Religion as a social good

On the Touchstone web site, there’s an article by Logan Paul Gage, “Staying Power”, that is an interesting current example of the argument that religion is socially beneficial. Presumably this means that religion deserves public support of some kind.

Some of the article is basic conservative spin. But it’s not entirely so easy to dismiss. The social science research Gage mentions is quite mainstream, as far as I can make it. There is real (if ambiguous) evidence that religiosity is associated with all sorts of things that may be good for human communities.

Now, all this is irrelevant to arguments concerning the truth of supernatural claims. We may even suspect that when defenders of religion resort to saying that religion should be supported for secular reasons, that is a sign that the gods are not as plausible as they once seemed. There’s a difference between saying that you should believe in Jesus because God commands it and this will save your soul, and saying that we should believe because it helps the crime rate or our blood pressure.

I should add that secularizing trends also need not mean much. Gage points to research by Robert Wuthnow to support his position, but Wuthnow’s “Myths About American Religion” seems to indicate a slight secular trend in the US, if anything. But this appears to be connected to intellectually irrelevant considerations such as people marrying and having children later in life. This sort of thing is common in social scientific explanations of religion in general. If people become more religiously indifferent, this typically has nothing to do with increasing awareness of science or spreading Enlightenment attitudes or anything like that.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    If Religion was a ‘social good’ wouldn’t it follow that religious countries would be ‘good’ places to live and non-religious countries would be ‘bad’ places to be? [Depending, of course, on what you mean by 'social good' in the first place....]

    As this is not the case… doesn’t that blow the whole ‘argument’ out of the water?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12244370945682162312 NAL

    I’m sure that in Iran there is even more of a negative relationship between religion and sexual activity; even more of a negative link between alcohol use and religion; and even more of a negative correlation between suicide and religion. Does this prove that Islam is more socially beneficial?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03743116454273042629 Sheldon

    I think it far too simplistic to say: “Religion is a social good” or “Religion is a negative social force” or dismiss either proposition out of hand. The fact of the matter is that much relies on many variable and particular historical contexts.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11815695119406091177 Interested

    I have often heard this argument for religion. My son the Counselor says that if it helps a person to be a better person then it is good. His feeling is that whatever it takes to stay on the straight and narrow is okay. I don’t know…I still have a problem with religius people who think they have all the answers.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08717286291569194398 john

    The three major monotheist religions are broken and need to be fixed. Humans have always created some form of Religion because there is a need to create a rational for life and a means for general consesus regarding reality. The fact that these religions have been ursurped by governments and institutions is no reason to abandon religion; rather it is time to reconcile the doctrines and dogmas with the facts and actuality of our existence today…and tomorrow. I visited a website recently that suggests that we humans will need a new evolved religion based on scientific fact as we enter the age of space exploration and habitation. The site http://www.spaceagereligion.com brings up a number of interesting considerations.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    john said: The three major monotheist religions are broken and need to be fixed.

    Or discarded….

    john said: it is time to reconcile the doctrines and dogmas with the facts and actuality of our existence today…and tomorrow.

    Now *that* would be a neat trick!

    john said: I visited a website recently that suggests that we humans will need a new evolved religion based on scientific fact as we enter the age of space exploration and habitation.

    A *scientific* religion? Isn’t that a contradiction?

    I don’t agree that we (as individuals or cultures) *need* religion. To me that makes no sense at all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08717286291569194398 john

    There is one component of Religion that is often overlooked but is essential to individual human freedom. This component is the very essence of the message at the core of each religion. Always the initial messenger, cited by the religion, is misquoted and misunderstood, and in each case tyrants and governments have usurped the message and subsequent religion for control purposes; yet the essential message always breaks through.

    The message is that each individual human being has basic human rights and liberty granted by God. Since these rights and liberty are granted by God, only God can take them away. In a similar manner, the American Constitution derives individual freedom from God not government. This is the reason that tyrants first deny religion. Only by destroying the religion can the tyrant overcome the individual’s ‘God given rights”.

