General Question

neonez's avatar

Is religion as bad for society as many athiests says it is?

Asked by neonez (389points) January 20th, 2008

I’m sorry for the vague-ish question but i really didn’t know how else to put it. I’m an atheist personally and I’d like to hear the other side of the story. So what benefits do religions have on our society as a whole?

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22 Answers

hossman's avatar

Without going to great lengths, I’d say that everybody believes in something. Religion is one form of that. Some people treat politics, or philosophy, or money, or culture, or sports, as their religion. Atheism itself is the religion of some. Each person, and thus in the aggregate, society as a whole, derives some benefit, it differs from person to person. An abuse of any of these can create harm to the individual and society.

aaronblohowiak's avatar

One of the biggest benefits of OR is organizing good works (soup kitchens, clothing drives, et cetera.) This is a double-edged sword as ‘good’ according to many ORs includes abstinence-only sex education. OR in the past was responsible for increasing literacy and promoting the arts (chapels painting, stained glass, church choir.)

hossman’s answer is at best misleading. Atheism is not a religion. Athiesm lacks an organized set of rituals, beliefs in the supernatural and cultural trappings that set religion apart from philosophy in the sociological perspective. Other definitions of religion require supernatural agency or metaphysical beliefs.

For the deeply cynical among us, organized religion helps keep the lower classes from revolting—if salvation in the hereafter is promised, then the suffering in this life is tolerable or even righteous. In earlier times, this was further enhanced by the story that the ruling class was chosen by the divine.

hossman's avatar

aaron’s answer is, at best, misleading.

A religion is a set of common beliefs and practices generally held by a group of people, often codified as prayer, ritual, and religious law.

A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion. American Heritage Dictionary

“The equal toleration of all religions… is the same thing as atheism.” [Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, 1885]

A particular system of belief or worship. Kernerman English Multilingual Dictionary

A cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith. Merriam-Webster Dictionary

While it may suit aaron’s agenda to focus on “organized religion,” that is not the question you asked. Religion is a broader concept than organized religion.

As the existence/nonexistence of any supernatural power cannot be proved or disproved, any belief regarding the existence or nonexistence of a supernatural power is inherently a matter of faith. Islam believes in Allah, Judaism and Christianity believe in God, other religions have their own powers, atheists BELIEVE there is no supernatural power. Atheism is as much a matter of belief and faith as any other position regarding the existence of a supernatural power. Atheism fits all the definitions of religion provided above.

Now you can, of course, create a definition of religion that excludes atheism. That is the same sort of process that is scorned by many atheists, the creation of a belief system that excludes the beliefs of others. As neither atheists nor the practitioner of any other religion can prove empirically their own correctness, the superiority expressed by some atheists and practitioners of various other religions is misplaced. If some atheists could see their own attitudes from the outside, they would realize they create the same sort of fanaticism and self-righteousness they attribute to other religions.

neonez's avatar

For me personally being an atheist means that I only believe in something if i have a reason to i.e. evidence. Regardless, this post was not to define the word religion. It was created to gain some insight on benefits of the major religions which all are organized due to necessity. Please don’t turn this into a useless flame war.

hossman's avatar

The position (for lack of a less argumentative term) you describe, neonez, seems to be closer to the common definitions of agnosticism than atheism.

No flame intended.

To more closely address your question, in addition to the benefits mentioned above, frequently religion is at the forefront of addressing various political and social issues. As aaron mentioned, addressing poverty and hunger is an important part of many religions. Caring for the poor is especially important to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as their various sacred texts repeatedly command their adherents to do so. Issues that religion has played a pivotal role in include slavery, education, as well as class, ethnic and economic equality. Religion has also been instrumental in its patronage of learning and the arts.

aaronblohowiak's avatar

Ah yes, as hossman alluded to the role of religion in the abolition of slavery is not to be overlooked. Further, for their population, the Quakers have been quite disproportionately effective in the political arena. Unfortunately, it appears that the evangelicals hold that title for now.

Regarding economic equality, I advise you to look into the communal farming towns organized by catholic priests in central America that were excommunicated by the pope after failing to enforce traditional schemes of ownership (the secular plantation owners couldnt compete with their quality and prices so they had the politicos back home put pressure on the church..)

