Friday, April 10, 2009

Hooked on God: Religion as a Drug

Karl Marx famously quipped that religion was the opium of the masses. I submit that this aphorism should be taken more seriously, that considering religion as a drug can be a constructive framework for understanding religion both for believers and, more to the point, non-believers. Non-believers tend to focus on religious claims rather than the effects of believing (or even going through the motions of believing) in those claims, and thus tend to miss the forest for the trees. The result is endless cycles of useless thrashing, wasted emotional energy, and a lot of unnecessary pain.

To begin, let me be precise about exactly what I mean by "religion is a drug." I mean for this view to be taken literally, not metaphorically. Now, obviously I do not mean that religion is a chemical. Religion is a placebo, but that emphatically does not mean that it's "imaginary" or "all in your head." The placebo effect is a real, scientifically observable physical phenomenon with actual physiological effects. The placebo effect can, for example, measurably reduce physical pain, sometimes in cases where all other treatments are ineffective.

It is important to emphasize that the placebo effect is not mystical mumbo-jumbo. It is as well established a scientific fact as you cold hope to find. That double-blind studies are the gold standard of scientific proof in medicine is an explicit acknowledgement of the power of the placebo effect. To demonstrate the effectiveness of a pharmaceutical you have to explicitly and laboriously exclude the possibility that any observed benefit was due to the placebo effect. Doing a properly controlled double-blind study is difficult precisely because the mechanism by which the placebo effect operates is belief, which is very difficult to control with precision.

But religion is not just a placebo; it is in some sense the ultimate placebo, honed and refined over thousands of years to be vastly more potent and powerful than a mere sugar pill. Whereas the curative powers of a sugar pill can be undermined simply by revealing that it is a sugar pill, religions have built-in defenses against such anti-revelations, sometimes layer upon layer of defenses. Whereas sugar pills derive their power from the (presumed) authority of a medical doctor, religions derive theirs, if not from God Himself, at least from His authority. This is one of the most important things that non-believers miss about religion: because placebos derive their power from belief, it doesn't matter whether the thing being believed in is real or not. As long as the belief is genuine, it works. So it doesn't matter if the power of religion actually derives from God or merely from the idea of God; for the purpose of inducing a placebo effect, they are the same thing.

Placebos are particularly effective at producing relief from emotional pain, which is no less real and can be no less intense that actual physical pain. To this I can bear personal witness. I have (like many technically inclined people, I think) suffered from periodic bouts of severe, debilitating depression, even leading on one occasion back in grad school to a half-hearted suicide attempt. Even as a life-long confirmed non-believer, I find the odd prayer occasionally to be palliative. (I often tell people with tongue only half-way in cheek that I'm an unusual atheist: I talk to God. Moreover, He talks back. I tell Him that I don't believe in Him, and He tells me that's OK, that He's here for me when I need Him, but that He can get along without me.)

Within this framework a lot of seemingly intractable problems simply evaporate. Theodicy, for example, becomes a complete non-issue. The existence of evil is only a philosophical problem if one assumes that religious beliefs exist to describe objective reality. On the religion-as-a-drug view, that is not the reason religious beliefs exist at all, they exist to produce a placebo effect. The idea of an all-powerful all-knowing all-just all-loving God prevails not because it's (objectively) true, but because it's therapeutically effective. Moreover, it's a lot more effective if you believe it's actually, objectively true. So people believe it's actually objectively true. And they defend those beliefs against all reason because to do otherwise is painful, in many cases too painful to bear. This is not a sign of intellectual weakness or duplicity. It is simply an aspect of being human. We are both rational and emotional creatures, yin and yang. Militant atheism fails because it ignores this inconvenient truth. (It is no surprise to me that Christopher Hitchens is a chain-smoking alcoholic. Very few people can summon the courage to face the awful realities of life without some form of chemical intervention.)

The religion-as-drug framework helps make sense of many other normally vexing (to atheists) aspects of religious belief. Like any drug, it can be both beneficial (if it alleviates pain) and harmful (if it is abused). It comes in different forms with varying potencies and side-effects. It can be bought and sold. Because it's legal (mostly), there is a thriving economy in religious ideas catering to all segments of a huge and diverse market. It can be addictive, which is good if you make your living as a dealer, not so good if you become a junkie.

And, of course, like other psychoactive drugs, religion can make you crazy, even violent if not taken judiciously.

