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Can Religious Beliefs Have a Net Positive Effect Even if They Are Untrue?

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Guest Post by Troy

Recently my girlfriend and I watched an episode of “48 Hours” (transcript) about a California bus kidnapping in July 1976. The crime was as heinous as it was short-sighted. It involved three young men making a plan to abduct a bus full of kids and their driver. The men then put the abductees in a vehicle that had been previously buried underground. The children were able to dig themselves out and facilitate their own rescue after twenty-eight hours. Suffice it to say the trauma of such an abduction would leave emotional scars. Many of the children turned to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to deal with the trauma. Interestingly (and the reason for the article) one of the children (Larry Park, after abusing drugs in his 20s and 30s) turned to religion. He eventually became a pastor and met with the men who had done the kidnapping. In this he found relief.

So the question for me (and now for you) is this: if religion can give someone such deliverance, could it be that religion (whether true or not) could be a net positive? If fostering a delusion has a benefit, does it matter that the basis of the delusion is a lie? If placebos make you feel better, why not take them? I’d be curious how others feel about this, because considering the circumstances, it seems maybe he picked the lesser of two evils . . . (and maybe not evil at all?)

What say ye?

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    Isn’t this school bus thing a true story?
    Anyway, Just from the title I say “Yes, it could” I was raised in a Catholic home, both mother and father raised Catholic. My father’s family are what I would call “good Catholics” in that they embodied the good parts of Christianity and Jesus, with not too many of the weaponized parts. They are Good People. My mother’s family (minus my grandfather who died before I was born) is rife with mental illness and was more Keeping-Up-Appearances Catholics who used the religion as a weapon and didn’t let my mother marry the father of her son (who was given up for adoption and who she never knew) because his family was Methodist.
    Even though I am an atheist and in retrospect have been my whole life, I do feel that the good parts of Christianity I was raised with helped me become what I would like to think is a good person and a Humanist. I can see how, when teaching children who already exist with a parental authority that they should be good to others because Jesus Says is easier for them to understand than the concept that because all beings have value and deserve to be treated well, even if they are different from us. Religion may provide a structure and rules that are simpler for children?
    I don’t have children so maybe this is off-base. As I grew older I did reject the us-vs-them aspects of Christianity. And I do find the Wiccan “As it harms none, do as you will” to be a better guide than “do onto others as you would have them do onto you”. We can find parts of most religions that are beneficial to the larger good.
    Perhaps if religions were treated as fairy tales and allegories that convey ideas they wouldn’t be so destructive.

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      Yes the buried bus kidnapping is a true story. I know the town well. Agricultural not unlike where I grew up around Bryan OH. Folks who intellectualize about religion might well wonder what sort of religion (if any), these kidnappers had, considering the evil they were capable of doing. True believers would mange to explain it away, regardless. Burning people alive for heresy or witchcraft was possible to rationalize so there appear to be no limits.

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    As my own skepticism about religion grew, I thought about whether religion kept some people in line who would other wise be totally antisocial, lacking any sense of right and wrong. To the extent a benign religion provides some ethical structure and moral guidance, it could have potential for positive influence on people’s lives. The operative word being “could”. Unfortunately some religions are not benign and virtually all religion lends itself to being abused, misused, and hijacked by dishonest people, ruthless people, even insane people, for their own selfish, nefarious, demented, purposes. Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre demonstrated that in a way that should discredit religion with every thoughtful person. Should but hasn’t.

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    This issue could be the subject of a full book, never mind a short post, least of all brief comments! Yes, of course there are people who get great comfort from religion but, let’s face it, that’s part of why religions exist in the first place.

    The problem is that in creating a benign and harmless superstition (let’s not kid ourselves as to the reality), there has grown a vicious and psychopathic monster, that feeds off every aspect of our lives. It even, so we’re told, penetrates our thoughts, leaving us such that we never know privacy. Even people who get comfort from the belief aren’t really sure themselves. I very directly asked a friend recently (she was brought up in the CofE and still attends church) if she actually believed the Christmas story of the nativity (yes I know there’s more than one!). She looked quite shocked that I’d even asked and it was ciear that giving verbal assent, which she did, caused her to suddenly think, for perhaps the first time ever, that maybe she wasn’t so sure in her own mind.

    Even the most ardent believer must occasionally experience doubt (nuns seem to turn doubt into something positively beneficial). Yet, perhaps even so, the community and the solace provided by belief isn’t necessarily harmful: provided it doesn’t pervade one’s life. And therein lies the danger.

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      I’m actually not contemplating here the general religion as a comfort, I’m more focused on how it was used in this case to pull someone out of a funk. Another thing that occurred to me is that Larry Park’s ability to conquer his demons came from within himself. It’s similar to Dumbo and the “magic” feather. The elephant in the movie could always fly, but his conscious mind kept him grounded.