I disagree that the major religions are “all… organized due to necessity”; one need look no further than hinduism. The abrahamic faiths tend to be centralized (with the exception of the American evangelicals,) wheras the so-called karmic or dharmic faiths tend to be decentralized (or whose centralization does not last very long.) One can argue that Islam is not united under a Caliph and so is not centralized, but I digress.

(hossman, i think our views of agnosticism, athiesm, and religion are quite disparate. i acknowledge that my definitions of these terms are held by the minority, but perhaps in another venue i could elaborate on why i find them more useful.)

El_Cadejo's avatar

religion influenced a bunch of good things to happen, like war for example. Oh yes religion is such a wonderful thing.

(hossman im sorry but i really cant agree with you saying that atheism is a religion. I do not BELIEVE in anything. I do however have faith. I have faith in myself. But i would hardly call this any sort of religion.)

hossman's avatar

If by faith in yourself, you mean confidence, I don’t think that would qualify as a religion. If by faith in yourself, you mean a gnostic-like belief that you can attain divinity, or that all problems are solvable through your own attainment of knowledge, I’d say that could qualify as a religion.

War has many causes. Although religion is frequently given as an excuse for war, or used to motivate the masses to go to war, I’d argue it is less often the actual reason for war. Although the Crusades used religion as an excuse, the true reasons for those wars had more to do with land, power, and a need to occupy the progeny of feudal lords than it did with religion. It is frequently difficult to distinguish between religious and secular motivations because religious and secular power so often go hand in hand. The attempt to separate the two is modern and certainly not attempted even today in much of the world.

Off the top of my head, I can’t recall any war that was fought for purely religious reasons, perhaps you can suggest one. To condemn all religion because there are historical examples when religion was an excuse for war seems to be an exaggeration. Would we extend that to other excuses and causes of war? The Civil War was at least partially fought to bring freedom to African Americans. Shall we then condemn free African-Americans, as a war was fought in their name? It could be argued World War II was fought to preserve democracy against fascism and nationalism. Shall we condemn democracy? I’d suggest most wars are fought for money and power, thus, let us live our lives in enforced poverty, powerless, lest we be contaminated. I’m betting there’s been a few wars motivated by sex (at least some skirmishes, Viking raiders come to mind), let us all remain celibate. The Greeks would have us believe the Trojan War was fought for love, shall we reject love? The Revolutionary War was fought for democracy and freedom from monarchy, shall we condemn our essential freedoms? If we knew the truth, I’m betting quite a few wars were fought out of sheer boredom, or some leader’s need to get out of the house, what then shall we condemn?

Religion, or at least practitioners of religion, have been instrumental in ending many wars. Why does religion only get credit for starting them?

As for atheism not being a religion, until you can empirically prove to me that God does NOT exist, then you are making a statement of faith in what you cannot tangibly experience or prove. That is faith. That is religion. Agnosticism is closer to not being a religion, if the particular flavor of agnosticism being practiced is a general refusal to consider the question of whether God exists. Perhaps you are agnostic and not atheist, but making the statement God does not exist is inherently theological dogma.

El_Cadejo's avatar

i dont want to get to much into this because its not attending to the question. But Man created god. Not the other way around. Man created god to help him with things he simply did not understand. It was a way to explain why natural things happen. A way to keep everyone in line. That is all.

That is why i can simply say god does not exist and it not be some question of beliving he does or doesnt. God is nothing more than a fairy tale made up to herd the masses.

smart1979's avatar

There is a good and bad side to everything. I was raised a Christian myself, and it’s kind of odd to see posts like the one above me who declare that I believe in fairy tales – I have never and will not ever attack anyone for their religious beliefs, whether they are different than mine, or if they have none.

The way I see it, there‚Äôs nothing wrong with having a little faith. I’m not going to avoid hospitals because God is going to cure me of any sickness, and I’m not going to ignore the environment because I think God will fix it, but having faith does give me and many others hope.