Finally, the religion-as-drug framework offers some useful insight into the likely outcomes of efforts to rid the world of religion, which are as likely to succeed as efforts to rid the world of other drugs have been. In particular, religion is very unlikely to yield to either reason, ridicule, or prohibition. It is important to understand that people don't adopt religious beliefs because they are stupid, they do it because self-deception can, via the placebo effect, actually improve quality of life. Until this is understood and accepted, the secular and religious will continue to be at loggerheads.


ahouston said...

Right on. Religion can also be compared with play, an idea I first came across in "Homo Ludens" by Johan Huizinga. You might like to read an article at

and to read the other pages at this site.

Ron said...

> Religion can also be compared with play

I really think drugs make a better model. One of the Gordian knots I wish to cut is the question of whether or not religious people are, as Dawkins et al believe, deluded. I claim that they are not. Viewing religion as play allows an unbeliever to persist in the unproductive mistake of thinking that religious people are merely taking an "imaginary experience" too seriously. Whatever else drugs may be, they are indisputably *real*, and religious experience is similarly real. To trivialize religion as "imagination" or "delusion" or "play" is, I think, to badly miss the point.

Don Geddis said...

I'm glad you expanded upon your throwaway insight from a previous post. I've found your strong analogy between religion and drug use to be very enlightening for my own understanding.

Ron said...

Thanks for the encouragement. I hope the idea gets more traction.

Nathan said...

It is an interesting analogy, but I think it is incorrect to explain just religion in this way. Rather it is an explanation for the need for something much broader - faith-based beliefs in general - this includes atheism. After all, atheism is a faith and a belief. The need for a drug (whether it is a religion, anti-religion, or alcohol) is part of the human condition. I encourage you to keep an open mind about what atheism is - a faith.

Michael said...

Nathan, I have to disagree with your characterization of atheism as a faith. Religion is believed in despite a lack of evidence: atheism is a negative belief derived from a lack of evidence. Atheists would be willing to "give up" atheism if evidence for God existed: since there is apparently no such evidence, belief is unwarranted. In this context, an atheist is just someone that doesn't need the therapy that religion offers.

Shawn Roos said...

Michael: Just because God's existence cannot be empirically proven, one cannot say that God does not exist.

Atheism has yet to disprove the existence of God.

So statements that God doesn't exist are based on the faith that ultimately God will be empirically proven to not exist.

Belivers have their case, and their evidence, atheists have theirs.

Until the case is closed, i'm afraid you're in the faith category, with us "Jesus freaks"

Amanda said...

Nathan: atheism is no more a religion than darkness is a type of light.

Shawn: I think you have it backwards. Atheists don't think about if the existence of God will eventually be disproved. That's the thinking of a religious person, i.e. from the perspective of a religious person.

From an atheist's point of view if I say there's a cat in my house he won't believe me until I show him the cat in the house. Until then he won't hope that the cat is not in the house so his disbelief would be proven right. For this to happen you have to accept the possibility of a cat in the house in the first place. I hope this makes sense.

Don Geddis said...

Nathan and Shawn: I'm sure you would hate Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. But he has a useful idea in the introductory chapters.

Dawkins says to think of religious belief on a number line, 1-7. People at "1" are absolutely convinced that there is a God, no doubt at all. People at "4" are completely agnostic, believing the evidence is equally balanced, being unable to assign a greater likelihood to either the existence or non-existence of God. People at "7" are absolutely convinced that God does not exist, no doubt at all.

Most religious people believe that "atheists" are those who would label themselves as a "7". Dawkins makes the interesting observation that he's met lots of religious folks who label themselves as "1", but hardly any atheists who label themselves as "7". Even Dawkins himself, one of the heroes of the atheist movement, self-labels as a "5 or 6".

The certainty in God that you see all the time on the religious side, simply doesn't exist in the same way on the atheist side. I'll grant you that a group of people labelling themselves as "7" might indeed have just as much "faith" as religious believers.

But the surprising truth is that the vast majority of people who label themselves as "atheist" would not also self-label as "7", on the Dawkins scale.

(BTW: Happy Easter, everybody! Kind of ironic, isn't it...)

Ron said...

> After all, atheism is a faith and a belief.

It can be, but in most cases it isn't. In most cases, atheism is a consequence of scientism, which is indeed a faith. It is my faith. I am a Scientist (not to be confused with a Scientologist, which is not at all the same thing). Scientists (with a capital S) believe in science (with a small s), that is, that the ultimate arbiter of Truth is not divine revelation but experiment. This does indeed have to be taken on faith, but once you accept science, atheism follows as a consequence, since there is no evidence for any (supernatural) god.

But I agree with your basic premise that at the root of all metaphysical beliefs, including Scientism, is, by logical necessity, some form of faith.

