Is organized religion still good for society?

First, allow me to reiterate (if the title of this post wasn’t clear enough) to those in the organized religion crowd who may be reading this, that I am not speaking about whether religion is good for you personally.  I have plenty of friends who are devoutly religious (I grew up in a small town, so that’s to be expected) who never pass up an opportunity to explain to me that their religion is a ‘friendship with Jesus’ and that it has completely transformed their lives.  So if right now you’re drafting an e-mail/blog post to me that makes that argument or a variation of it, you’re missing the point. 

Here, I’m talking about the benefit of organized religion from a social or anthropological perspective.

So, with that in mind, it goes without saying that historically-speaking, religion has been a massive force for good in human civilization.  Jared Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, notes that there’s plenty of anthropological evidence to suggest that it wasn’t until we saw the transition from mere tribes to chiefdoms that organized, socially-relevant religion came into existence.  Sure, Diamond notes, religion existed beforehand, but it was merely concerned with personal piety and had little social significance.  So, with Chiefdoms, for the first time we began to see the phenomenon of a distant ruler which necessitated a ‘state’-sponsored religion.

I won’t go into the specific anthropological evidence supporting this, but, in short, it makes sense considering that this is the time period in each society when we start to see massive tributes, statues, shrines and temples erected in the name of the gods and organized by the society or chieftan.

In short, Diamond notes that the collective and cooperative peaceful existence of large numbers of people was made possible in the first instance by organized religion.  What is more, this large, organized and peaceful existence of a large number of people was what made agriculture, aqueducts, education, literacy and exploration all possible.

Fast forward to the time of Socrates.

Socrates, who the Athenians considered basically just a weird guy who preached philosophy in the market for donations of money, had a student, namely, Alcibiades – the great Athenian General.  On the eve of the suicidal and utterly pointless Sicilian Expedition, Alcibiades (or somebody else depending on which version of history you read) cut off the penises of all of the Hermes statues in Athens which, the Athenians believed, cursed the Expedition.

Socrates was tried for, among other things, corrupting the youth of Athens and impiety towards the gods.  Although he had the opportunity to escape, Socrates chose to stay and accept his execution and drank the hemlock that killed him.  Why did he do this?  Because he believed that even though the society as it existed was corrupt and even though the god of war was being used to justify pointless war and even more pointless strategies within that war, both were still so important to humanity (because they allowed for a city in turn allowed for philosophy) that he would rather die than risk de-legitimizing the city and religion.

Fast forward to the 12th Century.

Joachim of Fiore, a devoutly religious man wrote about how our existing world of strife, angst, war, pain and suffering would come to an end (specifically he said it would come to an end in the year 1260) and that we would all live in what he called the Age of the Holy Spirit where the love of God would reach beyond merely churches and holy shrines and touch everyone’s life.  Thus, Joachim argued, peace would be with us and all that was needed was faith and love of God.

Fast forward to today.

Today, organized religion is fundamentally different from what it was in the chiefdom societies, the time of Athens and the turn of the first millennium BCE.   In each of these three eras, religion was a source of pious moderation.  In these three eras, the religious man (generally speaking) was a peaceful man and the non-religious men were inclined to do battle, to go to war, and to kill. 

Let’s take a look at what function religion serves today.

Today, the US President lists Jesus Christ as his favorite and most influential philosopher.  He claims to be devoutly religious and attributes his religion as having a transformitive effect on him.   He also was Governor of the US state which executes more people than any country on the face of the planet other than China.  He also was the president who deliberately used faulty intelligence to go to war in Iraq and kill upwards of 100,000 innocent civilians (see proof here).  He was also the president who has deliberately allowed for the extra-legal torture and rendition of people who have not been convicted of any crime.

Can he be considered moderate?

Ann Coulter has called for the assassination of the staff at the New York Times.  US commentator Glenn Beck called for the carpet nuking of Iran (available here).  Pat Robertson, as devout a Christian as there ever was, famously called for the assassination of foreign leaders (available here) as well as supporting Liberian president Charles Taylor in his one-sided slaughter of a ‘civil war’ (available here).

Can religion be considered to have moderated these people?

Even Islam, which is by nature a peaceful religion (whose name literally means ‘total surrender to the will of God’), has also been perverted away from the moderation it once instilled.

