THERE ARE AT LEAST TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY

The Perspective on Religion: Is it Good or Bad for Society?

By DIMITRIS XYGALATAS
 Getty images: Joe Raedle
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Religion is a universal human experience. All societies, past and present, have a set of shared beliefs and practices related to the supernatural. For millions of people around the world, religion is paramount to their individual and collective identity, and an important factor in how they live their lives. But not everyone agrees that this is best for society.
Here are three reasons why religion is good for society and three more reasons why it is bad.

 

Religion is good for society

 

Religion motivates people to do the right thing

All major religions are preoccupied with morality, and all encourage people to be more righteous. Whether it is through providing inspiration, the promise of rewards in the afterlife, or the threat of punishment, religion is a powerful social force. Great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Desmond Tutu, were all empowered by their faith to help those in need and stand up to injustice. Through their actions, they managed to change cultural attitudes, put a stop to oppressive governmental policies, and give voice to the underprivileged. Inspired by religion, these leaders, and many more like them, improved the lives of millions and changed the modern world for the better.

And even if religion does not inspire such grand contributions to society, it still makes a difference on a smaller scale. After all, religion provides comfort and meaning to individuals by instilling within them an outlook on life that is bigger than their day-to-day challenges or hardships.

 

Religion has inspired great cultural achievements

Some of humankind’s highest forms of expression have been inspired by religion. The pyramids in Egypt, the Parthenon in Greece, the Taj Mahal in India, and so many other architectural wonders were built as religious monuments. Bach’s compositions were written as religious hymns. And Michelangelo’s masterpieces depict religious scenes. Centuries later, these masterpieces continue to be sources of awe and inspiration, not just for believers but for all of humanity, adding richness and meaning to the world at large.

 

Religion promotes social cohesion

One of religion’s most important functions is that it acts as social glue. Religious beliefs provide a sense of shared meaning. Moreover, religious rituals bring people together, allowing them to socialize, forget about their problems, and feel part of something greater than themselves. Anthropological studies show that participation in religious events increases group bonding and promotes prosocial behaviors. Through this ability to promote cooperation, religion has been instrumental in holding human societies together and contributed to the rise of human civilization.

 

Religion is bad for society

 

Religion promotes prejudice

While religion may foster prosocial behavior, it is only towards other members of the same religious group. At the same time, it also promotes prejudice and suspicion towards outsiders. Martin Luther, credited as the founder of Protestantism, called for the extermination of the Jewish people because of their religious beliefs, a view that has been shared by many Christians and Muslims for centuries.

By cultivating arbitrary moral standards, religion often leads to the discrimination or scapegoating of large parts of the population. This is why, in many countries, women are treated as second-class citizens, homosexuals fear for their lives, and atheists face widespread prejudice.

 

Religion often leads to atrocities

Some of the most violent crimes in human history have been motivated by religious fanaticism. From the Crusades and the Holy Inquisition to the September 11th attacks, religion can often fuel violence, war, and massacres. Indeed, psychological studies show that people are more likely to justify acts of violence and aggression when they are provided with a religious justification.

 

Religion is the opium of the people

Religion privileges blind faith and obedience over reason and critical thinking. This promotes ignorance or denialism on scientific issues and hinders scientific progress. By promising rewards in another life, religion distracts people from the problems they face in the life they are actually living. That makes it a dangerous tool in the hands of religious and political elites, who use it to maintain their privileged status or to convince others to sacrifice their lives by drinking Kool-Aid, as it happened in 1978 in Guyana, when 900 members of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple committed mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced juice. While millions of believers live in poverty, and some even agree to wear suicide vests, religious leaders tend to enjoy a worry-free life of wealth and luxury.

 

Bottom line: Religion has been with us since the dawn of humanity. Deeply linked to identity, morality, and many of the things that matter to us the most, it is a powerful motivator of human behavior, for better or for worse. It can bring out the best and worse in people, unite and divide them like nothing else.

 

An original version of this article appeared in SAPIENS, a publication that aims to transform how the public understands anthropology. The content has been adapted by the author to fit The Perspective’s Big Debate format.
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