Thursday, June 20, 2019

Is Religion a Good Thing?

So, how would you respond to the question posed as the title of this article? Perhaps some of you would quickly answer in the affirmative and a few of you would likely answer in the negative. However, maybe many of you, like me, would want to respond, “It depends.” Or, in keeping with my 6/15 posting, perhaps we would want to say, “Yes and No.” 
The Affirmative Position
Most religious people, no doubt, are convinced that their religion is a good thing. Obviously, people would not choose to identify with a religion if they thought that, overall, it was not a good thing. But other religions have often been seen as definitely not so good.
Thus, in the past there have been plenty of people who basically thought, “My religion is good, but other religions are bad”—and that idea has been particularly strong in Christianity, and more particularly in conservative Protestantism.
In the name of religious tolerance, though, there are now many who emphasize that all religions are basically the same—and that they are all basically good, for they all teach things like the Golden Rule, for example.
Since now for many “progressive” people little is more intolerable than intolerance, exclusive views of religion have largely been rejected and replaced with the universal acceptance (for the most part) of all religions as true (at least for the adherents of those religions) and good.
But tolerance should never become a barrier to critical thinking.
The Negative Position
There is a growing number of people, especially in the Western world, who think that religion is, definitely, not good. But that has been a common idea in some places in the world, like Japan for example, for quite some time.
My first realization about religion perhaps not being good came from listening to my students in Japan, where I began teaching at Seinan Gakuin University (SGU) in 1968. Most of my students had a negative attitude toward religion partly because in high school history classes they had learned undesirable things about Christianity, such as the Crusades.
Moreover, most of them had been brought up by parents who remembered how the Shinto religion was used by Japanese militarists to spur the nation toward aggressive military action in China and then later at Pearl Harbor.
Warlike activity was done in the name of Emperor Hirohito, who was considered by most Japanese in the 1930s and early 1940s as the earthly manifestation of the Shinto gods.
The vast majority of my students in the required Christian Studies classes I taught were not just negative toward Christianity, they were negative to all religions.
After a year or so at SGU, “Is Religion a Good Thing?” was the title (in Japanese) of the first article I wrote for a faculty and staff publication.
My conclusion was, “Not necessarily.”
The Both/And Position
In one of his numerous potent statements, Pascal declared, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction” (Pensées, Trotter trans., #894).
That certainly seems to be true when thinking of the 12th and 13th century Crusaders, the Japanese militarist leaders of the 1930s and ’40s, or the radical Islamists of the 21st century.
But isn’t the opposite also true? People never do good so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. Just the Christian examples here are legion: Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Kagawa Toyohiko, M.L. King Jr., etc. etc.
These latter individuals, though, perhaps could be more correctly described as spiritual rather than religious. In the end, it is faith rather than religion, spirituality more than religiosity, that is good.
Thus, it is faith and spirituality rather than religion that needs to be accentuated.


  1. Thanks for your thoughts here, Leroy. I think I would probably respond to the initial question with a question of my own: "What exactly do you mean by 'religion'?" For religion to be a good thing or a bad thing (or both/and) assumes that we all know what "religion" is in the first place. But the growing trend for the last couple decades among scholars is that "religion" is not something that can be defined easily, if at all (I'll add a short bibliography in a comment below). Any definition that a person tries to pin on religion inevitably ends up excluding some cultural practices or systems of belief that might otherwise be considered "religious" (thus the debate in the West over whether Buddhism "counts" as a religion or not), while at the same time including things that most folks *wouldn't* consider inherently religious, like the fandoms of organized sports or popular sci-fi/fantasy. It's worth noting, too, that Hinduism didn't exist as a definable religion until the era of British colonialism, when the English showed up in India, observed the collective beliefs, practices, and social customs of the people they encountered there, and proclaimed them to be practitioners of a religion.

    One of my favorite scholars, William T. Cavanaugh, actually uses this perspective to critique the common misconception that "religion" is an inherently violent enterprise. Cavanaugh's basic argument is that if we can't agree on what constitutes religion as a category distinct from other markers of human culture, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to call religious violence "religious." A good illustration of Cavanaugh's point is the "fuzziness" of the question of whether Islamic extremism is more accurately described as religious violence or political violence, since Muslim cultures generally make no distinction between "religious" and "political," even though most Westerners, operating under the mythos of secularism, still think they've managed successfully to separate the two.

    I think I'm probably inclined toward either a both/and position—I sometimes describe myself as "spiritual AND religious," or, if I'm feeling particularly contrarian that day, "religious but not spiritual"—or maybe a neither/nor position, since I'm skeptical that a universally agreed-upon definition of what we call "religion" exists. In the end, maybe religion is sort of like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous description of pornography: Undefinable, but "I know it when I see it."

