JANUARY 19, 2009 9:51PM

Is Religion Essential to Society?

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Society Lives…


This post is partially inspired by Monte Canfield’s account of his experience with killing at age 10, which can be found here.  His story reminded me of my own similar experience at the same age, and I realized that it fit nicely into this post.

When I was about ten years of age, having had several different B-B guns, pistol and rifle, my dad bought a .22 caliber air rifle for me and my brother.  That gun used compressed air to propel pellets out the barrel, which had the advantage of not making a loud bang, as gun powder was not used to propel the pellets, so it did not damage your hearing and did not disturb the neighbors.  The absence of the loud bang also made it easier to sneak the gun out and shoot without being heard.  My brother and I were not supposed to use this gun unless dad was present to supervise, but one day I snuck the gun out of its usual repository and went out on my own. 

After a short time of shooting at bottles and other inanimate targets I became bored.  As I was walking back to the house, there was a large tree in a neighbor’s very large fenced yard about fifty to seventy-five yards, to the best of my recollection, from where I was standing.  I spied a sparrow up high and decided to see if I could hit that sparrow, figuring the odds were quite against me, which made it more of a challenge than anything else.  I had never heard anyone say much good about sparrows, anyway.  You probably have guessed that, in fact, I did hit the sparrow despite the distance and the many branches that hung between me and the sparrow.

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The sparrow stood still for just a few seconds making me think my shot had missed, and then it fell.  I ran over in excitement to see my victim up close, and when I arrived I experienced something, an emotion, which taught me a lesson that has stayed with me ever since.  I saw the sparrow lying on the ground, but not yet dead; it was bleeding and gasping for air, and then as I stood there watching, the sparrow finally died.  I felt horrible.  There was a queasy feeling in my stomach, and the exhilaration of hitting my target completely vanished as I was overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness.  Suddenly the eyes that had just seconds before shown signs of life became lifeless.  I often wonder how different things would have been if I had not gone over and seen the sparrow taking its last breath.  For years I often wondered if it mattered, at all, to that sparrow that I was standing there with it as it died; sometimes I still wonder.  As the first tear ran from my eye, I decided to put the gun back in its place, and I never shot a living thing again. 

Is religion essential to society?

A few years ago I took a college course on world religions.  It was, to say the least, an eye-opening experience for me, less in what I learned from the curriculum than in what I learned in observing, and interacting with, others in the class, including my interactions with the class instructor. (He and I continued an email debate, off and on, for several years after I took the class.)

The class was structured as a night class, three hours once a week, which I found beneficial for this particular subject; I don’t like that structure for some subjects, like Math, for instance, but for philosophical topics it seems to work very well, as we have a week to do the reading and then 3 hours to discuss what we’ve read.

In an early class session, the instructor posed this question to the class; “Is religion essential to society?” 

“Of course not,” I thought. 

We spent a substantial amount of class time discussing and establishing definitions.  The class discussed different meanings one might attach to the words, society, religion, morals, ethics, and sacred.  When one delves into this topic the difficulty with definitions can become quite overwhelming, which is why, for the sake of this discussion and because I think these are the most common usages, these are the definitions I’ll use: 

Society: a highly structured system of human organization for large-scale community living that normally furnishes protection, continuity, security, and a national identity for its members: American society.

Religion: a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Moral: of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong; ethical: moral attitudes.

Ethics: pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct.

Sacred: devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose; consecrated. entitled to veneration or religious respect by association with divinity or divine things; holy.

And last, but certainly not least:

Essential: absolutely necessary; indispensable: pertaining to or constituting the essence of a thing.

(Definitions from dictionary.com.)

The classroom was set up with round tables and chairs rather than conventional desks in rows, and so, since we were already broken into smaller groups, the instructor told us to briefly discuss the question in our little groups after which we would have a class discussion.  Well, as it turned out, I was the only one out of five at my table who thought religion was not essential to society. 

I was surprised by this and must confess to experiencing some confusion.  Had I not understood the question?  Did I not understand the meaning of “essential”?  Was there some special meaning of the word that everyone else knew and which I did not know?  Even more surprising, I was the only one in the entire class who did not think religion was essential to society, or at least I was the only person who said so.  Even the instructor accepted the premise that religion is essential to society.  My logical and concise argument was simply pushed aside and the class “voted” to accept the premise that religion is essential to society.  (I have had other instructors in sociology and related fields who proposed that religion is essential to society, although, upon further discussion with me most of them either restated their position without the word "essential" or, in one case, explained in frustration with me that the point on which I was focusing was not important.) 


TheEssentialCatholicHandbook copyThere was discussion of why religion is essential to society, which finally rested on two arguments:


1.  Religion is a source of morals.

2.  Religion is a cohesive societal glue holding societies together.


The above statements are, in my experience, the cornerstone arguments made by those who support the premise that religion is essential to society.


In the hope of sparking some thoughtful conversation, I propose the following two assertions:

1. Religion is not essential to society; society is essential to religion. 

Society existed long before religion.  It is simply impossible for religion to exist, impossible for it to develop, without there first being a society in which it develops.

Consider also that the Founding Fathers of American society felt strongly that religion was a threat to democratic society, and that they created a barrier to its involvement in American government.  Some might argue that excluding religion from government does not imply it is not essential to society.  However, it seems that since religion is a form of social government in itself, excluding it from a form of government necessarily implies it is not essential to governing a society, and if it is a form of government that is nonessential to governing society, then it is not essential to society.


2. Religion is not a source of morals; morals are a source of religion.

Making this assertion, I would point to my experience with killing the sparrow at age ten and watching it die a pointless death that I had caused.  I was raised by a very religious mother, forced to go to church from my earliest days up to and including that point in time and beyond.  Obviously, my exposure to religion was not sufficient to prevent me from murdering that sparrow, but my direct experience with causing that death was the catalyst to prevent me from further committing similar acts.  The emotion I felt from watching that sparrow take its last breath was the source of my moral sense, my recognition, that what I had done was wrong, not because someone told me it was wrong, but because I felt the wrongness personally.  Regardless of religious exposure, it was in my nature to experience this, just as it is apparently not in the nature of some.

Another similar example of this is the story related to me by a woman I know.  She told me of an incident that occurred when she was about the age of five or six years old.  She accidentally smothered a kitten to death.  She didn’t realize what she was doing until it was too late.  She says that when she realized the kitten was dead, she felt dreadful guilt.  She says she remembers how the realization that humans could do this hit her hard, even at that early age.  She has basically been a protector of animals ever since.  Unlike me, however, she was raised in a completely non-religious home where there was no talk of gods or church and most definitely no participation in such.


“The greatest tragedy in mankind's entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion.”

  – Arthur C Clarke


I hope for some thought-provoking conversation on this question.

What IS essential to society? 

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The bump is essential to the feed...

this is an excellent post. i like it when i have to think!

“The greatest tragedy in mankind's entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion."

i completely agree with that.

1. Religion is not essential to society; society is essential to religion.
2. Religion is not a source of morals; morals are a source of religion.

those two i'm still thinking about. i'm not a religious person by any means, but let me think about those two a bit and i'll rejoin this conversation.
This is a marvelous and thought provoking post. I hope it doesn't get lost in the feed. (If it does, I would strongly recommend you repost, as it is a very interesting and worthwhile subject that I think OSers will way in on from many different perspectives. I'm afraid the eve of the inauguration may have people thinking about other things ("essentially", seeing Bush off into the sunset).
I wish I would have been in that class with you so that you would not have been alone in your thoughts or opinions (you're not, I promise).
To answer your question, I think it is essential to most societies to "think" or believe" they have certain rights or choices until those rights or choices are forcibly taken away. Then, they go and create their own "version" of society. Sounds an awful lot like politics and religion, doesn't it? I want to give this more thought but I hope people will chime in. It's worth exploring. Rated.
Very interesting. I'm going to argue, for the sake of impossibility, that society and religion are intertwined enough in most places that it's impossible to say that always, in all ways, society came before religion. I know it's a partially semantic argument, of course. It's just that I suspect that society is more cohesive with similar belief systems and more of ... a society as it were. Also, since we can't be witnesses to all of history, we can't be sure about how integral religion has been in the formation of those societies. (Does that make sense?) So, I'm not sure you can fully prove the first one. Also, some religions require solitude, so certainly religion can survive without society (okay, I'm interpreting society as more than one but maybe you could argue against that).

The second one ... I might agree with a bit. The golden rule, for example, incorporated in most religions was most likely an important societal rule to start.

I wonder about the question of why people often need religion. The spiritual is an important part of our make up, it seems to me, even as many of my friends say it's made up.
I think your definition is way, way too narrow in a post Joseph Campbell world. There has been a complete and systematic re-definition, resting on an entirely new understanding of myth, and the later codifications that became "religion."

The extrapolation of philosophy from "religion" then started as early as the Greeks in the West, and long before that in India. The mere fact that you have the concepts that enable you to have this discussion are based on them, and has been going on for well over as long as five thousand years in written form alone in an ever evolving conversation that in fact is the basis for all human consciousness--and its "spiritual" origins.

I think you are confusing some projection on your part, some necessary belief you have given your personal history and your own attempts to understand it. You are confusing that with the greater, universal understanding or you would at least be aware of this monumental contribution, and know you can no longer even address the subject without reference to it--either to agree or disagree.

I take it you want an honest discussion, and those are my thoughts. I think Arthur Clark was basically a lightweight, or to be kind, formed his ideas before Campbell and then either didn't understand them or was already committed to the post enlightenment "rationalist" interpretation that dates back to the 17th century in Europe, which is what you are adopting.
Yes, you can have a society without religion, but only with certain consequences.

My main experience is with Christianity. Even though many people in the U.S. aren't Christians, most Americans have what is basically a Christian worldview, even those who don't believe. This worldview is just how we "see" things. This makes it difficult to know whether religion is essential, because what we take as secular may in fact be Christian in origin. In that sense it's not that religion hijacks morality, but morality hijacks religion, while not giving religion credit.

I could give a list of unfortunate consequences of a loss of the religious sensibility, but a largely secular audience would not even see them as problems. For example, we have a couple million abortions (killing of developing humans) every year, but here in the U.S. that is business as usual, for many people not even a moral issue. Here we even have a "right" to kill developing infants if they cause an inconvenience -- or for any other reason.

