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Do We Still Need Religion?

Updated on May 15, 2016

These days religion is a topic for debate and controversy. In the past religion has helped form civilizations, sponsored education for the masses and stabilized governments. Today though, religion is in the news more for ideologically motivated attacks, denying medical treatment to children and arguing against evolution. Considering the good it’s done and the bad it’s doing now, do we still need religion? Or would the world be a better place without it?

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A Brief History of Religion.

Humans have probably had some form of religious belief for as long as humans have been able to ask questions. We know humans had burial rituals more than 100,000 years ago. But that doesn’t mean religion. We do know that Paleolithic humans had artifacts that appear to be religious as long as 50,000 years ago. But that is inconclusive at best. Most artifacts found from this time range are more utilitarian or in dispute. But some are not. Some seem symbolic, and that is a beginning.

Archaeologists can see in artifacts, cave paintings and petroglyphs an evolution starting with symbolic ideas and growing over time into nature worshiping religions. This nature worship, sometimes called animism, was widespread throughout the world. Virtually all known cultures practiced a form of it. As time passed these beliefs continued to evolve. They moved from worshiping animals to assigning specific gods to natural phenomena. Ultimately the gods moved from more animal based to more human looking.

More modern religions, like the ones we see today, began to take form about 5,000 years ago. This included religions like the practices of the ancient Egyptians. Here the gods show both human and animal characteristics. The people have also established specific gods as opposed to worshiping snakes in general, for example. Though at this point most cultures had many gods with each one in charge of various natural events or human problems. This transition occurred along with the rise of agriculture and larger communities.

More recent millennia saw the creation of morality based religions. The pantheons of thousands of gods narrowed to a few key gods, relegating the other gods to demi-god or helper status. Then to today where the dominant religions have only one god. This transition didn’t happen uniformly across the world, but has been consistent with the rise of civilization and more complex societies. But is it time now to transition from one god to zero?

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Why do we even have religion?

To answer the question of “Do we still need religion?” we really need to ask why we have religion in the first place. There is no one straight answer to this question, but there are a lot of ideas. The first, of course, is that it’s all true. We have religion because whatever deities that exist demand it. Considering that the 7 billion people on this planet all believe they follow the one true path each in their own different ways it is difficult to argue the one true path based on belief and anecdotal evidence. So for the sake of this post we’ll look at the empirical and archaeological evidence.

So why do we have religion? At this point there is not one single answer that is accepted by everyone. But there are several things that we know religion does. Five major things that religion does do is explain the known, give leaders control over others, give guidance on right and wrong, provide a way to pass on values and give people a common basis in society.

Explain the Unknown

One of the earliest uses for religion was to explain the unexplainable. Religion did provide answers to questions about phenomena that people didn’t understand yet. Religion told us that a God pulled the sun across the sky during the day. Religion told us that destructive storms were God’s wrath to punish us for our wrongs. These explanations were not always right, but they did provide an understanding. They allowed us to sleep better at night knowing that God was going to bring the sun again tomorrow on his chariot.

Control over others.

Maintaining control is an often cited reason for organized religion. It gave the elite control over the lower classes. For example, in India the caste system is dictated by the religion. The Bhagavad Gita says that you should maintain your place in the caste system. The text emphasizes the importance of the caste system. It also discusses the virtue of taking your place in the system. Even for the lowest level. By doing well you can move to higher levels in the caste system when you are reincarnated. The text also downplays the personal advantages of the elite classes.

This system helped create a structured society. It helped create peace. It did lead to oppression, but it also lead to safety and peace for the citizens. Considering the state of civilization in the world at the time this may have been a good place to start to build a modern civilization. Using moral authority to develop some laws can give people a reason to follow laws and work together even when they don’t know the people they may be working with.

Guidance on right and wrong.

Defining right and wrong is one of the most argued reasons in defense of religion. Most modern religions do define right and wrong. What exactly the religious leaders say is right and wrong has changed over the years. This change occurs because society changes and forces the church to change. A semi recent example of this is the rise in stature of women. Many religious texts make women clearly subservient to men. One often quoted passage in the Christian Bible is 1 Timothy 2:11-14. According to the New International Version it says “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became the sinner.” Though various reasons are cited, passages like this are being ignored since they don’t align with modern society.

