Why do religions comfort? They comfort because the stories they tell involve divine beings who know everything and who can, often, save us all from the horror of death. We live in a world of intractable and painful moral questions that we feel that we can never resolve; religion says that there are divine beings who know the right answers, and that’s comforting. We miss our loved ones who have died terribly; many religions say that we will one day be reunited with them, and that’s comforting.
I might want to take one step back and ask: Do religions comfort? My experience as a Christian has been more about challenge than comfort, about figuring out how to respond to what I feel to be an unshakable claim on my life. It’s worth remembering that there is no clear picture of an afterlife in the Hebrew Bible, and that’s one reason (among several) while many Jews have always thought that while it might seem cool to be the Chosen People, in reality it might have been better for them if God had chosen someone else. And even for Christians, whose faith is centered on the Resurrection of Jesus, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
I would also note that while most people think that Buddhism is a religion, it typically doesn’t do or have any of the things that Freddie says religion does and has. I can’t now remember who said it, but one scholar of religion claimed that the only thing all religions have in common is that they use candles. That seems right to me.
So “religion” is an intractably fuzzy concept, the many religions of the world do many different things and do them in many different ways, and even within a given religion people may believe and may commit themselves for an astonishing variety of reasons. The whole enterprise, if indeed we can call religion an enterprise, is so fraught with complications that I don’t think there’s anything that can be legitimately said in general about it. It’s like life itself in that respect.
Relatedly: Freddie (like many people, it seems) is critical of the reasons Ayaan Hirsi Ali has cited for her conversion to Christianity. I’m not. My view is that everyone has to start somewhere — she’s very forthright about being a newcomer to all this — and what matters is not where you start but where you end up. One person may seek a bulwark against relativism; another may long for architectural or linguistic or musical beauty; another may crave community. Christian life is a house with many entrances. I became a Christian because I fell head-over-heels for a Christian girl who wouldn’t date me otherwise, so how could I judge anyone else’s reasons for converting? As Rebecca West said, “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive”; and God, as I understand things, is not the judge but the transformer of motives. It’s a how-it-started, how-it’s-going thing, but often in a good way. Or so my experience suggests.