To answer the question, religion can be bad for societies, but can also be good for them. Religion has started wars and ended them, and has made many people friends and many people enemies.

hossman's avatar

uberbatman: OK, that’s your opinion. You cannot prove Man created God any more than I can prove God created Man. You believe it’s a fairy tale, the majority of the world does not. You are trying to state as fact what is really belief. That is not intellectually honest, your believing it does not make it so. It is not your opinion that is objectionable, it is your attempt to label opinion as fact. Unless you’re going to demonstrate to me in empirical proof that God does not exist, which great minds have been unable to do since the beginning of time. You’d be the first.

I’d have to agree with smart that it is curious to see someone label faiths held by millions of people as a “fairy tale.” It seems to me to be hypocritical and rhetorically anemic to simply ridicule a competing idea rather than meeting it squarely as a debatable issue. I find it mildly ethnocentric and bigoted of you to label a belief in God, held by the majority of humanity, as a “fairy tale.” This is not meant to be a flame or insult, I do not think this is deliberate on your part, I merely bring it to your attention, as it may not be conscious on your part. Perhaps it is your belief that is misguided. To try to assume some sort of intellectual superiority based on what you choose to believe is the very sort of conduct that you decry has led to religion’s involvement in war. Your belief is not a weakness you need to be defensive about, you are not conceding a point by acknowledging it is your belief. But you do your position no favors by attacking the position of others, not with ideas, but labels.

Can you not see the glaring logical assumption you make in your post, uberbatman? For the sake of argument, I will accept your belief, your own religious mantra that Man invented all of the various theologies and beliefs about God, that not a single one of Man’s religions is true. That still does not mean God does not exist. The two concepts are not logically linked. Even if no man has perceived God correctly, that does not mean God does not exist.

uberbatman, I heartily recommend to you the works of Professor Antony Flew, historically one of the foremost atheist academics, who has concluded that atheism is inherently a religious belief, that a logical application of reason to known fact inescapably leads an intellectually honest mind to conclude the universe was intelligently designed, and his studies have compelled him to adopt deism, meaning that he believes in the existence of an intelligent Power, although he does not believe in any particular faith’s revelation of that Power, nor does he believe it is necessarily possible for Man to perceive God. An excellent interview with Flew is here:

I have extensively studied these issues, and I believe Professor Flew is correct that applying the scientific method to known fact and observable phenomena leads to deism being a better rational explanation of the universe than atheism, while the various forms of theism require additional beliefs not necessary to this analysis. While my own beliefs do go farther to a particular faith, I believe that a minimum of deism, rather than atheism or theism, is a necessary result of application of the scientific method. In fact, I would admit that Professor Flew’s position is, on a purely logical and scientific level, logically more supportable than my own, but I find my own more satisfactory to me personally when spiritual factors are weighed.

El_Cadejo's avatar

I apoligize to anyone i offended by my last post. That was not my intention. Sorry.

hossman's avatar

I doubted it was. You’ve been very fair and level-headed in the past. Your beliefs are as valid as mine.

aaronblohowiak's avatar

Hossman, would you agree then that agnosticism is not a religion?

hossman's avatar

I can’t really justify the labels and definitions put on atheism, agnosticism, or any religion for that matter, as they of course are terms for spectrums of practices as varied as the individuals that practice them. As an example, my uncle lives in a town with a population of about 13,000 that has a dozen different Baptist congregations, no two of which probably agree on what “Baptist” means.

I would say that my understanding of the classic definitions of agnosticism, and my personal definition, is that “agnosticism” is derived from the Greek words “a,” meaning “without,” and “gnosticism,” meaning knowledge, and thus “agnosticism” is the belief that the answer to the question of whether a Divine Power exists is empirically unknowable. By that definition, I guess I’d have to call myself an agnostic, although I am a Christian, and as a matter of faith believe that God exists, however, I agree that this is purely an assertion of faith, and is incapable of empirical proof. That does not, however, make that belief false, any more than the inability of atheism to prove God does not exist proves atheism is false.

I do believe that there is quite a bit of what a lawyer would call circumstantial evidence that some Intelligent Power, not necessarily a Divine Power, in some manner either created the universe OR (not necessarily AND) currently controls its design and operation. That is not the same as saying God or any particular god exists now. It is that sort of evidence that is leading more and more formerly atheistic academics to conclude, through an application of the scientific method, that there was or is some Intelligent Design.

