To elaborate on why I don't think that we should completely dismiss this line of reasoning is that it's unarguable that religious faith has taken people out of some pretty dark places. I know more than a few people (some still religious, some not) who were into all kinds of bad behaviors until religious faith helped them to lead more productive lives. Sure, you can say that they traded one "opiate" for another, but let's be honest - some opiates are worse than others. For instance, if you found out that your kid had gone from smoking crack every day to drinking eight cups of coffee a day, you might not be okay with it, but your concern would dramatically decrease. So yes, religion provides comfort, and sometimes it's a much-needed comfort.
My problem, however, is that this defense completely bypasses what I feel is a very important question:
Are these beliefs true or not? Ultimately, if you place "comfort" as the primary defense of religion, the implication is that it's okay to believe things that are untrue just so long as they provide some comfort. I'm not really interested in going into the truth claims of religion on this post (because that's another topic all together) but I wanted to at least throw that out there as some food for thought.
Another problem I have is that this defense, especially when given by a nonbeliever, borders on being really condescending. It's as if they're talking about believers like they're children with pacifiers in their mouths. "Oh no! This person is so delicate that you'd better not risk discussing things like critical thinking and the scientific method around them! If he loses his belief, he'll wilt like a delicate little flower!"
Let's get this out of the way before I go further - I don't think that there's anything that I (or anybody else) can make a believer abandon their beliefs. People change their minds for their own reasons. At best, a nonbeliever can introduce ideas that might lead to them changing their beliefs, but they'll only do so when and if they're ready to. So please, let's not let this devolve into "You're trying to take away people's beliefs!" I've had that accusation thrown at me before, and while it's almost flattering to attribute that much power to me, I don't have the ability to take away beliefs. If trying to educate people on critical thinking skills and the scientific method is somehow "proselytizing" or "evangelizing" then so is teaching people that 2+2=4.
My next issue with the comfort defense is that it often provides comfort from problems that religion introduces in the first place. I already touched on this in my last post, but my reasoning basically goes as follows: Yes, the belief that you're going to heaven may provide you with some comfort, but if you didn't believe in an immortal soul in the first place (not to mention the possibility of burning forever in Hell) then you wouldn't need this comfort. There are other examples I could give, but I trust that you get the point.
This, of course, leads us to an even bigger problem: sometimes religion provides the opposite of comfort. Again, I touched on this in my last post, but a fear of Hell - whether it be for you or your loved ones - is not comforting. Also, if you're gay, there's everything from the extreme of "God hates fags" to "hate the sin, love the sinner" - which isn't much better. "Hey! God loves you! But if you want to have a relationship that satisfies your sexual desires, he hates that." Plus, I never found much comfort in the thought that there was a God who was CONSTANTLY watching me and reading my every thought. Some of my thoughts aren't pretty, and I shouldn't have to feel bad for every one of them, especially when I don't have any desire to act out on the worse ones. Let's also not forget the fact that religion doesn't just unite, but it also divides, and many nonbelievers feel the need to pretend that they do believe so they're not ostracized by their families.
The flip side to all of this is that a life of skepticism has led many people to a sense of comfort as well. Obviously, abandoning the fears that are inherent in many religious beliefs is like tossing a huge weight off of your head. Plus, there isn't any need to struggle with why bad things happen to good people. When you believe in a God - especially one that's supposed to be all-good - there is no completely satisfactory answer as to why He'll allow that. When you have no belief in a god, then it simply makes sense that it happens. It's tragic and it's awful, but you're not trying to ram the square peg of loving omnipotence with the cruel realities of life. In other words, getting rid of cognitive dissonance is a huge relief.
The only thing where I see that religion has the clear edge when it comes to comfort is the sense of community that it brings. I know many nonbelievers who wish that they still had that in their lives. While they cannot reconcile their beliefs with what was being taught, they do miss the camaraderie that they once had. There are some people, mainly those who are more introverted, who never got much out of church even when they were believers, so becoming nonbelievers doesn't involve much of a sacrifice for them. (In fact, for people like that, it must be a relief to not only not have to go to church, but to not feel guilty about not going.) This seems to be changing though as the rate of nonbelievers is rising, and folks like Jerry DeWitt are actively working toward rectifying that situation. So, this might not be an advantage for religion much longer.
I'll end this with a little anecdote which relates to one of my earlier points. Recently, my wife and I were talking with a person who was telling us all about a great book she had read - Proof of Heaven. If you haven't heard of it, it's a book by a doctor who claims that his near-death experience provided "proof" of the afterlife. Of course, the big selling point to that book is that he's a former "skeptic" but then his personal experience changed his mind. (Of course, true skeptics don't give that much credence to personal experiences - even their own.) She also said that she was looking forward to Heaven is for Real - the movie based on a "true story" of a four year old who almost died and saw a white Jesus.
I imagine that people who know me primarily through Facebook and my blog probably thought that I immediately went into a rant about specious the claims of both of these true stories are, and how totally debunked the stories are.
No, I didn't do that. I just smiled and nodded. This might have had to do with the fact that we were going to go see the new Captain America movie, and I didn't want to be late. Even without that though, I find conversations to be exhausting, and I didn't have the strength for it.
The thing that really hit me is that she pointed out how she's getting on in years, and that she was glad to know that she was going to go to someplace good when she passes. In other words, these stories of complete bullcrap were providing her with comfort. I guess that's fine, and maybe it's not causing her any harm.
But I don't believe in a soul, so I don't even have any worry about what happens when I die. Just like others before me, I figure that it will be similar to how it was before I was born. That wasn't so bad. And honestly, even a wonderful heaven sounds horrible when I know that it's for ETERNITY. I'm not sure how infinity is a comforting thought to anybody, to be honest.
So yeah, religion provides comfort. There's no arguing that. But is it worth it? That's another question.