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    This is a huge subject, one I am ill-equipped to tackle, but I have some thoughts. Humans learn well through storytelling. A well-written story can capture one’s attention and convey a myriad of lessons (just look at Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Harry Potter, or hundreds of other books, movies, and shows). Religion uses stories to convey messages about behavior, the world/universe, to answer questions and convey lessons. Religion also creates a tribe – humans do well in small tribes, communities where people work together to survive. Shared stories signify who is a tribe member, and when people work together they’re more likely to survive and pass along their DNA. Religion offers rituals to mark important developmental milestones – birth, death, coming of age, etc. Religion usually has purity rituals which may have contributed to cleanliness practices as well as basic medicine and caring for the sick – and gives comfort with chants, prayers, lighting candles, etc, as a way for calming people and giving a sense of doing something when things are out of human control. Religion gives direction for behavior deemed acceptable for the tribe – usually with admonitions to not kill, steal, fight, commit incest, etc.

    As we all know, the problems arise when religion is weaponized to control and abuse people, to limit their ability to have agency, when myths are deemed factual/historical events, etc.

    I am trying to be judicious in my assessment. Personally, I have been harmed by religion and wish to throw it all out. But, the rational side of me sees some good community and organizational elements that have come from religion. I will never overlook the harm that’s come from weaponized religion.

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      @OBSTACLECHICK This is interpreting the question too broadly, possibly the headline doesn’t really reflect my intended thesis which is much more narrow in scope. The context here is using religion as a drug to combat a malady. In this case a psychologically injured person used religion and the God concept as a means to escape and mitigate the horrors he had endured.
      Since you (and many others) are often harmed by religion, this also means that it is unlikely to be an effective tool (though as I’ve mentioned before, someone like Larry Park likely healed himself– and we need to consider the possibility is that possibly he isn’t healed at all)

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    MJ Lisbeth

    I remember the school bus hostage story well. If I recall correctly, two of the three kidnappers came from a wealthy family but blew through most of their trust fund, hence their demand for ransom.

    As for Larry Park: I suppose that he availed himself to religion because he was unaware of, did not have access to or did not have the vocabulary, context or other means of using other means for dealing with his trauma. (That is probably why he used drugs and alcohol before turning to religion.) Even though I’m an atheist, I can’t fault someone for using religion–as a temporary relief–under such circumstances. But I would hope that he’d recognize its limitations: While faith might be a palliative, it doesn’t provide ways of dealing with the deeper and longer-lasting scars of a traumatic experience.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    I want to add that Obstaclechick does make very good points about why people turn to, and stick with, religion. Now the stories, communities and other characteristics she describes are available in other ways: Stories are told through all sorts of media that hadn’t been invented when the Bible was compiled, and communities can be found in other ways and places. I guess some people turn and return to religion just because it’s a familiar way of finding those things.

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    One could argue that Larry Park is a victim of a religion that preys on people,who are suffering physically or mentally. As MJ mentioned, there may be short term benefits, but in most cases the person is only shoving the trauma into a different drawer.

    If a person were to use a religion for the religious aspects of self improvement and motivation – like Jesus or Buddha were teaching – then It might be ok. But christianity in particular is very driven toward indoctrination, and following the rules of the sect, and limiting, not expanding, your opportunity for improvement.

    For example, you are expected to rely on god to fix your mental health issues, often because mental health issues are from Satan. If you believe and have faith, god will fix it.

    If that doesn’t work, you can talk to your unqualified pastor for counseling, who ultimately tell you if you pray more and get closer to god and let him work then it will be fixed.

    If that doesn’t work, sometimes you can go to a slightly less unqualified Christian therapist, who will take yet a different path to show you that your mental health issue is just sin, and perhaps give you a few ways to control your problem while god works on you.

    Ultimately you can learn to hide from the issue, and hopefully it only reveals itself on the long dark nights where no one else notices. And everyone can praise god for your recovery.

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      That occurred to me as well and I like the different drawer analogy. It reminds me of “Pillow Guy” Mike Lindell, gave up crack cocaine for Jesus brain, made a fortune selling overpriced pillows, and ends up throwing that away because Trump, GOP politics, and conspiracy all come wrapped up in his new “drug”.
      I also wonder in the Larry Park case how much of his recovery wasn’t just meeting his abductors as peers. Part of the childhood trauma is that the world now seems more dangerous and the abductors are dehumanized to the worst thing they ever did. Once he rehumanized his abductors maybe there’s relief there. Though this is of course speculation.

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    An interesting book floating around out there and a free copy can be found online is called “The Molecule of More”. It was written by a clinical psychologist and clinical neurologist about 5yrs ago. In other words, its information is relevant and scientifically backed research. Dopamine is the answer to Troy’s question.

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