In Part 1 of "Why We Believe" I talked about the role that socialization plays in the formation of our religious beliefs. Here in Part 2, I will discuss how religion provides many useful benefits for the believer, and how this is a powerful motivation to believe and evangelize. Solomon Schimmel, whose book I mentioned in Part 1, sums up the benefits of religious belief here:
“Religion satisfies many human needs: social, emotional, psychological, and intellectual. This reinforces its hold on someone socialized from birth into it and attracts new converts to it. It can provide, for many people, meaning and purpose to life, hope and support in the face of adversity, transcendence of the finality of death, occasions for joy and festivity, alleviation of existential uncertainty and anxiety, a moral code, a strong sense of individual identity meshed with group identity and cohesion, and, particularly in scientifically ignorant societies, explanations of the mysteries of the universe and of life on earth.”
Religion is useful because it serves these basic human needs. The believer has a need to find meaning and purpose in life; religion teaches that our lives have meaning and purpose. The believer has a need to deal with the fear of death; religion denies death's existence. The believer has a need for social community; religion provides churches and close-knit congregations who share common beliefs. The believer wants answers to the mysteries of life; religion provides the answers (albeit not very accurately) about where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going.
If religion wasn't viewed as useful to the believer, then it wouldn't be around for very long. The laws that govern the evolution of the living organisms (replication, mutation, and natural selection) also apply to self-replicating ideas. A self-replicating idea is called a "meme" because it operates much like a gene (they rhyme on purpose) in that a meme contains information as well as a motivation for people to spread it. The theory of self-replicating ideas, called memetic theory, and was first posited by Richard Dawkins in his famous book The Selfish Gene. Meme theory has advanced since then, and is now applied to many self-replicating ideas including democracy, capitalism, viral YouTube videos, viral marketing ads, or those silly playground jokes that never go away.
Religious ideas, or memes, have been one of the most successful memes in history, to the point that they are nearly universal. Memes that are good at replicating become more prevalent in the population, while memes that are not good at replicating eventually die out. An idea that is useful provides a very good motivation to propagate itself. If an idea becomes outdated and useless, then it usually dies out because it serves no purpose and people will not spread it. "Survival of the fittest" applies to ideas just as it applies to species. The idea that religion is a meme (or a related group of memes called a memeplex) that spreads because it's good at survival, relates to the socialization argument for religion's ubiquity that I discussed previously. Our parents (and their parents before them, etc) had practical reasons to share the religious meme with us. People today have good reasons to share the religion memeplex with their children and neighbors. This is how religion spreads horizontally through societies (by missionary work) and how it spreads vertically through families (by indoctrination of offpspring). There are many reasons why religion spreads, but the utility of the religious meme is one of the best reasons.
However, many pragmatist philosophers, such as the great William James, take the usefulness of religion one step further, and claim that the usefulness of a religious belief is evidence of its truthfulness. This is the point made in Alma chapter 32 where faith is compared to a seed; if the seed grows and is useful, then it's a sign that the seed is good, or that the belief is true. We are told in Alma 32 that "your knowledge is perfect" and your "faith is dormant" of this thing. I see this argument pop up a lot in the online LDS community. In fact, just the other day, a very intelligent friend on a Mormon facebook community that I'm a member of, compared religion to a car or a fridge (functional items we use a lot): if the car or fridge works for you, then it's evidence that it's true for you. This is simply a variation of the "faith as a seed" argument used in Alma 32.
But . . . the skeptic would argue that the fact that something is useful only means that it’s useful - not that it’s valid or true. I have no problem with admitting that religion is useful to people. If it works for you, then by all means, use it, as long as it doesn't hurt somebody else. But saying something is true because "it works for me" is a non sequitur (does not follow) and an example of the pragmatic fallacy. To bastardize a quote by Elder Packer: “Many things that are (useful) are not very (true).”
If religion is true simply because it's practical, then we would have to accept a number of other bogus ideas as true simply because they are also practical, including: homeopathy, numerology, astrology, psychic readings, and a host of other pseudoscientific practices. Homeopathy treatments - just to take one of these examples - work for the simple reason that they rely on anecdote and the placebo effect, not because there is any effective medicine in the diluted "water memory" cures practitioners sell to their patients. Homeopathic cures have not been shown by objective, peer-reviewed, randomized controlled trials to be effective treatments for any illness. And yet, despite the complete lack of any scientific evidence, millions of people spend billions of dollars every year on homeopathy treatments because they believe it works.
Religion may rely on a similar placebo-effect for its usefulness; it works because people believe it's supposed to work. However, if we lose faith in religion, then it usually stops "working" for us as well. A similar phenomenon occurs with medicinal placebos: realize it's a placebo, and it stops working for you. Placebos can be useful, and their effects can be real (a fact that every scientist knows and has to take account for in their randomized controlled study designs in which they compare a placebo to the real treatment under study).
But does the fact that placebos have real effects mean that they are valid medical treatment? No. Similarly, just because religion can be useful, does not mean that it is valid or true. Making that claim is overstating the argument of usefulness. Also, what is useful to somebody may not be useful to someone else. Religion may be very useful because it provides meaning, purpose, values, social community, and answers to life's challenges for many people. This is one of the major reasons why the religon meme spreads so well both horizontally in society and vertically in families. However, usefulness is not the same thing as truthfulness. Claiming that because religion is useful, that that somehow makes it truthful as well, simply does not follow, and is an example of the pragmatic fallacy.