Religion can influence and differ from accepted morality. In the ancient Roman empire Christians denounced abortion and the exposure of infants. They denounced the gladiatorial spectacles. In the first 300 years of Christian history warfare and military service were consistently denounced. Some of the early Christians had "all things in common," an early form of egalitarianism. One of the attractions of the early Christian community was that they took care of the poor and the sick long before there were "social programs" that did that.

This is not to say that Christians have not had failings. They have had great failings. But I think today the society in which we live is much better for having come from a Christian tradition.
Great writing, and a thought-provoking subject!
Actually when I read your points of view on the subject, I found it making sense!
I have to say my personal experiences have left me thinking that the spirituality of man is essential ~ that is to say; understanding that man is spiritual in nature and NOT simply a body.
Take away the spirit of a person and you take away the person essentially... at least, that is what I have noted.
Religion seems to about practice ~ and the practice part is involving putting into use those aspects that bring an order into the chaos of life... so it has a place. I have known many people over the years who completely depend on that as a yardstick within their community. Thank you...very interesting post!
Regarding your experience as a young boy....
My brothers when they were that age, had a heck of a lot of `bravado' and would do just such things without any thought of consequence.... I see you learned the hard way about consequence.
Wonderfully written; and thanks for sharing my friend.
Religion gets blamed for everything but it's a canard. Trust me, people can be just as big assholes with or without it. Blaming religion is sort of like blaming a murder on the gun and not the person behind it. Yes, religion is used to fuck people over but so is money and many other things. Why not ask if money is essential to a society? I'd dearly love to see those answers!!

Just because there's no God in religion doesn't mean there's no God. Lennon sang "Imagine no religion" and yet also described himself as "a most religious fellow." If you use religion as an argument against God, that presumes a belief religion is valid in what it says. It's a circular argument.

Religion happens like this: People don't feel good about themselves, they make up a religion that says if I do X, Y and Z then I'm a good person. Now I feel good about me! Except infidels next door say only A, B and C make you a good person and everyone goes to war because everyone wants to feel good about themselves. Pretty fucking funny, huh?
I strongly believe that society is the source of morals and religion codifies them. Look at the changes that we've made in "Christian" morals. The bible goes on and on about the evils of non-marital sex (which includes sex with a second spouse after divorce, since divorce doesn't exist in the eyes of the lord). The bible okays slavery.

Ask any Christian today, what's an unforgivable sin -- non-marital sex or owning slaves.

Yes, Mishima, the western world has greatly benefitted from those values, but are they the result of religion? Or has religion just followed the changing morals of society?
apparently no one here has lived in a confucian society.
Well written argument, Rick.

My take isn't so much that we should be answering the question as it is with questioning the question. If the point is to say that religion isn't necessary in your life that is one thing. There are a whole lot of people here who think that way. OS is hardly a representative sample of popular opinion. We here are way left of center. If it makes any difference which way the answers in the comments lie I would be willing to guess that no is the most likely answer here on OS.

If forced to an answer my answer is that it doesn't matter and that it is impossible to prove the correctness of either answer.

What I do know is that religion is essential to me. And it is essential to millions of others like me. A lot of folks wish we would just go away but that isn't too likely since from the beginning of this country more people here have wanted the right to practice religion than those who say there should be no religion.

So I would say that there are societies that have done their damnedest to do without religion, ergo: Marx and communism. It worked for a long time so you could maybe make a case there.

All I want is to be sure that people like me will be able to practice our religion without the government or public opinion telling us how to do it. And I am content to allow time to answer your question. Oddly if the answer is no that is fine with me.

Religion is essential to a lot of people and they are where my focus is. Finally, as much as Christendom was a reality after Constantine and for 1500 years after that, the truth is that Christ taught that we would always be a remnant people.

The entire history of the relationship of God and man in the Bible is the story of a remnant people struggling to survive in a world where they were not wanted. So I have never thought that a theocracy made any sense at all, especially since Christ never had any ideas even remotely like that.

I enjoy reading the discussion but the nature of the demography makes it pretty clear who is going to come out on top on this question. I have no problem with that at all. We just shouldn't expect a balanced response.

I want to thank you for the link back to my 2 posts on "When I Stopped Killing". I appreciate it.

Take care,

Hi Rick,

I think I would quibble with your definition of society as a form of specifically human organization. I don't know how one could exclude the highly systematized modes of collective intercourse and worldmaking exhibited by other primates from from one's definition of the social. Such orders of coexistence feature highly detailed modes of rule governed behavior, in which certain actions are acceptable and not acceptable, if not "right" and "wrong" in our abstract sense. Such non-human societies would seem based on nothing in the way of spiritual principles let alone religious precepts, leading me to believe that as "essential" as religion is to me-- for me to be who I am-- it is not essential to social organizations as such.
Nice post, Rick. It gives me something to think about. My first, off-the-cuff reaction is to try to think about past or present societies that have existed without religion; if there are any examples that everyone agrees on, then that empirical evidence would trump any theorizing. My second, meta-level reaction is that it's really difficult to discuss this sort of question dispassionately, because it gets tightly entangled with the question of whether religion should be essential, or at least a foundation, for human society. On this latter point, it's possible to answer Yes even if one isn't religious oneself. (Not that I do or don't; I'll have to think about it.)
I very much enjoyed this post, Rick. Have you read this?

A great - but perhaps overly kind - presentation of the obvious fact that religion is not only unnecessary, but is the source of much of the worlds conflict.

Unfortunately, adherence to religion is not a THINKING proposition, so rational arguments do little to dissuade those who believe in Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, and "God" as a superhuman in the sky.
Oh, yes, what IS essential to society?

In my opinion, COMPASSION is essential to society. Without compassion, we would be as likely to kill anyone we met as not. That clearly wouldn't promote survival of the species.
Malusinka writes: "Yes, Mishima, the western world has greatly benefitted from those values, but are they the result of religion? Or has religion just followed the changing morals of society?"

It happens both ways. Again, I'm referring to Christianity because that's the tradition I know most about. The early Christians offered a moral critique of Roman society that surely did not come from Rome. On the other hand, Christianity was "domesticated," if you will, by the Enlightenment.

Religion provides a number of things that are not necessarily easy to find in the larger culture. It provides an account of origins -- a foundational narrative or myth, if you will. It provides both a personal and social anthropology -- who am I as a person, who are we as a society. It provides a moral framework or worldview that ties in with origins and anthropology. It provides a teleology -- where are we going. It provides a metaphysics -- a view of what life and the universe are all about. Taken together, religion provides a unified view of all these things.

A society without religion is to a large extent a society without those things -- or at least a society in which it is not clear what those things are or where they are supposed to come from.
I re-read this as I wondered how the discussion developed. Only one other person, Rob, references Campbell. To me the rest of the discussion is topical, the result of projections based on the conventional accepted opinions, ideology, and polemics. I'm not discounting it. I'm just expressing my own view.

Two other points: I would have taken great exception with this teacher for taking "sides," and then as you say taking a vote--this to me is indicative of the "problem" of "religion," since it is nothing more than an attempt to control the collective conscience by force. It is actually the death in my view to any spirituality in society, and why religion is untrustworthy since it is so easily manipulated. To say "god is on my side," and then go out and murder something or someone pretty much puts the "old paradigm" on the block in my view.

Also, you mentioned your childhood trauma--having had "religion" stuffed down your throat. Scratch the average atheist or anti-religions--and that's what one usually finds. This is not a judgement, only an observation totally open for interpretation.

I could go into it further, but instead, I would suggest if you want to look at your projections you read some Campbell, Jung, Neumann, Van Franz, Marion Woodman, or Carl Kerenyi. His book of Eleusis--the oldest practiced ritual ever performed on earth is a masterpiece
of understanding early mankind and the way "spirituality" impacts our lives each and every moment whether we have any conscious awareness of it whatsoever--and despite all our rationalist attempts to explain it.

With an abiding respect for your opinions and process,
Well, I’m finding this a far more intriguing discussion than the one that occurred in the class to which I referred in the post. Thanks, everyone.

Hi, nantehay, thanks for kicking off the discussion.

Cartouche, thanks for the comment. I think people like to “think” religion is essential.

Hi, Odette, thanks for the comment. I think you bring up an interesting point when you write, “…it's impossible to say that always, in all ways, society came before religion…” because I think this is part of what confuses the entire issue. I think there are, and/or have been, societies based on religion, which I think is what cartouche points out. Religious offshoots have at times created their own societies but I don’t think that addresses the question I was asked in class that night; rather, it addresses the question of whether there have been societies based on religion. Even in the case of a religion that may “require solitude”, as you say, the only way that religion can exist and be passed on is through a societal network, which is the only way any religion can exist and persist.

You write that you “why people often need religion”; I think that’s really the question that continues to compel sociologists to insist that “religion is essential to society”. Of course, the question for me is this: what constitutes “needing religion” as opposed to being indoctrinated into it?

Ben Sen, this is in response to your first comment.

I’m glad for your contributions to this discussion. At the risk of appearing as dense as I truly am, let me say that I am not clear on your meaning when you write, “I think you are confusing some projection on your part, some necessary belief you have given your personal history and your own attempts to understand it.” If you will, I would very much like you to expand on that thought and perhaps clarify it further so I can understand your meaning with more certainty. I don’t really see that I’m confusing anything, but then when people confuse things, they often do not realize it.

In the meantime, Ben, let me pose some ideas I have regarding the above quoted statement. My first thought was that it is interesting that you bring up Campbell because I think he drew a distinction between “myths” and “religion”. I also recall that he held special dislike for the three major monotheistic religions we know today; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He held a deeper respect for the older, more pantheistic beliefs. But regarding your reference to “projection”, which I know is a major point for you, myths and their interpretations are always laden with “projections”. This is one point that differentiates them from “religion” and its strict dogma.

I’m also not clear on the significance of Clarke’s formation of ideas “before” Campbell. Perhaps you can elaborate on why that is significant to you. BTW, I have read Campbell, and he is one of my favorites along with Loren Isley who is perhaps a little more musing or poetic in his writing.

I’m out of time for now, but will check back later for more discussion…

It wasn't Rob who was the only other to mention Campbell but Aaron Rury, but Aaron is mistaking Campbell with Mircea Eliadi, the scholar at U of Chicago, who wrote the book SHAMANISM, which is the study of animism that also was extremely important in the contemporary re-examination of religion without bias. I'm not a scholar myself, but this is pretty basic stuff, and anybody who takes the topic seriously and isn't arguing an ideology knows it.
That's my point Rick. When men first looked up into the heavens, for instance, and decided "god" was there it wasn't anything in the "stars" they were seeing, but what they needed to see in the stars for their own purposes.

