It’s hard to give a catch-all definition of religion, but in order to exclude secular philosophy, rituals and traditions, I feel it’s necessary to include an element of something supernatural or at least something that is separate from the material world and anything that somehow emerges from it, in the definition. What I mean by this is that any philosophy that does not include the existence of something immaterial or “transcendent”, and any tradition or ritual that is not performed with the presumption that it enables one to connect with any such thing, does not qualify as religious. This definition probably needs to be augmented to say that this supernatural or trancendent thing needs an intentional or teleological aspect, something that means that there is a purpose embedded into reality. Going by this, it’s safe to say that science has not been able to detect any such agency in nature, progress in understanding observable reality has been such that more and more is explained in mechanistic terms, and the trend seems to continue. Connecting this with my views on philosophy and specifically philosophy of science and epistemology, the consequence becomes that any claims of the existence of any entity of the form described above are by necessity unwarranted. In other words: religious beliefs are irrational.
This is hardly a controversial claim, but what might be somewhat controversial to some is that I exclude the irrational as undesirable. A statement such as that is bound to meet some opposition. Are there not feelings? And subjective opinions? And art? Are these things not irrational but desriable? The short answer is no. Rationality is simply not applicable to phenomena that are intrinsically subjective. An emotion can be neither rational nor irrational, it is something that arises through naturalistic means in the brain and this process can be studies and both rational and irrational statements can be made about it, but the emotion itself is something that is not the result of rational discourse in the agent experiencing it. It is not something that one experiences as the result of reasoning, and that disqualifies it from the labels of rationality and irrationality. Those labels are applicable for arguments, and any statement that is the conclusion of a not rationally based argument is irrational and always undesirable.
Of course, it’s inhuman and ridiculously unrealistic to demand that all people should be completely rational all the time, but it is reasonable to ask people not to institutionalize their irrationality, which brings us back to religion. There is no clearer example of institutionalized irrationality than religion.
Having covered very briefly some of my reasons for considering all religion as necessarily irrational and all irrationality as undesirable, one might want to move on to the uses and effects of religion. Some argue that even if it’s true that religious belief is irrational and that its claims are false, it might still be desirable, at least to some, because it gives comfort, because it fills a need. To answer this, I need to return to the concept of rationality and its use. The point of using a rational approach to reality is that it is what is most likely to let you actually connect with and understand reality as it actually is. Knowledge about reality is a necessary tool for being able to handle the events of reality: if you don’t understand how reality works and what outcomes are probable to arise from any given action, then you will be ill-equiped to decide upon a good course of action in any given situation. Rationality is not just an abstract intellectual ideal: it’s a necessary tool for well-being. Giving people the hope of some future state of affairs (life in heaven) which is not likely (to say the least) to actually exist at the cost of crippling them in their ability to handle the goings-on down here on earth is deeply immoral, which is why I consider religion to be not just the biggest enemy of intellectual discourse, but also the biggest enemy of humanity and human well-being.