Earlier this week, we were musing about religion, why it exists, and if religious beliefs are, on balance, helpful or unhelpful to modern life. We asked you for your opinions on this question:
What is your take on why religious beliefs are necessary? Or not?
We received hundreds of responses. The most ever. And many people conflated religious beliefs with religion itself. We caused some of this confusion with our subject line: Your Take on Religion’s Best Use.
Our readers had some important things to say and points to make. Overall, there seems to be a majority agreement that religious beliefs at a personal level provide a sense of purpose or meaning to life. That gathering with others of similar beliefs provides a sense of belonging and community; a connection to both the divine and our shared humanity. There was also majority agreement that religion as an institution has been used in catastrophic ways to dehumanize those with different beliefs, to consolidate power, raise money and make war. It was pointed out by many of you that institutionalized religion has been the basis of many wars in all parts of the world. There were several thoughtful and long replies that added more nuance and personal reflection on specific religious beliefs. Following is a selection of the community’s responses.
Religion was created to keep citizens civil. People need structure and order to exist and the idea a powerful force will strike if disobeyed is a compelling story. ~Bob Burton
There are two questions, actually, Why do people need religion and why do they need God? They are very different. People need God to help them cope with the unexplainable. They need to think that there is a reason for living and a reason for dying. It can keep them from going mad. As to religion, for many it is a substitute for community or family. ~Anthony Mazzucca
HIllel said, If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? In the implicit answers to these questions (i.e., I am not an unembodied being who needs no attention, like an angel; and I am not simply a bundle of needs that are met by reflex action centered on physical survival), he defines a human being as a social animal possessing individual consciousness, who lives in a tension between being concerned with others and being concerned with him or her self. To my mind, religion is a primal way to help one navigate that tension. ~John Mathews
We live on a tiny planet, in a tiny corner of the incompressible vastness of the universe.
Religion offers us a window into why we matter. ~Harry Nathan Gottlieb
The biggest oxymoron I saw on a bumper sticker was "I believe in Jesus, Guns and Trump". We would all be better off if the real religion became the Human Race. ~Alice
I think religion can be important and play a valuable, positive role in our society. Even the leading Deist Thomas Jefferson expressed the belief that religion is (or can be) an moral voice in society. Benjamin Franklin is on the record saying the same. An American soldier returned from Afghanistan who described his astonishment when he was to help resolve local disputes in a remote region that involved both wealthy and impoverished locals, when suddenly there was the call to prayer and all the locals -- powerful and weak -- knelt together in shared prayer to their god. They were equal before God. The same religion that compels one person to become involved in charity can convince another to hijack a passenger plane and fly it into a building. But religion can be that voice in our world that raises the moral dimension in our public (and private) discussions and debates, that forces us to acknowledge and consider both morality and the broader human dimension of everything we do. And in a democracy, whether one is religious or not, and regardless of which religion one may belong to, there is always value in hearing other opinions, other perspectives -- even if in the end, we disagree. ~Tomek Jankowski
There are many reasons for religious beliefs. Ones that come to mind just now:
1—Many people are credulous; they need to have a story that explains what they cannot otherwise understand. 2—Religion has offered rules and community and a sense of higher purpose that all contribute to social order. 3— Religion has also provided a structure for acquiring and disseminating knowledge and power. This latter reason has always, in every religion everywhere, been badly abused, causing vast untold suffering. ~Rachael Solem
The best use of religion is to demonstrate inspiration, awe, and reverence. Religious practices are helpful when they relieve human suffering and anguish. Hate-mongering and condemnation should not be done in the name of religion, nor should reinforcement of prejudice. ~Mary Stone
Religion has no best use. ~Said Farah
Religion is an insidious, human-created institution that has been used as an excuse to sow hatred, commit murder, and ostracize entire groups and even annihilate millions. It should be abolished altogether. We can espouse the laudatory principles you mention without entrenching ourselves in divisiveness. ~Corinne Corley
For me, religion offers the opportunity to work with others to create and share goodwill. My faith teaches—as one of its tenets—it is each person’s responsibility to “repair the world.” And so those I commune with, volunteer to step up and do good things—big and small—to make our neighborhoods, communities, towns, states, country, world a better place for everyone. ~Fred Halperin
