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.


7 thoughts on “The upsides of religion

  1. I suspect the problem is that you know people who are religious and are nice pleasant people who try to do the right thing.

    But are they doing it in the name of religion or cos it’s just nice to be nice?

    Nice people can be conned too and although their intentions are no doubt noble, doing things in the name of God takes the edge of good deeds in my book,

    1. lindamciver

      My point is not so much that religious people do nice stuff, but that religion itself provides benefits. Organised religion is very good at creating supportive communities and helping people. People on their own can certainly do nice stuff. But when organised groups do good stuff, it’s usually more effective. It would be a shame to say “religion sux” without recognising that there are things religions are really good at.

      1. Oxfam, UNICEF and the like are non-religious charitable organisations. I’d much rather donate to them than a religious-based charity…simply because of the lack of baggage.

        Religion has a long history, and a large part of that involves ‘saving’ people, in particular the needy.

        Call me a cynic ;)

      2. lindamciver

        I agree – for the same reason I don’t donate to the Salvos anymore (if you look at the breakdown of their use of funds, 25% or so was for preaching. I can’t remember the word they used, but that seemed to be what it came down to.). I don’t want to fund the spread of religion. There are innumerable problems with religion as it is commonly practised. But it’s important to recognise the good bits, and for those of us trying to be part of, or even create, secular societies, to try to emulate the good bits, leaving the bad bits behind.

      3. Joe

        Aggressive prosthelytising seems to me a mostly “Christian” thing rather than a “Religion” thing. I’ve never in my life had a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist … … try to open a conversation with me in which they try to convert me.

  2. Joe

    Though I am wholeheartedly atheist I was brought up in a Catholic family.

    Funnily enough, pretty much everyone in the community were “nice pleasant people who try to do the right thing”. You know, just because it is the right thing. I mean sure you can attach the “we do good works in the name of God” as a postfix, but mostly it was just instinctively “we try live good lives and be good to people”, and subsequently “oh and God likes that”.

    At most (for most) their religion served as a reminder and nudge rather than a justification. Like leaving yourself a post-it note on your bathroom mirror.

    The rabid spiritualist or fundamentalist who does good works driven by righteousness or fear of their god seems to me as much a minority figure as the rabid “amoral atheist” who can create justification for any action they can legally get away with. While I know one or two examples of each of those personalities, neither caricature is a friendly or realistic generalisation of the other side of the spiritual fence.

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