I am negative about religion. Faith to me is no more than 'blind-acceptance' of fantasy. I think we should discard 'faith' nonsense during adolescence at the time we start reading sad existentialist novels by Camus and Sartre. Move on to better things. I also agree with Nietzsche: Religious belief makes it too easy. You don't have to think if you have blind faith in the fantastic. Belief in Jesus alone guarantees salvation.
So why do people believe? This is a positive question. Why accept beliefs you can never hope to falsify?
One answer, provided in the 28 January 2006 NewScientist (subscription only), uses evolutionary biology. Religion has functional advantages, gives 'structure to the universe', is an 'opiate of the masses' (one feels better or is resigned to life), enforces a moral code that promotes 'social order' and gives a sense of 'group'.
People who are religious are less ill and suffer less mental illness (apart from their religious views!). Religion provides a 'social glue' by establishing rituals, like aerobic exercise, that release abundant endorphins into the brain, flooding the brain as endogenous opiates do, making people happy and 'tuning-up' the immune system.
These endorphins also reduce 'free-rider' issues in society at large. Religion helps resolve intractable Prisoner Dilemmas by promoting trust - and by doing so promotes trade. While monkeys may groom each other to create trust, belief in Jesus helps promote a common moral code and allows large groups to bond. Theology provides the 'stick' and the 'carrot' that makes dullards have 'faith'.
The religious beliefs themselves are nonsense but so, anyway, are 80% of anti-depressant drugs that have beneficial effects as placebos. Placebos release endorphins as does belief in Jesus and, presumably, Santa Claus. Anticipating relief - a 'kissing cousin to expectation', according to the New Scientist, makes it happen. But prayer only works if you do it - the prayers of others have zilch effect.
I come pretty close to agreeing with William S. Burroughs, as quoted in the book by Daniel Odier, The Job. 'To travel in space you must leave the old verbal garbage behind: God talk, mother talk, love talk, party talk. You must learn to exist with no religion, no country, no allies. You must learn to live alone in silence. Anyone who prays in space is not there'.
This can be a disturbing, though liberating idea. But I understand too why many people need to be deluded by religion and the social and personal advantages stemming from such views.
Update: D.C. Dennett's, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, takes up the themes in this note though from a dispassionate philosophical perspective. The thesis: Religion should be subject to argument and scrutiny using psychology, neuroscience, genetics, soicial and cultural history. Children should be taught about the harm and good faith has done both as an inspiration for social reform and altruism and as slogans that can inspire hatreds.