s sake, we will not here delve into the proposition of Sam Harris and others that Muslims ought to be conquered or killed for the crime of being Muslims; this would take us far afield. It is enough to mention it as a possible extravagance of atheism, and that it is not representative of the majority atheist belief). It is obvious, and not enough as arguments go, to say that this is quite the reverse of the historical pattern, so far as “mental health” is defined by social functionality and statistical normalcy.
The back-alley stabbing attempted here against reality is quite easy to thwart. Study after study by “dispassionate” science shows the very real usefulness of religious faith — or even mere belief — in maintaining healthy attitudes during convalescence, old age, and life’s many trials are too clear to ignore: religion appears to aid, rather than hinder, psychological health. Taken to extremes, religion is as liable as anything to produce imbalance and extravagance, but when properly incorporated, it seems to be factually beneficial. This is, as a materialist will be quick to point out, little or no help in proving the truth-claims of religion, but it does kick a leg from under the claim of the inherent destructiveness of religion to the human mind.
Medically beneficial or not, there is something inherent to the place of religion in the human psyche; rare indeed is the person with no religious impulse at all, and even atheists tend to see something pitiable in a void of any sense of mystery and awe when staring into a starry sky, walking along the ocean’s edge and gazing at its vastness, or listening to the majestic peals of thunder approaching with black clouds in train. Like it or not, this very sense of grandeur and beauty is as “religious” as anything. Those students of religion-as-phenomenon often say that religion is an attempt on the part of the “primitive” mind to understand and participate in this majesty. The religionist might well respond: by the very suchness of things, we will participate in this suchness in any case at all, but only religion permits us to do so consciously, deliberately, and fully. This is the difference between the non-action of the Sage, on one hand, and the blind action of the passion-filled and the inaction of the lazy, on the other.
The mistake of the religionist referred to previously is also based in the false separation of religion from “the rest of life.” This separation is absurd. Religion is for humanity, for life, and not the reverse. If it could only meaningfully apply to quiet evenings alone, religion would be no different than watching television (except, perhaps, for the fact that we are socially encouraged to publicly discuss television, but not religion). A saying has it that faith is personal, but not private. Forgiving the inadequacy of a merely personal faith, the saying is useful in that it points to the need to fully live one’s religion without needing to violate the freedom of conscience of those around. In order to fully live one’s faith, one must first have faith to begin with. Faith is an investment of trust in a process, not mere ascent to a set of precepts and abstractions. Insofar as doctrines are necessary, they serve as foundational pointers to the process in which one might place faith, but they do not themselves make up that process. The religious process may begin in one specific arena — say, politics (Confucianism), collective worship (Judaism), or private contemplation (Buddhism) — but it must inevitably bear fruits which spread further seeds upon the soil of every other arena of life. In essence, all religions lead to the unicity of individual life, of collective society, and, eventually, of all existence. “He to whom all things are One, and who draweth all things to One, and seeth all things in One, can be steadfast in heart, and remain peaceable in God.” (The Imitation of Christ, I.3) The error of separation, of division, of dualism is one shared by many among the religious and secular alike, but it is still an error.
To draw the circle closed, the power inherent in any authentically religious perspective is, then, also its danger. But nuclear technology can provide cheap electricity as easily as it can vaporize millions of lives; it is entirely a matter of motivation. We may draw the analogy out a bit further: the amount of raw power made available by nuclear technology comes with the corresponding risk of that power going out of bounds and causing destruction purely accidentally. So, then, with ideas. Religion has been a powerhouse for enslavement of individuals and nations, but also a dynamo of freedom in the hearts and hands of the wise and charitable. It is the nature of Revelation to point the way to Liberation for those with eyes to see and ears to hear (and, despite New Age and other post-modern claims to the contrary, there is little enough evidence that real, lasting, organic, and responsible freedom is possible without dogma). This very capacity to break chains, though, may be redirected by the unwise, shortsighted, egotistical, or downright malicious among us to the cracking of bones. The same key will lock and unlock. When you lift an axe, shall you split logs, or skulls?