This post is part of a Patheos-wide symposium on the question “What good is religion?” Read other perspectives here.
Few questions are as treacherous as “does religion benefit society?” The true answer is yes, but it’s one of the most dangerous truths you’ll ever come across. And the more socially beneficial a religion is, the more dangerous it is to know that about it.
C.S. Lewis, asked whether the faith would solve people’s problems and make them happy, replied: “Christianity is not a patent medicine.” He would warn his fellow defenders of the faith: don’t let people avoid the question of whether Christianity is true by getting into arguments about whether it’s good for society. His fictional demon Screwtape said this was the reason devils should encourage believers to view the faith a tool for promoting peace and justice.
The problem with this is that religion in general, and especially Christianity, actually is “a patent medicine.” As compared with the alternatives – either militant atheism or mere spiritual indifference – religion will in fact solve problems and make people happier. And real, root-and-branch Christianity will do this in a radical and unique way.
Through religion, we seek the transcendent, and this is the only ultimate source of meaning in life – any meaning, personal or social. Most other things that claim to be sources of meaning turn out to be disguised religion or indirect products of religion. What remains when these are eliminated are various appeals to our will, and mere human will can’t create meaning. If we could choose for ourselves what things really mean, our choices about meaning could not themselves be meaningful, because meaning would be a product of those choices. Our choices about meaning would be arbitrary and . . . well, meaningless.
All attempts to create meaning collapse of their own weight. We must seek meaning. We must seek the transcendent – something larger than human choice, something metaphysical, within which alone human beings are empowered to think meaningful thoughts and make meaningful choices.
Of course, people who don’t believe in a religion do experience meaning. They borrow it indirectly from religious sources, mediated through various social structures and artifacts. Ideas like justice and human rights are always, historically, the product of religion. Unbelievers can find them and embrace them, but cannot make them. They have no source but the transcendent.
So religion is the ultimate support undergirding all truth claims, even including the claim that religion is false – for the human mind could not have meaningful thoughts if it were only matter. Religion is the ultimate support undergirding all moral norms, for Dostoevsky was right – if there is no God, all things are permitted. Religion is the ultimate support undergirding all real appreciation of beauty, for in a materialistic universe what we call our “aesthetic” reactions are merely the firing of our neurons.
It has long been recognized by sociologists that all social orders ultimately have religion, or “the sacred,” at their center. “Culture” and “cult” come from the same root word. Even in societies with religious freedom, the only thing that holds society together is that part of our religious life that is shared across our various religions – such as our belief that murder and stealing are not just foolish indiscretions but transcendently and unconditionally heinous acts.
Beside religion’s being the only support for truth, goodness and beauty and the basis of social order, it seems like an afterthought to mention the enormous expanse of hospitals, adoption agencies, soup kitchens, etc. run by religious organizations. What is the generation of trillions of dollars’ worth of charitable activities next to making life meaningful? But we have bodies as well as souls, and we may not live by bread alone but we still need it, so these things are also worth mentioning.So far this is merely the benefit of “religion” as contrasted with irreligion. Christianity produces benefits many times greater than generic “religion,” because it does not merely teach us. It transforms us. The Holy Spirit is supernaturally active through the Christian faith and community, working miracles in the hearts of believers and creating a renewed life among the faithful. Christianity does not merely show us truth but makes us truthful; does not merely show us good but makes us better; does not merely show us beauty but makes our lives more beautiful. This supernatural activity has produced countless social benefits that were uniquely generated in Christian cultures and later spread to others, from the abolition of slavery to the advent of constitutional democracy.
Lewis himself knew all this; he described it in many of his books. That’s precisely why he knew that the faith’s power to serve the public was dangerous. Knowing that religion produces these benefits can lead people use religion as a tool for social good.
The one thing you cannot do with religion is use it as a tool for good; if you do use it as a tool, it will not be for good. Religion can do all these good things for the public only so long as it claims to be true – to be an accurate account of transcendent reality – and puts itself forward in a way that people find credible. Once religion becomes a tool, it can no longer do so.
This, by the way, is one of the two key arguments for religious freedom. The close association of a particular religion with the social order is deadly to real belief, because it separates religion from the claim to be true. As John Locke pointed out, if political authority can enforce a religion, it follows that all people have a duty to adopt whatever religion is enforced by their own national rulers. Under such conditions, religion obviously has nothing to do with truth.
But – and here comes the catch – the other key argument for religious freedom has always been that religion does, in fact, serve the public good. I don’t think there has ever been a major figure who argued for religious freedom without appealing to religion’s social benefits, from Socrates and Justin Martyr to Locke and John Stewart Mill. And in fact we cannot sustain religious freedom if it includes freedom for religions that teach people to be enemies of their own societies.
This is one of the most important reasons religious freedom is starting to buckle in our time. Our churches and our life of faith have become too disconnected from the public good. Christianity is a patent medicine. We must find ways of reminding our neighbors of this dangerous fact.