But If It Gives Comfort, What's the Harm?

A good friend, a secular Jew, told me he was pleasantly surprised and a bit impressed by a recent encounter he had with Catholicism. Inasmuch as he had lived 70-some years without ever having been so impressed, I was curious. "What was that all about," I asked? He said he attended a funeral for a Catholic friend and business associate, and came away with the sense that the mourners were much comforted by the rituals and promises of a grand reunion someday in "a better place."

I thought, "my friend is showing symptoms of senility."

Unlike my friend, I know Catholicism based upon close and personal encounters in grades K through 12. I think he might be surprised if he knew more about the costs of Catholic make-believe.

Is it really harmless to embrace fantasies that "comfort," delusions that "give hope" and preposterous claims that mitigate the pains of loss? I don't think so - and I'll tell you why.

For starters, it's a bad habit to believe some things, even for utilitarian reasons, absent good evidence. It's a harmless-at-first habit that might begin with a few seemingly benign religious fables. However, doing so might add a comfort level for accepting other convenient propositions, wilder claims for which there is scant evidence. Such reality-bending propositions can be extended by different kinds of power players, including shysters and con artists with or without television ministries raising money 24 hours a day. One might start out going along with the hope of heaven and, before you know it, you are OK with virgin births and holy mysteries galore, including three-in-one and body and blood mind twisters.

No rational person should accept beliefs that the keepers of the dogma vaults want protected from inquiry, criticism, doubt and modification. The Catholic Church does not welcome or invite questions or delegate authority for impartial investigations of sacred tenets.

Beliefs that embrace the absurdity of immortality are grotesque on the face of it - they are demeaning and unworthy of educated modern humans living in a scientific era. At some level of self-awareness, those who embrace fables might lose self-respect. Gentle, pain-relief scenarios that momentarily comfort also lend credibility to nastier beliefs that come later. Many comforted by thoughts of reunions in heaven tend to forget the equal (or, according to Calvin, far greater) possibility of reunions in what Ingersoll termed, "the dungeon of eternal pain." How many nightmares might that option inspire?

There is little virtue in disabling reason in this life, the only existence anyone knows anything about. It simply is not and never will be reasonable to believe things for no good reason, just because it lets people feel better, for a while.

The amazing thing about religions is that most people who profess belief in their tenets have more in common with non-believers, secular rationalists or freethinkers than with believers in other religions. Catholics don't believe in the same god as the Baptist preacher who wanted to burn Korans recently to protest an Islamic-owned club going in at a site a mile or so from the sainted ground zero of 9/11 - or the god worshipped by the lunatic rulers of Iran. Needless to say, their varied ideas of heaven have little in common. This is not surprising when you think about it, since they all made stuff up about heaven without consulting each other.

Richard Dawkins has famously observed, "Everybody is an atheist in saying that there is a god - from Ra to Shiva - in which he does not believe. All that the serious and objective atheist does is to take the next step and to say that there is just one more god to disbelieve in."

There is no need or much value in efforts to convince the faithful that "feel good" beliefs about an afterlife are almost surely illusory and certainly without any factual validity. Such attempts are low-return investments of time and energy. However, when otherwise sensible people talk about being impressed upon first encounters with a religion, it seems that the responsible thing is to suggest that there is more to be considered than that which met the eye on first encounter.

What do you think? Comments welcomed.