The Positive Aspects of Organized Religion

The+evolution+of+religion_e46f59_4867527It’s easy enough to write about what’s wrong with an ideology you disagree with. But since the end goal of communication should be…well, communion, it’s also beneficial to discuss the good and see what we can learn from it, even if it’s difficult to accept that a competing viewpoint has merit.

There’s another challenge when trying to write about a very popular religion like Christianity that has so many different variations. I could easily praise one form for something that others would consider heresy. Call out one group of Christians for bad behavior, and all the others will rush in to castigate you for using a “straw man” argument…by using another fallacy: “Those people aren’t true Christians!” (If someone praises an aspect of Christianity that you, as a True Christian, think is bad, you have two reasonable options: either consider how you might learn from their viewpoint…or suck it up and go back to your little cult.)

So what do organized religions have to offer?

They excel at forming tightly-knit communities. Of course, in many churches this only extends to the people who conform to the acceptable version of the religion. But there are plenty of more liberal churches, notably Unitarians, that love and accept people as they are. I visited a Unitarian Universalist church a few times recently and even though I didn’t really know anyone there, I enjoyed being around them. They are genuinely caring, and conversations focus on what people have in common, not on highlighting differences.

They are great for inspiring hope. As long as you stay clear of the really anti-human versions (like Calvinism), many moderate religions offer hope for a greater purpose and meaning beyond this beautiful but often painful and chaotic world. Hope is a powerful thing, and if you can only find it in a certain religion, then by all means stay in that religion. It’s entirely possible to find meaning and hope outside of religion, but that may be more difficult, if only because it’s often a more lonely road.

They have the power to motivate large numbers of people. This power can be used for tremendous good, or for evil like the time American Christians en masse used hungry children as bargaining chips in order to force an organization to discriminate against gay people. When a religion focuses its power on helping unfortunate people, instead of earning money or enforcing how it thinks the world should be, it can achieve great things.

For several days I’ve been trying to think of more good things about religion, and I’ve realized that there isn’t much it can offer that’s unique to it. I could say that good forms of religion inspire people to be kinder, but I don’t believe that’s necessarily true, at least not in the sense of their kindness being attributable to their religion. I think people who want to be kind will find inspiration for it in whatever philosophy they follow, or at the very least they will search out a philosophy that promotes kindness and follow it.

As I’ve said before, it’s the people, not the religion. When moderate religions are approached with critical thinking and used as tools, rather than letting them turn you into a tool, you may very well find some good in them. Most religion devalues personal autonomy and critical thinking, a fatal flaw that can render any good aspects of the religion worthless.

Maybe that’s because the good is in the people themselves, and stifling the individual also stifles the good they can do. Maybe if we could all understand this and form connections over the things we value, then we could stop looking at people as representatives of their screwed-up religion and see them as individuals. The three strengths I listed above are the result of allowing such connections. As I noted, in many cases they tend to only apply to the members…the people who believe rightly.

Why shouldn’t we break out of this limited “clan mentality” and extend those concepts to the entirety of humanity?


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