    While I might not agree with the typical conception of God, I support the notion that my individual human rights are given by someone/something that cannot be forced to take them away. Each individual human is born without knowledge and human rights and depends on adults for knowledge and individual freedom. It is the Religions that elevate humankind above animal status. Perhaps we are no more than apes (true), however, religion gives worth and value to each individual. Without religion, tyranny would reign and the concept of individual rights would be diminished and perhaps lost in the domination of the adult rulers over the new born children. Consider all that would be lost without religion. Imagine a world without religion.

    Granted there is great threat and harm from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism today because they are now instruments of control rather than repositories and disseminators of the initial message. However, this can change. Jesus, Mohammad, Moses, Abraham, all individuals, were persons who indicate the impact a single human can have on human history and religion. Our challenge today is to retain the benefits of religion while removing the control factors and falsifications.

    We (humankind) have the means (the Internet) today to begin a global dialogue to challenge what is false in the religions and effect changes necessary to bring religion into the space age.
    If, however, we abandon and reject religion, what will the individual have to protect him/her from the domination and oppression of the governments and tyrants?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03743116454273042629 Sheldon

    “The message is that each individual human being has basic human rights and liberty granted by God…….blah, blah, blah, blah”

    Funny, I often hear messages from religion that wish to disregard basic human rights and liberty. Basic human rights and liberty are the result of human’s struggling for those things, demanding them, and taking them. Often times it is religion that seeks to buttress those oppressive social orders, and in more rare cases, such as the black civil rights struggle, people employ religion to fight those oppressions. Regardless, religion is not at all essential for human rights and liberty.

    p.s. I bet the web site John recently visited is his own

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08717286291569194398 john

    Sheldon has a great deal of “faith” in human nature and instincts. Obviously he is not a history buff, however. In the struggle for individual human liberty and rights many were demanded and taken in the “Enlightenment Movement” that sparked the French Revolution and resulted in countries like the United States of America. While many in the movement were Atheists, they were glad to use the concept of God and religion to bring French and English monarchy down to kneel before God and accept the “God given rights” each individual holds by birthright. This was the difference in Communism, rather than protect individual liberty, they sought to destroy religion in order to make the individual subordinate and subject to the State and Government.

    Religion has been used by all for their own purposes, but there is a reason why Religion has survived and flourished, despite all this, in all successful civilizations. …but this is another subject of discussion.

    A question to Sheldon, what can you point to in history that produced liberty, justice, and freedom for the individual that did not involve some form of religion?

    p.s. I am associated with a website: http://www.mysticshaven.com. Thanks for noting.

    About the Enlightenment Movement:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    john said: The message is that each individual human being has basic human rights and liberty granted by God.

    I disagree. Rights are a human invention and a fairly recent one at that.

    john said: Since these rights and liberty are granted by God, only God can take them away.

    then john said: Only by destroying the religion can the tyrant overcome the individual’s ‘God given rights”.

    Surely that’s a contradiction? If only God can take away out rights a ‘tyrant’ can do no such thing.

    john said: In a similar manner, the American Constitution derives individual freedom from God not government.

    Again I disagree. The US Constitution is not a religious document. Individual freedom is protected and enshrined in a legal framework not a theological one.

    john said: It is the Religions that elevate humankind above animal status.

    Wrongly. We are animals. We just happen to think and be self-aware animals. Our separation from nature is one of the damaging problems we have because of religion.

    john said: religion gives worth and value to each individual.

    Humans give worth and value to each individual – or at least they can. Religion often *devalues* people rather than the other way around.

    john said: Without religion, tyranny would reign and the concept of individual rights would be diminished and perhaps lost

    Nonesense. If that was the case why aren’t largely secular countries tyrannies? Why are hard-line religious countries tyrannical?

    john said: Consider all that would be lost without religion. Imagine a world without religion.

    I doubt that much would be lost… and I do imagine such a world!

    john said: Our challenge today is to retain the benefits of religion while removing the control factors and falsifications.

    I suggest that their would be liitle left that hasn’t already been more than adequately covered in various philosophies that have nothing to do with the supernatural belief in gods and demons.

    john said: If, however, we abandon and reject religion, what will the individual have to protect him/her from the domination and oppression of the governments and tyrants?

