Is Religion a Crutch?

A discussion of religion's role in society, the paradigm of belief, and the need for understanding between religion and science.

1. Is Religion a Crutch?

Lately I was reminded of the argument that religion and faith are merely crutches for the weak of intellect. The idea is that either people turn to religion as the means of reassuring themselves that their difficult, poverty-stricken lives are worthwhile or tolerable in view of the afterlife (hence, "opiate of the masses"), or that people who would rather not think for themselves are easily led along by a religion that gives them pre-digested philosophy, morality, and instructions for daily life. I believe Freud, among others (especially a number of scientists), had this view of religion.

On Religion as a Crutch

Well, it is often true that religion is a crutch, is it not? Many religious people do live difficult lives, whether stricken by poverty or disease or suffering. They do turn to religion and to faith as a solace for the soul. And there are many aimless people who do want to be told how to live. Religion gives them the firm foundation upon which they can build their daily lives; it stops them from making costly mistakes, and helps them find ways to care for others. In some cases, such as in people who need boundaries and rules, this framework is of vital importance.

Crutches are good ... to a point. A crutch is a device for helping the wounded both function and heal. As such, crutches are beneficial, useful, and helpful. The only problem with any crutch is when it is used beyond the point of health, in which case any crutch ceases to help and starts to hurt. So, do some people use religion TOO MUCH, to the point where it hurts their mental and psychological health? I'd argue that anything has its abusers. We need only look at religious extremists to know that sometimes, yes, religion does cause great harm. On a smaller scale, a self-motivated, creative free-thinker can be deeply hurt by over-strict regulations and rules, to the point where a budding visionary or artist is stifled into a spiritual death. In either case, the crutch ceases to help, and starts to stunt growth.

On Religion as a Cage

The deliberate abuse of crutches. Yes, unscrupulous leaders (government, churches, even parents) can and do turn religion into a tool by which to manipulate and control people, to keep the oppressed silent and the militant obedient. Perhaps the promise of better in the afterlife has kept, in some cases, honest people from realizing they could change the current world for the better. Perhaps the fear of undermined authority has led to the hurtful suppression of scientific knowledge, such as ideas that challenged basic tenets (e.g., the famous Gallilean story about the sun not going around the earth). And on a grand scale, we know how churches have historically abused their power through terrifying teachings, money-hungry schemes like indulgences, and even the terrible abuse of power and belief that produced the deadly Spanish Inquisition and American slave trade, among other things. Power-hungry manipulators hand us religion as not just a crutch, but as a confining cage.

But... let me cast this topic in a different light. Can we be sure that religion isn't also something more than a crutch or a cage? Is religion JUST a crutch? What about religion done right?

On Religion as an "Enhancement"

Religion can and does encourage many positive changes! Let me lay aside suggestions that faith can invoke miracles. Even without divine intervention, it has remarkable properties.... Faith may tell us to stick to our dreams even when all looks bleak, because we believe our cause is just and necessary. Faith may teach us true humility, patience, and gratitude. Faith may inspire us to reach out and care for the hungry and suffering. And moreover, faith in a loving God calls people to go even further: to question mindless obedience to fallible authority, to challenge and transform abusive powers, to stand up for the oppressed and downtrodden, to fight injustice even if it is done in the name of one's very own family, nation, or even church. If people really seek to know love and truth, then they will come to fight against the powers of greed, manipulation, and lies, no matter what guise they take. Hence, true religion, dedication to higher truth and love, is the key to opening the door to the confining cages of hurt and deceit, both for ourselves and for others. Following the spirit of religion takes us out of the trap of the letter of religion or any other controlling ideology.

On Religion as Necessity

But wait ... what if there's more? We see how religion can be more than a crutch -- it can lead to deep, profound gains in personal growth and integrity, and can also lead to helping others out of their suffering. But what if religion is even more than a useful tool? What if it is a necessary component of life? Now, to see what I mean requires a change in viewpoint for some. IF one believes that then suddenly it becomes logically obvious that religion is far more than a crutch. It is actually the right path. Granted, some people can not accept these tenets, but I think even non-believers could see that in a Gedanken/thought experiment, IF these precepts are true, THEN religion would be the right path to take. If one accepts these tenets, then one sees that religion and faith are not mere crutches to help the downtrodden, nor are religion and faith even just a "useful tool" for constructive social change, BUT they are natural wings that are supposed to help us fly to new and more wondrous heights where we belong. Faith becomes not some mere opiate, nor even an enhancing drug, but instead our awakened, natural state of awareness and clarity.

2. The Watershed Line

We can see now that whether we think "God" and "faith" are either depends wholly on what we think of God.

Is God a paragon of the highest virtues? Are truth and love the highest virtues? Does "virtue" have any real merit? Does God really care?

3. The Need for Common Ground

Based on one single assumption about God, one's view of millions of religious people may be changed from "what weak fools!" to "what brave souls seeking to grow!" Contempt flips over into admiration. And suddenly the shoe is on the other foot, and the bitter scornful atheists are the ones to be pitied and scorned...?

...But, no, that should never be the case! Remember, it is so often true that religion has been used to control and manipulate. Remember true scientists DO care about truth, and abhor lies and manipulation. Remember that a God of love and truth would want us to break free of worldly lies and manipulation, no matter whose name the manipulators and liars swear by. But also remember, there are those who DO need crutches before they can walk, much less fly. Crutches can come in all forms and shapes of belief! And lastly, we must recognize that one thing a God of love and truth would demand of anyone interested in love and truth is that we not scorn, denigrate, or despise another person, especially in regard to his or her own honestly held beliefs.

Let us then, those who really do care about truth and about compassion, stop the terrible mudflinging between religion and science. Stop looking upon the "other camp" as enemies to be reviled and scorned. Non-believers are often that way because their pursuit of truth revealed to them the flaws of human religious institutions. And believers are often that way because their own inner sense of truth and compassion brought them to the closest thing this world can offer to a glimpse of real hope and love. None of us are yet perfect enough to not need a crutch sometimes. All people who care about truth and love, no matter under what name, have something in common. Let us at least start from there.

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