When I went from a secular lifestyle to becoming an observant Jew, one of the criticisms I received was how I could possibly associate myself with something as awful as religion. It is a question I have asked myself more than once. I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and even told my parents that believing in a man that was simultaneously a deity was stupid. I was only about ten years old at that point, and that’s when, after much yelling, my parents didn’t force me to go to church anymore. As a result of that stubbornness, I became highly agnostic for many years. I leaned more on the atheistic side because based on what was going on in the world, I couldn’t possibly believe that a “loving G-d” could possibly exist. And even if G-d did exist, I thought that He must have been history’s biggest sadist. It goes without saying that after I grew up, I opened my mind up to the possibility of religion. I had quite a few Christian friends that had stability and a sense of purpose, something for which I was greatly yearning. However, I still could not believe that Jesus was a prophet or the Messiah, let alone a deity. After two years of struggling with the question, I began the process which led me to living an exceptionally Jewish lifestyle. Although it did not come without challenges, I would say that it has been the single choice that has had the largest impact on my life. During the past few years, I had a few people wonder I could become religious because religion is supposedly the root of all things evil. In order to adequately look at the claim, one has to look at two things—the alternative to religion, and the impact of religion on a holistic level.
First, what is the alternative to religion? Secularism. If religion is the cause of all evil, one would have to presume that when you eliminate religion from the equation, evil goes along with it. However, when you take G-d out of the equation, the amount of atrocities committed in the name of secularism has been by far worse. The Nazis killed over six million Jews and five million non-Jews, totaling to over twelve million. Communist China under the Maoist regime killed over sixty million. The Stalinist regime killed over thirty million. Pol Pot killed about two million. Saddam Hussein killed over one million. Aside from the commonality of Big Government, what ties all of these mass murderers together is atheism. None of these men were killing in the name of G-d. They were killing in the name of the state, or an ideology that was inherently atheistic. From a quantitative standpoint, invoking the Crusades, the Inquisition, or even jihadists is futile because secularism has killed way more many people than religion ever has. Furthermore, government had been largely religious until very recently. The Thirty Years’ War, which caused 7 million dead, was the first war in European history where people only fought “in the name of religion,” i.e., it really wasn’t about religion. If you need proof that it was not fought for religious reasons, look at the alliances during that war where Catholics allied with Protestant nations. Even with the Treaty of Westphalia, the state did not completely sever itself from religion until after the French Revolution, i.e., it has only been a little more than two centuries, and atheistic ideologies have killed way more than religion ever has. Even if you want to argue, “Well, if they had nuclear arms in the Crusades, they would have used them.” Save that kind of rhetoric from somebody who is easily swayed! The fact that you even had to use an “if” statement, meaning that what you’re positing is purely hypothetical, just shows how much you like to stray from reality. It is also amusing to hear that the Crusades and the Inquisition as the two worst atrocities committed by religion. The Crusades killed about two million, and the Spanish Inquisition took about 32,000. Even the witch hunts took only about 45,000! Although that sounds like quite a few dead, and clearly, any murder is atrocious and irreligious, those are small numbers when compared to the two quantitatively worst atrocities in pre-modern history, which, incidentally, had nothing to do with religion. The Mongol conquests of Genghis Khan and the An Shi Rebellion of the eight century are both believed to have taken approximately forty million lives each! [Some predict that Genghis Khan’s conquests took sixty million!]
I’m sure that those who don’t like religion are miffed by the fact that religion has empirically killed less people. But what really eats at those people is that short of a few Muslim states, every nation-state has some sort of separation of religion from government, whether it is implicit in the American constitution or explicit in the French Constitution. What this trend means is that just about any mass murder done by any nation-state in the future will be done with a secular ideology backing it up. In the unlikely event that jihadists kill more people, secularism will have been a larger murderer of human life than religion ever could have been.
Second, is religion inherently evil? Of course not! Like with most things, religion is not inherently good or bad. What makes something good or evil is what the actor behind the item in question decides to do with it. If you don’t believe me, let us take a look at a few examples. Money can either be donated to a worthy cause or it can be laundered to a drug cartel that perpetuates large incidences of crime in a given city. Science can be used for something as miraculous as finding the cure for cancer or can be used for unethical experimentation on human beings, something which the Nazis did. Sex can bring a new generation of life to this world or it can be used to rape another human being. Fire can be used to bring warmth to a house or for arson to burn down that very same house. Water can be used to quench one’s thirst or drown somebody. Alcohol, in the right quantities, can slightly elevate one’s evening, but in the wrong quantities, can cause fatalities. I can continue with a multitude of examples, but I hope that by now, you understand where I am going with this.
In this regard, religion is no different. I will not deny that morally wrong acts have been done in the “name of religion.” Muslims have blown up many people in the name of Allah. Christians killed many Jews in Muslims for the sake of Jesus. Acts of moral egregiousness committed by religious people have not even been limited to murder. Politicians who espouse family values have had affairs with other women. I’m sure many of you have met your fair share of those who are “holier than thou.” They are the ones with an exceptional air of arrogance and self-righteousness who preach against “decadent behavior,” such as adultery, homosexuality, violating Shabbos, or talking behind people’s backs, and yet you come to find out that they are committing those very same acts behind closed doors. Needless to say, there is no such thing as a perfect practitioner. The inherent imperfection of human nature gets in the way of that goal from ever coming into fruition. If that were the standard for proving whether or not religion is good, we would have to apply that very same standard to everything else. Most aren’t willing to do so, especially when it comes to self-evaluation and determining whether you’re a good [or even perfect] human being.
What anti-religious or atheistic people forget to see is that religion brings much positive change in one’s life. The following studies that include, but are not limited to, those that can prove that religious leads to a positive lifestyle. Childhood poverty could very well be offset, or at the very least, mitigated, by having more religious parents, which would ultimately lead to less crime. A new study done by Angus Deaton, Professor of International Affairs and Economics at Princeton University, shows the positive effects of religiosity, including morbidity and mortality. There is enough evidence that religious people are less depressed, have decreased hospital stays, and have less health problems overall. Studies have shown that you are less likely to develop an addiction, and even if you have, you are more likely to pull through, which negates the "religion is a crutch" argument. Here's a study that was done showing how religious Jews more or less avoid alcohol problems because of Judaism. If you look at the Twelve Steps, most of them have to do with accepting a "Higher Power." Jonathan Rosenblum also points out benefits, such as higher rates of optimism and longevity, and decreased rates of divorce and mental deterioration in old age. What's more is that religion makes people feel happier and full of hope. It creates a sense of community and belonging. A sense of purpose is found with religion. Without religion, I know my life would be stripped of meaning. Judaism is my framework for living a righteous, meaningful life.
What I am not saying is that all religious people live happy, careless lives. I am also not saying that atheists have no prospect of being happy. I've met miserable religious people and happy atheists. People who live religious lives don't have a nice walk in the park. I know I certainly don't! What I do know is that it would be a lot more difficult without religion. In short, what studies show is that if you are looking for a happier, longer, more meaningful life, you are statistically more probable finding it by accepting religion rather than rejecting it.