Religion’s Usefulness

That religion is somehow essential to order in the world is a commonplace opinion, yet it is mistaken. Western Europe and Scandinavia have already become post-Christian regions of the world, and they boast the highest rankings on the human development index and other measures of quality of life. Indeed countries like Sweden, Norway, France, the Netherlands, and Germany are among the most non-religious countries in the world – that is not to say “atheistic” because large portions of their populations believe in some sort life force. Nonetheless, the proportion of people who follow an established orthodoxy is declining and already is the minority.

If religion was necessary for social health and cohesiveness, we should expect the nations of Western Europe to be some of the worst off in the world. However, the opposite is the case. And the poorest, least educated, and most unstable countries in the world are unwaveringly religious. Leaving aside questions about causation or correlation, one can readily grasp the fact that having a religious population does not guarantee a society’s health.

One must also ask these questions when faced with the statement that religion is of utility in our modern world: how useful is it that millions of Muslims believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom? How useful has the Islamic world’s treatment women and sexual minorities been over the centuries? How useful is it that the Catholic Church preaches the sinfulness of condom use in African countries devastated by HIV/AIDS? How useful is the practice of faith-healing to the exclusion of medical treatment? How useful has the sexual neurosis of the three largest monotheistic faiths been these past two millenniums? How useful is it that fundamentalist Christians are working towards bringing about the extinction of the human species by supporting wars in the Middle East and knocking down the wall of separation between church and state? These are just some of the few questions that need to be addressed when arguing for religion’s usefulness.

Lastly, the argument that religion is useful is not an argument for its truthfulness. Imagine I created a religion that commanded that everyone be non-violent and compassionate, and that they should learn about the sciences and humanities to the best of their abilities, and that if they failed to do that, they would spend eternity suffering at the hands of a demonic centaur named Winston. I would be on firm intellectual ground in saying we would be living in a much better world than we live in today if billions of people followed this religion. Is that any argument that Winston, the demonic centaur, is real? Not at all.

There are tools for figuring out what constitutes a moral action that do not rely upon self-deception, ignorance, superstition, and dogmatism. Those tools are in our brains: humaneness, critical thinking, rationality, and skeptical inquiry. No one needs to believe anything on insufficient evidence to live a fulfilling and meaningful life. We can either have a twenty-first century conversation on morality availing ourselves to all the tools of knowledge, or we can constrain ourselves to deducing nostrums from the sacred texts of ancient tribes. We need to make sure that our conversations on morality are open-minded and open-ended, or we face further balkanization of our world. Too much of the world’s suffering is derived from people who thought they had found the precise dogma that would bring about the millennium.

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~ by jsacc001 on February 21, 2009.

One Response to “Religion’s Usefulness”

  1. People get confused and end up associating so many things with religions that aren’t necessarily religious. It’s too bad!

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