Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Religion as Placebo

Karl Marx said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” But opium is a real drug. On the other hand, a “sugar pill” or placebo is an inert substance thought by the taker to be real medicine. It just occurred to me this morning that some religious beliefs might be likened to placebos. That is, they are false beliefs that people “take” to make themselves feel better.

Now there is no denying the fact that placebos help some people in some situations. I vaguely remember that a family doctor used to prescribe sugar pills for my great-grandmother, and she did feel better after taking them because she believed that they were real medicine. But the fact that she was helped doesn’t change the fact that the pills were placebos and not real medicine.

I often hear religious people claim that the happiness they’ve enjoyed since they adopted their religious beliefs proves that these beliefs are true. But isn’t this like saying, “The fact that I feel better after taking a pill proves that the pill was not a placebo.”?

What’s more, even though taking placebos might help some people in some situations, might it also fail to help other people in other situations or even cause harm to them? For instance, wouldn’t it help most people more (or no less) to take a good daily multivitamin than to take a daily placebo, and wouldn’t a person taking a placebo in place of insulin for diabetes likely be harmed rather than helped by it?

In the same way, while false religious beliefs may help some to be happier than they would be without those beliefs, might they also fail to deliver the happiness to some that true beliefs would, or even cause harm to some that true beliefs wouldn’t?
Whether or not the comparison of religious beliefs to placebos originates with me, and it almost certainly doesn’t, I think it may be a powerful way to characterize the nature and shortcomings of false or dubious religious beliefs.

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