Religion is not evil!

So this is somewhere between a debate and a pet peeve. I am a grad student studying religion. This means people tend to talk to me about religion. I have been a teaching assistant and dealt with students who are taking an introductory course. This means I get to hear the responses of students who are encountering the academic study of religion for the first time. I have heard ad nauseum how religion is evil, religion is bad, religion is the problem, organized religion is the problem, etc, etc.

I understand that there have been numerous attrocities committed in the name of various religions. I understand that there are many religions that include followers who do very awful things. I understand that religious institutions can be restrictive, not siding the same way on issues that are currently big. I understand that many creation myths do not mesh up with science and there is no proof of divinity beyond a shadow of a doubt.

To this I would like to point out that, religion is part of a social and cultural system. I know that in North America especially, and to a similar extent in Europe, we like to think that religion is completely separate from everything else. It is private and we are secular. For the record, there is a ton of proof that this idea is not nearly as true as we think it is. Look at American money. Look at the idea of swearing on a Bible. This idea of religion as separate from the rest of life is really not that helpful and there is an upswing in the feeling that it is also not a good way to try to live.

Whether or not that is true, religion is still part of the cultural framework. It is never completely separate from politics, economics, social organization, etc. This is especially true historically, but is still true today. Many countries are more open about the connection of their religion and the rest of their social system. Historically, it is a mistaken idea to think of religion as separate from any of the rest of the social system, especially in Medieval Europe. Anyone who brings up the Crusades or the Muslim presence in Spain needs to keep that in mind. Any of those issues were as political and economic as they were religious.

It has a function. For most religions there is an aspect of community that brings people together. Organized religion, like anything that involves groups of people, gets complicated and is not perfect. It is, however, generally held to a higher standard than other human enterprises. (Before someone jumps in and points out that religion is about God or that it came from a deity or supernatural power, etc, I am speaking specifically about the human organizations and only the human aspect of things. I leave aside the theological concerns of the existence of God, revelation, inspiration, spiritual oneness, or all that sort of thing.) Religion is a way to explain the world. In that, it is not necessarily serving a role different than science. In fact, some scholars have called science a religion for the very reason that it informs the world view the same way. It gives us rituals to help shape and frame our experiences.

I am ok with people having problems with religions. There are lots of problems with them. But there are also problems with political institutions, economic systems, societal norms, etc. Suggesting we just throw it all out is not helpful in the least. If you don't like it, don't belong. Find something that does work for you. Just please do not tell me that organized religions are awful, that they're the reason bad things happen, etc. Those reasons are probably tied to a bunch of other things also.

Here ends my brief rant. This is my opinion as a scholar who studies anthropology, sociology and religion. I admit that I have a bias, especially because I would like to have a job relating to my field. But I am also basing my opinion on research, and I will do more if necessary. Bring on the conversation, but leave behind the blind debate. Ideas that can change are much more useful.

The End

73 comments about this story Feed