Is religion any good?
I listened to Alister McGrath speaking at LICC earlier in the week on Richard Dawkins (pictured) and the meaning of life. I have a sneaking admiration for Dawkins and his teasing, tendentious rhetoric, but I thought McGrath's critique was well constructed until he came to his last point. He wanted to put forward as evidence against Dawkins' view that religion is intrinsically harmful recent scientific research that has tended to suggest that faith and spirituality can have measurable health benefits.
Even supposing that the research is sound, I can't imagine Dawkins being very impressed by this line of argument. I would have thought it would be relatively easy to explain the apparent link between health and faith as a matter of psychology: faith gives rise to a positive attitude which boosts the immune system and generally makes you feel better, or whatever. I don't see it as in any real way vindicating the truth claims made by faith - and certainly not of one particular faith. It is an argument, moreover, that relies on a very modern, individualized and self-centred model of spirituality: what practical benefits can I get by developing my spiritual potential?
I think Dawkins would be much more impressed by a paper by Gregory Paul published in the Journal of Religion and Society which argues for the consistently harmful effect of religion at a societal level.
This paper focuses mainly on the social consequences of a high level of theistic (and creationist) belief, but similar arguments could no doubt be made with respect to politics and intellectual activities. Should major political decisions - such as the decision to invade another country - be influenced by a leader's personal beliefs? Does social and political pressure from creationists distort the public practice of science?
So my question would be: what do we have to do to ensure that an emerging theology is socially, politically and intellectually benign? If we believe that faith and theology should have some sort of public commitment, how do we avoid simply reinforcing the correlation between belief and dysfunctionality that Gregory Paul has highlighted?
For further comment on Paul's research see George Monbiot, 'Better off without Him'.