Atheism, since it asserts God does NOT exist, is as much a matter of faith as any religion, as it makes an assertion of the unprovable. Agnosticism, by saying the question is unknowable, in my opinion, does not make an assertion of faith, but is rather a statement of fact. Understand, however, that my definition of agnosticism inherently does not preclude belief in any religion, but rather recognizes that faith does not need proof.

I do find it amusing, and I hope God does as well, that Man has the presumption to think God needs to be proven. God either is or isn’t, and whatever God is, God is completely unaffected by our attempts to define God. If my God was small enough for me to understand, God wouldn’t be big enough to be the God I need.

There is a big difference between knowing what one believes and knowing what one knows. I don’t find agnosticism contradictory to religion at all. Just because I admit what I cannot know, does not mean I doubt what I believe. Perhaps the only way we could “know” God exists is to be divine ourselves, as perhaps our flawed minds cannot possibly conceive the concept of God.

For a great analogy (and a really good read) I recommend E.A. Abbott’s Flatland.

aaronblohowiak's avatar

@hossman, there is a lot of what you wrote that i agree with (certainly, about reading flatland..)

To me, a belief is any cognitive content that one holds to be true. Of course, this complicates and confounds my interpretation of your post. It seems that you use ‘belief’ to mean a postulate that one assumes to be true but does not assert as verifiable fact. Is this accurate?

I find your definition of religion to be too general and encompassing for my liking, but the essential points that you bring forth have been useful to think about.

One of the issues i have with athiesm is the problem of First Cause “primum movens” which you can read a little bit about at wikipedia

hossman's avatar

Your definition of “belief” would be more general than mine, as my definition of belief excludes all matters that may empirically be proven to be true. If it can be proven, then it is a fact and faith no longer applies, thus it is no longer a matter of belief. Whether it may be asserted as verifiable fact is irrelevant, whether it is provable as verifiable fact is. It also is not a matter to be “assumed” as true, it is a matter “believed” to be true. Assumption bears a connotation of a self-deception as to whether the matter is factual, belief does not.

Yes, my definition of religion is a very general definition, as it would include much of what others refer to as science. I believe much of what is called science is in fact as much a religious belief as Buddhism. Much of theoretical physics would qualify as a religion by my definition, and I find adherents to those theories as devout and monotheistic as the most orthodox religionists. If you would like a good example of a religious fanatic, I would suggest Michael Sherman, who wishes to impose his beliefs upon everyone. Evolutionism is, in my view, as much a religion as Creationism, as neither is provable. Many environmentalists and global warming adherents bear the same hallmarks of religious fervor as any Jehovah’s Witness, as they too zealously advocate one viewpoint to the exclusion of all others without any verifiable fact in support, but merely accepting conjecture and acting in faith on a system of beliefs.

Partisan politics can be a religion, so can professional sports. Celebrity worship fits my definition of religion. What most people view as religion would better be defined as “organized religion,” which is the traditional phrase, although I don’t believe organized to be the best adjective to be used in that context.

aaronblohowiak's avatar

not that i understand your definitions, i see where you are coming from more clearly.

I disagree, but this is a matter of 100 ways to shave a cat. The thing you mean when you say religion is something i can get a hold on and understand… I would argue that it is not only “organized” religion that would fit under my model of belief, faith, fact and religion. this is, of course, murky water for language and debate.

I think we have, to the extent that is fit for such a forum, addressed the original poster’s question.

steelmarket's avatar

Be careful when you talk about believing in only what can be proven empirically. The very nature of our universe is hotly debated by astronomers and cosmologists, and some of their theories may be true but unprovable (brane theory, some string theories). Unprovable in that we could never muster the needed energy to reproduce the circumstances at all, much less repeatably, or the time to test them would exceed the duration of the entire universe. These scientists are themselves debating whether you can call an idea a theory if it can never be tested (even if it is, ultimately, true). To paraphrase one of them, “The Scientist has scaled the tallest mountain, only to find the Theologian already sitting at the summit”.

Ron_C's avatar

A little religion is probably innocuous, a deep believe is extremely harmful.

Poser's avatar

@Ron_C—So you’re saying that it’s okay to believe in God, just so long as you don’t believe too much?

Ron_C's avatar

@Poser That about sums it up. Moderation in all things is the best way to live a happy and fruitful life. I think Ben Franklin said something like that.

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