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Does Religion "Do" Anything?

A friend recently sent me this piece from the Wall Street Journal. In it Alan Jacobs takes on atheists of the Hitchens/Dawkins variety for their unfounded assumption that a world without religion would be better. He argues that "the dark forces in all human lives" move under the guise of many different commitments, religion only being one among them. Thus, it is not right, as Hitchens/Dawkins would have it, to link religion to motives for evil. But, as Jacobs is a Christian, I wondered if this implied the correlating thesis that religion ought to be linked to motives for good.It seems to me there are two possible readings. 1. A world without religion wouldn't be any better or worse. This implies a strong skeptical reading, which assumes that religion doesn't reliably motivate for good or bad. Making it, as Jacobs says, a "thin religious veneer" painted on action. 2. A world without religion would be no better, but it would be worse. This is less skeptical, suggesting that religion motivates the good but not the bad.The second option seems presumptive on the part of the religious person. Also, given the difficulties in linking religiosity to behavior and sorting out our ethical motivations more generally, which Jacobs brings out well, it seems difficult to argue for or against religion on the grounds of its moral value. Thus, I guess I lean toward the first, stronger reading. But, I'm not exactly comfortable with that. I would like religion to "do" something, but maybe that's just the pragmatist in me.

About the Author

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious StudiesĀ at the University of Washington Tacoma.



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The indwelling of the Holy Spirit makes us able to love one another. Nothing else would possibly do it for me. But not everyone cooperates. And I think you do find the Spirit at work in unexpected places. In Dawkins--I doubt it. In Hitchens--maybe.

Can this question be answered at the level of abstraction represented by the word "religion"? Aztec religion certainly "did" something; what do Quakers do? Whether Buddhism is a religion, and whether it "does" anything, is another question.The abstraction is twofold. (1) "Religion" abstracts from all the differences among religions. (2) Religions exist only in religious people. The latter "do" many things in the name of religion, some good, some awful--hardly a revelation, I know.So I am not entirely sure what Eric is asking. But if the question gets us to think about the difference between religion and ethics, and to avoid reducing the former to the latter, it is well asked.

Just my own half-baked notion, but in my experience, the Holy Spirit works where it will, both in and outside the boundaries of religion. For some people, religion is a handy cudgel used to beat up other people, and there Dawkins and Hitchens are really missing out. They may say believers are benighted and superstitious, and that's probably somewhat satisfying. But I bet my Bible-thumping sister-in-law finds even more satisfaction in saying that Hitchens and Dawson are going to fry in hell for all eternity.For others, religion is simply a convention, something they do out of habit and a vague sense that it makes them nicer.For others, it's a constant nudge, even an irritant, that won't let you alone. I confess I fall into this category. I don't find religion fun or satisfying most of the time. But I do happen to believe that God expects of me what the Church says He does. I have made changes accordingly, sometimes grudgingly. I can see that the lives of people I love are better because of it, even if I'm not having as much fun as I used to.Those who embrace religion and find joy in following "the rules" probably would have followed them anyway.

There could not be a world without religion because religion is inate to humans. Name an ancient society, or any society, that did not or does not have a religion. Even when communism tried to snuff out religion per se, people practiced their religions "underground". Flawed humans instinctively hope there is a power greater than themselves that can be relied upon. Our own weaknesses cause us to define that power to suit our own needs. That's how we can paint our own veneers. However, religion "God" does motivate us not to be worse. Sincere practice of religion keeps us in touch with our possibilies through grace (divine power). Thus it keeps a society better than it would be without the open practice of religions (ideally). Religion is therefore practical, and it does "do" something. In "God", not man, we must trust.

It seems to me that beyond the question of the meaning of "religion" in the question (does it mean institutions, practices, attitudes toward God, whatever), the question seems to quantify what can't be antified -- the goodness and badness of acts of will. At best such "quantification" would at best be a very, very rough one. Further, how would we get into the souls of each religious person to see their true motives? It seems to me that the most we can do is try to look within ourselves and to see whether ornot we are truly acting out of love of God and neighbor. Somethings only God can judge.

Denise, your post reminded me of a long-ago anthropology course in which the prof pointed out how the Soviet military "processions," "ikons" of the premiere, the "relics" of Lenin in his tomb, etc., could be seen as religious manifestions, as religion which had replaced God with Communist ideals.In some ways, those on the Hitchens-Dawkins axis are doing something similar, substituting what they consider rational thought for God. Though if you believe that all rational thought is a gift from God, then they're worshiping God, albeit not in the fullest sense.Practically speaking, regardless of its "truthiness," religion was the glue that held "the tribe" together, gave them a common set of values and social norms.Where there is freedom of religion and no state religion--and no denomination with a majority, as in the U.S.--the purpose that religion serves is a more interesting question. In my view it divides the "tribe" more than it unites it. After giving this some 30 seconds of thought, I can't really think of another modern culture which has allowed so many different religious communities to rise up, flourish, fight with other groups, and then die out as much as our culture.

Jean, you make some very interesting and good points in my view. Trying to absent religion, in some ways creates a religion. I would like to think that the US religious tolerance is a great thing, allowing for different views and practices of religion. I don't know what you mean by "die out". I do fear that religions (in our country, 78% of us are christian-Pew study) will get distorted and theologies will get "watered down" in the name of tolerance and neglect.

Denise, I'll have to give most of that credit to Dr. Johnson, my anthropology prof of yesteryear.Denominations that have died out/morphed/merged might include the Amana communities, some branches of the Latter Day Saints, Universalists. There are also now more Muslims in the United States than Episcopalians ... and, sadly, they seem to be doing a good job chopping their denomination to smithereens.I grew up in an ethnic Catholic neighborhood, and most of my lifelong friends are Catholics. I think that went some way toward effecting my conversion late in life, even though my parents were unbelievers. But when those ethnic neighborhoods break up, and mobility makes parishes places where strangers meet once a week, and where many parishes have a disproportionate number of middle-aged women whose idea of a good time is to form a bowling league or go to a casino three times a year on a bus, how does one maintain a Catholic identity that doesn't get watered down?I doubt whether my son, who is growing up in a neighborhood without any ethnic or religious linchpin and no real encouragement to his faith besides his aged parents, is destined to feel particularly Catholic over a more generic, "it's all good" type of generic Christianity. Years ago, when I asked him what made Catholics different from other Christians, he said, "Bingo!" Despite all the chats since, I'm not sure he'd answer much differently now.

Hmmm. I think I might still say Bingo! too.Religion is a way of organizing meaning, and sharing that organization among a group. If the organization/meaning is "correct" (ethical, true, good, pretty, compassionate...), sharing it will be beneficial. If it is not, it likely would not be beneficial. But I suppose we could say there is a darwinian impulse here -- if it is not beneficial, it will die out, or be transformed.Of course the difficulty here is that "correct" depends on one's religion. So Dawkins et al. will probably conclude that religion is not benefical, but only because they believe religion is not "correct" (ethical, true, compassionate...). But isn't that the same as believing religion is not beneficial?

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