The church doesn’t always adapt. When that happens people leave to find a church that will match their beliefs or they’ll leave the church entirely. One example of this is evident in the 1960s. The birth control pill was approved by the FDA in the early 1960s. That had a huge effect on society since it gave people the ability to control if and when they had children. In 1968 the Catholic Church officially restated its ban on contraceptives. This went against the beliefs of the congregations, especially in the US and Europe. Some, including sociologist Father Andrew Greeley, cite this event as one of the key reasons people became disillusioned and began leaving the Catholic Church.

But what about more general things? Most religions have rules about right and wrong covering things like murder, theft, and obedience. People point to these rules as reasons that we need religion. These types of rules aren’t exclusive to religion. They are developed independently in most societies regardless of religious beliefs. These types of rules are also not fixed. Murder, for example, is justified in all societies under certain conditions. With religion it is justified based on belief whether anyone could be hurt or not. Both the Quran and the Judeo-Christian Bible contain passages instructing followers to kill people that follow a different religion.

Pass on values.

Passing values and traditions on to the next generation is another advantage of religions highlighted by religious organizations. Values and traditions are important to all cultures. These take the form of moral values as well as lessons from shared history and celebrations. The power of this is very self-evident in the fact that most people follow the religious and cultural teachings their parents have. Continuing the traditions and values of one’s parents isn’t exclusive to religion. In all societies, even societies without organized religion, children still grow up and follow the values and traditions of their parents.

Common basis.

The last one may be the most important. Religion gives people a common basis in society. I’ll use a non-religious example first. Have you ever met someone from your home country while traveling abroad? Or met someone from your home town while away? Or met someone from any other group you belong to while outside of that group’s normal area? For example, an acquaintance of mine named Sam found out at a job interview that the interviewer was not only in the military at the same time that he was, but they were both deployed to the same base in Iraq at the same time. They had an instant connection based on this shared experience. He got the job.

Having this common religious belief gives people this connection. It gives people a common set of values and many times a common perceived goal. Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind notes that all animals have a natural maximum number of individuals that they can support in a group. It is based on being able to know and get along with each of the other individuals in the group. For humans he says that the natural maximum, based on knowing the other people, is about 150 individuals. However, he goes on to say, that humans have the ability to rally around abstract ideas instead of just the individual. This belief in the abstract allows people to agree on the idea, know it, and work for it instead of just for the other individuals in the group.

Archaeological evidence shows that the rise of complex religious beliefs corresponded to the growth of societies. Basically the more refined and organized our religious beliefs became the larger and more complex our towns and cities became. In a 2010 article in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, Beth Azar quotes Dr. Ara Norenzayan in saying “Religion is one of the big ways that human societies have hit on as a solution to induce unrelated individuals to be nice to each other.” Religion has helped us work together better and support one another better. Even to the point of helping those in our society that need help that we’ve never met.

Do We Actually Want it?

There is little argument with the fact that religion has done some very positive things in the past. Religious organizations have sponsored educational institutions, they’ve created hospitals and they’ve helped the less fortunate. But there is also little argument with the fact that religion has done some very negative things in the past. One of the reasons that religion has become such a debated topic lately is because of the problems that it has caused. Both old events like crusades and persecution on up to more recent events like suicide bombings and denied medical care.

The Past is The Past.

We all make mistakes. We can learn from them and move on, but we can’t change them. Many wars have been fought in the name of religion, but wars have also been fought over other ideas, over resources or for personal grudges. Religion has been used to oppress people, as well as to control people to keep power with the elites. But religion isn’t the only source of oppression. Many bad things have been done in the name of religion, but religion has definitely not been the source of all evil in the world.

