I am not thinking of claims about actual evidence for the truth of religion - that is a different issue - but of second order claims about the benefits of religion. In particular, popular pronouncements along these lines:
- Life without god is totally pointless and meaningless; we need god and divine commands to give meaning to our lives.
- The conclusion that we are annihilated at death is depressing, and belief in an immortal soul, in our continued existence after death is much better.
- Atheists must be immoral because without gods and holy books they have nothing to base their morals on. Therefore, they should not be trusted.
The meaning of life
There are many possible answers to the religious claim that our lives can only be meaningful if we have been created by a god, with a divine purpose in mind. The most popular atheist reply seems to be yes, there is no divine purpose, but we make our own purposes. And that is a good reply, but I would go one step further back because I doubt that the religious position would make sense even if there was a god.
Think about it: If we were created by a super-powerful god, and the whole universe was just ticking along to their predetermined plan as worked out aeons ago, would that really be better than life in a universe without such a god? Because what, exactly, would in that case be the difference between us and machines? Created for the purposes of a higher intelligence, perhaps just to amuse it because it got bored after watching the void for a few gazillion years, where would be our agency, our dignity?
Note that this is completely distinct from the question of whether that is how the world is. If there was evidence that we were just the puppets of a super-being, I would have to accept that reality. But I wouldn't like it. To me, a world in which I am not the equivalent of a toy seems considerably less depressing than the theist world view. Mathematician Jason Rosenhouse recently wrote on the exact same issue, and I can only second every single one of his words.
Life after death
Nobody wants to die, that much is clear, and nobody wants to lose their loved ones. Often the latter actually seems to be the stronger motivation behind belief in an afterlife; faced with the loss of a friend or relative, the hope that they continue to exist somewhere, and that one will one day be reunited with them, is very understandable.
It only works as a hopeful belief, however, because people generally fail to think the implications of the standard religious ideas about an afterlife through. Take, for example, the case of a one year old toddler who has died and is now being envisioned as a little angel in heaven. Again, understandable. But wouldn't that child miss its parents rather terribly? Would it develop normally, would it be seriously traumatised, and who would be its step-parents in heaven? Suddenly this all sounds rather frightening.
Ah, might the believer reply, but in heaven the child will simply be made happy. But in that case it would then seem logical to point out that whatever is there in heaven would, if it doesn't miss its parents, clearly not be the little child. So what is the purpose of the existence of some perennially smiling dummy in heaven if the actual person is still gone?
The same or similar problems apply to other cases. What about people who married again after their previous partner died? What if you go to heaven but your son or mother goes to hell?
Perhaps the biggest problem is that heaven brings back the Problem of Evil with a vengeance. The Problem of Evil is basically the observation that the general rottenness and unfairness of the world is incompatible with any god worthy of worship - either he must be somewhere in the range of callous to evil or he must be incompetent. A standard religious defence is that the state of the world is our own fault because god created us with Free Will, or independent agency if you want.
That doesn't really work to explain earthquakes and cancer, but okay, let us grant for present purposes that it absolves the creator god from all manner of human unpleasantness. But if that is accepted it follows that either heaven will be just as rotten as the world is now or that people won't have independent agency in heaven, which again means that we won't really be in heaven, only a mindless puppet that looks kind of like us. Neither alternative is making an afterlife sound particularly attractive.
And finally there is of course the problem that people tend to underestimate the length of eternity. Again, I don't really want to die either, but would I want to sit on a cloud singing the praise of a cosmic dictator for ten trillion years and then realise that this was only a minuscule fraction of the time that I will still have to continue doing so? Such contemplation is the stuff of nightmares.
Atheist and religious bases of morality
Finally, morality. It really is a very popular idea that there cannot be any morality without religion. On a societal level, many religious people are afraid that a decidedly non-religious society would be terribly immoral. Strangely, they never seem to be impressed by examples such as Denmark or eastern Germany. (I suspect that some definitional Jiu-Jitsu is involved. It sounds as if they mean that atheist societies would be hell-holes of theft, murder and rape, but what they really mean is perhaps just this: an atheist society is immoral because it is atheist, because atheism is immoral. QED.)
On a personal level, many people especially from very religious communities cannot understand why individual atheists do not commit random atrocities, with no god looking over their shoulders.
But just as in the case of the other claims above (and here I must add once more that all this is just my opinion and not necessarily that of any other people associated with me), I cannot help but feel that the exact opposite is true. A religious believer does not have a firm base for their morality: By definition, they base their morality on a set of random beliefs for which there is no evidence.
That is what having faith means. That is what belonging to a specific religion means. If the believer believed only in things that made sense they would believe only that which all reasonable humans can easily agree on. But to be specifically Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus etc. on top of that they must necessarily hold some unreasonable beliefs, beliefs for which there is no good evidence. Because again, if there were such evidence then everybody could agree on them, and they would just be "common sense" or "scientific facts" as opposed to, say, Catholic doctrine.
And here is my problem: If the basis for somebody's morality is just some random, irrational belief, then what guarantees that they will not lose that belief and pick up a different one three days from now? Yes, today they luckily happen to believe that their god told them to be nice, but there is really no evidence that that god exists and no way of knowing its will, so one could just as easily justify the belief that their god told them to stone all unbelievers and to mutilate their own children. Once you have thrown reason and evidence out of the window, every conclusion becomes equally valid.
In reality, of course, most believers would not suddenly turn evil because their real reason for being nice is that they are fundamentally decent people. But that is besides the point when considering whether one needs religion to have a basis for morality. It seems to me at least that those who have reasoned about ethical behaviour instead of randomly grabbing some religious dogma have a much sounder foundation to guide themselves through life.