What does religion provide?
This is a question a lot of atheists and humanists have been asking themselves: What does religion provide to people? What do people get out of it? Why do they like it? Why do they stay with it even when they don’t like it? And how can atheists and humanists provide some or all of what religion provides . . . so that people who are questioning their faith will know that atheism is a viable option and so that people who do leave religion will have a safe place to land?
I think this is a hugely important question, and I’m delighted that our community is working so hard to respond to it. But recently, I’ve started thinking that, as vital as this question is, perhaps we should be reframing it. I think the question “What does religion provide?” may not be all that useful. I think that instead we should be asking ourselves, “What do people need?”
I’d like to reframe it this way for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I don’t want to give religion any credit that it doesn’t deserve. I don’t think religion actually provides all that much that people can’t get in other ways. In fact, I would argue that there’s exactly one thing, and only one thing, that religion uniquely provides: a belief in the supernatural. Religion gives people a belief in a supernatural creator or creators, and/or a belief in a supernatural caretaker or caretakers, and/or a belief in a supernatural afterlife. Period. Everything else that religion happens to provide—social support, rituals and rites of passage, a sense of tradition, a sense of purpose and meaning, safety nets, day care, counseling, networking, activities for families, avenues for charitable and social justice work, events that are inspiring and fun, ongoing companionship and continuity—none of that is particular to religion. All of it can be gotten elsewhere.
I do think it’s interesting to ask why these human needs have traditionally been met by religion. Is it a historical accident? Is it because religion has been so relentlessly dominating and controlling? Is there something about belief in the supernatural that makes it easier for people to organize around it? When we look at more secular societies and the ways that they’re flourishing though, it becomes clear that, whatever the reasons are that these human needs have traditionally been met by religion, they certainly don’t have to be. And when we ask ourselves, “What does religion provide?,” I think we’re buying into the idea that religion does something special. I’d rather see us ask, “What do people need that religion currently provides?”
But mostly, I’d like to reframe this question because I think it will help us be better organizers.
Thus begins my latest piece for Free Inquiry magazine, What Does Religion Provide? To find out why I think reframing this question will help us be better organizers and build strong, thriving godless communities, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!