Oppression

Oppression is one of the first things that comes to people’s mind when it comes to religion. Historically religion has been a way to control the masses. Control the values and you can control the people. Sometimes this is used to prevent people from hurting one another. Unfortunately, sometimes this is done in a way that holds a particular group back. One historical example is when passages of the Christian Bible were used to justify slavery. Passages like this one from the New International Version Ephesians 6:5 “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Slavery was more common when this was written. Now we see the problems with slavery, and recognize that it isn’t the best way. But passages like this one was used to justify slavery and inforce obedience.

A more recent example is when passages of the Quran are used to oppress women. According to a translation at quranexplorer.com the Quran in Sura 4:33 says “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded.” Though most religious texts written by patriarchal societies have passages like this, most first world nations have recognized that this type of thought hinders the successful growth of communities.

Though order is important to a society oppression holds it back. Consider the advances that African Americans have provided the sciences in the United States. Especially since the 1960s. Now consider the contributions they could have made during the centuries that they were denied education and held as slaves. Having a labor force to man the fields provided a great economic boon while slavery was legal. However, after slavery was made illegal the country still had a labor force and then began to add more minds to help advance society. Hundreds of years’ worth of advancements were potentially lost because of the systematic oppression of the non-elites.

Education

Education, specifically the debate between young earth creationism and evolution, has become another hot topic recently. Society as a whole has moved toward science education being based on the scientific method and what it has produced. However, there are still people that want older ideas taught instead. People who hold to creationism have pushed to have creationism taught in schools; either alongside of or instead of evolution. Ignoring modern knowledge in place of mythology can be dangerous. Especially to children that are still learning the fundamentals of how the world works. Modern science builds on this fundamental knowledge. As we learn more through research and experimentation new ideas replace the old ideas. The new ideas lead to more discoveries and more knowledge. Continuing with the evolution example, modern biology and modern medicine depend on the concepts of evolution to work. Those concepts can work independent of a creationist world view, but they can’t work independent of evolution.

Denying children the basic understanding will leave them behind their peers, and put them at a disadvantage for educational and job opportunities in the future. If an entire country denied their children this fundamental knowledge then the country would set itself back behind the rest of the world. This would hamper future discoveries that would advance society leaving it dependent on others for growth.

Medical Treatment

Medical treatment and medical mistreatment by religious organizations is another recent topic. Several religious organizations deny medical treatment of certain types to its members. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that blood transfusions violate their religious beliefs. Because of that they’ll refuse a needed blood transfusion for themselves or their family members. They also will refuse to donate blood. Blood transfusion have been proven safe and have saved countless lives.

Another example is an ectopic pregnancy. An ectopic pregnancy is when a fertilized egg begins to develop in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus. This can be very dangerous to both the baby and the mother. According to whattoexpect.com up to 90 percent of ectopic pregnancies can be treated with medication. The medication saves the mother and the mother’s ability to have children in the future. Several religiously affiliated hospitals have been in the news recently because they either refused to give the medication or because they didn’t even provide the option to the women involved. Not because it wouldn’t have been appropriate, but because it may have violated the organization’s religious beliefs. Instead they recommended more painful and dangerous procedures. The justification was that the medication could have been seen as an abortion.

It is one thing to deny yourself medical care based on your own religious beliefs. It’s a completely different thing to deny someone else appropriate medical care because of your personal religious beliefs. Perhaps the most despised practice of this is faith healing. Several people have been in the news because their children have died from preventable diseases because they chose to pray over their children instead of get them medical care. Several states in the United States even have protections for people whose children die under these circumstances.

Do We Still Need Religion?

As mentioned before there are more than 7 billion people on this planet. Most of them have some sort of religious belief. Do we still need those religious beliefs? Let’s look at what religion has done in the past and where we are now.

Explain the Unknown

Religion provided a way to help explain everything from where the sun went at night to where we went when we died. Science hasn’t answered all of these questions, and it may never, but it has answered most of the earthly ones. We know where the sun goes at night. We know why the sun sometimes disappears during the day. We know what causes high tide and low tide. We know it’s not evil spirits when we get sick. We know a significant amount about the natural world that was unexplainable in the Bronze Age. Science will never answer all of our questions, but it provides a mostly unbiased process to try to find them out. Science is also more willing to accept that it’s wrong than most religions.

