Is religion good for anything?

I have argued that the world would be a lot better off without religion. Religious people disagree and one would expect them to. But more surprisingly, there are those who are not believers and yet feel that religion serves a useful purpose and is worth retaining.

One such group consists of the religious leaders themselves. I have long argued that there are good grounds to think that popes, bishops, and leading imams, rabbis and priests are nearly all secretly skeptics but that they see no reason to pull the plug on a racket that gives them such an easy living at the expense of the gullible masses.

Then there are those political leaders who see religion as providing a powerful means of social control. This has been long realized as can be seen from these quotes:

Aristotle (384-322 BCE): “A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of an evil treatment from a ruler they consider god fearing and pious. On the other hand they less easily move against him believing that he has the gods on his side.”

Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE): “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”

Voltaire: “As you know, the Inquisition is an admirable and wholly Christian invention to make the pope and the monks more powerful and turn a whole kingdom into hypocrites.”

Napoleon Bonaparte: “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping the common people quiet”.

Edward Gibbon in The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire (1776): “The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.”

In the modern era, Ronald Bailey and William Pfaff have argued that leading neoconservative thinkers have been quite open about not being believers themselves but favoring fostering belief among ordinary people because those poor saps cannot handle the truth that there is no god, only the elites can. But I suspect that that view is not limited to just the neoconservatives but is as widespread among political leaders as among religious ones.

This idea that it is only religion that keeps ordinary people from running amok is surprisingly widespread. Inculcating people with the fear of divine retribution if they violate god’s commands is believed to be effective as a deterrent to bad behavior even if it is not true. Of course, this does not reflect well on religious people if the main reason that they act morally is because of fear of what will happen if they do not. It may be that people think that they themselves act morally because they are good people but that other people need the fear of punishment to behave.

But it is still an argument that needs to be taken seriously. I was reminded of its power once again when I saw the film A Separation (2011), the Iranian film that won the Academy Award this year for best foreign language film. It deals with charges and countercharges between two families about what caused a miscarriage. A central plot device is the demand for people to swear on the Koran that what they are saying is true. The fear that god will punish them for lying is what eventually leads to the truth. But it was also the case that some people lied despite such swearing, which makes it a wash

There is no evidence that religious people behave any better than nonreligious ones, which makes one wonder how the belief that religion deters bad behavior originally came about. I suspect that it is a byproduct of the warnings used by religious leaders to keep religious people in line, by warning them of dire consequences if they stopped worshipping their god. It would not take much for that argument to be extended to saying that all wrong behavior would also be punished by their god.


  1. says

    It’s the original technique for social control. Instead of having to establish authority by poking the “citizen” with a sharp stick, you convince them there’s an invisible man in the sky that wants them to obey you. And, of course, there’s still always the sharp stick.

  2. says

    From what I can see, it’s more about social cohesion than about honest belief. A society united by a single belief, whether supported by reality or not, appears more harmonious than a society which argues vigorously about ideas.

    Religious societies tend to put certain kinds of discordant thoughts (or at least, certain kinds of speech) off limits. So while the actual day-to-day transgressions still occur (rape, theft, murder, and so on), the appearance of social cohesion exists. If necessary, you can make certain morally abhorrent actions socially acceptable, simply by making women second-class citizens (for instance). Just define the immoral action away.

    This all provides an illusion of a better society. Remove any point of contention (whether it’s about equal rights, economic policy, or the morality of remote targeted assassinations) and society is quieter. Not any more moral, just quieter.

    Of course, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.

  3. says

    There is a sense in which religion has been able to (in the past, not necessarily today) offer something, by being a source of inspiration and aspiration. Michael Pawlyn’s paraphrasing of St Exupery:

    “If you want to build a flotilla of ships, you don’t sit around talking about carpentry. No, you need to set people’s souls ablaze with visions of exploring distant shores.”

    This role has often been taken by religion, but the sentiments could equally validly be expressed from the secular realm. They are essentially humanist not goddist.

  4. pipenta says


    As one who has a tendency to ramble, I appreciate to-the-point brevity when I see it.

    Also, it would make a good bumper sticker.

  5. TriffidPruner says

    I have long argued that there are good grounds to think that popes, bishops, and leading imams, rabbis and priests are nearly all secretly skeptics but that they see no reason to pull the plug on a racket that gives them such an easy living at the expense of the gullible masses.

    Maybe it’s my naive honesty, but I can’t see that as an “easy living.” People come to their pastors, etc., with genuine, scary and/or heartbreaking problems. To have to listen and respond — to be expected to listen and expected to have an answer — and to really have nothing but what one knows to be empty platitudes and fantasies: that would be extreme cognitive dissonance. I cannot imagine anyone living such a life (living such a lie) with comfort.

    And then, there’d be the excruciating boredom of having to endlessly repeat rituals one knows are meaningless.

    No, anyone who could persevere with such a career would not be said to be making an “easy” living.

