It does not come naturally to us now, [Stove writes] to think of religion as a source of misery: we are far too familiar with the immense amount of misery that has resulted from the absence of religion. We therefore think of religion rather as a source of happiness, or at least comfort. And so it is, to many of the countless victims of twentieth-century atheist-terrorist governments, and to a few people in the derelict post-religious societies of the West. But those governments, and those societies, are themselves among the products of the Enlightenment’s assault on religion. In 1770, when that assault was reaching its height, religion presented a very different face from the one it does now.
Religion could then be blamed for bloody wars; massacres, expulsions, and persecutions of heretics; the craze for murdering witches; innumerable exactions for priests; the suppression of thought and even of natural curiosity; the forced sexual abstinence of thousands of men and women; flagellations and countless other “mortifications of the flesh”; the terror of punishments prolonged eternally after death. Such things as these formed, of course, the commonplaces of Enlightened denunciation; but it cannot possibly be denied that all these aspects of religion were fertile sources of misery. It was all true, too true.
At the same time, it is equally undeniable that a list like the one I have just given makes a startlingly trivial comparison with the misery which anti-religious zeal has produced in [the twentieth century]. Indeed, it is hardly even a comparison: “not game but shame” (as they say). How many Spanish Inquisitions equal one KGB? How many St. Bartholomew’s Day massacres, plus expulsions of the Huguenots, would it take to equal the misery caused by Lenin plus Mao?…
The Enlightenment’s tale of the misery caused by religion is not only trivial in retrospect: it was always absurdly exaggerated even at the time. Take, for example, the belief in eternal torments after death. Of course it ought to have been a source of enormous suffering, and in some cases it undoubtedly was. But the fear of hell was never as vivid or constant or widespread as, according to the religious theory, it should have been: a fact which we know partly from the incessant complaints of the priests to that very effect. Stupidity, the occupations of common life, and the natural belief that hell is intended only for other people, were always enough to prevent most Christians from being made as unhappy by their belief in hell as they should have been…. The fact is the Enlightened took religious beliefs far too literally and logically: a piece of folly which religious people, for their part, were hardly ever guilty of.
Does Stove overstate his case? Perhaps. But even when we have made the necessary adjustments, his thesis remains eminently plausible. Yet Stove has one last observation that seals the deal. The Enlightenment, Stove avers, had nothing to say about the suffering caused by “the actual process of losing religious beliefs.”
Parting with religion is not always, indeed, an altogether painful process. But there is always pain in it, and in most cases the pain greatly predominates over every other feeling. It was a question often pressed upon the Enlightened, therefore, how they reconciled their professed concern for human happiness, with their willful assault on the principal comfort of human life… It is [a question] not easily answered… Accordingly, the Enlightened never did answer this question….
Hume, for example, ignored the following response by James Beattie to his [i.e., Hume’s] attacks on religion. People like Hume, Beattie wrote, should remember that “in the solitary scenes of life, there is many an honest and tender heart pining with incurable anguish, pierced with the sharpest sting of disappointment, bereft of friends, chilled with poverty, racked with disease, scourged by the oppressor; whom nothing but trust in Providence, and the hope of future retribution, could preserve from the agonies of despair. And do they [the Enlightened], with sacrilegious hands, attempt to violate this last refuge of the miserable, and to rob them of the only comfort that has survived the ravages of misfortune, malice, and tyranny!”
Even when every deduction has been made for the over-eloquence of this passage, I do not see, much as I admire and love Hume, what satisfactory reply he could have made to it…. Hume, though he was infuriated by the great popularity of Beattie’s book, never did reply. [Against the Idols of the Age, 84-88]
Does religion, then, on balance, cause more happiness than misery? That is, indeed, what the evidence suggests. Consider the following facts:
- A large-scale 1972 study found that persons who did not attend church were four times as likely to commit suicide
- Numerous studies have found an inverse correlation between religious commitment as abuse of drugs. One study of nearly 14,000 youths concluded that religion was the single best predictor of substance abuse patterns.
- Several studies have found that high levels of religious commitment correlate with lower levels of depression, lower levels of stress, and greater ability to cope with stress.
- Strong religious believers consistently report greater overall happiness and satisfaction with life. In one Gallup survey, respondents who agreed that their religious faith was “the most important influence” in their lives, were twice as likely as those with minimal spiritual commitment to describe themselves as “very happy.” [Patrick Glynne, God: The Evidence, 62-65]
Of course, the thesis that religion serves as a comfort to people is only a generalization: it does not apply to everyone. There are people whose misery is increased by religious commitment, and who should therefore avoid religion like the plague. But there are many more people who are comforted by religion, and who would be less happy (or more miserable) were they to lose their faith.