    The very same things that we have always had. Governments and tyrants have been overthrown throughout all of recorded history. I suggest that this will always be the case as long as tyrants seek to control people. God has absolutely nothing to do with it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08717286291569194398 john

    CiberKitten said: I disagree. Rights are a human invention and a fairly recent one at that.

    Agreed…18th century and the Enlightenment Movement as noted in prior post.

    CiberKitten said: Surely that’s a contradiction? If only God can take away our rights a ‘tyrant’ can do no such thing.

    The point is that we only “claim” our rights come from God (many do not even believe in God). By doing this the government or tyrant must either deny God or claim to be above God. It is just a ploy for the little weak people to hold off the big strong people. It has worked now for decades whether there is actually something like God or not.

    CiberKitten said: Again I disagree. The US Constitution is not a religious document. Individual freedom is protected and enshrined in a legal framework not a theological one.

    Wrong, the principles and authority of the Constitution are based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence which reads:

    “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation
    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    CiberKitten said: Wrongly. We are animals. We just happen to think and be self-aware animals. Our separation from nature is one of the damaging problems we have because of religion.

    Then it would follow that it is acceptable to treat each other as we treat other animals and to treat one another as animals treat one another. The law of the jungle appears to be CiberKitten’s goal for civilization.

    CiberKitten said: Humans give worth and value to each individual – or at least they can. Religion often *devalues* people rather than the other way around.

    Come on CiberKitten, you read or see the news…the genocide going on in Africa now, today, this moment…people of like color and culture hacking each other up by the thousands. People gladly kill to dominate and gain all over the world today. Humans give worth and value to their own desires and pleasures unless effected otherwise. When left to our own will, yes, we show that we are, indeed,animals.

    CiberKitten said: Nonesense. If that was the case why aren’t largely secular countries tyrannies? Why are hard-line religious countries tyrannical?

    The struggle for individual liberty is not religious, the movement only uses religion (usurps) against tyrannies. And the struggle is still, very much, underway within a number of organizations such as the Masons. Battles have been won; however, the War is far from over. Our individual liberty is not assured. It will take far more than Religion to keep and assure the freedom we enjoy today in this country. Individual human liberty is still a work in progress.

    CiberKitten said: The very same things that we have always had. Governments and tyrants have been overthrown throughout all of recorded history. I suggest that this will always be the case as long as tyrants seek to control people. God has absolutely nothing to do with it

    Yes tyrants have existed throughout history…history is simply a record of wars recorded by the winners, mostly tyrants…and tyrants still rule today. Tyrants have never been overthrown completely, merely subdued for a time. We have no assurances.

    As for God having nothing to do with it, again, the use of God is a ruse.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    john said: Agreed…18th century and the Enlightenment Movement as noted in prior post.

    So… If Rights are an 18th Century *human* invention…. What exactly has God to do with them?

    john said: The point is that we only “claim” our rights come from God (many do not even believe in God).

    So…. [looks confused] our Rights *don’t* come from God – people just *say* that they do? Maybe people should simply stop saying that?

    john quoted: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

    It’s an interesting choice of words isn’t it? We *hold* these truths to be self-evident. They’re not saying that they *are* self evident… by they are *asserting* that they are. Rights (or truths) are clearly not self-evident. If they were there would be no debate about them – because they’d be self-evident. Even ‘tyrants’ couldn’t argue against self-evident truth.

    john said: Then it would follow that it is acceptable to treat each other as we treat other animals and to treat one another as animals treat one another.

    No it doesn’t. We are *thinking* self-aware animals and because of that we have created morality. Non-sentient animals are not moral creatures because they do not have the capacity for morality. We are moral creatures because we have the capacity to choose our actions. We *can* treat other people like mindless animals (and have done) but we do not *have* to. We have a choice.

    john said: The law of the jungle appears to be CiberKitten’s goal for civilization.

