There are a lot of strong opinions out there on whether religion is good or bad. Christopher Hitchens declares that it “poisons everything”. Richard Dawkins calls God a “delusion”. Others are confident that without religion, there can be no morality. I believe it was Tolstoy who made the analogy between the effect of the loss of religion on morality, to a well-trained orchestra that suddenly lost its conductor: for a time, the music would sound just as good, but it would soon become discordant and then stop altogether. Although he apparently never said it, Dostoevsky is frequently quoted as saying “without God, all is permitted.”
So, which is it? Well, first of all, I think people are much too eager to classify things. “Religion” is much too broad a concept to be wholly classified as good or bad. What we can say is that it is a very powerful influencer of human behavior, and therefore has the capacity for both great good and great harm. What is unfortunate, is that many people are completely unwilling to allow for even the possibility of rational analysis of religious beliefs. Anything that is as powerful as religion, really needs to be well understood and controlled in its use, for good. If people would allow for analysis of religion, then religions could be improved as we use historical experience to understand what beliefs tend to lead to harmful results, and what beliefs have led to beneficial results. But there seems to be an all-or-nothing attitude, or fear, that if any one little part of a religion is allowed to be questioned or improved, then the whole thing might not be “true”. That leaves anyone with a sincere belief in an eternal heaven/hell afterlife in a very uncertain place, which I think is the main obstacle to engaging in meaningful religious improvements.
So the question of the day (week, month, year… eternity?) is, is there a way to convince people that you can tweak a small part of a religion’s beliefs, without collapsing the whole belief system?
It seems to be a given, among revelatory religions, that God is perfect and that God is the source of the religion, therefore the religion is perfect. Yet, any rational person must admit that no religion, as practiced, can possibly be called perfect. So, if we approach the question as “how can we improve human practice of religion”, rather than “how to improve religion”, I think that might get a warmer reception. One thing is clear, neither the religious nor the atheists are ever going to “win” the argument they’re currently in, so why not find common ground instead, and make what changes can be made, to make the world a nicer place for everyone to live in? It’s not like any of us have somewhere else to go.