If you were asked the question “throughout history, has religion done more harm than good?”, what would be your answer? In a similar vein, what about the question “has religion saved more lives than it has taken?” For what it’s worth, in my opinion, the answer to the latter question is “yes (and by a very long way)”, and thus that to the former is “no”. Let me elaborate.
When I was 15, an English lesson happened to divert to the subject of raw pork (naturally), and I myself see it as rather odd that my English teacher of all people should open my eyes to an entire new perspective on evolution. He remarked that raw pork’s poisonous nature is why so many religions forbid its consumption; indeed it is neither kosher nor halal.
All religions stem from prior religions, in the same way that all species are derived from earlier species: thus the kosher tradition (which, of course, preceded that of halal) likely has its roots in prehistory. But why did prehistoric Homo sapiens decide that we should not eat certain foods; why yet did it decide that this was because of the will of a divine being?
Because it saw members of its own species die.
If you were a caveman, and you saw your brother eat some uncooked pork before dying later that week, you would naturally think that it would be a bad idea to do the same. You would, of course, have no knowledge of microbiology or gastrochemistry to provide the correct explanation, so you come to the only conclusion that makes any sense at all: something invisible, and with the power to smite down human beings at will, does not want you to eat pork. You never eat pork again, and you survive to pass on your genes to your offspring who may well themselves decide one day to have a chop without going to the trouble of cooking it.
At this point, any other creature would decide never again to eat pork and continue with their lives, but a human is far more communal. You stand in the village square and tell the entire settlement that they should not eat pork. You provide your metaphysical explanation, and the more credulous of the town believe you; the less so do not. The believers are naturally terrified, and never eat raw pork again, but the skeptics see no reason why not to, continue on with their lives, eat pork, and die; all the while the believers warn them not to before mourning their deaths.
Parallels may be drawn between this village microcosm and evolution: those with a particular attribute (in this case faith) are more likely to survive and pass on the genes that cause this to their children; eventually a high proportion of a population behave the same way. Conversely, those that have genes that cause skepticism will die and cease to contribute to the gene pool.
But the benefits of faith are, crucially, slightly different those to evolution. If it were left to evolution to stop the human race from eating pork, it would take millenia of deaths by salmonella, trichinosis and eschera coli, before a mutation occurred in someone’s DNA causing them not to eat raw meat (through whatever extraordinary biochemical mechanism is first possible), leading to them and their children being blissfully safe from the diseases plaguing the rest of the population.
Religion on the other hand, is pretty much instant. When a person from one generation tells everyone else about their idea that God doesn’t want you to eat pork, nobody else dares eat it, and they all survive. They don’t have to make the mistake for the message to be passed on, and neither do billions more. Religion essentially allows us to skip the millions of years of evolution which would be necessary, and just get on with not dying and having sex – which is literally the whole point of life on Earth. Evolution is trial and error; religion is a calculated survival of the believers.
Dietary restrictions are by no means the limit of the biological edge that is religion. Almost everywhere one looks in a holy text, you can see the advantages to survival behind it. To take another example, the condemnation of homosexuality in many Western religions: homosexual sex is unfortunately more susceptible to the transfer of STIs. Prehistoric man saw that homosexuals often died young or by disease, and attributed this to a divine disliking of being gay. As unfair as perhaps this is, it is undoubtable that if humankind were never to have conceived of religion, the current population would be far diminished to that of today.
Often, religious rules may be simply as a result of human interactions: forbidding adultery may stem from an adulterer whose angered cuckold secretly murdered him. Similar explanations suffice for rules against stealing, and murder (although, obviously a friend would be involved in the “religious” retribution here, rather than the victim). The making-sense-ness goes on and on.
There is a key thing that connects all of these now, however: they all have a reasonable explanation in modern times – not just that, but a way around them. Cooking and disinfecting pork makes it edible (and delicious), safe sex greatly reduces the spread of disease, and the justice system is able to punish thieves and murderers in a much more institutionalised way than was previously possible. Also, the study of microbiology and chemistry has vastly improved our understanding of things that we could once not explain why they killed us. Modern society has taken over from religion as the prevention agent of early death.
Does this mean that religion is still relevant? In my opinion, society would not collapse and humankind would not perish were religion somehow to disappear from the face of the planet. But just because the windows do not form an integral part of a house doesn’t mean the house would be better without them. Religion has (and continues to do so) given birth to a smörgåsbord of cultural icons, many of which are part of national identity as much as they are a part of religious identity. The Lotus Temple in New Delhi, the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican, the Al-Hamra palace in Granada, are all jaw-dropping works of art that would not have existed were the Bahá’í, Christian, and Islamic faiths not in existence.
Also, the important messages of religion are often those that keep society stable. Those that were taught that their religion forbids stealing, adultery, drug use etc. are much less likely to break these rules – what better than the promise of eternal hellfire or reincarnation as a slug to dissuade someone from eroding society. Religion hasn’t just saved lives; it has sustained society, and to a fair degree still does.
Equally though, you don’t have to be religious to do these things; but institutionalising them provides a sense of belonging, and also a sense of duty and reluctance to skepticism. There are upsides and downsides. Religion may not have the central role in society that it once did, but it is by no means pointless.