I notice that as part of Internet Infidels' Great Debate, Jeffery Jordan tries to rehabilitate pragmatic arguments for belief by appealing to benefits in this life. The chief benefit listed is that studies supposedly show that religious people are happier. But how do they show this? If they're like most social-science studies, they simply ask people whether they're happy or not. If this is true, then what the studies show is not that religion makes people happy, but rather that religion gives people a propensity to tell survey-takers that they're happy.
The difference is obvious enough, but let me drive it home: it seems to be a fairly well-established finding that when asked by a social scientist, the average straight man will claim to have had six sexual partners, and the average straight woman will claim to have had one. Do the math. People lie on social science surveys.
So maybe religions have no positive impact whatsoever on people's state of mind. Maybe religious people, because there is an expectation that they will be happy, are simply inclined to say things they don't really believe.
This, of course, is not the only alternative interpretation of these studies. Maybe people's ideas of happiness are skewed. How many people in the U. S., do you think, have done serious thinking about the nature of happiness? And of those people, how many would you characterize as being such sound philosophical thinkers that you would be willing to accept on faith that their ideas about happiness are right?
Again, drive the point home: we know how to wire up animals' brains to deliver intense jolts of pleasure via electrodes. If given the ability to do so, they will self-administer these jolts to the exclusion of other activities. Would we characterize a person with such a setup as happy? Or, if memory serves, in his Philosophy for Dummies Tom Morris imagines a drug that allows someone to be in some sense contented as they divide their life between gang hit jobs and watching soap operas. Are they happy? Or, there's Robert Nozick's "experience machine," which is supposed to allow all kinds of great experiences without actually doing anything: would you plug in?
These issues aren't easy. Maybe the people in the experience machine aren't happy. Maybe they are, but the thought experiment shows happiness is not the be-all-end-all it's sometimes portrayed as. In any case, I won't trust a survey to answer the question.
Plausibly, people who feel some long-lasting, vaguely pleasurable feeling over the long term because of a false religious belief are like people plugged into Nozick's machine. As Carl Sagan said:
For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.