Religion frequently provides grounds for people to fight over, but if religion didn’t exist they would probably fight over something else. But would they fight as tenaciously? Religion seems to act as a catalyst for UltraViolence. When angry people believe God is on their side, and that their enemies are the enemies of God, atrocities seem to follow. Instances of this are so commonplace throughout human history there is no need to recite them here.
Overall, has religion done more harm than good? This question is impossible to answer because most of the good, and most of the harm, are like the submerged portion of an iceberg. What goes on inside other people’s heads and hearts is about as invisible as something can get. Even when people tell you how much something matters to them, or troubles them, or brings them peace of mind, you can’t be sure that their testimony is true. This has nothing to do with any conscious desire to deceive themselves or others. Often people will say what they think others want to hear, or, what is expected under the circumstances—or what they expect to hear from themselves.
So we have to deal with reports from reporters whose accuracy is impossible to assess. In a recent poll, 82% of the American people reported that God was “very important” in their lives. The figure for Western Europeans was about half as high. From this it seems indisputable that religion matters much less to contemporary Europeans than it does to Americans. Now, if only there were some way of discovering how happy Europeans are compared to Americans. But even if Europeans, on average, say they are happier—or less happy—than Americans, their happiness (or lack thereof) may have nothing to do with religion. They might be happier because many things American worry about such as educating their kids, paying their medical bills, and paying for nursing home care when they grow old, are not major sources of anxiety in Western Europe.
What would be interesting to know is the extent to which Western European institutions, culture, law, etc. are different because Europeans are less religious. It seems to me that the European rejection of the death penalty suggests that their society may be morally superior to ours. Their murder rate is also much lower. The extremes of wealth and poverty in Europe are also far less pronounced than in the United States. And Europeans have also done much more to deal with the growing danger of global warming. And most European nations also give a much higher percentage of their wealth to poor countries than do Americans. It seems to me that they come out ahead in many important areas of life. But even if they aren’t ahead, and are instead tied with the USA, that would surely suggest that our greater religiosity does not make our society superior.