I am a thirteen year old boy, and have been thinking about whether or not religion has a bad or good affect on human lives. You tend to bring up religion in some way or another in most of your books, and you are a religious man, so I thought that you would be a good person to ask. From what I can tell, religion has caused more death than saved life, more pain than pleasure, and created more evil that it ever has good. To me, it seems like religion has a negative affect on human survival. I could go on and on with reasons to back myself up, but I'm sure you have already heard most of the arguments I could come up with. I just wanted to know what you think about it. I am not closed minded, and will be very interested in what you have to say.
Our current intellectual elite has worked hard to get thoughtful young people like you to say things like "To me, it seems like religion has a negative affect on human survival. I could go on and on with reasons to back myself up, but I'm sure you have already heard most of the arguments I could come up with. I just wanted to know what you think about it."
In fact, the opposite is the case. Prior to the last couple of centuries, it was inconceivable to separate religious beliefs from public policy or community actions. Everyone in a community was expected to believe in the same religion and take part in the same rituals, and those who did not were invariably regarded with suspicion and hostility. Thus the actions of communities were not the "result" of their religious beliefs, because they invoked their beliefs in defense of everything they did.
Specifically, the murderous warlike behavior of the Crusaders was directly contrary to the teachings of Christianity, and even the popes who proclaimed Crusades deplored some of the awful things that "Christian" soldiers then did. And one of the favorite examples of the religion-bashers, the treatment of Indians by Christian Europeans, is actually an example of the opposite -- for it was specifically the Christian priests who went to extraordinary lengths to protect Indians from the depredations of the conquistadores and to have them treated as human beings with the same rights as any others (given the understanding of "human rights" available at the time).
But for a clearer understanding of religion in history, let's look at the opposite case. In our century we have had two great predatory empires that specifically denied God and fought against organized religions, neutralizing or destroying them as best they could. I speak of Nazism and Soviet Communism. Look at their track record for slaughter and tell me that doing away with religion leads to improvement! Quite the contrary -- religious beliefs and powerful religious elites have demonstrably ameliorated the human condition compared to what purely political or military authority would have brought about.
But to my way of thinking, all of this is moot. I believe there is no such thing as a community without religion. Just because one religion declares itself to be "post-religious" and declares all other belief systems to be "superstitions" does not mean that it is not, in fact, a religion. Today's politically correct/multicultural members of the intellectual elite are just like any other community in history -- they have a shared belief system, they enforce it rigidly, they attempt to keep people with contrary beliefs from getting any chance to speak and denigrate them when they manage to get a word in. They persecute those who disagree with them and reserve elite positions for their co-religionists. And, just as early Christians referred to pagan beliefs as "evil and satanic," so now do the believers in the religion of the American elite refer to competing religious beliefs as "superstitious and evil." And they make sure that young people like you are taught that religion has had a negative influence on history - neglecting to inform you that (a) they, too, are preaching a religion and (b) theirs does not shrink from doing exactly the things they accuse other religions of doing.
People who hunger for power will use whatever religion is at hand to accomplish their purpose. The result is always the distortion of the belief system to make it fit whatever the powerful people want to excuse. The only brake on this is to have a group of people who will systematically defend the REAL beliefs of that religion and keep it from being misused in the service of power. THAT is what "organized religion" accomplishes that makes it less susceptible to corruption than the disorganized and therefore undefended religion of today's intellectual elite. As witness: The doctrine that the exploitation of women is a crime worthy of punishment by the end of a person's career was tossed out the window when Bill Clinton committed far worse acts than those that had led to the political deaths of others. There was no one to speak up for what had seemed to be a core doctrine of the intellectual elite -- principle was tossed out the window in order to support political expediency.
That's why we need organized religions -- because they're harder to exploit for political gain. And an examination of history finds repeated examples of religions that stood their ground against attempts by political and military leaders to exploit or distort them. There are, of course, examples of the contrary -- but it is worth noting that when people criticize the inquisition or the crusades, they do it by pointing out that these destructive forces did not measure up to ideals that were taught by the very religion that is being blamed for them. That is, without the Judeo-Christian tradition, who is to say that the inquisition or the crusades were wrong? Certainly the people who condoned, for instance, Bill Clinton's unprovoked bombing of Khartoum and Afghanistan seem to have no core of belief that makes them declare that our political leaders have gone too far. Without an organized religion committed to doctrines unsusceptible to expedient reinterpretation, there is no check on the raw exercise of power.
So as far as I can tell, America has a public religion, but it is one without organization and without principles; we need a better one, even if it means (gasp) admitting we made a horrible mistake by declaring God to be dead in the 1960s and bringing back the old religions that, for all their weaknesses and flaws, nevertheless kept us from being quite as bad as we could have been.
And just in case you're thinking, "Yes, but religion condoned slavery," just remember that it was also religion that labored at great sacrifice to ban what had been a nearly universal practice, and that the Battle Hymn of the Republic was sung by those who were fighting and dying to end the pernicious practice. Evil is always done in the name of God, but it rarely originates with the teachings of a religion. On the contrary, what religion actively creates are people who are willing to sacrifice, struggle, and even die, not for their own gain, but for the good of others. Religion is easily blamed for everything, but deserves the credit, most commonly, for good or at least mitigating acts.