“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called Religion.” So writes Richard Dawkins, the noted evolutionary biologist. And he may be right. But if religion is a delusion, Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler argue that it is a useful delusion.
In the last chapter of their book, Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain, Vedantam and Mesler describe several benefits of religion, even if it’s assumed to be false. (1) Religion helps us cope with the fear of death, (2) it reinforces the idea of morality, and (3) it fosters better physical and mental health.
Quakerism is a type of religion. So, it should have the three benefits listed above. (1) Coping with the fear of death is, however, a little problematic for Friends like me. I feel certain that God exists but not at all sure that we have a soul or spirit surviving after the death of our physical bodies. The phenomenon of Near-Death Experiences gives me some hope of an afterlife as does the Christian teaching about Heaven and Resurrection. The terror of death I feel is at least somewhat mitigated by these factors, but I envy those Christians and Quakers who have the same view as that expressed by Emily Dickinson:
I NEVER saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet now I know how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in Heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.
There are, of course, those Friends whose Quakerism has helped them to see death as a natural stage of life and something to be accepted without fear. I greatly admire their detachment, what I might even call their wisdom. Still, Quakerism clearly does not do as good a job at banishing the fear of death as do some of the Christian Evangelical denominations.
(2) Religion is obviously not necessary for leading a moral, ethical life, but religion may have originated as a guarantee of morality. When humankind existed in small, hunter-gatherer bands, everyone in the group knew everyone else. It was known who could be trusted and who was devious. As society evolved into larger agricultural communities and communities began to trade among themselves, strangers had to be dealt with. If a stranger worshiped the same god or gods, it was a guarantee (not absolute, of course) that he could be trusted to do his share of community work or not to cheat in a business deal with someone from a different tribe.
Quakerism comes out rather well as a guarantee of morality. Early Quakers had a central testimony of integrity in life. Integrity meant following the commands of a just God—for example, never lying or even misleading others. Early Friends who owned businesses soon abandoned the common custom of setting high prices and haggling for an actual selling price. They placed fixed, reasonable prices on goods and acquired a general reputation for honesty and trustworthiness. This reputation led to success in business and banking for Quaker families like the Cadburys, Rowntrees, and Frys. It also explains modern business using the Quaker name to market oats and oil.
(3) Finally, there is the matter of religious people being healthier and living longer than their more skeptical counterparts. For example, in a 2018 study entitled “Does Religion Stave Off the Grave,” Laura Wallace and her fellow researchers analyzed obituaries, classifying the deceased as religious if the obituary revealed the person’s attendance at a church or synagogue. After allowing for the effects of gender and marital status, one sample showed religious subjects living 6.48 years longer than non-religious subjects. Another sample showed a difference of 3.82 years. Let’s just say you live four years longer by going to church, synagogue, or Quaker meeting.
Why? Well, there are numerous factors. Religious people tend to have a sense of purpose and order in life. That decreases the stress that contributes to cardiac and other disease. Better mental health leads to better physical health (mind and body are not separate).
Also, religious groups tend to discourage unhealthy habits like drinking alcohol or smoking. For example, Query 8 of NYYM’s Faith and Practice asks,
Have we confronted our own decisions about our use of alcohol,
tobacco, and other drugs, and do we encourage others to do like-
wise? Have we considered the cost in human suffering that might
result from such use?
Notably, religious groups encourage the socializing and the relationships that are fundamental to good health. Having friends is at least as important as exercise and sleep. Weak social connections correlate with increased depression, cognitive decline, and decreased life expectancy. Moreover, one study indicates that membership in a religious organization is more beneficial than volunteering or playing sports (see the Medical Daily).
I conclude that Quakerism is indeed a useful delusion. But wait! What if religion and Quakerism aren’t delusions? What if—as early Friends were fond of saying—Quakerism is Truth. I personally believe our Society to be very realistic indeed, both in its process of discernment and in its original form as a type of Christianity. Richard Dawkins is wrong, maybe even deluded.
~ Richard Russell
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