Why do we need religion?
Today, it's very difficult to defend religion. Not only among atheists and intellectuals, but also among the general public, respect for religion is declining in almost every aspect of modern life. And the next generation of young people seems destined to be the least religious generation today.
We need religion because it's a proven way of dealing with emotions
Religion can provide direct access to the emotional life, which science cannot. Yes, science can inspire wonder at the transcendence of nature. But there are many forms of human suffering that escape scientific solutions. Every emotional stress requires a different kind of relief. Unlike secular praxis, which emphasizes the ethical and civilizing functions of religion, we need religion because it is a proven form of emotional management.
Of course, religious emotions have a well-known dark side. Religious emotional life tends towards the melodramatic. Religion blithely propagates stories of good and evil, giving hope to testosterone-fueled fantasies of revenge and aggression. While this fanaticism is undeniably dangerous, much of religion is actually useful to ordinary families trying to survive in difficult times.
The brain cannot function with concepts of right and wrong
Those in the secular world who criticize these emotional reactions and strategies by constantly asking whether they are true are missing the point. Most religious beliefs are false. But the point is there. The emotional brain doesn't care what happens. The emotional brain doesn't work on concepts of right and wrong. Emotions are neither good nor bad. Even a terrible fear in a dream is still a terrible fear. This means that the standard by which valid theories are measured is not the standard by which valid emotions are measured. Unlike beneficial theories, which must be consistent with empirical facts, beneficial emotions are emotions that promote neurochemical homeostasis or other emotional states that support biological well-being.
What's wrong with pain relief?
First of all, religion energizes, not numbs. Just as anesthesia paralyzes or puts people to sleep, religion energizes and revitalizes believers. This energizing nature of religion is more dangerous to the state than its sedative nature, and can give rise to selfless philanthropy.
Secondly, what's wrong with anesthesia? If my vision of religion is primarily therapeutic, I wouldn't despair of part of that treatment taking the form of palliative pain relief. If an atheist thinks it's enough to reject believers who try to relieve the pains of life through religion, I don't think he can count on anesthesia in his life. If he does, I envy him his incredible good fortune.
For the rest of us, there's aspirin, alcohol, religion, leisure, work, love and friendship. After all, endorphins and other opioids are natural chemical components of the human brain and body, and evolved in part to relieve physical pain. To quote the famous German humorist Wilhelm Busch: "Worried people drink cognac.