Sam Harris has an eBook out called Lying; in it, he explains the ramifications of lying in all of its forms. Conspicuously absent from this book is a discussion of religion. Religion is, in fact, an exquisite lie. All major religions have made sweeping predictions, decrees and claims about how the world works only to be proven wrong. Far from accepting these new pieces of evidence and accommodating an increasingly accurate view of the world, religions of all kinds, to paraphrase Tim Minchin, deny these observations of the world so that the authority of their belief system can be preserved. It is designed to comfort people during the trials in their life, but this does not excuse the fact that it’s based on falsehood.
All religions are created to answer questions about the universe and our place in it, but if their tenets are so ossified and their followers balk at the thought of questioning dogma, it can lead to an outdated and frankly archaic worldview. And this is important because as Harris explains, “The more consequential the beliefs—that is, the more a person’s well-being depends upon a correct understanding of the world—the more consequential the lie.” And I can think of nothing more consequential than religion. If faith provided us with a correct understanding of the world, it would be demonstrably true, or at least be able to be proven demonstrably false. We should be able to corroborate what faith tells us with observations from the natural world. If God created us and the rest of the natural world, it would stand to reason that the Bible, the supposed account of creation would reflect reality and contain more than just prosaic elegy. Yet the Bible contains contradictions that cast doubt upon its divine inspiration and is all but bereft of factual knowledge. So too, it would seem, that the sheer number of Christian denominations, each with their own way to interpret the Bible, seems to suggest that most, if not all interpretations would have to false if we are to believe God exists and is a stickler for the details.
And if we are to believe that Christianity is a lie, does that implicate all Christians as liers? Perhaps only the most hard-line anti-theists would believe this. What would so many people have to gain by being in on what can only be described as a monumental, millennia-spanning ruse? I would argue that even if Christianity is a lie, this would not implicate the Christians who practice it. Harris points out that, “The intent to communicate honestly is the measure of truthfulness”, and if that’s the case, we non-believers cannot begrudge theists for wanting to spread the Good Word if done in a respectful way. But the consequences of proselytizing are entirely on the Bible-thumpers if they try to convince people to believe.
But why do people believe? Daniel Dennett has also explored this topic in his work, Breaking the Spell, outlining the floating rationale for why religions arose in the first place and why they persisted. Perhaps religion began through sexual selection; like a peacock’s feathers, males that could put on elaborate displays of religious behavior might be favored by females. Those who could profess to make sense of the supernatural the most convincingly could be seen as desirable mates, and would therefore have a leg up over competitors. But some religions require a vow of celibacy on behalf of their priests and clergy, so this may not adequately explain the rise and transmission of religious behavior. Perhaps religiosity could have started out as a commodity to be traded for other goods and services. Along with dispensing herbal medicines, shamans would conduct hypnotic religious rituals that could induce a placebo effect and make the sick more susceptible to the effects of the medicine.
To protect themselves from the ancient equivalent of malpractice lawsuits (torture, execution, or ostracism) these shamans would defer the responsibility of healing the sick to a supernatural (and therefore untestable) agent. In order to ensure their job security, shamans would draw a veil between themselves and their clients. (It angers God that you ask so many questions! Nosiness is a sin! How it works is beyond human comprehension!) Such a profession could have endured, as long as the shamans could keep their trade secrets protected while attracting new clients and maintaining their repeat business. As conduits of the divine, shamans would have enjoyed respect in their community, perhaps even viewed with a mix of fear and awe. As vaunted pillars of the community, there would be pressure on them to maintain their facade in order to hold onto their position as supernatural liaison. This would undoubtedly require the ability to lie. Effectively. Which is incredibly hard to do. So perhaps we close with the true benefit of religion; it confers the ability to lie without putting the liar in emotional distress. Harris writes:
Lies beget other lies. Unlike statements of fact, which require no further work on our part, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality. When you tell the truth, you have nothing to keep track of. The world itself becomes your memory, and if questions arise, you can always point others back to it.
This is perhaps how religion works; when the religious retreat into the supernatural world of God, they are protected from any and all collisions with reality, and hence the need for a rigid orthodoxy. Deception is easier when one minimizes the number of lies they have to keep track of. By restricting the lies, it makes the deception of religious dogma easier to handle. And by restricting the kinds of questions followers are allowed to ask and the level of inquiry with which they are allowed to subject their faith to, religious authorities can protect their followers from collisions with reality, too.