Does organized religion have a good or bad impact on society?
By Dr. Norman Wise
"Surely, secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square; Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr.—indeed the majority of great reformers in American history—not only were motivated by faith but repeatedly used religious language to argue their causes."
President Obama, in Audacity of Hope
This is a question that is often raised. Sometimes it is just a rhetorical question which is supposed to lead us to an immediate conclusion that the impact of organized religion has been negative. Normally examples of crusades, inquisitions, persecutions, oppression, sexual abuse by clergy, hate crimes, and war are mentioned as reasons to see the impact of religion on society as evil. But is that really all that can be said about this issue?
By organized religion we are looking at groups that have formal creeds, structures, and communities of faith. If we take this question to be a serious one that deserves an answer we will have to careful in how we answer it. For organized religion may have a wide variety of impacts on society some good and some bad. If all religion produced was bad and painful it would be hard to imagine how it would have survived.
First, an assumption some would make, is that all organized religions would have the same impact on society? The assumption here is that there are not substantial differences in organized religion's approach to society. However, this is not the case. The impact of Hinduism on a society like India is much different than the impact of Islam on Afghanistan or Pakistan. The impact of "Cultural Christianity" among the Western nations has been much different than the impact of Judaism in Israel or Buddhism in Thailand. To be fair we would have to look at each organized religion and look at the different impacts that each one has on a society.
Such research would recognize and define social goods and social ills brought on or encouraged by the religion. So it would seem that it would be a false assumption to think that all religions have the same impact on all nations in the same way. Both the particular religion and the uniqueness of each society would have to be studied to come up with an evaluation of the impact of organized religion in that particular instance.
Second, we must understand that the same religion has demonstrated different impacts on societies. How Islam is applied in Indonesia is very different than how it is applied in Iran. Nations like England in which one church is supported by the government and the United States where the state is prohibited from restricting the free exercise of religion or establishing an official faith are very different. While both England and the United States are culturally "Christian" this different approach has made the impact of Christianity much different in the United States than in England. So it must also not be assumed that a particular faith will always have the same impact on society.
In addition one faith may have many different impacts on society. While some Christians found religious justification for slavery in America others found the Christian faith as the inspiration of attempting to end slavery. This was true in England as well. For example, William Wilberforce (24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833) was a British politician who became the leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. In 1785, he underwent a conversion experience and became an evangelical Christian, resulting in major changes to his lifestyle and a lifelong concern for reform. He headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for twenty-six years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807. In later years, Wilberforce supported the campaign for the complete abolition of slavery, and continued his involvement after 1826, when he resigned from Parliament because of his failing health. That campaign led to the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire. Here was is an example of how a man's religion led to what most people would see as a positive social change.
Yet, those who supported the Slave trade would have also claimed to be "Christian" even as Wilberforce opposed slavery motivated by his faith in Christ. William Wilberforce would write a book called "Real Christianity" in which he explained this fact from the perspective that many could have a "Cultural Christianity" that reflected simply the practices and prejudices of the culture simply "baptized" with some Christian words and a "real Christianity" that consistently applied the teaching of the Bible correctly interpreted.
So here again we can see it is important to not just ask what impact some type of generic religion has on society generally but what impact a particular religion and even particular sects within these religions have on a society. The detailed content of religion matters when it comes to how it impacts culture, society, ethics, and politics.
Some Christians are attempting to establish a theocracy while others think that they should not vote to be consistent with their faith. There are those who profess a faith in Christ that calls for an absolute pacifism while others would call for military crusades against every evil regime found in the world. Some would want the government to not help the poor and leave this to the private sector while others would be passionate about the need of a godly society to help those most oppressed and in need. The idea that believers in the gospel of Christ all agree on how that gospel applies to society is simply not true. Christians hold to political and social views that span the entire spectrum of opinions. Some of these may be more consistent with Christian principles than others but religious groups are organized that teach, support, and endorse each of these viewpoints based upon their faith. How then could we declare all of these various social impacts "evil" since they would be so many and of so many types?
To be accurate we would have to say that a religion promoting a specific agenda would be an evil influence upon society. For instance if we think that all drugs should be legalized then if an organized religion opposed the legalization of drugs we would see their influence upon society as "bad'. However, this tells us more about what we value than if there is something intrinsic to religion being "organized" that has to produce something "bad" for society. Now if an organized religion promotes the murder of innocent people then this would be a better example of it having an objectively clear "evil" impact on society, however this type of clear moral depravity is seldom endorsed by an organized religion. So to judge religion as producing social evil we have to define clearly what types of evil an organized religion is supporting and point out these are against the moral good as understood by nearly everyone.
There is evidence that organized religion can at times have a positive impact on society that nearly everyone would agree to be good. The reality is that one clear impact that organized religion seems to have in America is in giving to the poor. Arthur Brooks, the author of "Who Really Cares" who did research on who are the people involved in helping the poor said:
"Finally, the single biggest predictor of whether someone will be charitable is their religious participation. Religious people are more likely to give to charity, and when they give, they give more money: four times as much. Actually, the truth is that they're giving to more than their churches. The religious Americans are more likely to give to every kind of cause and charity, including explicitly non-religious charities." http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=2682730&page=1
So one social good that religion seems to have on society is that it encourages people to help those in need. Most people would see this as a positive influence. Most organized religions promote and teach that giving to the poor is a critical and important application of faith to life.
