The Purpose of Religion

What is the primary purpose of your religion? Religion in general has many purposes, most of them dealing with forming and maintaining relationships: with God or Goddess, with gods and goddesses, with our ancestors, with the spirits of Nature, with our families and communities.

But right or wrong, religion in the contemporary Western world is generally thought of as an individual thing. Bring up religion to the guy in the next cubicle and he’s likely to ask “what do you believe?” Explain that religion is more about doing than believing and he’ll ask “what do you do?”

Why do you believe what you believe and why do you do what you do? What is the purpose of your religion? I see three kinds of religion, each with a very different purpose. But before I get to that, I’d like to share two stories.

The first is this essay from the Huffington Post titled “Can Evangelicals Ever Tolerate Gay Marriage?” What grabbed me was the observation that “Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson gained great fame not by demanding that Christians live their lives differently, but by sanctifying the lives they were already inclined to live.” The writer says that Evangelical arguments against marriage equality simply proof-text the Bible to justify inherent homophobia, and when homophobia wanes in Evangelical circles as it has in mainstream circles, the objection to gay people marrying will fade away.

The second thing I’d like to share is a personal confession: I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh. In the Bush Sr. – Clinton years I’d go out to lunch and listen to Limbaugh’s opening monologue on the way back. My politics are mostly center-left – some of his points made good sense and he was always entertaining. I stopped listening to him around the 2004 election. Common sense conservatism gave way to far right dogma and well-intended satire gave way to mean-spirited mockery. I bring this up because on several occasions Limbaugh said “I’m successful because I say what other people think to themselves but are afraid to say out loud.” Conservative talk radio has been successful because it validates the opinions and prejudices of its listeners.

With those stories in mind, let’s look at three kinds of religion with three very different purposes.

Bad religion says you’re OK but other people are screwing things up and screwing you over. Muslims blame the Jews, Christians blame the Muslims, UUs blame the fundamentalists, fundamentalists blame the gays, the poor blame the rich, the rich blame the liberals and on and on and on. Bad religion says the world would be grand if other people would change, if they’d just be more like you.

There’s a time and a place for prophetic preaching, for raising awareness, for calling evil what it is and demanding it repent or be overthrown. But if the primary emphasis of your religion is on other people and how they need to change, you’re practicing bad religion.

Lukewarm religion (see Revelation 3:16) says you’re OK just as you are. The Mother Goddess watches over all her children, God loves you and wants you to be happy (and rich), the Buddha will teach you to transcend all your problems. Never mind all the suffering and injustice in the world – isn’t our church a great place? Isn’t our coven doing some great spells? Here – have some more opium.

There’s a time and a place to comfort the grieving, for gratitude, for celebration. But if the primary emphasis of your religion is on making you feel good about yourself, you’re practicing lukewarm religion.

Dangerous religion challenges you to examine your beliefs and then live up to them. It challenges you to commit to regular spiritual practice which will reinforce those beliefs until they become second nature. It challenges you to learn and grow, not so you can show everyone how smart you are but so you can serve others and the common good.

Dangerous religion is dangerous because it will force you to look at your whole self, including those parts you like to keep hidden away.  It’s dangerous because it will tell you to do things that aren’t comfortable, and may be scary. But if you want to change the world, you have to start by changing yourself.

Bad religion. Lukewarm religion. Dangerous religion. Where’s the good religion?

Where ever you have the courage to look, to study, to practice, and to live out what you find.

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  • bobthechef

    So according to you, is the purpose of religion not to present the truth and a means of adhering to it, but a “noble lie”, a myth that serves an orienting function but itself is itself epistemically vacuous? Are you relativizing religion? If so, Christians would have a bone to pick. In fact, it is the express claim of the Catholic Church that it is the only valid religion, that while all religions may have bits of truth in them, the fullest expression of truth here on earth is found only in the Catholic (i.e. Universal) Church. This would mean that Catholicism, as it understands itself, is not a utilitarian myth serving some other purpose, but the actual truth. In light of that, I’d say ecumenical claims about the acceptability or more or less equal validity of all religions, provided they achieve the end your describe, is lukewarm religion.

    However, I at least credit you for not succumbing to the misinterpretation of 3:16. It’s used by liberal Christians to permit a complacent, mindless conformity to the culture instead of generating good and creating good culture in oneself, as it were.

    • Bob, you ask some fair questions, particularly coming from a Catholic viewpoint. I’ve been incubating a post on Truth vs. Meaning for a couple weeks and I’m going to have to break down write it, my weak background in philosophy notwithstanding.

      I’ll lay out my reasoning in that post, but the essence is this: Truth trumps Meaning, but Truth is very, very hard to discern, and we must take great care to separate what we know from what we think we know and what we wish we knew.

      I find the Catholic church’s claim to exclusive possession of Truth (or at least, the “fullest expression” of it) to be poorly supported by evidence or reason. I would say the same thing about Evangelical Protestants, or Islam, or Buddhism, or any other religion.

      Note that I’m NOT saying all religions are equal. I’m saying no religion has done an acceptable job of supporting claims for exclusivity.

  • Dr Douglas Wilde

    Hi John, I just found this site-congratulations. Its a big question to answer.. especially without people disappearing up their own Aura’s. I’ve just started writing a series of essays on my Buddhist practices. And like you, I do so evaluate what’s working and what’s not. As for my answer today: Q-The purpose of religion? A-The purpose of any religion or philosophy is to inspire thoughts, actions and words that form a purpose and practices which are transcendent to the Self. That’s my current view…