So, since organized religion on all sides of the spectrum is now causing us to move away from the moderation that is necessary for us to continue living together peacefully, can will still continue calling it a virtue as Socrates considered it to be?  Or, should we instead consider it the greatest hindrance to a peaceful existence that we currently face and thus consider it a relic of an age which humanity has long since grown beyond?


39 Responses to “Is organized religion still good for society?”

  1. 1 SUZANNE 31 December, 2006 at 1:57 pm

    You take a few isolated cases and then generalize to the whole population?

    That’s not unlike those who say Islam is a religion of terrorism, based on the minority of people who engage in violent acts based on those teachings.

    If you’re going to make a generalization, use examples that cover a wide swath of people, not individuals.

    • 2 patrick 13 December, 2011 at 1:18 pm

      suzanne these do effect the whole population. dont you think your president should be making choices that arent clouded by “faith”? faith in oil that is. religion, or at lest organized religion is a joke. a scam and a fraud used to start wars, make money and control the masses. do your research

  2. 3 paulitics 31 December, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    SUZANNE – your point is well taken. I think you’re right that I did not spend enough time (and I certainly did not spend as much time as I’d have liked to spend) demonstrating aggregate trends with, for instance, polling data.

    That said, my selection of these individuals was not arbitrary, and thus can still shed some light on the argument. The most influential people in any society are the political leaders and the opinion leaders, thus, while I did not show general trends among the populace, I did show how some of the most influential opinion and political leaders in the US are no longer moderated by religion as would have been expected historically. Since it is these influential individuals who can most redily set policy or influence popular opinion, and since these indivuals – especially the US president – on many issues, are anything but moderate, the the social effect of religion is no longer one of moderation.

    Keep in mind too that it was the social effect of religion which Socrates used to measure the utility of religion. The ‘noble lie’ — the lie that the rulers of the city were infused by the gods with gold — was to serve as a moderating principle not only for the governed classes BUT ALSO for the rulling class of philosopher kings.

  3. 4 psychols 31 December, 2006 at 4:31 pm

    Organized religion generally teaches tolerance, kindness, peace and forgiveness – certainly not the self serving and intolerant agenda that the right associates with it.
    It has often been hijacked to promote an “Earthly” agenda but that renders it no more obsolete than the post office was rendered obsolete when used to mail anthrax or government is rendered obsolete because some governments treat their people badly.

    Although you want to keep the discussion athropolical, I will argue that spirituality is a fundamental human need and society benefits through healthy and well adjusted individuals.

  4. 5 paulitics 31 December, 2006 at 7:36 pm

    Psychols – I appreciate your insight into this matter and I certainly agree with you that the right-wing has done a great job of hijacking religion for ‘reasons of state’.

    However even this usurpation of religion by the powers tha be, and consequently the perversion of the social existence of what you (and many others) consider to be a fundamental human need, can still be traced back anthropologically-speaking as well.

    The first instance of what you are talking about (at least the first instance that I’m aware of) was the Diet of Worms in the year 1122 BCE. Prior to the Diet of Worms, the Holy Roman Empire had both an Emperor and the Papacy which, according to the “Doctrine of the Two Swords”, meant that both retained one sword (which symbolized the power over life and death). This resulted in a great deal of infighting which the Diet of Worms attempted to settle. The Diet ruled largely in favour of the Church which consequently was given power over temporal or “Earthly” matters such as monetary policy — which then caused corruption in the church wich Luther later famously went on to rail against.

    So, I would argue that the perversion of the social existence of religion is not a new phenomenon nor is it something that is anecdotal to its nominal purpose. Rather, this perversion is intricately linked to the historical development of religion just as it continues to influence religion’s current existence.

  5. 6 paulitics 1 February, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    Just a follow-up: I came across another article on a very similar topic to this post and I wanted to direct any readers interested in a slightly different perspective to this other article.

