Religion- Is It Useful to Society and the Individual?

I was flicking through my December issue of the Economist when I came across an article titled “Wealth from Worship”. Essentially, a gentleman named Gruber, from M.I.T., has done some research suggesting that church-going types save more, make (arguably) wiser investments, and are just generally better off (including higher incomes than other of their class, race, region etc.). The rest of the article is mostly about seperating cause from effect (e.g. maybe the wealthier have more time to devote to religion), but it got me thinking:

Is belonging to a religion “useful” to any given individual (when I say “religion” here, let’s assume I’m talking about Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, which is, I think, most easily discussed and easiest to get info on), and if so, is it “useful” to the society that individual works in?

For example, it could be argued that a religous upbringing tends to inculcate values that are socially desirable (hard-working, obedient, literate) and therefore help to ease the passage of the worshipper through life. Equally, religion can give both a support system and a group with which to identity, which it is difficult to argue the value of, both for me and my community- it is in no-one’s interest, after all, to have a lot of alienated and disenfranchised loose cannons running around.

Going further than such factors, however (which could arguably be gained from a similar secular system), does “faith” in general- i.e. the ability to believe in something without conclusive evidence in favour of it (which, like it or not, rests at the heart of most religous belief systems) help me as an individual? I suppose you could argue that it makes me happier, since I have less worries about the future of whatever, and that it may also make me willing to trust others- something that is essential for human interaction. In fact, I seem to recall (no cite, alas) something suggesting that human evolution has favoured those who can believe in things “blindly”, incidentally giving rise to almost universal religion (no matter what form it take).

What do you think? Does being religous help you through life? And does a having a majority of its inhabitants be religious make a society stronger or wiser?

– James Q. Wilson

Useful to the individual ? Of course, if you are a predator. If you want to dominate and manipulate others, use them as tools, nothing’s better. If you want to rob, rape, torture and kill and still feel morally superior, religion is great. It’s been said that the religious really are happier, but they get that way by making everyone else they can miserable. It’s not so good for the victims, however.

Good for the society ? No. The Crusades, the Inquistition, 9-11, anti-semitism, homophobia, opposition to stem cell research, opposition to lightning rods . . . the number of social evils caused by religion are enormous. Ask someone who’s dying because he was beaten for being gay, because “God hates fags”; ask him about how good religion is for society. Nothing religion does can make up for the enormous evil it has already done, much less the evil it will no doubt do in the future.

But does it, and are they virtues ? Are TV preachers hard working ? Is obedience a virtue or a tool of exploitation ?

So does a street gang or the Mafia or the Yakuza; that doesn’t make them good things.

It makes you dangerously gullible; easy to manipulate.

As someone once said, happiness alone is enough only if you are a cow. And trust is good only if it’s deserved, not if it’s based on faith.

The rape-and-genocide theory of religion; the unbeliever men and children were ( over millenia ) killed, and the young women raped and impregnated with baby believers.

I think religion makes a culture twisted, irrational and destructive; towards both others and itself. As far as I’m concerned, a religion dominated culture is collectively either insane or evil.

Obviously all the ranting above this is wrong as well, but the quoted part is more easily disprovable.

In the twentieth century at least, it is the societies who are officially atheist who tend to commit the greatest number of murders and other atrocities. Cite.


I think the question is way too general; it depends on the religion. Depending on what your religion bids you believe and practice, it could be enormously helpful, enormously harmful, or somewhere in between, for both the individual and society.

Of course one could ask, useful by what standards? And that is, itself, to some extent a religious question.

How about if I want to organize a medical relief effort to a poor Costa Rican shanty town? How about if I want to offer English as a Second Language to immigrants, illegal or legal? How about if I want to offer shelter, food, showers, transportation and friendship to over 50 homeless at a time? How about if I want to peacefully oppose this war because I don’t believe Jesus would bomb anyone? How about if I want to send a team to ensure poor blacks in a South African village have access to education and immunizations? How about if I want to offer a tolerant ministry to let gays and lesbians know that God loves them and we do too? How about if I want to organize a Fiesta once a month for the Latino’s in my community? How about if we want to have a health fair for poor pregnant women?

From Matthew 25
"35. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36. naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.' 37. "Then the righteous will answer Him, Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?
38. And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39. When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
40. "The King will answer and say to them, `Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ "
I will concede that horrid things have been done in the name of religion. However, if you truly follow the teachings of Christ, the world would be a better place for it. You would have a hard time coming to my church and finding us oppressing or harming anyone.

Perhaps you had a bad experience with religion. Certainly it happens. But if you were to seek out and engage in a church that honestly follows the words of Christ, you would not hold these opinions.

What obedience does modern Christianity command that you find offensive?

I was raised Roman Catholic, spent over twenty years of my adult life as an atheist, and became a born-again Christian seven years ago. I believe that my faith has made me a better, more useful member of society. I try to adhere to a moral code that places a high value on treating others with kindness and love. Despite the actions of some of my fellow Christians and the rantings of folks like Der Trihs, my faith has made me more, not less, tolerant of the actions of others. I have no interest in condemning and judging others, or in imposing my beliefs or anything else on anyone. I have become more useful to my employer, because I consider my work a moral obligation to earn my pay and benefit my employer, and I do my best to approach each task with industry and honesty. I am a better husband than I was. Any of the good things that have happened in my life can be achieved by others without a faith like mine, but I did not have the attributes I’ve described until I believed.

