So today I had a friend Facebook message me this question, “Is religion harmful or beneficial to our society?” He is doing this for a project. Instead of trying to email him an answer on Facebook I decided to hash it out on the blog…so this is kind of last minute!
First, I will attempt to define religion from a few different viewpoints.
Immanuel Kant, father of modern philosophy, said, “Religion is the recognition of all our duties as divine commands.”
E.B. Taylor said religion is “Belief in spiritual things.”
Finally, Nietzsche famously said, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
From Kant we get that religion is a realization of each person’s moral duties to a deity’s commands, which helps there be order and civility in society overall. Taylor gives us such a wide spectrum that anything can be considered spiritual.
Nietzsche’s statement that God is dead moves us towards a nihilism or atheist worldview where religion is pointless and harmful.
An anthropological viewpoint on religion is difficult to come up with a concise definition but Nanda and Varms (2010) state that “all religions share at least six common characteristics” (290).
2. Extensive use of symbols and symbolism
3. Religions propose the existence of beings, powers, states, places, and qualities that are not scientifically measurable
4. Rituals and specific means of expression for addressing the supernatural
5. Experts in the practice of that particular religion
6. All religions are subject to change.
With those understandings under our belt I can begin to answer the original question. It is my opinion that religion is beneficial to society, particularly the Christian religion, when it is understood the way James explained it: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”- James 1:27.
Historically, Christians have known for their social actions such as starting hospitals, soup kitchens, care for the widows, poor, and elderly. See these PBS articles from Bible scholars for more information.
Today, it might be argued that religion is a private matter and that conflict over it is a sign of intolerance or not being able to accept people with other beliefs: causing it to be harmful. While it is true in some respects, we must also be willing to transform the platform we stand on to promote our beliefs and turn it into a table for people of other beliefs to sit at for discussion that is respectful and done to gain understanding about one another. Whenever any religion is hijacked by people who use it to do violence, disengage from others, and violate basic human rights then religion is being harmful.
However, the benefits of religion are numerous. Here are some examples from Rodney Stark’s book America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists:
– At all ages, religious people are much less likely to commit crimes.
– Religious Americans are far more likely to contribute even to secular charities, to volunteer their time to socially beneficial programs, and to be active in civic affairs.
– Religious husbands are substantially less likely to abuse their wives or children.
These are only a few examples, but I think that they are very important in the search for understanding the benefits of religion to our society. It has been my experience that my religious convictions have encouraged me to be more socially conscious, compassionate, and concerned for others. If religion is working towards this sacrificial and others-focused steps then that will be good. We need to work through our worldviews rather than around them and dialogue with one another.
Lastly, People of all religious backgrounds must work together to secure the religious liberties of one another. If one group is singled out it won’t be long before all the others are.
Niemöller’s quotation rings true:
First they came for the Socialists
, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.
Let us speak out, show love, and learn about one another!
Nanda, Serena and Richard L. Warms, Eds. “Cultural Anthropology, 10th Edition.” Wadsworth. Belmont. 2011.
Stark, Rodney. “America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists.” Templeton Press. Conshohocken, PA. 2012.