It's not important if the religious belief is true, what is important is who the human being becomes in holding that belief. If the belief allows someone to become a better and healthier version of themselves then it is useful and supportive in that way. ~Matthew Sloane
My conclusion for today's world is that religious discussions should take place within small groups outside of government discussions and not be a political "football". That is my personal opinion and serious recommendation. ~Ryk Foreman
In America today as the toxic elements of religion as an institution constructed by man and rooted in destructive patriarchy continue to force an exodus of faith practitioners, should parents, educators, and influencers be more focused on philosophy as the central compass for constructing meaning and morality in modern society? If that is so, how should communities adapt and construct modes/methods to cultivate this framework? ~Michael Calcagno
Thank you for your email. As a Muslim my personal perspective is religion is poison and should be banned. So...Islam poison? No, religion is. Understanding religion and its relationship to Islam has been a long, complicated journey that really needs to be explained in a lecture-hall, perhaps one day I shall do that. But until then I wish you well in your debates on religion. ~ Ahmad Zaman
Religion has been the cause of the most evil ever done. Look at what the Puritans did to women (Witch hunts). Look at what the Catholics did to the Native Americans (re-education schools). The KKK is a religious organization. Almost every major religion has a mandate to rise up and kill the non-believer, the infidel. ~Bobby Kearan
As much as I can say being a Pagan, witch, religion was designed to kind of make people conform to decent behavior as well as explain phenomena that at the time seemed magical, or if it were from "the heavens'', but with our knowledge of science now, we know differently. Religion has always been used to control the majority of people, and it continues still. I believe that the traditional mainstream religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) were created by man as a way to control others, especially the females. Other religious groups, such as Hindu and Wicca offer more equal footing for the genders, while still not perfect, it will continue to evolve just as the mainstream religions have. Though highly unlikely, I wish for a more open and actually evolved belief system to develop and replace the strongly pro-masculine non-pagan religions. ~Tina Robertson
I think, simply, that people are more likely to behave if they think some deity is watching, and it helps to have everyone having the same values, morals, etc. The problem is of course when one becomes upset that others don't follow the same beliefs. ~Kenneth Balmes
A fundamentalist group has been trying for about 100 years to take over the government of the United States and make it a theocracy. Where I live, you can't get a job unless you convert and the EEOC doesn't take the cases unless the victims have a lot of power themselves. It's too expensive for the unemployed to sue and it would be a full-time job here. Recently, non-Christians are getting death threats here, a woman was posting on Facebook how her religious group is being targeted by Christians with threats so they have to lock the doors for safety and they have found where she lives and are threatening her there also. Officials do nothing. So, I think there should be complete separation of church and state. This was why we had that to begin with. ~Margie B
Religious beliefs are part of what makes us human. Granted, I am an ordained pastor and it is understandable that I notice religion, whether it is religious belief in the form of a particular creed or church membership, or religious belief in the form of ideology or conviction. To me, religious beliefs can bring us together, regardless of whether we agree on whatever our beliefs might be. Whenever there is energy there is something to share, and something to work with. In my field of healing LGBT and faith, it is surprising partnerships across faith and belief that help keep LGBT young people safer from suicide and homelessness. Religious beliefs can have such power for good. All it takes is bridging skills - and there are many wonderful people and organizations in the world who have such wonderful bridging skills. Bridging and religious belief: perhaps it's a match made in heaven. ~Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen
I believe that religion is an excuse for one’s behavior and relationship with fellow humans, whatever that behavior that may be. ~Mike Plantz
I grew up in a faith that zeroed in on "God is Love" and steered clear of all the superstition, guilt, ritual, and outward trappings of the institution of religion. My personal experience has left me with the conviction that religion - our pursuit of our own best understanding of what God might be, and how we embrace that in a positive and purposeful way our day-to-day lives - might well be the one thing in this world that simply cannot be institutionalized without contaminating its essential purity. If religion doesn't make me more tolerant, more empathetic, more generous, and more caring - then it's not religion at all; rather, a fiendish imposter. "God is Love" works for me, as the beginning, the ending, and the entirety of religion. Only good can flow from that. ~Ken Powley