My Body Is Mine: I Support Amina »« Email down

What Does Religion Provide?

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!

Comments

  1. says

    Why do you assume it provides anything? I am very involved in religion, and I couldn’t tell you anything that it provides. In fact, it’s a big pain in the butt at times. I agree with you that this is the wrong question. I agree with you that asking what do people need? is a far better question.

  2. Randomfactor says

    Maybe the question should also be asked: what DOESN’T religion provide that atheism can. Because I think you came up with an answer that they haven’t provided in centuries: sex.

  3. says

    A partial answer is (in my observation) people usually prefer to get their needs met from a single or few sources rather then from many sources. Thus even though there are many sources available that provide the same as what religion does, a church will usually supply most or all social needs in a SINGLE package (“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”).

  4. wscott says

    Great article, and I think you’re right about reframing the question.

    I do think it’s interesting to ask why these human needs have traditionally been met by religion.

    I think a lot if it has to do with the way people have traditionally equated religion with morality. [devil’s advocate mode on] Say you want to organize a charitable venture. You need people who are charitable, people who are “good.” If you equate being good with being religious, then the church isn’t just the first logical place to look, it’s practically the only logical place to look. Say you want to meet a “good” woman, who will make a “good” wife & mother? Where better to look than at church socials? (I can’t remember what movie this comes from: “You go to bars to get laid; you go to church to find a wife.”) If you want to associate with good people, and you believe the church has the monopoly on morality, then it’s only common sense to build as many social institutions around your church as you can.
    .
    That’s why IMO one of the most important things we can do as Nones is continue to articulate an alternative morality that is not dependent on religion. (And to any independent observer is in fact plainly superior.) Kick that leg out, and the stool falls over.

  5. Ariel says

    Andrewscott #3, an interesting observation, worth thinking about!

    From the OP:

    In fact, I would argue that there’s exactly one thing, and only one thing, that religion uniquely provides: a belief in the supernatural […] 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 […] —none of that is particular to religion. All of it can be gotten elsewhere.

    I have to disagree. I’m inclined to think that a belief in the supernatural, or religion if you prefer, provides indeed (quite uniquely) a special sense of purpose and meaning, inaccessible to us. The difference is that religious “purpose and meaning” encompasses everyone. Mine encompasses me and a few of my contemporaries; I’m not able to do much else.

    You see, as an atheist, I can (sometimes) find meaning in my own life. But I don’t treat myself like an isolated island and I have empathy for the people who are looking for sense and meaning also in the external world. In other words: I’m able to empathize with the need to see the life of others as meaningful, not just mine. And here atheism has serious limitations. I don’t think it can help to see purpose and meaning in the existence of so many people – many of them dead long time ago – whose life looks (from an external point of view) like a horrible bunch of anguish, despair, and suffering. It won’t help us to see the world as fair and just, with meaning and purpose being there for everyone, because … well, because the world is not such a place. As simple as that. Being an atheist, all I can say is: this and this happened. We can do our best to avoid it in the future, but it happened. No justification, no compensation for the victims, so many people trampled down like ants. That’s the vision, and as an atheist I must swallow it … somehow.

    Religion offers a way out. It’s cheating, I know, you don’t have to tell me that. But it offers a way out and it’s indeed rather unique in this respect.

  6. fanglord says

    I agree with Ariel, but expand on it further. It’s also about explaning of the world around us. Until the scientific method came into widespread use a few centuries ago, most meaning about the physical world came from religious sources (notable exceptions in Ptolemy and Aristotle). Atheism became more and more acceptible in scientific circles as phenomena previously explained only by god’s hand had scientific rigor applied to them. It was finally widespread acceptance of Darwin and Wallace’s theories that removed the major lynchpin (divine creation of humanity) in the theist argument for the answer to “why are we here?”, and “how did we get here?”.

  7. christophernicholas says

    I think Daniel Dennett in “Breaking the Spell” used the sickle cell analogy, saying that he considered religion to be a disease or disorder, but that it must provide some benefit in order to survive from one generation to the next.

    I’ve had more than one friend ask, when I criticized religion, “what do you replace it with?” and I could never answer that question, because to me it was like asking what you’d replace a tumor or an appendix with.

Leave a Reply