Religion is the collection of norms, rites, texts and attributes that a group of people adhere to when they share a common belief. It is a social order that involves a divinity and has been a constant feature of humanity throughout time. Especially in times of widespread woe and fear, such as the global pandemic and natural disasters, religion can soothe, even as its nature of physically bringing people together may prove risky. Even in the best of times, religion is a varied and dynamic structure that is constantly challenged and at the center of debate on its very legitimacy.
Following are three reasons why we should embrace religion, and three reasons why we should let it go.
Arguing for Religion
There’s a reason why it persists.
We humans are not perfect. History will show that letting us run amok won’t lead toward Utopia. However, religion does provide an effective way for most of humanity to work together towards a common goal. For the bulk of history, it was religion that allowed people to unite under shared values, build great things and march humanity forward. It provides a reward and a possible punishment that extends the here and now. For all of us imperfect creatures, religion is a great motivator to do what is right and often not easy. Even when organized religion is forced to adapt to its surroundings, whether because of nature, war or politics, group worship, in some form or another (even virtually), still remains a constant in people’s lives.
It’s better for society.
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, people who are active in religious congregations tend to be happier and more engaged with their communities than those who are inactive or unaffiliated. A previous Pew US-religious-landscape survey also found that 65% of the highly religious people said they made a donation to the poor in the last week (compared with 41% of the “less religious” people surveyed). It appears that members of religious communities are happier than non-believers, in part because they form a society of greater mutual support and care. Religion also extends beyond borders and, solely driven by its overarching belief in compassion, can motivate multi-religious action and community mobilization to help those in need during global pandemics.
It provides meaning.
Life is a search for meaning. We need to know that the day-to-day toil, the highs and lows, and the losing and winning are all for a reason. Otherwise, what’s the point? This “burden of proof” becomes especially hard in times of despair. For example, while the loss of a loved one is a tragedy that we all have to bear, religion equips us to better to deal with such grief. For one thing, it provides a clear plan of action for a chaotic moment. The familiar ceremony of a funeral, wake or Shiva are all procedures that we can lean on in those, otherwise, overwhelming times. But more than that, for believers, religion provides the comfort in a notion that suffering is not random and that they are not alone. It provides an answer, which can be a major help with acceptance. It also provides hope. While the world is collectively suffering from Covid-19 and its variants, searching for religion seems to provide a common thread of hope around the world; a recent survey found that prayer-related internet searches in 75 different countries jumped to their highest level in five years.
Arguing against Religion
Because it had its time.
Anything in nature, be it a person, a company or a society, needs different things in different segments of their growth. A baby needs milk and hugs just as older children need a richer diet, hugs and limits. Starting a country needs revolutionaries, but running it takes administrators. We needed religion to turn humans into societies, but that was 50,000 years ago. We have since developed rules, laws and, in the U.S., the Constitution.
Scriptures gave us rules that addressed the times in which they were written. The Bible declares stoning as the punishment for planting two different crops side by side but says nothing about cyberbullying. While their key values are timeless, most religions are based on texts that don’t address our modern lives and dilemmas, at least not without significant interpretation. It’s therefore not surprising that America’s religious landscape is growing smaller. While 65% of Americans identified as Christian, this number is down 12 percentage points over the last decade.
It can lead to isolation and manipulation.
Religion often plays a role in how we see ourselves, and it can serve as an unyielding measuring stick. Defining oneself according to religion has to do with how willing you are to let go of Earthly distractions in return for eternal rewards. On this scale, an individual’s interpretation of the Scriptures can lead him or her to seclusion, if others don’t understand or relate to it. In addition, avoiding Earthly pleasures requires a strictness (some might even say harshness) that some devoutly religious people can inflict on those around them. For instance, it can be refusing vaccines for religious reasons, or parents denying medical treatment for their kids, or a cult leader using the Bible to justify ungodly acts. In this regard, religion can be too easily used to manipulate people who are in great need. Case in point: Just look at the increasing number of victims who have come forward over recent years to discuss alleged sexual abuse at the hands of their once-trusted religious leaders.
Because letting go of religion isn’t the same as letting go of God.
Religion is governed by man, holy man, but man nonetheless. If you believe God created us, then you need not look any further than our own minds and bodies to get a firsthand impression of his (or her) will. Our entire set of human capabilities enable us to explore the world and life. If we were meant to adhere to strict routines and re-exploration of the same literature, we could have managed with much less brain capacity than what God created for us. While there is sanctity and pureness in accepting and using the natural gifts we received, we don’t need organized religion to dictate to us how to use them. We can still believe in God without rote rituals telling us how to do so.
The Bottom Line: Religion has always been part of humanity for a reason. What we are longing for may be answered by religion better than any other structure. On the other hand, religion, with all its expectations and restrictions, could be dividing us and holding us back. Do you feel organized religion serves a higher meaning?