Control over others.

This can range from dictatorial control to positive influence. Religious institutions in most first world nations don’t have direct control over their members outside of the church. They have influence, but not control. Control is mainly in the hands of the local governments. In the most advanced countries this takes the form of an elected government that establishes laws and procedures. In general, people agree to follow those laws of the country they live in.

This concept is not new. Even in ancient times religious leaders were not always the civic leaders. Many times they simply had a way to exert authority over people by telling them about what was morally or spiritually right. This is sometimes abused when the elite use religious beliefs to maintain power over others. In countries that have a theocracy the religion itself is the controlling force. For example, religious leaders in countries like Iran have tremendous power. They can use divine reasoning to dictate state matters.

The most advanced countries in the world do not use religion as a backing to maintain control over their citizens. They use elections, laws, court systems, and understanding to maintain control and order. Letting people have more personal freedoms, a say in how their government is run and being able to provide an environment that is safe encourages people to follow the laws.

Guidance on right and wrong.

Though this is cited as a strong reason to keep religion, religion is really not how this is passed on. KidsGrowth.com Summed it up best in their article How Do Children Learn What is Right and Wrong, “Children do what they see, more than what you say.” People learn right and wrong by following what their leaders do and say. This is true if they have religious leaders or not.

But where do the leaders get their idea of right and wrong? From several sources. In psychology it is believed to come from something called game theory. The basic concept here is that people will naturally want to do what will maximize their gain and minimize their risk. This might mean accepting the second best option if it also means that you’re not likely to get nothing. For example, people tend to drive the same speed as the rest of traffic most of the time. They may not get where they’re going as fast as they otherwise could, but they are more likely to arrive safely and they are not as likely to get a speeding ticket.

Some absolutes are dictated by agreed upon laws. For example, murder is wrong. Laws like this are near universal in modern society. Using game theory, we accept that we shouldn’t kill our neighbors for making us mad because agreeing to no murder means that we can sleep safer at night confident that our neighbors won’t kill us either.

Rules like the Golden Rule also help guide us in what’s right and wrong. The Golden Rule commonly stated as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” has appeared in many societies independently for thousands of years. According to Wikipedia a version of the rule appears in an ancient Egyptian story called The Eloquent Peasant dated to between 2040 and 1650 BC. Versions of it also appear in the Christian Bible and writings by the Chinese philosopher Confucius.

Religion has written rules about right and wrong. They have adapted over time as society has changed, but religion is not needed to pass on the rules. Society passes on the ideas of right and wrong by example and by setting standards in a community.

Pass on values.

Similar to right and wrong, values are passed on by example. This example can be set by religious doctrine or by secular practice. Either way children have always learned their values from the example their parents set for them. Society influences a person’s set of values. These come from all places that person goes. Kids will internalize the ones that they are most exposed to. This could be religious, but religion doesn’t have any greater effect on people other than threat of punishment for not following or promise of reward for following the rules. Religion can be used to pass on values to following generations, but it isn’t needed. Values will always be passed on by the example that a person’s culture gives them.

Common basis.

Today we have very complex societies. We have cities with millions of people in them, not just hundreds, living in peace together. We have countries with hundreds of millions, even over a billion, working together in cooperation. People with different religious beliefs, different political beliefs, and different personal priorities manage to work together even though they may have never met.

Religion has proven to divide people as much as it has brought people together. Today the belief in the stability of the government has been a stronger force to bring people together as a society. The invention of money, which depends on that stability, has helped people from all across the world work together in harmony.

Conclusion

Religion has provided many benefits to mankind. Most of these were seen at the dawn of civilization. Religion provided a way to bring people together to form societies. It helped them work together, even in very large groups. Ultimately this lead to not only cities, but empires. Since then, though, many aspects of secular society have grown beyond what religion can provide. Science has grown to the point that it can explain many of the things that religion attempted to explain. Civil order is maintained through laws, and the political and judicial systems. Community, education and support services help guide children and adults in identifying right and wrong. Parents have always passed on their values and traditions. Culture helps reinforce those ideas without the need for religion. Concepts such as patriotism and even money have allowed people to work by creating a shared sense of purpose. Those original things that religion did so well are not needed anymore.