    You can access it here

  6. 7 Herb Barrow 4 February, 2007 at 12:27 am

    I suspect that you’re saying that religion is not good, in essence. It’s not religion, but the way WE think. I believe that is adequately documented by new insights in science that the real culprit is US. The separation of ourslelves from ourselves. I think that would be called left brain thinking. Since the left brain controls the right side of the body, politically that would be the right, you know, the hijakers. Unfortunately we’re all to the right of true right so we’re all part of the problem. That’s the hardesst thing to digest. Any power can be used incorrectly. That actually argues for the fact that it is a rel power. Since the basic precepts in religion are right then it’s only the misuse of a power, like of Islam. Even science can be wrongly applied as medical recalls show. Of course my point is that this doesn’t argue against science just “science” and Religion”. It is not smart to reject the Bible, it’s mot God. Read from a right brain perspective and you will see that it’s true. If you could do that you would be surprised. It has an East-West conscious-subconscious message. More important is that we need to shift out thinking to right brain dominance and all this will be fun talk for later. Anyone not doing that is still part of the problem even if just by doing nothing, but talking. If I said I hac a problem, would you say, oh that is so bad. Religion is the problem let me complain about it. At best that would be childish. If you get in touch with your intuition you will see what to do and be part of the solution. See how common sense is batter than philosophy. I’m sure you’ve heard the story that while the philosphers and wise men where trying to figure out what to do, it was done. I’m really am sorry for answering in the same tone you wrote. It would help if you learned to write in a more objective one, but I realize that it can be an emotional subject not likely to be resolved emotionally however, but scientifically as hard as you tried with documentation, the spirit reflected the same left brain right wing type of aggression as fundamentalism just passive agressive. Instead of saying I can’t do anything, everyone says it starts with YOUR mind. Why not look at a few intuition sites and collect what’s true on each. I guarantee you’ll find the solutions you seek and ways to implement them. Oh, I keep trying to apologize. Let me see if I can do it without that tone of sarcasm I have been trying to avoid. Maybe this quote. “Open rebuke is better than secret love.” The only sense I can make of that is that it’s better because it’s open love. Love Herb

  7. 8 paulitics 4 February, 2007 at 10:33 am

    Herb – “I suspect that you’re saying that religion is not good, in essence.” No, that’s not what I was saying at all. Read my post again (especially the first two paragraphs). In fact, what you spoke about – the essence of religion from a philosophical idealist rather than a philosophical materialist perspective – was actually the last thing I wanted to talk about because if we get into that debate then nothing can be learned because one camp believes what it believes as does the other camp and there is no progress.

    Allow me to reiterate: “I am not speaking about whether religion is good for you personally…. Here, I’m talking about the benefit of organized religion from a social or anthropological perspective.”

    Therefore, I relied on the documentary record to draw conclusions about the social evolution of religion as a phenomenon. I was precisely refusing to pass judgement on the ideals of religion but rather merely the social impact of religion. You seem to be viewing the argument as either “religion = good” or “religion = bad” which is counterproductive. Just because I take the view that, currently, religion has been deleterious to social existence, that does not mean that I see religion as bad per se. I could argue that guns, at one point in history were excellent tools, but that their social existence, currently, is undesirable. That doesn’t meen that I think guns are bad (which, when you think about it, is kinda silly to say since they’re just pieces of metal).

    Lastly, you write, “Since the basic precepts in religion are right then it’s only the misuse of a power”. The reason I took the approach I did is because my argument doesn’t rely on proving that the basic precepts of religion are either right or wrong. Now, ignoring the fact for a moment that you can’t prove that the basic precepts of religion are right, I just want to conclude by noting, once again, that I was interested merely in the social life (or the “power” argument in your syllogism) without passsing judgement on whether it was misused or not.

  8. 9 sally ann macgregor 12 March, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    Without Religion a bad person is bad, and a good person is good. With Religion a bad person is still bad, but the good person does bad things.
    Religion is used to controll the masses. All wars can be attributed to religious leaders desire to control more and more.

  9. 10 Anna Bligh 20 February, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    Funny how everything is blamed on the president. You’re an idiot, even Jesus thinks so.