    Hardly! If we did indeed have a ‘war of all against all’ we simply wouldn’t *have* a civilisation!

    john said: Come on CiberKitten, you read or see the news…

    I do and I agree that we can be absolutely horrible to each other. But for the most part we are very sociable and can be incredibly kind and understanding. As with most things it is simply a matter of choice.

    john said: Our individual liberty is not assured.

    Never has… never will be.

    john said: It will take far more than Religion to keep and assure the freedom we enjoy today in this country. Individual human liberty is still a work in progress.

    Something we can agree on!

    john said: Yes tyrants have existed throughout history…history is simply a record of wars recorded by the winners, mostly tyrants…and tyrants still rule today.

    I think that History is somewhat more than that. My knowledge of history isn’t absolute but I would argue that tyrants normally fail rather than win & write the subsequent history. It could be argued that history is a tale of increasing freedom brought on by centuries of sucessful struggle against the forces of oppression and repression.

    john said: As for God having nothing to do with it, again, the use of God is a ruse.

    A ruse? By who? I firmly believe that God has little (actually nothing) to do with *anything* and not just our human invented Rights. Some people might use God as a bizarre justification for Right Theory but I’m afraid that it doesn’t cut much ice with me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08717286291569194398 john

    Ok, let’s deal with that little three letter word “god”. It is not so significant unless we capitalize the G, then it is omnipotent in meaning.

    Now one of my friends considers the universe to be god. Or as he would put it, he feels that the Universe is God. Nothing more. He actually feels that planet earth and life (or to us indigenous Americans, planet Earth and Life) are merely a minor phenomena in the vast energy field we call the Universe. Here, of course, he gives no attributes to the Universe that are not empirica.

    He is a physicist and feels that we are on the brink of finding and understanding the Higgs particle (the last undiscovered piece of our current theory of matter) with the, soon to be completed, Large Hadron Collider. He feels we will soon understand why there are atoms, chemistry, and stable structure in the Universe. He would be insulted if someone gave a human form or persona to the Universe, humans are relatively insignificant in his vision of God/Universe, and he is certain that 99% of the people have no idea what is going on with the real world of particle physics and the cosmos. (They are far to busy with sports, religion and other opiates)

    Should someone tell him that there is no God, he would simply be quiet and consider them extremely ignorant – after all anyone can use a telescope to determine that there actually is God. They really would not be able to understand even if he explained it to them. The average person is not ready to deal with the space time continuum, the Copenhagen interpretation, or the fact that the same particle can be in two very distant places at the same time.

    So, I would say that we do not derive our human rights from my friend’s God. His God likely does not think , feel, or give a damn about human rights…who knows?

    Another friend, that recently died, also felt that the Universe and God are the same. He had a more mystical slant, but he would have been in agreement that God and the Universe are the same. His name is Vilayat Inayat Khan and was a Sufi mystic. He wrote in his book *Awakening*: *Our physical bodies, along with every other piece of matter in the Cosmos, originated in the Big Bang—that incredible, primordial explosion of radiant light that eventually crystallized into matter.* While brother Khan felt one can make some connection with the Universe, he did not think the Universe was a person…he thought the Universe is what we can see and experience and even more. He considered the Universe to be God.

    In this case, yes, someone might could say that the *inspiration* for individual human liberty has Universal implications, but with no certainly except by personal empirical experience of what a Universal *inspiration* actually is.

    As with the *uncertainly principle* in physics, some might say that the Universe had nothing to do with it, but then there are now strong indications of a *universality* in the Universe, and who can say that anything that happens in the Universe is isolated or without universal implications. Not me.

    So, if God is an old man running everything in the sky, then I have difficulty accepting that, but try never to argue with the ignorant or insane. However, if God is the Universe, then perhaps the Universe is a *closed* system but also an interconnected system…not isolated in separate little bitty pieces with no relationship or involvement with each other.

    Perhaps the Universe is the most complex of complexities…we being just a little bit complex.