> Atheism has yet to disprove the existence of God.

That's true.

> So statements that God doesn't exist are based on the faith that ultimately God will be empirically proven to not exist.

No, that's not true, but the reason is actually quite subtle and not so easy to explain. (Subject for another post.) It's actually much more subtle than even most atheists appreciate. If you really want to understand it, buy a copy of David Deutsch's book "The Fabric of Reality" and read Chapter 7. But here's a quick oversimplified explanation: you don't need to be able to empirically disprove the existence of something in order to conclude Scientifically that it doesn't exist. You can't empirically disprove the existence of unicorns, and yet it is reasonable to conclude that they don't exist. But to really understand why is actually quite tricky.

Don Geddis said...

Aw! Come on! Don't leave us hanging.

Can you at least sketch the justification for why it's reasonable to conclude that unicorns don't exist?

Ron said...

No, I really can't. It involves a very long discussion of what actually constitutes scientific justification. Nearly everyone (including Popper) has gotten it wrong, and I don't want to add to the confusion. Get Deutsch's book if you really can't wait.

Ron said...


> Nearly everyone (including Popper) has gotten it wrong

That should have been *EXCEPT* Popper.

Don Geddis said...


I hope you write a post about this soon. I'm curious what you have in mind.

I was going to guess that the answer to scientific validity is basically Bayesian inference. Have some priors, look at the evidence, that gives you a posterior for every possible theory.

But now you defend Popper. I mean, he had great insights for his time, and he's a giant in the philosophy of science. But really, isn't falsification really just a special case of Bayesian probabilities? Is Popper really the guy you want to point to?

But OK, you say it's too long for the comments. I'd still like to hear your point on view on unicorns, some day.

Don Geddis said...

I recently came across a different blog post on a related topic: Soulless Morality.

The relevance being: religious offers a morality that is easy to compute, and that works out better for most people (and society) than non-informed "gut reactions" would.

Yes, we hope that a well-informed rational analysis of morality would result in even better outcomes. But that has only been recently available, and requires considerable effort.

For most of human history, following religious teachings actually does result in better outcomes (than the only available alternatives).

Dennis Gorelik said...

Religion helps to preserve social norms over generations.
In the long run social norms compete with each other. The most efficient social norms survive (like in Life Evolution: "Survival of the fittest").
Religions help to promote natural selection of social norms, that's why religions are valuable.

Meredith said...

I disagree that ignoring problems by believing in a religion is actually beneficial in any way. As in the case of drug use, using religion to avoid problems just prolongs the problem.

What would be far better would be to face problems and do something about them. I believe this is what Marx was also trying to say. Since people turn to religion, they persevere in unacceptable situations rather than change their societies and make them more equitable.

Don Geddis said...

Meredith: Can people be wrong about whether they are happy? If they're in some situation, and find themselves depressed every day, and then they find religion and instead are joyful and happy every day, has religion not objectively helped them? Does it even make sense to say that they are in error about being happy? Is being happy not a significant benefit?

Of course, religion is false, and not true. But truth doesn't always lead to happiness, and illusions can be comforting.

If you were 97, and at death's door, and at peace with your mortality because you believed that your soul was everlasting, and you were soon to be on your way to heaven, where you would be reunited with your lost loved ones from your lifetime of rich and fulfilling relationships ... is there really any benefit to being convinced, during the last days, that your soul is an illusion, and it's all just dust to dust? How does getting depressed over your mortality make the world a better place? What's the harm in being comforted by a pleasant fantasy while you wait on your deathbed? It's not as though there is anything you can do about your mortality, no matter what you believe.

Simon Ewins said...

Nathan wrote:
"It is an interesting analogy, but I think it is incorrect to explain just religion in this way. Rather it is an explanation for the need for something much broader - faith-based beliefs in general - this includes atheism."


Faith, at a minimum, always incorporates desire. There is no desire involved in simply lacking a belief.

Aaron H said...

"If you were 97, and at death's door, there really any benefit to being convinced, during the last days, that your soul is an illusion, and it's all just dust to dust?"

The harm in drugs is that they often keep you from doing useful or important things. Certainly taking comfort at death is a perfectly fine use for morphine or religion.
However, if your drug use (religious belief) is causing harmful behavior (violence, theft, unemployment, denial of other's rights, damage to the fabric of education) then it is a problem that needs to be stopped.

Jacob Long said...

Personally, I had the idea that "religion is a drug" and actually believed it was an original thought!

However, I had the wisdom to Google it first which led me to your thread. THANK YOU so much for saving me hours of my life trying to explain a fraction of what you put so elegantly!