I think you're basically doing the same thing only on a more abstract level. You look at "material" regarding "religion" and society, and all those definitions--and like the early assayers decide what is true or not true based on your own subjective needs--that's projection.

Whether it bears any "objective" truth, or whether one agrees or disagrees with you is based on their own projections. At one time in my life, I'd have probably agreed with you. I hated organized religion, and dogmatic belief in general because it was stuffed down my throat--the same as you--now I don't really care. I've taken back the projection.

"Belief," and it's corollary, "non belief" are entire subjective and personal matters. There was an incredibly interesting obituary in the NYTIMES yesterday of one of the mathematicians who advanced the solution to Poincare's Dilemma.

He said the real obstacle was his own fear of being proved wrong. (I left the paper home, unfortunately, but it was a great quote.) But it was pretty much in agreement with what I am saying. He admitted his accomplishment was limited by his own fears, which precluded his rational and logical capabilities. That, I contend, is what being human is all about.

You should be getting some idea of what I am saying now. It takes awhile to really get how much of it we make up out of these little pea brains.

I didn't see you asked me that before. No, I don't know if it's the same Eliade. I think I saw once there was someone with the name involved in Balkan politics. And I don't think it makes any difference either.
Thanks again to all who have contributed to this discussion so far. I've been out of commission for a day or so, but I hope this discussion will continue...
Hello, mishima, thanks for stopping by. You write, “[Y]ou can have a society without religion, but only with certain consequences”.

Adding or omitting anything from society would seemingly have “consequences”, some good and some bad. I’m curious about the “Christian worldview [held by] even those who don't believe”, to which you allude. Will you cite some examples of this?

With regards to morals, you write, “…what we take as secular may in fact be Christian in origin”. The problem I see in that particular statement is that what we take as Christian is based in something that came long before Christianity appeared. Most of the moral concepts attributed to Jesus in the New Testament were not really new, were already previously known in other societies, aside from those that pertain specifically to the biblical god, although I’m not sure that those specifics actually relate to morals. Yet, even many of those are restatements of old myths in new packaging. My perspective holds that morals that are attributed to religions such as Christianity are actually derived from human nature, and then codified through religious dogma.

Next you write, “…it's not that religion hijacks morality, but morality hijacks religion, while not giving religion credit.” In response to that statement, I might first pose a question: what credit do you see religion deprived of by morals? I don’t see how morality could “hijack religion”, since the major aspects of morality are based in some fairly basic and universally human concepts without all the corrupting influences produced by branding morals with a package that produces all kinds of problems that ultimately undermine the value of those morals.

You write, “I could give a list of unfortunate consequences of a loss of the religious sensibility, but a largely secular audience would not even see them as problems.” This statement seems to support the idea that religion is not essential to society. In the inverse to your statement we would also see that there are many “unfortunate consequences” as the result of religious thinking within society; the American Founding Fathers recognized this.

You proceed to raise the issue of “abortion” as an example of what you see as a negative consequence of “a loss of the religious sensibility”. Using opposition to abortion, as you do here, to exemplify that religion is “essential” to society would require a number of other proofs that do not exist. Opposition to abortion can only rely on respect for life, and the idea that one does not have the right to take another life needlessly, which is not a strictly “religious” perspective. While I see the issue of abortion as somewhat ambiguous because we don’t really know when life “begins”, which therefore makes it an unfortunate choice of topic in this discussion, I do see that the underlying basis for opposing abortion is not solely derived from Christianity or dogmatic religion but from an inherently human moralistic view that killing is wrong, that it is detrimental on a species level to kill our own, which existed before Christianity. In my view, also, and from what I think is a logical perspective, if opposition to abortion is demonstrative that religion is essential to society, then one would have to show that religion, and the moral stance of anti-abortion existed prior to society and that this particular moral view is the reason, or at least, a reason, that society exists. History seems to indicate otherwise, as does our own current society in which abortion is allowed.

You also write, “I think today the society in which we live is much better for having come from a Christian tradition.” I find this an intriguing statement, although not an uncommon perspective. Interestingly, as I mentioned in my post, this nation is actually founded on the premise that “Christian tradition” was something to be feared in terms of maintaining a civil and democratic society based on humanitarian philosophical principles. While I think you and I are not too far apart on our major views, I see this particular element in the exactly opposite manner from how you see it; I think influence of organized religion has been a serious detriment to American society, and has especially become so in recent decades. I guess, ultimately, religion is really a “mixed bag” of good and bad, but I still see nothing indicating it is “essential” to society, a view which I have the impression you share.

Because of its inherent quality of forming and developing according to various human minds and perspectives, in my view religion is a divisive force creating an “us-against-them” mentality, not a unifying force, and is therefore not essential to society. Again, human history supports this view, as religion has historically been a source of conflict not only between different societies, but also even within single societies, just as it is within our own society today.

I think you’ve raised some of the primary points in this debate, and I hope you’ll come back with more.
Hi, nahatsu,

Thanks for your comments. I appreciate and your perspective and I wonder how you would define “the spirit of a person”.

Welcome, walkingupslowly, I admire your conciseness.

Harry Homeless,

Thanks for your perspective.


You write, “I strongly believe that society is the source of morals and religion codifies them.” This is a view I share with you, and there seems to be little to debunk this view. Thanks for your input.

Hi, al (loomis),

I think I know what you mean when you write, “apparently no one here has lived in a confucian society.” However, I am not sure, and it would be interesting if you would elaborate on this thought.

Thanks for the input. Your very first statement is the same thought I had when the instructor posed the question in class; you write, “My take isn't so much that we should be answering the question as it is with questioning the question.”

However, I may have had that thought for different reasons than your own; I’m not sure. Just to be clear, the discussions I’ve had with my various instructors regarding this question have not been about whether or not religion is necessary in my, or any individual’s life, but whether or not religion is essential to society. It is an unambiguous question. I’m not sure I agree with your assertion, “that it is impossible to prove the correctness of either answer”, although I would accept the premise that it is difficult, especially at this juncture in human history.

I think you express a reasonable view when you write, “All I want is to be sure that people like me will be able to practice our religion without the government or public opinion telling us how to do it.” Of course, the inverse is also reasonable; I don’t want religious adherents telling me how to live. This, of course, leads to a whole different discussion, which is the current problem of religious adherent all to often attempting to do exactly that for everyone, BUT that is not the point of this particular discussion.

You make an interesting point when you say, “I have never thought that a theocracy made any sense at all, especially since Christ never had any ideas even remotely like that.” It would behoove Christians in general to recognize this facet of the scriptures attributed as the teachings of Jesus. This is a solid contribution to this discussion, I think.

Lastly, with regards to your statement, “…who is going to come out on top on this question”, I have not posed this question as a competition, but rather more as a topic for exploration. In my view the key to this question is/was the word “essential”. I can see where people may be hopelessly attached to their religions, but I cannot see any support for using the word “essential” in the presence of religion in this context. I hope that much is clear; I don’t care one way or the other if one person believes in a god, but I think it is important that a reasonable perspective be maintained regarding the role of religion in humanity and human evolution.
Welcome, libertarius,

You wrote a solid and concise response here. No “quibble” necessary. Your point is exactly one that I used in my original argument. I used the social hierarchy of wolf packs as a great example of societal organization without “religion”, and alluded to the fact that many other species exemplify this. I suffered from being in a backward part of a backward state where the common view is that animals are merely lower life forms unworthy of such regard.

Thanks for raising this point.

Thanks for your important point in this issue when you write:

****** “…it's really difficult to discuss this sort of question dispassionately, because it gets tightly entangled with the question of whether religion should be essential, or at least a foundation, for human society.”

I believe this is where the question becomes muddled for people, especially those who ARE religious adherents. I think they feel threatened if they admit that religion is NOT essential to “society”. I am not sure I agree with your assertion that one can answer “yes” to “the question of whether religion should be essential, or at least a foundation, for human society”. But, then, in answering THAT question, we again inevitably become entangled in the problem of “definitions” of “religion”, as well as even “society”, and using the world “should” creates problems all by itself.

I just can’t see how one would support the concept of “should” in this matter.

Verbal, I have added that book to my “to read” list; it looks intriguing. Thanks.

Thanks for your input. I think I am safe in saying that society existed before religion. As you point out, I have no concrete evidence of that, but the circumstantial case for that argument is, I think, overwhelming.

You also expound later on the point raised initially here by libertarius about other species forming societies, presumably without religion. As I indicated to libertarius, in my initial discussion in class I raised the example of wolf packs, which exhibit a clear hierarchy and social order. It is, as you say, an assumption that these other species do not have religion, but I also feel safe in this assertion, as do you.

I do, however, question your assertion when you write:

****** “The kings of old, and even elected officials of the present, need a God in order to justify some, if not all, of their actions and continually ask for God's blessing for the well-being of the group, as was witnessed yesterday. So why can ants do it without God, with much more efficiency at that, while man cannot?”

In your assertion your use of the word “need” is similar to the use of the word “essential” --- I do not see that either is supported by the evidence. Societal custom is not necessarily “needed” or “essential” to existence of that society. I do allow for the idea that your posed that statement “rhetorically”, not as an actuality. Either way, your contribution here is much appreciated.

You and I obviously share opinion on this. But I found the question surprising when asked by an instructor in class, and was even more surprised by the class consensus. I think perhaps people “want” their religion to be “essential”.
1. Religion is not essential to society; society is essential to religion.

I agree with Rick, and would base that argument on the likelihood that societies formed for mutual self interest, not as religious groups. Man in the State of Nature had the freedom to do harm as well as good. Societies formed to ensure that each member had protection from arbitrary coercion, and laws dealing with murder and theft evolved from that concept, not religion. I'd be inclined to think religion evolved from those laws, as additional justification.

In America's case, religion isn't excluded from government in the sense that even those in government are free to be religious. The concept is a people free from religious coercion through law.
The basis of this from the philosophy our Founders followed makes a few points concerning religion and government.
--You can get a majority to agree on law, but not religion. Therefore religious law is impractical to a working society.
--Religious law is arbitrary, and often based on the interpretation of one person or group. The thrust of liberty is to be free of arbitrary rules, and to embrace laws based on reason alone.
--Religious laws makes leaders out of too many people. Who will the people follow when every minister, Bishop or Pope is also a leader? Another factor based on impracticality.

