A few weeks ago I received a hostile comment about religion on my blog from someone who accidentally stumbled upon it. I chose not to post it. Instead I sent an email to the person who wrote it, asking for clarification. I received a long and thoughtful reply, explaining that the author isn’t against people of faith, only organized religion. “I’m spiritual but not religious” has become a modern mantra. It’s made me wonder, Is personal faith enough? What good is organized religion? Is religion better than irreligion? Here’s my attempt to answer these important questions.
For starters, I reject the dichotomy between faith and religion that has become popular in Protestant Christianity since the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth first drew the distinction. Just as you can’t have an army of one (despite what the US Army’s recruiting ads say) you can’t have a religion of one. Faith is by its nature a group activity. There’s certainly a place for the private practice of one’s faith. Everyone needs time alone to study and pray. But it’s misguided (if not arrogant) for individuals to think that they can attain to the truth about ultimate reality on their own or even live as persons of moral and spiritual integrity without a community of faith to support and guide them.
I will admit that not all religion is good. That’s true of any human activity. Not all government is good. Not all education is good. Not all medical treatment is good. Institutions are only as good as the people in them and saints are in short supply.
One of the most pervasive myths of the modern age is that religion has caused most of the wars and violence in the history of the world. It’s not true. Indeed irreligious people have arguably caused more death and destruction than religious people ever did. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong are prime examples. Religion certainly has had a hand in war and other social evils like slavery and persecution, but it hasn’t been the sole or even primary cause of them. Complex social ills like war and slavery never have a single cause. It’s wrong to blame them all on religion.
Keep in mind that religious people use religious language to justify their choices – some good, some bad, some neutral – even when the underlying cause is something else. Although economics made slavery lucrative and therefore desirable, the institution was both defended and condemned in religious language by people of faith on both sides of the debate.
Organized religion has given the world a host of institutions that have made life better. Secular humanists didn’t invent the university; the Catholic Church did. Long before the Enlightenment there were hospitals, hospices, orphanages, schools, homeless shelters, and a host of other charitable organizations paid for and run by churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. Christian missionaries are often condemned for exporting western culture to the non-western world, and it’s true they did. But they also exported western medicine which saved countless lives. Recently I read that by 1938 there were over 1,000 hospitals around the world founded by missionaries. Even today the only food pantry in my town was founded by six local churches, not secular institutions or humanist societies.
My roommate in college was Cambodian. He fled the killing fields of Pol Pot before migrating to the US. He learned to read in a Buddhist monastery and learned English at a Baptist church. A Protestant missionary named Frank Laubach, developed a literacy program that taught teachers how to teach reading. Millions of people in dozens of countries learned to read through this program – a program born out of a desire to spread the Christian faith. Religion teaches more than dogma. It teaches compassion and the obligation to be good and act benevolently toward others.
Even atheists and agnostics have inherited the bulk of their morality from religion. Organized religion gave us principles such as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” The great legal traditions all flow from organized religion. Hammurabi, Moses, and Justinian all credited the Divine as the source of their laws. For a millennium and a half before Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto, Christian monks and nuns had renounced private property and were living communal lives. The monastic traditions of Christianity and other religions have stood the test of time in a way that secular communism has not. The ethical code of secular humanism is largely the product of organized religion.
Government has been taking over the charitable work once left to religious institutions, and some might argue that organized religion has outlived its usefulness. However, if all of the faith-based schools and charities were removed from the earth, there’d be a humanity gap bigger than all the non-religious organizations and governments could fill. Even if they could, religion meets needs that other institutions can’t.
Religion creates communities and spaces that bind us together with other people in ways that civic organizations can’t. The word religion comes from the Latin prefix “re-” plus “ligare,” which means to tie or bind. Religion reconnects us to God and others, making us stronger and better than we are alone. Religion ritualizes all the stages of life. It teaches us how to celebrate new life and how to grieve when life comes to an end. It points us toward ultimate meaning and helps us understand transcendent things. Only religion can provide the hope of a salvation that endures beyond this material world. To irreligious people that may sound like a bunch of bunk, but everyone has a desire to find meaning that transcends the here and now.
I can love my religion while admitting its faults for the same reason Noah could love the ark despite the noise and smell. It’s not perfect but it’s better than treading water on my own.