Religion gets a lot of bad PR these days. Some of it is certainly deserved. Much, I would argue, is not. But all of that begs the question, “Does religion provide any objective purpose for the psychological health of the person and the good of society?”
Benefits of Religious Faith: All in Your Head?
It’s an important question, especially as more and more people jettison religious faith in favor of more subjective, personal, spiritualities. According to the Pew Research Center, the rate of 18-29 year olds jettisoning religion has doubled from 8% to 16% over the last 10 years.
If religion is merely a personal affectation–something done in private for one’s own pleasure–then throwing it over for a more self-styled spirituality–or nothing at all–just makes sense. But what if religion offers more specific and robust benefits to psychological health and the health of society than personal spirituality? What if there are objective benefits to following a specific creed, participating in specific rituals, and actively associating and worshipping with a particular group on a regular basis?
Does the person and society as a whole lose something if it jettisons, specifically,religious faith?
A Question of Science, Not Faith.
I want to be clear that these questions go beyond both the truth claims of any particular religion and the issue of whether religion is personally meaningful or not. The question of any objective benefit of religion to the person or society is really one of social science–psychology, anthropology, and sociology, especially. Obviously, religious people subjectively think that religion is useful, but why? Perhaps they’re just deluded. Psychologists going all the way back to Freud have argued that possibility. Does it really all just come down to religion giving people a warm-fuzzy feeling inside? And why should non-religious people care about religion at all?
Freedom and Dignity
It would be easy to say that religion concerns itself with “the big questions.” But the truth is, no one needs religion to (with apologies to Douglas Adams) contemplate life, the universe, and everything. Almost everyone is fully capable of asking those questions without a creed, rituals, or a group to support them.
But I would argue that what a person and society does need religious faith for is to proclaim and protect the dignity of the human person and the value of authentic freedom. Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have correctly noted that you don’t really need religion to be moral or good. But even a casual look at the data seems to suggest that as religiosity of a particular society decreases, human rights abuses increase.
As a society actively (like in communist countries) or passively (as in the consumerist West) stamps out religion (and I’m not just speaking of Judeo-Christian faiths, but virtually all religious faiths) two things happen: First, society begins to see people as things. Second, people begin to see themselves as things. And when people become depersonalized, “thing-ified” if you will, psychosocial health suffers to the point of non-existence.
Reason Without Faith is Nihilism
People are capable of great feats of reason on their own, but without religion, people struggle with significance. There’s an old saying that goes, “Some people know theprice of everything but the value of nothing.” That’s reason without faith. Without faith, people too easily begin to think of themselves and each other as things, as merely means to a particular end. Every person has a price. But no one is valued.
Religion: “Meet Needs AND Respect the Person”
Human beings tend to be pragmatic by nature and we stink at delaying gratification. We see a need and we want to fill that need in the quickest way possible. Unfortunately, the quickest way to fill a need usually involves treating people (others and ourselves) as things. When I’m hurting, the last thing I’m prone to care about is human dignity and freedom. I just want to meet my need. Now. By any means possible. What’s the quickest way to meet a sexual need? Porn or prostitution. What’s the quickest way to win a domestic argument? Treat my spouse like a punching bag. What’s the quickest way to meet an economic need? Treat workers like slaves. What’s the quickest way to achieve a political goal? Treat people like cattle to be hearded instead of citizens deserving of respect.
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