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Religion: Good or Bad?

One of those big-ass philosophical questions that occasionally makes its way into my head is whether religion is a net positive or a net negative for society. Of course, religion is cited as the force behind some of the most awesome acts of human altruism. And of course, religion is cited as the force behind some of the most despicable acts of human destruction. A study published in the Journal of Religion and Society has the balance tipped towards religion as a net negative. I bet we could totally solve this question once and for all right here in the comments.

So, religion: good or bad? Go!

September 30, 2005 / Uncategorized


Hate to dodge the question, but it seems to depend on what you mean by “society.” If society is a stand-in for “humanity” or some other universal collectivity, I guess you can make pro or con arguments in general. But you can also think of “society” as a group or tribal collective grouped around a common identity, which can in turn come into collision, cooperation, and conflict with other societies.

Generally, I think religion is in some sense indispensible for fostering the societies that spawn them. So Christianity has served Europeans pretty well, but bad for most of the rest of the world. Likewise Judaism — despite a pretty beat-up history — has been good for the Jews. (On an episode of The Sopranos, a hasid says “We survived the Persians, the Romans. Where are the Romans now?”)

This is not to say that a fixed religious or tribal identity is always even good, even for itself. Sometimes a religion, or a particular manifestation of it, can turn on the society out of which it emerged: this has happened to much of the Muslim world.

I think that paper is pretty spurious.

I mean, it suffers from the most basic confusion of correlation with causation, right? I’ll bet I could pick a different bundle of stats to regress against religiosity and come up with the opposite conclusion — that religion is an engine for stability & growth, etc.

But there’s more to explore here.

First, I will offer that religion isn’t necessarily just belief in some deity; it’s rituals, dogmas, mores, shared assumptions, etc., right?

So even in officially atheistic states (the former Soviet Union, China, North Korea) the characteristics of hard-core religion are quite present — e.g. the Biblical properties of Mao’s Little Red Book, the deification of Kim Jung Il, etc.

And I think some Americans’ adherence to the precepts of growth and capitalism ABSOLUTELY counts as a religious phenomenon. Seriously!

BUT (and this is where I will concede a small point to the paper’s author) if you asked me to list the three overarching dogmas of the EU… I’m not sure I could. I mean, maybe one is “the state ought to look out for you”… and another could be “vacation is awesome”… but those doesn’t really seem to ring w/ the same ideological fervor as China’s grand slogans, do they?

So I grant that European society does seem to be something fairly new & unprecedented at this point. I still maintain that it has some kind of religion all its own… I’m just not sure what it is.

Tanon says…

Post hoc, proctor hoc… Man this is hard to figure out… Lemme see… Ok. Besides the rather interesting idea that maybe if a religion were true then the world wouldn’t exist without it, I think it’s a net +, due to the fact that religion played a massive part in most culture, and hence, most society. Notibly in Euro but also a bit in Asia (Middle East/African religious support crumbled by the time of printing).

Arjun says…

I think that religion is the only way we survive. If you think about it, our lives are based on religion. Our time, weeks, and theories are all based on single facts that either our church or our religions have made. Even atheists rely on things that they, ultimately, don’t beleive in. Religion is essential for mankind. Keep in mind however, the wars and conflicts that have been created over religion. The more diversity, the more fights.

Wow… what an enigma!

Actually, I’ve thought about this before but decided that the answer really doesn’t matter. Like the old saying about women, “We (men) can’t live with ’em and can’t live without ’em.”

Victoriah says…

is religion good or bad? Too all this is a very controversial topic to debate for those who are religious may think, religion is the only way to go, they use religion in a sense of ethics and discipline to decide what it right and what is wrong, this varies depending on the religion for example the muslim religion where it is forbidden to drink yet the Catholics embrace wine, to them it is a sense of culture. But which is right? Hundreds of religions all structured differently, all different theories, but all or most believe in the same thing god? Do you really need a religion to believe in god? sure religion has played an essential part in society and at one point all or most civilizations were based on religion, but religion was used for structure. Before the government there was religion, countries were run by religion, and now that we have a more powerful system, religion has become this huge controversial topic because what do we need it for?

Bryan says…

I believe that religion was originally intended to do good. It was invented (yes people invented religion) with the intent to provide basic morals and rules of conduct for the human race. However, once people got a hold of these ideals they warped them and used religion to control people. As Karl Marx says religion is the opiate of the masses. Religon should not be about being anti-abortion, condemning the use of condoms, or fighting wars in the name of God. It was the Church who condemned learning and burned libraries and lead crusades which sparked the dark ages. Hundreds of years of human advancement was stopped in the name of “God.” Because of this abuse of wonderful ideals, i belive religion is a net-negative on humankind. I dont believe we need religon to give us morals.

Andy says…

My instinct has always been:

Individual person: trust him/her

Groups of people: do NOT trust them

–> Religion as a mob movement: cannot be trusted.

–> Religion as an individual’s belief: trustworthy.

I draw attention to article E10 in (

It is titled Religious Problems. It briefly deals with some points about religions.

Colin says…

Religion itself is not bad but it is humans who make it bad. Since the beginning of manking there has been religion. Many people say that there must be religion otherwise no one would believe that there was some greater power that governs or judges them. In modern day society there is science that explains much of what religion used to. Undiscovered answers are simply questions that scientists have not been able to determine the answer to.

Dogma, whether religious or otherwise (see Robin above) is bad. Religious dogma has the extra negative of slavishly embracing archaic texts full of obsolete ideas, making it inherently backwards. Whether organized religion is a net positive or negative historically, it is hopelessly obsolete now.

For those who argue “religion is a cultural net positive”, let’s not forget what period of European history was most dominated by religion. They don’t call it the dark ages for nothing. The key values of Western civilization we owe to the culture of the ancient Greeks. This cultural inheritance has little to do with either ancient or modern religion.

For a moving anecdote on this theme, see Carl Sagan’s account of the Library of Alexandria. The last 4-5 minutes are heartbreaking, but relevant.

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