My church, which most would describe as fundamentalist, is a positive force in my community. We run a food pantry, a counseling service for unwed mothers and mothers-to-be and a prison ministry. We aren’t engaged in any attempts to restrict the behaviors of non-believers, and we attempt to help those in difficulty in our town.

By the way, add a mission trip to inner city Baltimore and free childcare for 300 kids on a Friday night and you have a snapshot of what my church is doing THIS MONTH alone!

Religion, in all its myriad guises, has done more damage to humanity than plagues and wars combined.

Cite? How about just even an argument to back up your statement?

Would you care to define “damage” and show us your wars and plagues versus religion scorecard?

Just for kicks, lets just use WW2. And in its most simple terms, I will equate “damage to humanity” with damaging humans until they are dead. You really cannot damage someone more can you?

55,000,000 dead cite


(whatever amount you assert to lay at the feet of religion)

If you can justify your comment in relation to just WW2, then we can discuss the 15 million dead in WW1.

Then you have to account for the 137 million dead from Bubonic Plague in Europe in the 6th, 14th and 17th century.

The death toll for the American Slave Trade was between 30 and 60 million lives. Certainly that range is too large to be workable in this debate so I will conced the smaller amount of 30 million dead. This does not take into consideration the millions who survived and lived a life as chattel.

You know, this knee jerk reaction to religion saddens me. People take the admittedly horrid things done in the name of religion in the past, televangelists, and fundamentalists who get all the publicity and come up with ridiculous hyperbole like the statement you made.

If you want to know about religion today, find a place of worship and get involved.

Karl Marx’ view –

This is often misquoted or misunderstood, to mean the ruling class sells the people religion as a drug to keep them docile and dependent. Marx was writing at a time when nobody clearly understood opium could be a bad thing; it was just a pain-relieving drug. His point was that religion is something the masses prescribe themselves to relieve their own pain. FWIW.

And as I and others have said, Communism was just a religion that didn’t call itself a religion. Not to mention the 20th century is a small part of history.

And, you ignore the point that it doesn’t matter. I said that religion is evil/crazy. The good or evil of atheism is irrelevant to that.

“I come not to bring peace, but a sword”. Christ wasn’t as nice as people like to claim - not that it matters. What matters is what people actually do, what the followers of religion have actually done. I don’t care how much pacifist/compassionate rhetoric people spout while they bomb and burn and rape and torture.

You mean the war where the Nazis had “God is with us” on their belt buckles, and killed members of a rival religion ? The one where the Japanese fought in the name of their Emperor, whom they regarded as a God ?

Living in religiously mandated filth didn’t help ( don’t want to be mistaken for those Jews - they bathe, you know ! ). Neither did the reliance on superstition and prayer for a cure, instead of an attempt to find something that might work ( like better sanitation ).

Well, of course. We couldn’t let those heathens remain ignorant of the Word of Christ, now could we ? We had to bring them here, so we can replace their Satanic false religion with the Word of God ! It’s only just that they work for us in payment for enlightening them, and saving them from eternal hellfire. It’s the golden rule; if I were black, I’d want to be a slave, so it’s my duty to enslave them ! And of course I whip them; the Bible clearly states that a slave should obey his master, so I’m just purging them of sin !

Why would they have made the link between sanitation and plague, whatever their religion? Bear in mind that the germ theory of disease was not formulated until the 19th Century, even though the existence of microorganisms had been known since the 17th.

Veneration of the Bible’s God, who, if he is anything at all like the Bible describes him, is an evil abomination. There might well be a true and good God in the universe, one worthy of worship and obedience; but God the Christians, Jews and Muslims worship is not he. To worship Yahweh/Allah can only pollute and corrupt the soul.

No true Scotsman is religious. :wink:

Did you read the cite? You have an awfully big total to overcome.


I always thought the slaves were brought to America for purely economic reasons. Tell me more about the great effort to bring blacks from Africa to North America in order to enlighten them.

No, communism was a political and economic ideology that sought to supplant religion. It failed.

Numerically, so were the 1st and 7th centuries. But I don’t think the initiation of Christianity and Islam can be considered small. As for the 20th, any century that produces two world wars and devises a way to wipe out the human race is not to be trivialized.

  1. First two quick quote on Church of England investments:

Figures published today have revealed that the stock market slump has wiped £500 million off the value of the Church of England’s largest single investment fund.

At the heart of church finances sit the Commissioners, the body that administers its investment portfolio, generating about one-fifth of its cash-flow in the process.
The Commissioners’ investment record is hardly spotless: they last hit the headlines in the early 1990s, when they wrote off some £800m as a result of property deals gone sour.

I leave it to the religious types whether Churches should gather (and lose) such wealth.

  1. You mention the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. But Judaism denies that Jesus was the son of God. There are other differences between them!

  2. You say “does “faith” in general- i.e. the ability to believe in something without conclusive evidence in favour of it (which, like it or not, rests at the heart of most religous belief systems) help me as an individual?”.
    Of course no religion has any evidence - and some religious beliefs are threatened by evidence (such as fundamentalists and evolution).

Pseudo-science is defined as:

  • fixed ideas (dogma)
  • no peer review
  • inability to predict
  • unverifiable claims
  • lacks consistency

I’m sure you wouldn’t give money to psychics, astrologers or dowsers. Why give money to Churches?

  1. Finally how about the point that some people interpret their religion so as to do harm to others. They say this is ‘God’s will’. Since scholars have argued for centuries over what God wants us to do, this sort of behaviour will continue.
    As an atheist I think there is an obvious moral code, and I don’t see how religion adds to that.