I'd also argue that America isn't as religious as it might seem, and society functions anyway. How well is another argument.

An example of the question of religious coercion arose recently with a lawsuit that would seek to remove "So help me God" from the presidential oath. A perfect example of a flawed understanding of our liberty theory. Acknowledging God has nothing to do with any reasonable interpretation of the separation clause. Unless somebody can prove they were harmed or otherwise coerced
by hearing those words, there is no reasonable case to be made.
Any law made based on religion, though, and I'll stick my neck out and cite abortion law as an example...is religious coercion, as law IS essentially coercion. Can laws against abortion be practical in a free society? I know they can't.
Sorry to stray a bit off point, perhaps, but this is one of "my issues."
Summing up, I agree with Rick's point that religion is not essential, but of course as we all know, it cannot be separated from the political...but should always be separated from law.

Rousseau, one of the liberal philosophers our system is based on argued that the man who originated the idea of the separation of church and state was Jesus Christ. A bit out of my bailiwick, but perhaps a source of a discussion for others.
Ben Sen,

Since you have referred to Joseph Campbell, I will quote one my favorite aspects of his viewpoint, which comes from Bill Moyers’ book “The Power of Myth”, which was based on his interview with Campbell.

The particular part of that discussion that I think fits in well here relates to the idea that religion is actually a limitation of experiencing the profound.

MOYERS: How does one have a profound experience?

CAMPBELL: By having a profound sense of the mystery.

MOYERS: But if God is the god we have only imagined, how can we stand in awe of our own creation?

CAMPBELL: How can we be terrified by a dream? You have to break past your image of God to get through to the connoted illumination. The psychologist Jung has a relevant saying: “Religion is a defense against the experience of God.”

The mystery has been reduced to a set of concepts and ideas, and emphasizing these concepts and ideas can short-circuit the transcendent, connoted experience. An intense experience of mystery is what one has to regard as the ultimate religious experience.

MOYERS: There are many Christians who believe that, to find out who Jesus is, you have to go past the Christian faith, past the Christian doctrine, past the Christian Church ---

CAMPBELL: You have to go past the imagined image of Jesus. Such an image of one’s god becomes a final obstruction, one’s ultimate barrier. You hold on to your ideology, your own little manner of thinking, and when a larger experience of God approaches, an experience greater than you are prepared to receive, you take flight from it by clinging to the image in your mind. This is known as preserving your faith. [Here he delves into archetypes a bit.]

[And then this:]

These are all empowering stages of experience. But then, when the center of the heart is touched, and the sense of compassion awakened with another person or creature, and you realize that you and that other are in some sense creatures of the one life in being, a whole new stage of life in the spirit opens out.

For me, this was/is really the essence of the question, “Is religion essential to society?” Religion, in the dogmatic branded form of organized religion, is a barrier, a limitation, and in that sense, I do not see it as an “essential” element for society, but rather as an obstacle to be overcome.

Thanks again for bringing Campbell into this discussion.

It is the same Mircea Eliade to whom you refer.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

Thanks for your extended comment. I don’t think you strayed off point.

As I commented to Ben Sen, I think religion is more of an obstacle, to both the individual and to society, than an “essential” element. I might argue that society exists IN SPITE OF religion rather than BECAUSE OF religion, which would make religion a non-essential aspect of society, much like many other negative qualities that are destructive forces within virtually every human society, such as crime in general.
Religion is not essential to society; indeed, it is the single thing which keeps society from progressing at an acceptable rate toward desirable outcomes. Religion's only purpose is to assuage the fears of those members of society who are not sufficiently pragmatic to view their own death and meaninglessness correctly. Not to be absolutist here or anything...
Wonderful post Rick. I had a similar situation as a young boy when I used a high powered slingshot to kill a bullfrog. It was so stupid and useless and like you, I hadn't seen the frog as a living being...all I saw was a target. And all the frog wanted to do was live. I never did it again.

You have a way with words. I found your wording about people “…who are not sufficiently pragmatic to view their own death and meaninglessness correctly” interesting. Thanks for your contribution here, as always.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

It is telling, I think, that so many of us have had this similar experience. And other cross-species experiences are equally instructional.
Rick writes: "I’m curious about the “Christian worldview [held by] even those who don't believe”, to which you allude. Will you cite some examples of this?"

I'm just saying that our "received tradition" is highly influenced by Christianity (and continues to be). In that sense it's like looking at the world through a pair of glasses; you see the world but aren't necessarily aware of the lenses through which the world is viewed.

For example, I always find it interesting when certain stories in the Bible are criticized because of their "immoral" content. Well, the reason that people find those stories immoral is, to a certain extent, because of religious moral traditions that have been ingrained in our thinking.

Nonetheless, to some extent the religious tradition has eroded. I mentioned the example of abortion. Another example is the increasing loss of the sense of what we might call "human exceptionalism" -- the idea that there is something special in a good way about humans. It is not uncommon now to hear people speak of humans as a kind of unfortunate "virus" infecting the world, and how the world would be a better place without us. This stands in contrast to the traditional view that the world was created FOR us.

To the extent that we begin to see our own existence as a negative thing, it's hard to say that religion isn't necessary for society. If there isn't anything special about humans in a transcendent or ultimate way, then we have no claim to existence over ants or cockroaches or bacteria.

In my observation any profoundly moral view of life ends up being religious or spiritual in some way. Our moral discourse is filled with various transcendent metaphysical concepts -- in other words, concepts that can't be reduced to something else. So we talk about "persons," who can do things that are "right" and "wrong," who operate from "free will."

While people can do moral thinking outside of religion, religion provides a set of concepts, images, and narratives that give life to moral thinking. When humans want to talk about things that are really existentially important, they typically don't write essays; they tell stories, and these stories work on us in a deep way that abstract ideas don't. Religion is to a large extent a collection of sacred stories that tell us how we should live and what is important.

One problem is that religious fundamentalism demands that we take these stories as "literally true," and thus both makes them look ridiculous and drains them of their power as stories.
I’m glad to see you back, mishima.

I think I understand what it is you are saying, but I don’t think the original source of morals is religion, but rather human nature. While worldviews are definitely often influenced in one way or another, either explicitly or in some nuanced manner, it still does not indicate a particular “essentialness” of religion. There are many societal elements that influence worldviews, but which are not essential to society.

Religion is partly “…sacred stories that tell us how we should live and what is important”, as you say, but there is more to it than that. It is possible to have stories with morals to them that accomplish that objective, but not have all the dogmatic rigidity that actually comprises religions as we know them. At any rate, I do think I get your perspective and do agree to some extent with what you say, but not that there is any societal essentialness in religion.
It is hard to tell because there are virtually no societies without religious beliefs. The Soviet Union. That is an example in which tens of millions died in war as fodder. It is rare to see a country lose millions in a war of it's own people except, uh China.

So the the few examples we have of secular societies in which religion is banned, seem to have an unusual number of atrocities. There is Pol Pot's Cambodia, Romania, Yugoslavia, etc.

Then again there is Hitler, Ghengis Khan who I assume had some beliefs.

So I suppose indifference to suffering, or hate is what causes most suffering so religion is only good if people actually follow the basic golden rule of it.

The Bible and Koran are both full of horrors suggested. I would say for the most part religion is good, that is most Christians, for example are not bombing clinics. Most follow the basic tenants of Christianity. Charity, humility, turning the other cheek. But Christianity is despised by secular humanists.

Thanks for commenting.

I don’t think social dictatorships that have tried to “ban” religion really serve in this discussion. The issue in those circumstances is different from the question of whether religion is essential, in that people are being restricted from practicing their religion and that has little or nothing to do, really, with the “essentialness” of religion to society.

A better example along those lines would be the Scandinavian countries in northern Europe where the major perspective is non-religious, and those societies are not only doing quite well, but their citizenry, as a whole, is better off than the majority of Americans.
As to the question of which came first, religion or societies, that seems a simple assumption. Religion itself is a bit cerebral for ancients, but the questions of life and property were immediate concerns.
I don't see religion as what holds us above other creatures, rather the ability to reason.
I don't see religion as essential to society as a whole, but that it is the basis of morality for some individuals, which is fine, and also a question of their liberty.
I do also agree with Mishma that the concepts of morality and spirituality become linked to the point they are the same emotion, but in questions of public policy it is the moral law that is dominant.
If law agrees with your sense of spirituality, that is fine, as long as you don't demand your sense of spirituality becomes law.

I guess from what I said and what I've read, I agree with Rick on his first point. On the second, I'd amend to religion can be a source of morals , but isn't neccessary to morals. In the original sense, morals are probably the source of religion.

Thanks for further commenting. I don't doubt that some people adhere to certain morals BECAUSE of their religion, although more probably do not. I do think that those morals can be passed down by other means, though.

I just remember feeling surprised by the question in class and especially the result.
I always enjoy a good mental exercise, and an opportunity to examine my own beliefs, and observe how these other fine minds operate. This is an oasis of intelligence in an internet Sargasso Sea of simpletons.
I was also surprised at the results of your class discussion. It seems they arrived at conclusion first, then, I guess, worked backwards to justification.
Enjoyed this, thanks.
Even as strong as my spirituality is, I guess I would be a hypocrite to an extent to say that "religion" itself is essential to society. I do feel that spirituality and the belief in a Higher Power is more essential. I'm not saying everyone HAS to believe, I think it's simply more essential. I grew up going to church at a Progressive Baptist Church with no fire and brimstone and I learned quite a bit. Not just about the bible, but about being a better person. Unfortunately, in my humble opinion, the fire and brimstone type of churches are much more prevalent than the one I attended. I could not stand to be yelled and screamed at on a Sunday morning. I once asked my mother at a young age, "mom, do you believe Jesus yelled and screamed at the people he spoke to?" My mom thought very carefully about that question. Her reply was "no", that's why we don't go to that type of church. Now neither me or my mom are Theologians, but to me, church helped me, it's not for everyone, and it depends on the church and minister.