    1. I’m not sure if this would be useful to you or any of your regular readers, but here’s a quick-and-dirty selection of authors who have criticized the idea of a singular definition of “religion.”

      • Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion (Johns Hopkins, 1993).

      • Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (University of Chicago, 2005).

      • Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale, 2013).

      • Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University of Chicago, 1982).

      • Jonathan Z. Smith, Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion (University of Chicago, 2004).

      • Theodore Vial, Modern Religion, Modern Race (Oxford, 2016).

      For perspectives that are tailored more for the Judaeo-Christian tradition(s), see:

      • Leora Batnitsky, How Judaism Became a Religion (Princeton, 2011).

      • Carlin Barton and Daniel Boyarin, Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities (Fordham Press, 2016).

      • Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

      • William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford, 2009).

    2. Joshua, thank you so much for the lengthy, detailed, and helpful comments and bibliography.

      You are certainly correct in raising the question about what religion is, but I was just using the term in the popular sense--and in such a way as college students study with textbooks such as "Introduction to World Religions, Third Edition" (Fortress Press, 2018).

      The scholarly questioning of the meaning of religion goes back more than a couple of decades. In the 15th chapter of my book "Thirty True Things . . ." I introduce W.C. Smith (1916~2000), who was for a number of years the director of Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions. I specifically cited his book "Faith and Belief" (1979), but it was long before that, if I remember correctly, that he importantly made a point similar to what you mention in your first two paragraphs. Like "Hinduism" is for Asian Indians, Shinto in Japan is largely just how one (traditionally) lives, not a "religion" that one has.

  2. I should have posted this earlier in the day, but two of my previous blog articles are directly related to today’s posting, and for those of you who would like to think more about this subject (and to know more about my thinking on this matter) I suggest taking a look at the 6/10/18 and the 2/22/10 articles at the links given below (just darken and click on the link given in the menu that appears).

  3. The first comments received this morning (before 7 a.m.) was from a local Thinking Friend, a women who has a theological education. She shared the following significant comments:

    "When ministering to Hospice patients, most have spiritual needs and concerns, not religious. And for many who don’t want a chaplain visit, I have won them over when I tell them we don’t have to talk about religion."

    1. Yes, "spiritual needs" are usually quite different from religious concerns.

    2. Later in the day yesterday, this TF gave me permission to post her comments with her name. She is Susan Miller, and I appreciate her significant comments.

  4. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago shared meaningful comments, as he often does and for which I am grateful:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments about religion. I am in the 'Yes and No' category.

    "While religion has greatly inspired compassion and charity, it has also inspired some unspeakable atrocities. Atrocities in the name of religion have been declining, however; nationalist and ethnic violence, rather than religious violence, are today the greater threats.

    "Atrocities in the name of Christianity have almost disappeared. Islam is still struggling with this, but Islam actually teaches tolerance, so hopefully, it will evolve a greater tolerance in the future.

    "So has religion done more good or more bad? That question cannot be objectively answered, but it seems that religion today does more good because of its emphasis on charity and its general rejection of violence, even though much bad religion still exists."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Eric--and for emphasizing the upside of religion.

      I have often said that most "religious wars" have been far more about politics, power, economics, and control than about religion.

      And, yes, religious people may well do far more good today than in the past--but overall perhaps "spiritual" people, since they include most (or at least many) religious people,do the most good of all.

  5. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Les Hill in Kentucky. Like me, he is a retired SB missionary:

    "Many years ago in Orissa, India, I learned of a deacon in the area that I regret not meeting. But as a young man he worked for a family whose husband/father had a leadership role in the village. The time for the annual harvest sacrifice came and the husband/father told the family that he'd decided that their servant should serve as-become the annual sacrifice. He'd not known that his daughter and the young man had come to love each other. And of course the daughter began to plead for the young man's life. Her father said he could not change the selection since he had already announced his decision publicly. BUT, feeling great concern for his daughter he arranged for the young man and his daughter to escape. The young man later became a Christian and served as a deacon in his church.

    Recently [a professor in a Baptist university missions department] said specifically, 'All religions are the same--each digging down as if into the earth to find the divine stream.' This same individual recently included me in an email giving a good example of how a Christian couple overcame Muslim prejudice and then carefully wrote, 'I don't mean to imply any one religion is better than another.' He has retired from the theological department of a Baptist University and may still teach as adjunct. He was not pushed out."

  6. And then about an hour ago I received these substantial comments from Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin in Arkansas:

    "Thank you for another great thought provoking piece. I have studied a number of religions (and even posted a video on YouTube 'Why God Mapping is Important' a year or so ago) and actually think of this question a lot, especially with Islam featuring prominently in my dissertation work.

