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
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
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.
- There is a loving God who created us, who cares about us, and wants
us to be happy;
- Love and truth are the most important attributes and are
vital to lasting peace and happiness;
- Moving closer to God and increasing in love and truth are
one and the same
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.
- a crutch for the feebleminded -- an artificial support
- wings by which to take flight -- a natural and vital function
Is God a paragon of the highest virtues? Are truth and love the
highest virtues? Does "virtue" have any real merit? Does God
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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