Essential? By its definition, no. Should it be an option offered up, yes. I believe in the 21st Century that religion has harmed spirituality. More people have formed negative opinions of religious entities than ever before, and in reality, churches are much more liberal here now. The reason for this belief? The lack of separation of church and state. People who don't like Bush and his regime rebelled against all religions (I'm talking specific examples in my life). I actually have gone to a friend of mine's non-denominational church a few times and he talks to young kids and adults alike, but never screams, shouts, thumps a bible, etc...
He simply talks about peace and harmony in the world and does relate stories from the Bible. So, not TRULY non-denominational, but closer than when I was a child. You don't have to wear a suit and tie (which I deplore on a weekend) and the floor is open to commentary. I don't go regularly, but at least I have an option now.

Long winded, sorry Rick. This is an issue near and dear to my heart. I truly hate what some religious organizations have done to spirituality. I open myself to all kinds of spirituality. Eastern Philosophies have been my close interest for some time, although I'm not a Buddhist. I do adhere to many of the peaceful spirituality that Buddhists do. For me, I talk to the God I believe in but never selfishly.

I pray for strength, knowledge, courage, and the safety of my family. Never anything for me personally. That I can't bring myself to do...

I think this a well thought out and wonderfully written piece Rick which should encourage civil conversation.

Thanks for the invite.
How about another discussion on mixing metaphors?
This a great post, and a great discussion.

Is religion essential to society? I'd argue no. Re: the two arguments you offer as the "cornerstone" of the affirmative position, I don't believe religion is the source of morals, I'd subscribe to the Arthur Clarke quote. While religion may be a cohesive glue holding a society together, that may be true to the extent that shared values are defined by a religion, but civic values, like those codified in the U.S. Constitution, can provide just as cohesive a glue, and where religious belief is heterogeneous in a society, that's more likely to be a disruptive force than a cohesive one.

Also, what exactly does the term "religion" refer to? If it means organized religion, then clearly society precedes religion, because a degree of social organization is prerequisite for the emergence of an organized religion. Your reversal of the proposition, i.e., society is essential to religion would seem to me to be clearly true.

Individual "religious" thought and experience is something altogether separate from organized religion. In fact, I'd argue that the dogmas of organized religions are the strongest impediments to religious experience
I think myth is necessary because we lack the science to provide enough comfort to people about
1. Why they exist
2. What happens when they or a loved one no longer exists
Science can't answer either of those. I think (personally) that the first one is chance, and the second one is nothing, you cease existing, but I will never know in my lifetime. Can never know. We aren't advanced enough of a civilization for us to not go mad without religion or science.
My grandmother remarked, just think of how much worse off some people would be without it. Same vein as what Cat said. Probably because we are such irrational creatures, that most people probably do need religion. That may be a condescending view to take, but, well, shoot, can you just imagine what some people would be doing if they didn't think Jebus was keeping an eye on them?
No one 'needs' religion. The perceived 'need' for religion is there to cover up a lack of solid scientific education to preclude a tendency to fall back upon myth, superstition and fallacy.
I don't think it is essential to a modern society, but I agree with mishima that it is certainly helpful in that it provides the society with a moral foundation and common experience. It helps make a society into something more than a collection of individuals.

I also think religion is probably essential to the creation of primitive societies. I'm not aware of any community of people that exists as a society that never had any religious proclivities. At some point as the community began to perceive its identity and oneness, religion was one of the adhesives that made them more than a collection of individuals. There may be one somewhere, but I'm not aware of it.

I'm no anthropologist, so I may be way off base. I'm simply commenting on my admittedly limited knowledge on primitive peoples.

It’s good to see you comment in such a longwinded way. Don’t apologize; longwinded is good.

I guess you had a lot to say about “what some religious organizations have done to spirituality”.
Paul, maybe an "island"?
Rick writes: "I think I understand what it is you are saying, but I don’t think the original source of morals is religion, but rather human nature. While worldviews are definitely often influenced in one way or another, either explicitly or in some nuanced manner, it still does not indicate a particular “essentialness” of religion."

The original question you posed is whether religion is essential to society. But morality is only one aspect of that question. There are many other aspects that I mentioned -- in particular that religion provides an explanation of origins, meaning of life, ultimate end, and so on.

We may be conflating two different issues: first, whether religion is essential to society, and second, if so, does that mean that religion is "true," or that its essential nature shows that religion is not just a human endeavor.

For example, I think we would agree that shelter is necessary for society. But shelter is obviously a human activity.

Likewise I believe that religion is necessary for society. Whether religion is "only" a human activity is another question -- perhaps a topic for another post.

Thanks for the contribution. You hit on the issue that any societal benefits that might be derived from religion can be derived from other sources. And the difference between societal benefits and individual beliefs is an element in this debate.
Hi, hyblaean,

Thanks for the comment. No doubt, religion provides comfort to some individuals exactly as you point out. Of course, that does not mean society as a whole benefits from that.

I had to chuckle a little at this: “We aren't advanced enough of a civilization for us to not go mad without religion or science.” Thanks.
Mrs. Michaels,

I worry more about the free pass given to people who profess belief, but who don’t practice the belief they profess.

Procopius, mishima,

I think you both are right that religion can provide a sense of unity to a point among a group of people, but it serves equally well, perhaps even better, in the inverse result of dividing people. And the same sort of unity can be achieved though other sources. Now, at this point, we might easily drift off into the discussion of the definition of “religion”, but in current usage, “religion” most commonly refers to a belief system based on the supernatural, or spiritual, or “sacred”, and unity among a group of people can be achieved without that kind of dogma.

Also, I’m not sure that the idea that no society is known that exists entirely without religion necessarily indicates that religion is essential to society.

Good point about morality being only one aspect. My focus on that is based in the fact that this is possibly the single most common argument used by those who support the idea that religion is essential to society, but you have alluded to other aspects, too.

RE: those aspects, I think there are better sources for achieving those objectives, but whether those other sources are better or not, the fact remains that there are other sources, a fact which necessarily calls into doubt the “essentialness” of religion in achieving those objectives.

You write, “…religion provides an explanation of origins, meaning of life, ultimate end, and so on.” While this may be true to some extent, it still does not demonstrate essentialness to society. As has been stated elsewhere in the comments, the fact that different religions are required to fulfill these goals demonstrates a somewhat failed system for doing so. And the manner in which those various religions create divisions among different people is also demonstrative of the same. Ultimately, religion is really more of an obstacle to be overcome.
Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction. ~Pascal, Pensees, 1670
Your last comment is a demonstration of the very reason that I don't enjoy engaging in this conversation with most people, who know little about religion or spirituality.

I am completely happy for you to believe whatever you wish to believe about the existence or nonexistence of God. It seems to me that you are not happy unless you have prosyletized your own form of scientific materialism and sought agreement for it. I like that about as much as Jehovah's Witnesses on my doorstep.

Spiritual or religious expression is a part of individual self-expression. Self-expression is essential to being a human being. We all have a fully infinite way in which to express ourselves, and we have to find ways in which fully participating in our own self-expression doesn't impose upon others that they do it our way, but that we find a way to express ourselves that respects and nurtures the opportunity that each of us is given as an individual. Of course, that is an idealized statement because we know that where we live and how prosperously we live has a great deal to do with how much self-expression we can afford.

Still, I believe, the this provision and respect for the self-expression of another is the foundation for a civil society based in morals and ethics that make that self-expression possible. What I do or don't believe about God, what religion I do or don't practice, should be of no more interest to another than the propensity I have for wearing the color brown or the fact that I am left handed.

I don't think the God of my belief would care about this question.

Thanks for your input.

You write, “I am completely happy for you to believe whatever you wish to believe about the existence or nonexistence of God.”

The above statement fits my own view, as well. My question is not really about the existence of gods, but rather it is about the essentialness of religion to society. The two issues are not the same. In fact, your example of Jehovah’s Witnesses is a good example of much of what I see as a problem with “religion” in general.

You write, “I don't think the God of my belief would care about this question.”

It seems that is how it “should” be. And that is what sets you apart from most religions. The above statement does not seem to apply to most religions.

Your expressed assessment of me is perhaps a bit harsh, unfair, but you are entitled to it. I wonder what your god would think of it.
I am sorry you feel that way, but it is the way you shape your questions sometimes that gets under my skin. You appear in what you say to lump all religious experience together as a class, and I think that is just wrongheaded Rick. I know lots of people like me. I know any number of interfaith ministers who practice tolerance and acceptance and who don't prosyletize or berate others for having different beliefs.

The fact that I occur as an exception to you may be more a measure of your experience than you realize.

By the way, I had a Philosophy of Religion professor at U of MD that was a Scientologist. The spin he put on things was really freaky, and I am not talking about a darling pink troll. He was more like the kind that live under a bridge just to scare children. The way he taught the course was just as centered on his core beliefs as when I took classes where the professor was clearly Christian. I think that is just naturally egocentric humanness.

You didn't say a thing about what I pointed out about self-expression, by the way. I think you are simply asking your question at the wrong stage of society's development.

It wasn’t really my question, which I think is obvious. It’s true that I’m asking it here, but I never really considered it before the instructor in that class brought it up several years ago. Reading Monte’s recent account of his experience of killing a bird at the age of 10 reminded me of my own similar experience, and I had always sort of considered that experience when thinking about this question since the classroom experience that brought it up. I thought it would find an audience here where people often discuss such matters.

As for your appearance to me as “an exception”, I don’t think I’m in a minority in that particular “experience”. There seems to be a huge swath of the American public that believes biblical stories are factually true, but my question was not focused on existence of gods or truth of bible stories, it was focused on something entirely different.

Re: self-expression; I don’t think organized religion in general really lends itself to such. One might say he/she is expressing self by belonging to a religion, but I am not sure that is necessarily the case. In a case such as yourself, where you’ve spent a lot of diligence discovering your spirituality, I believe it is so, but the vast majority of religious adherents don’t do what you have done to arrive at their beliefs; they are indoctrinated, and just accept it without questioning it. And when people do question religion, it is met with much resistance.

The question asked here is direct, but not rude or offensive; I’m curious to know exactly what it is about the question asked here that “gets under your skin”. Are you willing to elaborate on that?
You're raised some complex and provocative questions that humans have been pondering for thousands of years. I don't have any answers. I do think that most people get their morals to a large degree from religion in some form, but some of the most moral people i've ever known were not religious (my father was one, although he was raised in a strict religion that he left, so maybe that doesn't count). both he and my mother (who was very religious) tried to impart morals to me, which did take, but mostly by their example not their word.
I was answering your last question: "What IS essential to society? " at the end of your post.

