Posted by: Inside-Out Peace | February 4, 2009

Is Religion Good or Bad?

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.



  1. At first I was a little concerned when you talked about improving religion… my Holy Writings are just that – Holy. However I do think you are right in that we can improve our practice of religion and one way to do that is through investigation and consultation. This post is wonderful and something for us all to ponder. It made me think of a talk given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

    Bahá’u’lláh said that God has sent religion for the purpose of establishing fellowship among humankind and not to create strife and discord, for all religion is founded upon the love of humanity. Abraham promulgated this principle, Moses summoned all to its recognition, Christ established it, and Muhammad directed mankind to its standard. This is the reality of religion. If we abandon hearsay and investigate the reality and inner significance of the heavenly teachings, we will find the same divine foundation of love for humanity. The purport is that religion is intended to be the cause of unity, love and fellowship and not discord, enmity and estrangement. Man has forsaken the foundation of divine religion and adhered to blind imitations. Each nation has clung to its own imitations, and because these are at variance, warfare, bloodshed and destruction of the foundation of humanity have resulted. True religion is based upon love and agreement. Bahá’u’lláh has said, “If religion and faith are the causes of enmity and sedition, it is far better to be nonreligious, and the absence of religion would be preferable; for we desire religion to be the cause of amity and fellowship. If enmity and hatred exist, irreligion is preferable.” Therefore, the removal of this dissension has been specialized in Bahá’u’lláh, for religion is the divine remedy for human antagonism and discord. But when we make the remedy the cause of the disease, it would be better to do without the remedy.

  2. The problem with a worldview or ideology that has at its base a god belief is that it is increasingly more difficult to change the more strict the belief in that god is.

    It is safe to say that virtually no one in the West has a belief that is so strict that their worldview hasn’t altered at all since Biblical times. Luckily there are very few reports of people being stoned to death or children killed by parents either ignoring illnesses because they believe in prayer over doctors or exorcising them to death.

    To me, it seems most logical to base your morality, your ideology or your worldview on empirical evidence and logic. Things are immoral because they cause harm. Things that don’t cause harm are not immoral.

    To me, it’s that simple. But perhaps I’m not your average person.

  3. Thank you for both of your kind comments, anotherworldcitizen. I know that writing about religious beliefs is skating on thin ice in terms of offending someone, which I really don’t want to do. The quote from Bahá’u’lláh is terrific.

    Morsec0de, your comment certainly gives food for thought, and I thank you for that as well. It truly would be nice if we could wake up tomorrow to a world that is moral, just because it makes more sense to be that way. I think religion is here to stay though, so for me, the $1,000,000 question then becomes how can religion best be utilized to minimize harm and maximize the good that results from it, without alienating and offending the followers of religions.

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