Religion is a universal human experience. All societies, past and present, have some sort of shared beliefs and practices related (to some degree) 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; faith often plays an important role when helping to deal with life’s traumas. But not everyone agrees that religion is best for society.
Here are three reasons why religion is good for society and three more reasons why it may not be as good as we think.
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 can be a powerful social force. Great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg 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 (or sexist government policies, in the case of Ruth) 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 always inspire such grand contributions to society, it still can make a difference on a smaller scale. After all, religion provides comfort and meaning to many by instilling within them an outlook on life that is bigger than their day-to-day challenges or hardships. For instance, there was a 24% increase in the number of Americans turning to religious faith since the coronavirus pandemic began.
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. What’s more, 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 to many people. Moreover, religious rituals bring people together, allowing them to socialize, forget about their problems to a certain degree, and feel part of something greater than themselves. During global coronavirus lockdowns, people felt comforted that they could still turn to their religious communities, even on Zoom. Doing so has enabled otherwise isolated people to stay connected and spiritual. 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 has contributed to the rise of human civilization.
Religion is bad for society
Religion promotes prejudice
While religion may foster prosocial behavior, it tends to be towards other members of the same religious group. At the same time, it has been known to promote 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 has often led 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. Let’s not forget the Taliban’s religious extremism, which has put a nation of women at risk and in danger throughout Afghanistan (Malala being the exception). 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
Some people think that religion privileges blind faith and obedience over reason and critical thinking. This line of thinking can promote ignorance or denialism on scientific issues and can hinder scientific progress. By promising rewards in another life, religion can also distract people from the problems they face in the life they are actually living. That makes religion a dangerous tool in the hands of certain religious and political elites, who may use it to maintain their privileged status or to convince others to sacrifice their lives.
Remember what happened in 1978 in Guyana, when 900 members of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple committed mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced juice? Or David Koresh’s Branch Davidians’ cult in Waco, Texas, which also ended in disaster? In these and other extreme cases, believers may live in poverty, risk their lives by trusting others’ questionable judgment or even agree to wear suicide vests. All the while, their religious leaders tend to enjoy a worry-free life of wealth and luxury.
The 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. Do you think religion brings out the best or worst in people? Does it unite or divide society?