A good friend of mine, who has been reading some of the recent books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, etc ---the group that is being called the "New Atheists (NA’s)"---recently asked me "Why do they seem so aggressively intense on persuading me that my comforting beliefs are mistaken?" (he is a Christian). He wonders, in effect, "What is the harm of leaving me to my comforting believes, even if you NA's believe I am mistaken?"
My first reaction was surprise, since I have long assumed that truth is the only consideration in religious matters. In that regard, I have been in agreement with the NA's, who have stressed the importance of truth over social or psychological utility.
But on thinking it over more deeply, I realized that my friend's question does not have such a simple answer after all. It requires some in depth analysis. I emerge from this still believing that for me, truth is still of primary importance. However, the answer to the question becomes much less obvious when we consider whether we agnostics and/or atheists or should try to dissuade others from a belief we deem to likely be false.
On that question, I give a qualified "No, in many cases we should not".
But let me proceed with a few considerations:
I think that a great deal of both Dawkins and Harris's polemics are aimed at the social institutions of Christianity and Islam, that I think they correctly perceive as being damaging to humankind at large. This being because the more fanatical factions of these religions become active and influential in trying to dominate society in political issues, lobbying to get their religious positions encoded in the laws of their nations, and in some cases even resorting to violent, terrorist tactics. Of course, in Islam, where there are so many theocracies, the religion has already been made part of the state, and they apparently are more aggressive in trying to spread their religion into laws of other nations.
Now, my friend might correctly point out that Christians are not so inclined to use violent means, terrorism, that is. And this is largely true today (not so much true in the past though).
Evangelicals still seem to be active politically, and seem to want to insist that this is a Christian nation (which it is most certainly not, at least not in a political sense). They are certainly not noted for being proponents of the separation of church and state, a principle I for one hold very dear. In consideration of this, I would suggest that the aggressive attack my friend refers to is a form of self defense, or at least an attempt to persuade religious zealots to be more tolerant of us non-believers.
One also has to ask, to what extent a religious belief is in fact comforting? I wonder if it always is. In the case of Christianity (and I think Islam also), the believer might subscribe to the notion that a great percentage of the human race will be condemned to eternal torment for having beliefs and engaging in practices that are not sufficiently in line with what he or she believes is true. How could one find that comforting, I must ask?
However, I can see where certain aspects of a religion that holds out hope of a better, or even supremely wonderful, life after death, would be comforting. Of course it would, although I don’t recall ever seeing a plausible depiction of what such everlasting existence might be like. Furthermore, surely one of the most hurtful aspects of our existence is that in many or even most cases, justice is not realized. People can do evil deeds and get away with them, often even profiting splendidly by them. Surely it is a wholesome attitude to want such evildoers to have to atone for the misdeeds, and to eventually feel true remorse for having committed them (although the desire for such punishment to be eternal seems to me to be one of the greatest evil desires to have ever been imagined by humans).
I suppose we must, to be fair, turn this around and ask whether non-believers receive some degree of comfort from their non-belief, and that actually tends to induce them to turn from honestly considering whether a particular religion might be true. Indeed, I think that a person’s motives for his or her beliefs often contain some degree of wishful thinking, and I can see where there are comforting and discomforting aspects to both sides of the issue. Indeed, the aforementioned threat of Hell is absent in atheism, and usually in agnosticism as well. So I suppose one could say it was comforting to adopt that position with respect to any religion that espouses the threat of eternal punishment.
I must admit that I think most (but certainly not all) followers of any religion have suspended critical thinking, and that most people the world around seem to just follow what their parents and their indigenous culture told them was true.
Organized religion is arguably usually---not always, of course--- primarily a social group or clan cohesive thing, in my opinion. When Protestants in northern Ireland bomb Catholics, or vice versa, it is not over differences in theology. It is simply a way to group into my our clan versus their clan. This is the aspect of organized religion that I believe is really what the NA’s are mostly protesting so aggressively.
I cannot speak for the NA’s, but I suspect they would largely agree with me, when I say I can respect the views of someone who maintains his religion is actually true. While thinking that he is, on most counts, mistaken.
But let us not forget that there may in fact be some harm done by trying to convince yourself you believe something that you really do not. Not to mention the wasted time of your precious life (assuming, as the NA’s believe, that it may well be all you have) following what may be the many rituals and requirements of a particular organized religion.