As for why I think what is essential is the provision of an equal opportunity for self-expression, you have perfectly described how people squander that opportunity, but that is their right to do with their lives what they think will make them happy. We cannot expect all people to use their lives wisely anymore than we can expect all people to be smart. Those who seek to be led by someone whose judgment they trust more than their own will always find charlatans and ideologues willing to decide for them. That too is a form of self-expression and a use of the life that we are given. There are infinite levels of quality in each and every thing we do. Some folks are awake and some are not so much. Still, at the heart of all bad decisions is someone who would like to do the right thing, however twisted their conception of that “right thing” may be. This is why they profess the faith of their parents when they don’t participate in their faith. That’s why they come back to church when circumstances get hard; pushed into a corner people who look to others for what is right and good tend to go to the same sources because they are unfamiliar with their own inner resources. I imagine that my sister would say she is Christian, but I bet she hasn’t been in church for years. She does the right thing because, as poor an upbringing as we had, we were taught to be generous, kind, and to take care of our families and friends and to contribute to our communities.

When you get to the question of whether or not religion is essential, I’d say that as long as there are enough people who answer the question affirmatively, it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe otherwise. It is because most people think so. Religion provides spiritual community for like minded people. It provides a place for people to feel like they are doing something worthwhile in the community where they live. Of course, secular organizations may very well provide some of the same things, but that doesn’t change the foundation for why folks get together and do good works, or give any reason why the Salvation Army or Catholic Charities should not continue in their faith based work.

I wonder what difference it will make if the answer is religion is not essential. It won’t matter to anyone who believes that religion is an essential self-expression.

The US Constitution provides for freedom of religion for a powerful reason. Freedom of religion is just as attached to the pursuit of happiness as it is to the misery it inflicts on some. Just as the guarantee of the pursuit of happiness doesn’t promise that you will be happy, religious participation doesn’t guarantee that the participant will be actually be doing good. The central difficulty with the Christian faith for all who do not share their faith is the idea that it is their duty to proselytize and ‘save’ those of us who are not believers in the idea that Jesus Christ died for our sins. If they left everyone else alone, we wouldn’t be worried by your question.
Rick, I actually read this yesterday, but couldn't seem to find enough time to give a coherent response. So, I'm back today for take 2. :-D

I think an essential for society is commonly accepted rules of conduct. Which I also think religion aspired to in the beginning and then lost its way. I don't, btw, believe religion itself is essential to society; at least, not organized religion as it exists today.

Not sure where to take this now, so I'll leave it at that for the moment and have a bit longer think on it. The trouble as I see it is that any time you get two people together, there will be a disagreement. More than two, and you have them dividing up into separate camps. It's just human nature, and I often wonder if we can find the strength to overcome our base selves and aspire to greater things.

Thumbed for an intriguing post. I'll come back to read the other comments later, and see what everyone else had to say. :-D

I was going to go point-by-point responding to this latest comment on your part, but I think that serves little. There are several points, though, that I thought I would respond to.

You write, “When you get to the question of whether or not religion is essential,… It is because most people think so.”

I would think that the weakness in that statement is clear. All this really means is that it is ‘considered’ essential to these individuals, not that it IS essential on a societal level. That distinction is a valid one, and an important one, I think, especially in today’s world.

You write, “I wonder what difference it will make if the answer is religion is not essential. It won’t matter to anyone who believes that religion is an essential self-expression.”

I think this is true, and I think it is okay if that is true. And this is touching precisely on why I think this question of “essentialness to ‘society’” IS a valid point for exploration. I think it is important on a societal level that religion becomes less insistent upon being involved in government, in running people’s lives, and forcing itself onto people. If the answer to this question continues to be that “religion is essential to society”, then religion remains more of a threat than a benefit to society. It is precisely that religion should remain on the ‘personal’ level that I thought this question was significant, given the reaction to it in my class that night, and given the current state of world affairs involving religion.

I’m not sure that I read the below comment of yours correctly, but I think it reveals exactly what I just wrote in the above paragraph:

****** “The central difficulty with the Christian faith for all who do not share their faith is the idea that it is their duty to proselytize and ‘save’ those of us who are not believers in the idea that Jesus Christ died for our sins. If they left everyone else alone, we wouldn’t be worried by your question.”

Yes, “If they left everyone else alone…” It’s important to note that Christianity is not the only religion that follows that particular, in my view, “pathology”. There is a long history of religious brands warring against each other, and even of infighting among the faithful within particular religious brands.

You write, “The US Constitution provides for freedom of religion for a powerful reason.”

That “powerful reason” is what I’m addressing here. All of my reading on this particular matter reveals that the primary underlying reason for that inclusion was to appease religious adherents in the hopes of softening the threat that religion posed/poses to an enlightened democracy. History is replete with examples of religious influences in government leading to horrific tyranny, and so the American Founders were smart enough to see that one way around that threat was to circumvent it with LAWS that eliminated the possibility that one religion would attempt to impose itself on all citizens.

I may be wrong in what I'm about to write, but I think that, as is usually the case with you and me, we are not really all that far apart in our views. You belong to a religion, I do not; beyond that, the differences are small, I think.

Thanks for coming by and contributing to the discussion.

You write, “I think an essential for society is commonly accepted rules of conduct.”

Gee, you make it sound so simple. ;-D

Then you write, “The trouble as I see it is that any time you get two people together, there will be a disagreement. More than two, and you have them dividing up into separate camps.”

I’m chuckling as I write this, but again, so simple; perhaps a good approach is to minimize the kinds of societal influences that lead to more disagreements. Of course, that action would probably lead to disagreements about what causes more disagreements…

Your conclusion is probably true. The reason any society has value is its respect for its members. The last 30 years has shown us a great deal of intolerance and I am hopeful that such intolerance will come to an end in public policy. There is plenty of evidence that younger Christians are beginning to see the error in the ways of those who led them into intolerant ranting and disrespect for others who believed differently.

You write, “There is plenty of evidence that younger Christians are beginning to see the error in the ways of those who led them into intolerant ranting and disrespect for others who believed differently.”

You know, I think I’ve seen this trend, too. In the beginning, the Christian Church did all it could to quash other perspectives, even regarding the supposed teachings of Jesus. Their all-out assault on Gnostic views seems a bit ironic at this juncture when one considers that much of the perspective held by the Gnostics at that time is coming back into vogue.

Another very thoughtful and provocative post. Thanks.

I don't find myself able to agree or disagree to proposition #1. As Samuel Butler observed, a chicken is an egg's way of making another egg. Given your definitions of society and religion, I think it is historically clear that religion existed without society as you define it. The folks who did the artwork at Lascaux seemed to have something like religion going on, and religious cults spring up in all sorts of small groups -- Lord of the Flies comes to mind.

With regard to the founders keeping religion out of government, I respectfully suggest that your reading of history is somewhat skewed. Both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution are documents that seek very much to limit the power of government, but do so along the theory that there are both public and private realms, and only those things touching directly on the public realm -- things like uniformity of currency to foster commerce and uniformity of law among the many states to preserve harmony between them and their peoples -- are the proper subject of government. With the history of the English Civil war fairly well in mind, keeping religion out of government was a way of minimizing both the scope of government and, as a consequence, the necessity of fighting over it.

The overwhelming proportion of representatives to the Constitutional Convention were men of good standing in their home churches. (The most forceful opponent of organized religion, Thomas Jefferson, was out of country at the time of the Convention -- a fact I find deliberate, though on grounds other than religion). I just don't see the founders as believing that religion was inessential to society, Quite the contrary, I believe one could easily find among the papers of many folks statements to the effect that religion is one of the reasons we can trust people to behave without threat of governmental sanction. Out of both pious duty and fear of hell, one could once count upon a large set of behaviors which would have otherwise might have been regulated by law.

Proposition # 2 strikes me as upon occasion both true and false -- and under the logic of true/false tests, would therefore be false. (Neitzche would agree with you in spades, though, yet he did not necessarily despise religion in the abstract so much and in the particular). In your own case, as you state, morals are neither grounded in nor dependent on religion. Yet there is still something there. Why do you suppose, you felt that killing the sparrow was wrong? I presume you still feel so, so what's wrong with offing birds for the helluva it, especially pest species like sparrows, pigeons, and grackles?

My own religious beliefs provide me with an answer to that question, but the truth of it was something that could not have been inculcated in me as a child.

It is certainly true that humans attempt to utilize their religion to justify their behavior. Even "the devil made me do it" requires a certain set of religious beliefs. Christian existentialists are fun to read on this subject.

I used to teach a course on, among other things, anarchist theory. Early on in that section, conducted the following thought experiment: Think of the last two or three major felonies you felt like committing. Then think of why you didn't do them. How many times was it because you were afraid of getting caught by the law, and how many times was it because you just felt it would be wrong. Never asked anyone to articulate a thing, but I could see faces take on thoughtful expressions.

If your two propositions are true, they raise the very substantial question of why religion is so persistent if it is so unnecessary. This is not an argument one way or another, just an observation.

Long-time-no-hear… Where have you been?

Thanks for reading and contributing to the discussion here.

You write, “The folks who did the artwork at Lascaux seemed to have something like religion going on, and religious cults spring up in all sorts of small groups…” This demonstrates that society comes first, and then religion springs up, as does even your “Lord of the Flies” example. The idea that a religion can exist without people to believe it seems beyond my ability to comprehend. It really is not a question of “…the chicken or the egg”.

With regards to your assertion, “…the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution are documents that seek very much to limit the power of government”, this says nothing regarding the reasoning behind the separation clause in the Constitution. Limiting the power of government was, as you say, the goal, and one of the concerns of the Founders was to remove the possibility of state-imposed religion.

While you are right about a vast majority of colonial Americans being religious, the purpose of the separation clause in the U.S. Constitution was precisely that to which I refer; to protect government and society from religious tyranny. It was a direct reaction to the Church of England.

See the article at:

The following can be found under the footnote #5 of the article there:

During House debate, Madison told his fellow Members that ''he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any Manner contrary to their conscience.'' 1 Annals of Congress 730 (August 15, 1789).

That his conception of ''establishment'' was quite broad is revealed in his veto as President in 1811 of a bill which in granting land reserved a parcel for a Baptist Church in Salem, Mississippi; the action, explained President Madison, ''comprises a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.'''