    Regarding my quoting the Declaration of Independence and cyberkitten’s response, The Declaration will have to stand for itself…it was audacious, and it really did not work. The argument did not stand and many humans had to suffer and die to fight for the rights. I will only point out that many of the founding fathers were part of the Enlightenment movement and were Masons (who are happy with any concept of god you want to imagine). Enjoy the benefits…

    cyberkitten said: No it doesn’t. We are *thinking* self-aware animals and because of that we have created morality. Non-sentient animals are not moral creatures because they do not have the capacity for morality. We are moral creatures because we have the capacity to choose our actions. We *can* treat other people like mindless animals (and have done) but we do not *have* to. We have a choice.

    We could argue why we are moral creatures today, but cyberkitten might not agree that religion is in the mix. It is easy to accept the benefits of religion without recognition and point out the harm when we stand pointing in the comfortable freedom of the aforementioned benefits.
    If *we have a choice* can we choose wrong, regardless of what we choose to do? And if something is *wrong*, who decides? And, If the individual person does not get to decide for themselves, then who has authority over them?

    CiberKitten said: Hardly! If we did indeed have a ‘war of all against all’ we simply wouldn’t *have* a civilization!

    Civilization is far more fragile than most might think. We are just one errant asteroid, atomic bomb, global epidemic, geological disaster away from the destruction of civilization as we know it. On earth the jungle is never really far away. We build it up and knock it down…the jungle creeps in and covers over the structures…the Jungle is always leaking deep in our minds and our instincts. The natural state for humankind, as with all primates, is conflict and struggle for dominance and position. The tendency is always toward this natural state.

    Cyberkitten said: I think that History is somewhat more than that. My knowledge of history isn’t absolute but I would argue that tyrants normally fail rather than win & write the subsequent history. It could be argued that history is a tale of increasing freedom brought on by centuries of successful struggle against the forces of oppression and repression.

    History, until most recently, is mostly of oppression. All the winners of the wars, such as Antony the Great, killed and conquered people and enslaved them under their rule. The Greeks, the Romans..you name them, they all had slaves. While there are still slaves today, not too long ago it was an acceptable position…there were lots and lots of slaves. History really does not attempt to recorded what life was like for them, we read about Roman slaves, but mostly about the Citizens and their lives…the few among the slaves. When a tyrant falls, it is usually by another tyrant. And this is the most difficult concept to expess about all of this so I will go to the next paragraph:

    The individual person by themselves, typically and naturally, do not have much strength or protection against the several. To have anything, like the Bill or Rights, that will protect the single human being from the several, the government, the clergy, or anything is extraordinary to say the least.

    The wonder of the American Constitution is that it protects little me from everybody else. It tells me, my neighbors, my government, the police, and army exactly what my individual human rights are. The Constitution, in theory, shields me from all these forces. (Unless, of course, the police accidently shoots me because they thought my staff was a sword) The nice thing about it, however, is that other people like the freedom so much that they will rise up and assist me if my rights are threatened. I love being a Native American!!! But this protection is easy to lose, and hell to recover.

    CyberKitten said: A ruse? By who? I firmly believe that God has little (actually nothing) to do with *anything* and not just our human invented Rights. Some people might use God as a bizarre justification for Right Theory but I’m afraid that it doesn’t cut much ice with me.

    Much has been written of late regarding how a person’s intelligence, environment, education, and experience determines how that persons views reality. Since no two people have the exact intelligence, education, and experience in the same environment, then, of course, they will view *reality* differently even when standing next to one another and concentrating on the same object.

    Even more recently, research has shown that humans look out and sense what is real by the five senses, models the experience mentally, and then projects that amended model back into the perceptive *world* outside. In other words, we people imagine what we decide is out there and project it as reality, and, naturally, no two people see it exactly the same way.

    To put it even more simply, we each live in our own World in a Universe of Worlds. You cannot look into my world and I cannot look into your world…but it is safe to say they are different. If a person says that there is a god or God in their world then, to me, there is a God in their world. If they pray or communicate with the God, well and good if they say so.
    A few of my friends would say that God has nothing to say except to the very few, and that the very few need no one to tell them about it…they feel that God simply does not like most people very much and that it is a waste of time for people to petition God or ask for things.

    Many of my friends say that there is no God in their world. I absolutely believe this. God is just a three letter word and the Universe is a very mysterious place


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