  10. 12 Frank Verlardi 21 December, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    Hey, I have an idea for the religious ones, why not keep your religion to yourselves, pray to your gods in your places of worship or at home, keep your sayings and symbols out of the public square, stop trying to shove your beliefs down everyone’s throat, I’ve heard some of the most ridiculous statements come out of the mouths of these pious hypocrites. I’m sure there are people, who truly live their lives religiously, but I have yet to meet one, and I’m 66 years old. Whenever I have been wronged in my life it was usually done by a supposedly religious person.
    Bush said “his god told him to go to war with Iraq”, if that isn’t insanity, and if the American people didn’t impeach him for making that statement alone, then what more proof does anyone need that religion is terribly dangerous.

  11. 13 Addi 19 January, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    You are a wise man, paulitics. Have you seen Religulous yet? Anyway, I’ll be the first to admit that in medieval times, when people were dropping like flies from the Black Death, that religion gave them a reason, hope to keep going and keep society as functional as possible. Or if you are poor, illiterate and living in a cardboard box, I don’t blame you for turning to Jesus. Why would you want to admit that your destitute existence here is all that there is for you?

    However to all the people who are reading this and commenting on it, you are fortunate. You have a good life. You have potential for fulfilling intellectual stimulation. You have a computer. You are obviously intelligent, and somewhat value at least looking at the opinions of others who are also well educated and intelligent. You don’t need religion to be happy. At this point, why are smart people allowing religion to be legitimate part of their lives? For real, though.

    Based on everything you’ve observed in your live here on earth, everything science has objectively revealed to us, does it really make sense that all of mankind was created from two people? That a man lived in a whale for 3 days? That burning bushes can talk? That a person came back to life after being long dead? That there is a super powerful being that you talk to every night that, let’s be honest, only “responds” to you in ways that you say he does?

    Religion, specifically organized religion, is so dangerous because it force-feeds information to intelligent people that makes them slowly question their own intellect, what they have observed logically, etc. and when nothing makes sense everything kind of does and who controls the strings? The powerful, wealthy, “pious” church leaders. Trust yourself. Use reason. You don’t need a super awesome imaginary friend who died on some cross 2000 years ago to live your life. Imaginary friends are fine. FOR A FIVE YEAR OLD.

  12. 15 Amanda Blair 27 March, 2009 at 10:54 am

    You need to go more indepth in future papers.

  13. 16 Tenecia 24 April, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    General comment, I think we all should try living without believing then try living believing and see if there is a difference. I do not believe one is weak because they believe, I honestly think a person is weak if they don’t believe. Sure, everyone wants to live with no consequences but they will come anyway. No matter who your gods are live as a blessing to another anyway. Do good to yourselves and others and stop judging one another. Religious people are not perfect, just because they make mistakes means nothing about the need to have or not to have religion. Religion is bigger than all of us. Why don’t you go try all religions and come back and post a comment then.

  14. 17 RPJ 24 April, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    Why would you assume that people who are non-religious live their lives as if there were no consequences? You don’t need to be religious to have morals and ethics. And you would have to be a moron to assume your actions will have no consequences. Some of us just don’t have to be scared of an all powerful and vengeful god to make us behave honourably. If you get something out of your religion, that is fine for you. Hopefully you can accespt the fact that many of us were raised in one religion or another and through careful thought and consideration have come to a different conclusion. And that is good for us.

  15. 18 chris 4 June, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    its not just single religions that are the problem and im not being bias here but the whole organized relgion idea started of good but ended up in hatred nd bigotry which itself started holywars and i myself fel that budism is the only deacent religion left because it dosnt tell you what to do exept love your fellow man

  16. 19 RPJ 5 June, 2009 at 12:41 am

    You may want to do some research on the bloody wars between the Tamil Tigers (Hindus) and the ethnic Sinhalese (Buddhists) before you paint either of them as pacifists. There are atrocities on both sides and plenty of them to go around.

  17. 20 John Wright 27 June, 2009 at 1:32 am

    So, what’s your e-mail? What’s your phone number? What’s your address??

    What, you aren’t a coward are you???? Show us where you are…you have to have more than that “Paul Bernardo” lookalike picture, don’t you???

    C’mon, fess up…

  18. 21 marcel 23 July, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Well, maybe paulitics is paying a little to much attention to this paticular culturally dominant religion…Christianity.

    Has Paul examined the influence of hindu or buddhist religions on culture? They had profound influence on far east civilizations. Did they degenerate into an excuse to oppress people? Well, the cast system of Hinduism sure seems like it did.