In addition it also appears that a growing amount of evidence supports the idea that some aspects of religious faith have good impact on individuals and society as a whole. Andrea Greenwood, counseling psychologist and assistant training director for University of Buffalo, Counseling Services pointed out that there are studies that conclude that those who express religious commitment or involvement, or use spiritual or religious means to cope with life, experience greater physical health, greater well-being and life satisfaction, greater ability to adjust to crises and problems, longer life and less anxiety.
"Most spiritual and religious traditions have beliefs about preserving the sanctity of the mind, body and soul," Moreover, she said these mechanisms for health outcomes cut across specific religions or spiritual traditions. "You can see a lot of similarities across a number of religious traditions," she said.
One spiritual and religious concept she called common across cultures is "mindfulness"—a mental state in which there are no distractions and all focus is on the moment. Often experienced as prayer or meditation, she said regular practice elicits beneficial physiological responses, such as reduced muscle tension, increased oxygen and lower heart rates and blood pressure.
In addition, the concept of a Sabbath—common in most major religions-reduces stress- and fatigue—related problems through the codification of a 24-hour period devoted to rest, Greenwood said. The benefits of rest are of particular concern in the United States, she said, since the pressure to strive and achieve in American culture is in constant conflict with the desire to slow down and relax." There is evidence that religious practices help people reduce stress and deal with severe losses. All of these would be seen as having a positive social impact. (http://www.buffalo.edu/ubreporter/archives/vol37/vol37n38/articles/GreenwoodSpirituality.html)
Other scientists are arguing that being raised in healthy religious structured communities is best for the psychological and physical wellbeing of children. The argument is that the fragmented, complex, and intense nature of modern society is actually doing physical and psychological harm to children. The "structure" of American society is according to these scientists unhealthy and there is a need to form "structured communities" to promote the wellbeing of children. When one looks at the list of characteristics suggested by these scientists it is not hard to imagine they are describing a healthy church or other religious community. This is another important potential good communities organized around faith can bring to society. ( http://www.americanvalues.org/html/hardwired.html)
Now when religion is inconsistent with it highest ideals, becomes a hypocritical cover for abuse, or promotes social evil in the name of God then it is clear that in this case organized religion is a negative force on society. However one could argue that such actions don't demonstrate the "true religion" but only some perversion of it.
Here again it is clear that the content of a religion matters and it is hard to see religions who are dedicated to pacifism or even "the just war theory" as responsible for acts of terrorism. It should be noted that in the Western nations it was Christianity that attempted to set boundaries not only on justifying war at all but in how wars should be conducted. Efforts to protect civilians and treat prisoners well were normally motivated by organized Christian religion in Europe and the United States.
Some religious people do horrible things in the name of God but normally these do not represent the mainstream teachings of a religion but rather what the majority in that religion would seem as a false perversion of their faith. Human beings have wars for many different reasons and some wars have been to one degree or another been motivated by religion, however bestselling author Karen Armstrong who has done extensive research points out "fundamentalism is often a form of nationalism in religious disguise". In such cases it is hard to know where the religion ends and the politics begin. It clearly is true that without religion humanity would not be without war.
Those who believe that reason, science, and modern thought of necessity have to lead to a naturalistic or materialistic interpretation of reality look upon organized religion as keeping society from evolving into a fully rational and mature society that does not need God. They interpret faith in religion as superstitious and irrational.
Due to these philosophical beliefs they see the harm of organized religion upon society to be that it is promoting a false view of reality and keeping people from being fully rational. They would see it as hindering education since they believe that a well-educated person would agree with their naturalistic and materialistic view of reality. However, there is in this criticism of religion some circular logic involved since only if one presupposes that naturalism is true can this be seen as a negative. It also does not eliminate any "good" that religion might produce even if you think that the content of the religion is false.
This is also the case in which organized religion may teach morals or ethics different than some in the society. If one believes that pornography is a "social good" and that opposing it is a "social evil" then organized religion is causing harm to society by opposing pornography. However, this means that in such cases it has been demonstrated that there could not be a reasonable and meaningful debate about if pornography was a social good. Only if one holds that one's moral position is beyond debate could one immediately then point to such issues as clear demonstration of the bad influence of organized religion. Again if you presuppose a particular moral position and organized religion opposes this moral position, then based on those presuppositions organized religion is doing social harm.
In conclusion, it would appear that we must be very careful in speaking about the impact of organized religion because there are many different types of organized religions and not all would have the same social influence. Some religions might cause more social good or harm than others. Also there is not universal agreement on what is good or bad for society and therefore judging the impact of organized religion will depend on the conclusions that people have reached both in their philosophy, ethics, and morals. The worst impact that societies have suffered many times from organized religions is due to extremists within these religions or hypocritical actions in which the religion failed to live up to its ideals. There is evidence that many times religion has motivated greater care for the poor and provided positive psychological impact for many people which has helped society cope with the hardships and suffering of life. This care for the poor and oppressed has even motivated laws ending slavery and other institutionalized evils. We would have to state therefore that organized religion can have both good or bad influence upon a society depending on the content of the religion and how it is applied. It would be difficult to conclude from the data that organized religion has always failed to produce any social good or should be banned from having a voice in the public square.
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