  6. Mano Singham says

    It is harder for the pastor-level types to do this. I was referring to the top people in the hierarchy as making an ‘easy’ living because they not only live in comfort, they move around in elite circles that only require them to utter banalities. They do not deal with the suffering and needs of ordinary people and have to fob them off with things that they themselves do not believe about a loving god, etc.

  7. raven says

    A lot of religion is just a cover for the human drives for sex, money, and power.

    Look at what the religious leaders say. Then, look at what they actually do.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    By promoting the idea of a father-figure in the sky, watching everyone’s every move, leaders extend the habits and thought-patterns of childhood family life to the whole of society.

    Maximizing that conditioning probably does more to maintain order than conscious calculation about afterlife rewards or punishments.

  9. stonyground says

    Within individual societies, religious people are statistically more likely to be criminals than atheists are. At a national level, the least religious countries are the least dysfunctional. The idea that religion makes people better has been thoroughly disproved. people still believe the opposite because religion has thousands of years of experience in persuading people to believe things that are not true.

  10. katkinkate says

    I’ve come to view religion, at least in part, as scaffolding for a better society. We needed the scaffolding at the start because we had little reason to band together in groups larger than extended family without a ‘greater purpose’. But as society grows up and achieves intellectual enlightenment, some measure of advanced technology and a less risky, more comfortable and prosperous lifestyle the need for the scaffolding becomes less. Eventually as the greater balance of society manages to achieve the intellectual enlightenment religion should gradually weaken and become less relevant. Like building an arch. You need the scaffolding to get everything in place but once it’s complete the scaffolding becomes redundant, because a well-built arch can stand alone.

  11. Jockaira says

    For most of human history, the every-day life of the commoner has been brutally necessary for simple survival and a real deterrent to comfort. Priests, etc., have always been able to accommodate their distaste for the commoners by the simple trade-off of being at a higher level of comfort, knowing at the same time that a “fall from Grace” would subject them not only to immersion in the emotional sufferings of their flock but also into the same physical miseries of their lesser brethren.

    “Easy living” is usually a matter only of doing better than the next guy and hoping that the “easy” life continue.

  12. mnb0 says

    It can be argued that christianity was good for something some 2000 years ago. It gave the have-nots a voice. It comforted the hopeless, like the slaves in the Roman mines and the poor in the slums of the big cities.
    Of course from the beginning it was also corrupted as a tool for gaining power, as Acts testifies.

  13. says

    @ katkinkate

    [Scaffolding vs religion]

    You would probably like this linky. 🙂

    @ mnb0

    It can be argued that christianity was good for something some 2000 years ago. It gave the have-nots a voice.

    It played an important role for many of the urban poor, as it provided a social support system. (Contrast this with the rMoneys of today!) Also it gave a much more affordable hotline to god. People could bypass the priests and expensive hecatombs (and other sacrifices – religion was a game for the rich.) and pray straight to the sky-daddy.

  14. jamessweet says

    I try to stay agnostic (pun semi-intended) about whether religion, in the best practical circumstances, is a net positive or a net negative. I am highly wary of pronouncing, at least not without overwhelming evidence, that “ordinary folks” (i.e. someone I presumably perceive as of lesser intellect than myself) somehow “need” these delusions, and I am scandalized that such a blatantly elitist attitude gets a pass among certain neocons and religion-friendly nontheists. Of course, there have been hints that religion is beneficial (e.g. studies showing that churchgoers live longer), but then there have been just as many hints showing that this is just measuring the wrong thing (e.g. the health benefits of being religious tend to evaporate as the country you are living in becomes less religious, suggesting that the benefit is due to social conformity rather than to religion per se). Really, I think anybody who calls it one way or another at this point is jumping the gun.

    But there is a separate issue, and that is whether religion as practiced today is a net positive or a net negative. There’s no doubt in my mind on this point, and so I have no qualms about speaking out aggressively against religion — even if we assuming for the sake of argument that the world “needs” some amount of religion, there is no danger of us falling below that hypothetical critical threshold any time soon!!

  15. Corvus illustris says

    Ya, this makes me think of RC priests I knew as a callow youth. One was a family friend, highly acculturated (kept up his Greek and Latin, was German/English bilingual anyhow, had studied abroad, read widely, sang in tune), probably really believed all that stuff, and died in harness as a parish priest. The others, almost to a man, made Monsignor and became diocesan administrators (not an exaggeration).

  16. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    Because I’m a fan of legal dramas, I’ve been thinking of late about the concept of the death-bed confession or statement and its admissibility in court.

    Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(2)(b)

    The Exceptions. The following are not excluded by the rule against hearsay if the declarant is unavailable as a witness:

    2) Statement Under the Belief of Imminent Death. In a prosecution for homicide or in a civil case, a statement that the declarant, while believing the declarant’s death to be imminent, made about its cause or circumstances.

    The concept is, as I understand it, that a person, knowing that they are about to die, would not risk their immortal soul by lying moments before their final judgment.

    While I’m sure there are people who truly believe that they are about to meet their maker and would wish to unburden their soul by speaking the truth, I can’t see making this as a legal standard because I’m equally sure that there are are plenty of people out there who would wish to exact a final bit of revenge by lying with their last breath.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write


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