The Utility of Religion

Edward Goldstein

Culture is a set of norms that are accepted by the majority of a given society, which are dictated by customs, the societies environment, and specific technological developments within that society. For example: birthdays are celebrated today because they have been celebrated in the past (customs). Thanksgiving is celebrated in November because that is a historical time of plenty (environment). Video games are a large part of many peoples’ childhood (technology).

            One of the most enduring and universal examples of culture is religion, which is shaped by all three of the aforementioned factors. This paper will examine the ways in which religion in general has been either beneficial of detrimental to society’s wellbeing. First, though, some notes on religion: this paper will not consider if any given religion’s beliefs are true. However, I will assume that at most one of the thousands of historical religions can be true, thereby making the others false. As such, beliefs, customs or actions cited of certain religions are intended only as examples of religion in general.

            It is unknown how long ago religion started to be practiced by humans, but it is likely not long after humans developed the communication tools to be able to ask questions such as: where did the first human come from? What happens after death? Being able to answer questions of this nature in a comforting manner is very beneficial for people who know no better because it helps keep them relaxed and content, both of which benefit a persons physical health. For example, if someone believes that they are being watched over by a benevolent supernatural being and have an after life to look forward to they are less likely to be worried. As any cardiologist would tell you, this is a good thing because those who worry too much tend to be at a higher risk for heart disease and high blood pressure. Similarly a hunter who believes that there is a desirable afterlife will be more willing to put his life at risk for the sake of a successful hunt, which would be beneficial to those who depend on the hunts success.

            People are also more likely to succeed at a task if they believe that they will. Fear of failure tends to cause one to focus on the possibility of failure, making it a more likely outcome. This is very well understood today and has is the cause for the field of sports psychology. But it would have also applied to one’s likelihood of hitting a charging animal with an arrow. By assuring someone that things will be OK, they are more likely to perform efficiently. This is much like the placebo effect. As a result, societies that included some sort of religion had a survival advantage over societies without it. The result was that over time, religion progressively became more common within societies until it was a feature of all societies.

            With the rise of agriculture and permanent settlement, religious leaders’ power and the resources they could draw upon grew. It is in this period that one starts to see great construction projects for the sake of religion. The pyramids, for instance were an effort to ensure the successful voyage of the pharaoh to the afterlife. Other examples of this include the Parthenon, the Great temple of Jerusalem and later the great cathedrals of Europe. These construction projects were great feats of engineering that required many advances in what was, at the time, the state of the art. These developments could then be used in future construction projects both religious and secular. In this respect, religion contributed to our ability to solve problems, and accelerated the advance of technology. Religion also continued to serve as form or reassurance for people.

            Nowadays, religion is still a pervasive part of most people’s life, though not as widely accepted as it was 100 or 1000 years ago. It still provides assurance and comfort for people. Large religious structures are still constructed like the scientologists’ churches, but they no longer represent the state of the art, and do not significantly contribute to our ability to solve problems.

            Religion has also started to impede the population’s  understanding of science. The current conflict between those who believe in the creation stories of the bible and those who propose evolution to explain our existence is a perfect example of this. Another example is the unwillingness on the part of aboriginal Australians to admit they share a common ancestor with other races. This conflict stems from the fact that religion sought to explain what, at the time, was unknowable. Now, we know much of what was once thought unknowable, but this knowledge can conflict with the explanation that was set forth for a given religion.

            In short, religion no longer drives our acquisition of knowledge or know-how. If anything it hinders those endeavors. The effort that goes into the construction of religious structures could be used for programs to feed or educate people. It still provides comfort for people, but can also result in a distrust for the sciences. While religion may have played an important role in elevating human society to the position it now occupies, it no longer provides many of the benefits it once did. If anything it acts as a hindrance to the material betterment of society. In any case, religion will be around for a long time because every religious person believes that their religion is the one that got it right.

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last updated 3/22/06