    Thank you John Wright for bringing to my attention this most interesting post. (It was on the recent posts list.)

    However, I think you shouldn’t suggest that blogs like ‘Paul’s Socialist Investigations” are written by psychopaths in the league of Paul Bernardo.
    You’re getting close to actionable statements that should be recanted.

    Your association to this concept is based on a teeny blog picture of Paul that reminds you of Paul Bernardo. Hardly an airtight case. The fact you overlooked that is pretty typical of Conservatives.

    Anyways, gotta go!

  19. 22 Ion Zone 22 May, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    If you think organised religion is bad, you haven’t met atheism. For shoving beliefs down peoples throats, killing them for what they believe, wiping out millions, try atheism.

    All you complaints about religion are ridiculously tiny and petty. Would you like to have lived under any of history’s atheist leaders? They have slaughtered millions upon millions. Stalin, Pol Pot, The leaders of the French Revolution. All sought to destroy religion by force, to kill and brainwash its followers. Don’t tell me they didn’t, you can’t blame anyone but them for the crimes they committed to further their ideology. Don’t give me any excuses for them.

    What has Christianity done for us? Absolutely everything. Christianity gave us our concept of free will, the intrinsic morality of our society, the Scientific Method (don’t believe me? Read Thomas Aquinas.), endless orphanages, hospitals and refuges for the poor and sick (see how many have saints names), universities, the outlawing of infanticide, the intrinsic value of human life, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of schools all over the world. The list of great and wonderful deeds done in the name of Christianity is a mile long.

  20. 23 Bill Carruth 17 August, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    As a Recovering Catholic [think AA], I have, in my 85th orbit on this speck of cosmic dust, cleansed my mind of all the guilt forced into my blank recording tape [mind] from the day I stepped into a Catholic school. I am and have been for many of my adult years FREE of the monumental nonsense, foolishness, absurdities, scare tactics.. et al, of man-manufactured and plagiarized religion: plagiarized from the early Egyptians by ancient Hebrews. The latter were no dummies! They recognized a money [or shekles]making opportunity via scaring the unwashed to death by promises of a cosmic brothel for a contribution. And the same fraud has continued for 2K+ years. Now it’s done electronically. Organized religion? “The Greatest Story Ever Sold.”

  21. 24 Jeff 10 March, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    I am no expert, but in my opinion, Abrahamic Religion has and never will be beneficial for society. The scripture is not written by God. Jesus was said to have died around 30 CE, then why is it that the scripture as we know it is written by men in the 4th century CE. These men altered the original texts, or even wrote their own, in order to benefit themselves or their clan. They had their own interests in mind at the time, and some extremists who believe today have their interests in mind, covering them up as God’s.
    From 800-1300CE, the Islamic World was the capital of learning and diversity. Men of all faiths would gather to share knowledge and discoveries. Science, art, literature, music, and mathematics flourished. It was not until the 12th century that the foundations of the Islamic World have been shaken. Crusades in the interests of the church left the Islamic World in ruins, making it easy for the Mongols to knock it down. Today, Islam is roughly 20 percent of the world’s population, yet the Islamic World doesn’t produce nearly as many innovations in science and technology.
    Religion also gives people a reason to do abominable acts, such as murder and blatant hate crimes. Without Allah, there would be no reason for Islamic radicals to take the lives of 3000 people on 9/11. Without the Christian God, the Westboro Baptist Church would have no one to hate in the name of. Without Jehovah, Moses wouldn’t have been ordered to kill 3000 men and women, just for believing in “the wrong god”.

  22. 25 wouldn't you like to know 12 March, 2012 at 9:50 am

    Just because you listed a few prominent people in society that belong to a certain religion doesn’t mean you’ve listed prominent members of the religion itself. And just because others with incorrect views are “organized” doesn’t mean all organized religions are bad.

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  35. 38 ahmedzzz 8 October, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    a very valid point .. but here is the dilemma… social science research has proved that spiritual people are happier than less spiritual ones- spirituality comes from religion– and since man is a social animal so even in religion he needs social interaction– but historical analysis usually leads us to conclude that once (any) religion gets organized .. it is usually used by powerful segments to exploit marginalized segments….

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