With those removed, religion’s main influence on the world is negative. Systematic oppression, religious wars, denying lifesaving medical care and forcing outdated education are problems that the world doesn’t need. Though there will always be people trying to hurt others we don’t need religion causing more. As Steven Weinberg said in April 1999 at the Conference on Cosmic Design, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

Do We Still Need Religion?

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Conclusion

Religion has provided many benefits to mankind. Most of these were seen at the dawn of civilization. Religion provided a way to bring people together to form societies. It helped them work together, even in very large groups. Ultimately this lead to not only cities, but empires. Since then, though, many aspects of secular society have grown beyond what religion can provide. Science has grown to the point that it can explain many of the things that religion attempted to explain. Civil order is maintained through laws, and the political and judicial systems. Community, education and support services help guide children and adults in identifying right and wrong. Parents have always passed on their values and traditions. Culture helps reinforce those ideas without the need for religion. Concepts such as patriotism and even money have allowed people to work by creating a shared sense of purpose. Those original things that religion did so well are not needed anymore.

With those removed, religion’s main influence on the world is negative. Systematic oppression, religious wars, denying lifesaving medical care and forcing outdated education are problems that the world doesn’t need. Though there will always be people trying to hurt others we don’t need religion causing more. As Steven Weinberg said in April 1999 at the Conference on Cosmic Design, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

Please share your thoughts with the group.

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      John James 15 months ago

      Wild Bill, Thank you. You touch on a very important idea I didn't discuss. The personal side of religion sometimes gets lost since it is, by nature, different for everyone. Many people count their religion as an important and positive aspect of their lives. They then do great things for themselves and the rest of their communities. Unfortunately the negative side of things tend to get the most attention. Even when they may be the few crazies. Perhaps because bad news sells better than good news.

      I agree, though, focusing on the positive instead of the negative would do us a lot better as a society. Doing good things, helping others and trying to add value to our communities should be what we worry about. Forcing our personal ideas on others shouldn't be a consideration if they're helping instead of hurting.

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      John James 15 months ago

      Thank you everyone for your comments.

      Kiss andTales, All through history people have accepted new ideas and incorporated them with their own traditions, celebrations and symbols. We still even see this today as some elements from pop culture make their way into our national culture and histories.

      Austinstar, Thank you for the compliment. I learned long ago that people who think in concrete, logical terms do see the world differently that those that think in more emotional, abstract terms. I'm certainly more on the concrete thinking side which definitely shows in how I view the world. I am still new to hubpages, so I'm still learning the general culture here. I see you've been here a while and have posted a lot of hubs. I look forward to checking them out.

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      Wild Bill 15 months ago

      This was a very well thought out and well written Hub. While I know there is a minority that feel religion is bad, for me I know that it is personally good for me. I think if we focus on the things that are better for us and not focus so much on what we think other people should do, then the world would be a better place.

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      Austinstar 15 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Excellent hub! Very detailed and organized. This is the effort of a logical way of thinking about things. Unfortunately most people here on hubpages tend to be emotional thinkers. I wish you luck and welcome to HubPages!

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      Kiss andTales 15 months ago

      If religion was pure uncontaminated by pagan rituals .if was as pure as to who really deserves our worship and respect

      Then it would be no problem. But your symbols here many have a pagan meaning attached to christain .many Eyptain deities .the cross is one from the phalic fertility symbol. Man , woman

      Organs the cross bar is children created.

      These symbols were adopted into christain beliefs based on festivals already celebrated by pagans.

      The Edic of Milan was written to combine both. Jesus birthday is not recorded but combined with the sun worship date of 25 of December. The Son of God. With the sun god day of worship.

      How sneaky satan is yet people give worship to satan on this day.

      How do people think their creator feels about that or do they care.