The Writings of James Madison (G. Hunt. ed.) 132-33 (1904). Madison's views were no doubt influenced by the fight in the Virginia legislature in 1784-1785 in which he successfully led the opposition to a tax to support teachers of religion in Virginia and in the course of which he drafted his ''Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments'' setting forth his thoughts. Id. at 183-91; I. Brant, James Madison--The Nationalist 1780-1787, 343-55 (1948).

Acting on the momentum of this effort, Madison secured passage of Jefferson's ''Bill for Religious Liberty''. Id. at 354; D. Malone, Jefferson the Virginian 274-280 (1948). The theme of the writings of both was that it was wrong to offer public support of any religion in particular or of religion in general.

As to my proposition #2, your proof test really doesn’t work here. If you are asserting that a moral existed prior to humans understanding it and asserting it, the question becomes from whence it came. You are seemingly arguing that there could have first been a moral, and then a religion, and then finally a human being to receive these things. I don’t think that will hold up.
You know, Rick, I've thought about this one over and over and over again. I have hated what religion has become even before I could drive a car.

Here are a couple of conclusions I've come to in my time around this subject.

1. Being truly religious takes a lot of effort and intellect. Something that enrages me more than anything about arguing with someone about the merit of their religion is having to teach them about their own holy book. If I site something big that they didn't know before I refuse to continue the conversation until they actually go and read about their own god.
Now this may just be a Christian thing, so I'll go ahead and use them as an example. If they are too lazy to read what should be the most important book in their lives then why do they believe??? I say it's indoctrination and further development through ritualistic engagements. Their beliefs about right and wrong are pretty much based on what they are told by their minister, priest, etc.
This gives one person a whole lot of power over a large amount of people and to me that is never a good thing. Vague words are too easily twisted into tools of hate.

2. People having to decide what is right and wrong for themselves would mean they have to go based on experience. I think this is a much better method for setting up a moral code as it is not only less black and white, but also leaves open the possibility for evolution. Are people going to do bad things? Sure, but they do them now too. Plenty of people on death row believe in the God Almighty, that didn't stop them from killing someone.

3. It's all about fear and acceptance. You go against what I say is right and you will suffer eternally, but you follow my command and I will love you forever. It's just not right. If my spouse cheated on me I'd be pissed, but I wouldn't make them suffer eternal damnation. Pretty soon at least one of my friends would be telling me to get over it, right? ;)

"Religion is the opiate of the masses." Karl Marx

To me, in the end, there are wonderful people that have studied and believe in God and want to truly do good upon this Earth. I call these people believers and respect their right to believe.

There are also people who blindly follow their spiritual leaders to the book burnings, or the witch burnings or the ballot box. I call these people sheep and wish that one day they'd learn to think for themselves.

Is religion essential to society? No. I think we could all 'survive' without it. But I also think everyone wants to believe in something more. I think religion can make a society better or worse depending on it's use in that grouping of people. It's kind of like spices in a dish. Used properly and it makes it a much more pleasing experience. Used improperly and the dish starts to become inedible.

At least that's what I think.
Rick - very thought-provoking post. Thanks to Mungular for pointing me here.

there are so many levels and interpretations here, it is hard to NOT get wrapped around the axle

my first reaction is that of course, religion is NOT essential to society

in this I mean, theological study, rituals, observances, dogma are neither essential NOR necessarily beneficial for a society and I can see where the framers thought religion could also be dangerous if held too closely with government

on the other hand, there is a set of common, fundamental beliefs - or even assumptions - while they may even be implied or so obvious to NOT be considered religious - that form the basis for advanced societies and government
e.g., all men are created equal; killing is morally wrong

in practice, one can be moral without a belief in a higher being, yet isn't this itself a form of religion (possibly humanism)
or be purely atheistic and rely on science for the big answers (simplifying of course), but in one sense, that is also a belief system


Rick Warren, Billy Graham, the Hindu gods...NOT essential
belief in a higher being...NOT essential

where do morals come from??? hmmm....somehow I think if I/we were raised without the dogma, without the Bible stories, without the rituals, I would still have an intrinsic moral code

so, I guess I'm still confused


Thanks for reading and commenting. Your thoughts are welcome.

You have delved into the issue of “definition” of the word “religion” here, which is something that always comes up in a discussion like this one. I agree that “without the dogma, without the Bible stories, without the rituals [you] would still have an intrinsic moral code”.
let's see...breath...water (although some dispute even this)...love...touch...community/fellow friendship/tribe/sense of belonging...rated and thank you for your most beautiful heartfelt writing.
Gypsy Island Girly,

Thank you for taking your time to read and comment. I really enjoy all the different perspectives that have been presented here. I have certainly received more responses than I expected.
I'm not sure that society developed prior to religion. We have the underpinnings of spiritual belief pretty early on in human history, almost as though religion and society developed with each other, fed off each other. The earliest known prose is a book of hymns to the goddess Inanna by a priestess. But merely because they seem to have progressed together doesn't mean religion is essential to society. It probably has more to do with human brain development.

I don't think religion is essential to society. Culture is essential to society, the way it reinforces ideology, allows people to develop mental schemas and provides mores and taboos essential to orderly functioning. Religion is usually part of culture but not always. I do notice though that cultures that push atheism generally have some sort of god-like leader who is elevated to a deity sort of status and is supposed to inspire an almost religious devotion. But then, this could just be a common cultural meme, and therefore a path to power.
Morality certainly can be independent of religion, as any atheist or agnostic will tell you. And culture, again, is the delivery system for whatever specific morality a given society may have.
But saying "God says so" is often a discussion ender, which is always what people in power want. So while religion isn't essential to society or morality, it is convenient, and damn effective.

Thank you for your comment; it’s good to see you here.

You and others have commented on the likelihood of society and religion developing simultaneously. I think that is true once a religion has developed. I don’t see how a religion could develop without a group of people already in place to promote and support it. I guess I fall into that group who think religion most likely evolved from our curiosity and need to explain our natural environment.

You write, “I do notice though that cultures that push atheism generally have some sort of god-like leader…”

Leaders have historically often been greatly admired, and mythology is full of stories about heroes who are revered to a god-like, or near god-like, status.

Thanks for coming by. I hope you will continue to contribute to my blogs.

I think you know the answer to your question. It's not really about what you ask, it's about all the other corrupt stuff that goes with it. And religious corruption is quite unique within that realm of corruption simply by the nature of its source. It presents a unique problem when it IS a problem. When it isn't, it doesn't matter, as you say.

Thank you for your comment here. I hope to see more contributions from you in the future.

You write about your own society, “…we aren't made to feel like we are bad if we don't follow an organized religion”.

This is such an easily seen problem here in America that I am often somewhat dumbfounded when people don’t see why religion is viewed as such a threat by so many. It just is not so complicated as to be necessary to ask that question if one has any real understanding about the history of religion, and particularly the three major monotheistic religious brands.

Your experience with the show about the “middle-ages” and the church (religion) is a good example of what many religious adherents do not know; the actual “history” of their religion’s evolution and what it really is. A large percentage of Christians in particular, in my experience, are totally ignorant about the history of their religious brand name. I do not spend a particularly large amount of time “studying” religion, but I often know more about Christianity than many of those Christians I encounter who have no knowledge even about the assemblage of their “Good Book”.

One further comment to you: it would be, in my opinion, a great step forward for both, religion and society at large, if nonbelievers and religious moderates (non-fundamentalists) could somehow form a more united front against the threat posed by some of these more “base” religious adherents.
I think if we break it down to its simplest forms we can get to a rather easy answer. First I think everyone would agree that "society" is made up of individual people, agreed? Now the question can be framed............Is religion essential to individual people? The obvious answer should be No, because all or most of us know people who are kind, caring, compassionate people and religion or even gods are not a part of their life. So it then stands to reason that if religion is not essential to individual people it needs not be essential to the societies which are made up of people. I realize that religion does bring comfort to people, but that does not make it essential it makes it more like the edge of the pool to a beginning swimmer. That beginning swimmer holds on to that edge for dear life at first( it is essential in their minds to their survival), but once them let go and start to learn to swim they realize that it is nice to have it there but it is no longer essential.
No-one ToKnow,

Thank you for commenting. It does seem like a fairly simple matter to me, also, but I have been surprised by how many do not see it that way.
First, this is an excellent topic, very well written and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it as well as the responses. Gratefully rated.

I'm afraid that having seen this post a little late, at best I can reiterate the responses of so many who have done what is probably a more eloquent job of answering this question than I ever could.

I'm still going to give it a shot because that's just the kind of person I am.

I completely agree with the premise: Religion is not essential to society, society is essential to religion. Yet, I'm also getting the impression that many of the responses given automatically assume that by "religion" we actually mean "organized religion." Within that premise, how could we not assume that religion needs society? When Western religions compare their leaders to "shepherds watching over their flocks", I find no truer words ever spoken. Shepherds watch over their flocks not for the good of the individual sheep but rather because they need wool and lamb chops. They don't want their flocks wandering off on their own nor falling to another predator. One doesn't get or maintain power by allowing others to think for themselves. Critical thinking is the first casualty of any dictatorship, religious or otherwise.

So let's try taking the organization out of religion and see what we have. I could use the term "spirituality" but the truth is it often gives me hives, conjuring up visions of henna tattoos and aroma therapy. I'll be the first to admit that this isn't entirely fair.

So, what do we call older religions, personal religions, myths and what not? How do we differentiate between these two things? I honestly don't know when the first people became self aware to the point that they began to question why they were here or what happened to them after they die. Did this affect how the made their societies and what values they had? I dunno. Maybe. I would also think that no matter how secular one is and no matter how primitive the society, certain societal codes would stay the same. Murder - bad for the society (but as always, exceptions are made depending on the standards for that society). Adultery is usually viewed as bad for the society but again only within societies that have strict views on marriage and sex. Early Polynesian culture tended to treat men, women and children as all being communal. They also had no word for "rape" until the onset of Christianity and the rigorous codes for sexuality and marriage. So, was their culture less strong or less moral than our own? I could so easily turn much of that into a discussion about morality versus sexuality, though I think I'll do that in some other post. I tend to think that the needs of society (food, shelter, raising of children) are greater than the needs to answer other of life's questions. I feel more comfortable in stating that the needs of the society shape their religion than religion shapes their society.
"Is religion essential to society?"

