The upsides of religion

I am an atheist. The concept of a loving, all-powerful God is not something I can accept as I look around and see the most appalling suffering all over the world. Where I differ from famous atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitches, however, is where they draw a thick, black line – religion and everything bad on one side, science and everything good on the other. I wish life was really so clear cut!

Religion has a lot to offer, and those who would create a happily secular society must recognise the positives – they are at the heart of the ongoing success of religion, and in many ways at the heart of our societies.

Religions are a focal point of community. (I will mostly use Christian groups as examples here, because I am more familiar with them, but the tenets apply very firmly to all religions that I know of.) Churches provide an instant point of welcome to newcomers in a neighbourhood. Many refugees arriving in Australia find themselves drawn to the heart of a religious community, provided with food, friendship and all manner of assistance.

Studies in the USA have shown that people who identify as religious (independent of which religion) are more charitable, at least in the financial sense of the word. They donate  substantially more to charity, on average, than those who identify as atheist or agnostic. They are also more likely to donate their time and energy, volunteering in all sorts of benevolent capacities.

These are averages, of course – I know atheists who volunteer, and Christians who don’t.  There are good people and bad in all circles of life, and in all groups. But it makes sense that to claim membership of a group that has charity as one of its central tenets (as most, if not all, religions do) increases the likelihood of a person being actively charitable.

Many atheists choose to throw the baby out with the bath water. There is a militant tendency to declare religion to be close minded, intolerant, and the root of all evil. Which is interestingly ironic as it is an impressively close minded and intolerant point of view. There are certainly religious groups that use their religions to justify fatwas, pogroms, or simply mindless discrimination, but these are the loud minority. If you listen closely and impartially to public debate you quickly discover that religious groups are among the loudest supporters of, for example, gay marriage, social justice, and racial and gender equality. Loud and visible on the far right of politics, religion is equally vocal, but perhaps less newsworthy, on the liberal left.

Religion has always played a strong role in social justice. While particular sects have sometimes been associated with the elevation of a chosen few, many religious explicitly champion social justice and pledge themselves to help the poor and underprivileged. Such organisations are often the ones who shelter the homeless, feed the hungry and clothe the needy. This is not surprising. All religions that I know of have this kind of charity as one of their central tenets. It’s a ‘there but for the grace of God’ kind of thing. Religions counsel against hubris, arrogance and selfishness. While religious people don’t always put this into practice perfectly, I suspect this is more of a human failing than a religious one.

It is foolish, naive, and indeed intolerant and discriminatory to declare that religions are wholly negative. We can learn a lot from the charitable and community-building work of religions the world over.


Have you been offered help recently, only to refuse automatically with a “No, I’m fine thanks,”  “I’m ok, I can manage,” or some similar, knee-jerk reaction?

I sometimes even find myself getting cranky about offers of help, against my will and my better judgement, as if the suggestion that I could use a little help carries with it an implication that I can’t cope on my own.

The very words are telling. “I can manage…” “I’m fine…” Yet nobody said I couldn’t manage, or that I wasn’t fine. They merely offered to help. The best advice we ever received as new parents was “when someone offers you help, take it!!!” And yet I rarely, if ever, managed to put those words into practice. Even when my husband shattered his collarbone and was out of action for weeks on end when our oldest was just 8 months old, I still found it difficult, if not impossible, to accept help from anyone – much less ask for it.

When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors.

The Beatles, Help!

As I get older, I am beginning to recognise that accepting an offer of help can be almost as much a charitable act as the offer itself. When we accept someone’s help we become a little closer to them, and allow them to get a little closer to us. The very acceptance of the offer contains an implicit respect for their skills and abilities. In saying yes, we are also saying “You have something to offer me, and I accept your role in my life.”

In contrast when we say “No,” we are saying “I am independent, I don’t need you, and I don’t want your help.”

Being independent is held up in Western society as the pinnacle of personal achievement. We are proudly independent.  We push our children to be independent. Those who are dependent attract pity or even sneers. While I accept the value of being self-reliant, I think we take the concept too far, and isolate ourselves in our eagerness to be seen to be coping.

The old saying “it takes a village to raise a child” doesn’t go far enough. I believe it takes a village to stay sane, to be human – to have a community. In helping each other we create a complex web of interaction and, yes, interdependence, that is far stronger than a single thread standing alone. That web is remarkably sustaining. It can support us in times of trauma, and allow us to support others.

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Bill Withers, Lean on me.

Accepting help from someone is not an admission that we can’t cope. It’s a way of building community. It makes it easier for others to ask us for help in the future. My instinct is to wait until I have hit the wall before asking for help. Yet there are no prizes for going it alone. No medals for complete independence. If I accept help in the first place, I know that I am less likely to hit the wall in the long run.

We don’t lose by accepting offers of help. I think we actually lose a lot more by refusing them.