A mere one-word reply is needed: "NO."
oh, jeeeez, and let's not forget about sex...
I thought this comment thread had run its course, and suddenly there were three more comments here. I apologize for the late reply to these late comments.


Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think everything you’ve written here is reasonable.

You write, “I tend to think that the needs of society (food, shelter, raising of children) are greater than the needs to answer other of life's questions.”

Your statement touches on something that has been raised by others during this discussion; the idea that religion does more than codify and transmit morality. The concept of cultural transmission has been raised, as well as the effort to answer questions about life, the universe, etc. The role of religion in these matters is debatable, at best, but its “essentialness” in these matters is not supported.

Additionally, in relation to those questions and answers, others have raised the question of the validity of the answers provided to those questions by religion. If one regards the role of answer-giver by religion as essential to society and the answers provided to those questions by religion as essential, and yet those answers are clearly proven to be wrong, does this particular role for religion as answer-giver to questions about the universe become counterproductive to society, thereby making it not only non-essential, but actually destructive instead? I think the answer to that question is, “Yes”.


Dina Emerson,

Thanks for reading and commenting. I have to agree with your assessment. It just does not seem that complicated.


Gypsy Island Girly,

Thanks for reading and commenting.

I doubt that anyone could argue that “sex” is not essential to society. I wonder, though, how would that argument go, exactly, if one tried to make it?

Good post, Rick.

Religion is not essential to society. Religion won’t make you a better, more perfect person.

There is a blanket assumption that you need religion to have morals. There are lots of examples of people who pretend to be deeply religious, but who are morally corrupted, perhaps… even evil (think of BTK).

Many people think, religion is necessary for society because without it, we would be doing evil - do not take into account the basic morality of human kind. My father was an atheist AND a highly moral, ethical, and correct person. Why? Not because he was afraid of going to hell: Not because he was afraid of what his friends or neighbors might say: But because he “thought” about what he was doing. He believed there was a right way to navigate through the world and he lived according to his inner beliefs.

If you are a person of character, you do not need to have an external system. You need to listen to your moral core. It is easy to just mindlessly follow a set of rules, set by a religion rather than, asking yourself on each and every occasion, if this is truly “right” or “wrong”.

Religions set down rules = so we don’t have to think, or ask ourselves tough questions, but this external system disrupts our connection to our own moral core. Our moral center (like any muscle) needs to be flexed, so that, when there is a situation needing a decisive moral judgment- we are capable of making that decision. We need to be able to know what is right when there is no external rule set, or the rule set no longer matches our moral/ethical quandary.

It is important we don’t just make a social pantomime where the appearances of morality are in effect rather than the exercise it. When religion is a masquerade, used to attack those who hold ideas/ beliefs, or persuasions “other” then us. How can that be moral at all? Pointing fingers at others accusing them of moral deficiency is NOT practicing religious charity, tolerance and humility. Is it practicing religion at all?

What is essential to society is to practice the golden rule—really. Think and be. Think.
Here's a question in response to your question:

What about the kid who kills a sparrow, enjoys it, and decides it would be even more fun to kill a larger animal?

Why are there no churches which have arisen in response to those "morals"?
I'm way late so I'll try to keep it brief.

Is religion the source of morality? No.

My fundie friends argue there is no morality absent religion, but that is so absurd as to be not worth arguing. And while religion in theory may promote morality, it all obviously, and far too frequently, does the opposite. See the Crusades and the witch-burnings.

Does religion hold society together?

Did religion hold Northern Ireland together? Did it hold Sunni and Shiite together? Does it hold Southern Baptist and Episcopalian together?

The better question would be is religion on the whole a benefit to society?
L J,

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I apologize for my late response.

You write, “It is important we don’t just make a social pantomime where the appearances of morality are in effect rather than the exercise it.”

You certainly make a solid point with that statement. If morality means ANYTHING, it has to have something ‘real’ behind it, not something farcical.



Thanks for commenting.

You ask, “What about the kid who kills a sparrow, enjoys it, and decides it would be even more fun to kill a larger animal? Why are there no churches which have arisen in response to those ‘morals’?”

For me, the answer to your question is self-evident. Individuals who enjoy senseless killing are not commonly viewed as “normal” or “moral”, regardless of whether we refer to religion or secular law. So, if I’m going to create a religion, I’m going to codify that which will garner the widest possible clientele because that is what will keep me in business.

Of course, one could look at things like the Christian Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition and wonder if that kind of action is not inspired by exactly the types of individuals to whom you refer. In those instances you have cases where the morals outlined by the religion in question are violated, but the violation is also justified by the same religion.

I have attempted to briefly answer your question. Now, what would be YOUR answer to your question?



You write, “The better question would be is religion on the whole a benefit to society?”

I agree. I had the same thought when the instructor asked the question in class that night. I thought, “If it is essential, it must be a benefit, and that is highly questionable, at best, so one can’t argue that it’s ‘essential’.” I’m always amazed that anyone can think religion is an original ‘source’ of morals.
Well, I completely agree with you, Rick. I recently got into an argument on just this issue with a friend of mine, who argued that without organized religion, there would be no social cosntruct for teaching and enforcing "right" and "wrong." I think that religion is needed by many individuals to deal with the fear of the unkown and to fulfill the desire for a meaning to our existence. And I do think that all humans feel it necessary to seek out some mental framework for giving direction and purpose to our lives. But that doesn't mean that religion is the answer for everyone. I am not religious myself. I would describe myself as a secular humanist. And yet I, like you, still have a very strong moral code -- one that provides the structure that others get from religion. Like Richard Dawkins (the author of the God Delusion), I celebrate the awesomeness of nature, but don't feel compelled to define just who, or what, is the "designer" -- if there is one, or to encumber my celebration with arcane rituals and exclusionary rules. Religion's propensity to be heavy with the latter is what has made its influence so corrosive at times in human history.

Thanks for your contribution. This thread keeps crawling along it seems.

You write of your friend “…who argued that without organized religion, there would be no social cosntruct for teaching and enforcing "right" and "wrong."

I’m curious as to how that friend supported that statement. This is one of the cornerstones of the argument that religion is ‘necessary’ on a societal level (essential to society), but I’ve never found anyone who could support it. Its falseness seems so obvious as to make it completely worthless as an argument.
I enjoyed this a lot, and everyone elses comments on it, to which I am responding, and rated it. thank you. sorry to be long, u made me think.
I think if you look at history, the fact that there are no human civilizations (I say human because we don't know what chimps in theory social order think yet as to their religious views, although I have made extended eye contact with an orangutan and he seemed to have a Soul, and I say this seriously, as the Neanderthals were not so far from primates yet burried their dead with rituals) that persist without religious beliefs in some sense, and note here that Confucianism is backstopped by ancestor worship and Heaven and Earth, and the Greeks had Telos, argues that religion is essential to preventing anarchy and providing comfort.
It is worth noting that the Declaration of Independence is a Natural Law document, Deism, with the form of political instituions being subject to rule utilitarian calculations, but not the Rights with which we were endowed by our Creator. Fanklin was very nervous that it was a mistake to not reiterate a Deistic foundation in the Constitution, and I think that he was right, because when you look at rule utilitarian formulations of morality, and especially act utilitarian formulations, you end up a la Pete Singer potentially saying infanticide is allowed, or more importantly I think, that Anything Goes.
The Condorcet Paradox literature, which is in effect an anything goes theorem, culminating in Postive Political Theory Austin-Smith Banks shows why, in that the more diverse beliefs are over a set of voters/inhabitants,a civilization, the narrower the power elite/collegium has to become in order to prevent anarchy under any decision rule that has any semblance to each member of society being even moderately equal at all, which logically speaking with enough diversity in belief culminates in a dictatorship, a singelton set, which then of course is most easily rationalized by attributing Divinity to the singleton a la Alexander or Caesar. This is the Truth of Plato's Noble Lie.
Even in the case of just regular old Few versus Many competition, the Power Elite, historically speaking has needed some quasi- divine status, like "better" blood sanctioned by God, teh elect, membership in the Communist Party, or an Emperor and his servants mediating between Heaven and Earth as is China, or a Ph.D from a "good school," in which what is really at issue is authority and the legitimacy of authority whis is necessary for any civilization to function, the craving for sadi authority I believe Harry Eckstein correctly comes from the needs of a small child from which we cannot get away from due to the long period of dependence of child on Mother and Father: Wolf Boys and kids who raise themselves struggle in the end, because it is not the Natural Order.
It also seems to me that Spengler's warning that the materialist/scientific project was going to implode on itself, and note that he saw WWI like Lenin before it happened when Norman Angel was the conventional wisdom as to a happy Liberal Materialism, and that I think Spengler was correct in that the Enlightenment project, as Burke warned as well, would ultimately prove de-humanizing, and that the craving for miracle, mystery authority as in the Grand Inquisitor would generate intense social anxiety, and note all the anti-depressants now, and that per Spengler we are entering the Age of the Caesars' and the Period of the Warring States, because of the playing out of the Materialist project in its Discontented Civilization.
Moreover, it seems to me that the materialist project has never really understood the implications of the Goedel theorem on Incompleteness and the associated Church etc. Incomputability literature that to me in conjunction almost proves that there is a Divine order, at least in a Deistic sense, because the only mind that can compute some problems or produce the infinite regress that is at the heart of Goedel, and both clearly exist because we use the logical consequences of these from the Axiom of Choice, is a Mind that is Infintitely Fast, if a set of Measure Zero, which is means that Materialism has ultimately been hoist by its own petard. Or like Aristotle, no effect without cause, or the probability that I am writing this by random chance evolution is rather small.
From another point of view, the fact that most cultures across time have intuited that making man divine is a fool's errand, because the Pride involved is bound to be humbled in the face of an irreducible human frailty in the nature of things, whether you take that as the Fall of Man or the Greeks suspecting the Gods were Envious, suggests that they were probably on to something, even if Goedel suggests in conjunction with the Spengler hypothesis, that we are about to witness something new, something in the end, Wonderful.
Ah, Rick, you have posted my favourite secular humanist quote. Arthur C. Clarke hit the nail squarely on the head.

I have long wondered about the ongoing love affair of humanity with hypothetical supreme beings and their cults.

Here's another statement that I find useful, probably a quote though I've not been able to source it:

"and man created god in his own image"


What IS essential to society? Consideration. Kindness. Compassion. For me, that would be a good start. Just people being decent to each other.