    "Comparative religionist Huston Smith once said that religion is like a cow. It can both kick and give beautiful milk. I later learned that this is a quote from Krishna. Smith makes the point that only in religion do people tend to dwell on the negative. For this reason, in any of his writings or recorded lectures, you will never hear him denigrate any particular religion. Comparing religion to music and art, he said music and art teachers/professors focus on the vast good to be found in these respective disciplines, and he intended to do the same with religion, which is also vast in goodness, seeking human betterment, etc. Religion/s has/have accomplished far more good than evil. He espoused that for the most part there is good to be found in all religious expression.

    "This does not necessarily mean that all religions, or even localized expressions of the same religion, are equally good. There are a number of features to various religions that can tend toward corruption, as highlighted by Charles Kimball in his "When Religion Become Evil." There are five, according to Kimball: absolute truth claims, blind obedience, establishing the 'ideal time,' the end justifies the mean, and declaring holy war.

    "I would recommend Kimball’s books to anyone who is interested in healthy religion. Consistent with Kimball’s outline, healthy religion is always humble, recognizing our own “brainwashing / programming” of narratives interpolated, recognizing the good and value to be found in all religious expression that respects the human dignity of all human beings."

  7. Thanks for your substantial comments, Tom.

    I appreciate your mentioning/recommending Kimball's book. I mention him in the 6/10/18 blog article I referred to above and say more about him and his ideas in the 15th chapter of my book "Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now."

  8. Here are part of longer comments sent to me via email yesterday by Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "Another provocative blog. Thank you!

    "There are two things that give me encouragement about religion. First, there is the life of Jesus of Nazareth. No one ever lived such a rich and inspiring life nor taught such profound lessons. I believe in Jesus but that about sums up my positive thoughts about 'religion.'

    "The second thing that gives me encouragement about the Christian faith is the change that it can bring in people.

    . . . .

    "Fundamentalism has soured me so completely on Southern Baptists and the behavior of the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, and up to the present, has thoroughly corrupted Christianity. Pascal was wise beyond his time in his statement you quoted. It is one of my favorites.

    "It is discouraging when I think of the religious wars and the evil in the world that has been done in the name of religion. Jamestown and Waco comes to my mind.

    "I support the last sentence in your blog, 'Thus it is faith and spirituality rather than religion that needs to be accentuated.'"

  9. Yesterday evening I also received the following thought-provoking comments from local Thinking Friend Marilyn Peot.

    "Years ago I came across the following: 'Religion is for those who don't want to go to hell, spirituality is for those who have been there.' This was in the introduction to one of the first books that came out on the Enneagram written by a Catholic sister and priest!)

    "Many people are moving toward spirituality and therefore studying and often practicing other traditions. We met a former Catholic young man who was our tour guide through the Rime Buddhist Center. Someone asked why he went over to Buddhism. Are you ready for this? He answered: because Buddhists have an emphasis on wisdom and compassion. Hmmmm...I believe that is what we recognize as Jesus' Life? In fact, in the book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, those are the very qualities that define him. Yes, our young people especially are searching and not hearing the good news.

    "I just completed Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel. It's thrilling to read of this young man's journey of faith from Islam and back again and his efforts to bring young people of all traditions to deepen their spirituality and to reach out to those who are our brothers and sisters. His mixed groups serve those in their cities who are not receiving the love and care they deserve. They are following what every tradition has emphasized: Love and serve others. In this way these small groups are deepening the sense of community and some are choosing to pray and live together. Their hunger for spirituality and involvement and their sense of social justice commitment is amazing.

    "The Spirit is alive and well--and as more hearts are opening to Truth, the more Life and Love will become evident. There are zillion ways this is already happening. The goodness of others is convincing me Jesus is again still walking our streets!"

  10. Earlier today, Thinking Friend Dick Horn in Texas posted these comments on Facebook:

    " I would agree with your statement. I think the emphasis on Religion has always been a mistake. I see nothing in the teaching of Jesus that would indicate that Religion has ever been the solution."

  11. The following comments were also posted by Noriko Corl who lives in Fukuoka City, Japan:


    1. Here is Google's translation of the above:

      "I agree with the opinion of Mr. Sied. I think that things like peace, good things, love, etc. will occur first as internal problems. In other words, it is a matter of faith or faith. If it is used for politics, it will turn into horrible acts such as war and murder, which I think will be understood if you look back on the history, as you pointed out.Thank you for posting. <.) ♪ "

      I like the contrast between faith and politics in religion. Religion has always had a tension between imperial designs and popular spirituality. The outward form becomes an interesting mosaic of the two, while both strands regularly provide powerful examples. What most people want in terms of peace, love and fellowship transcend distinct religions, while imperial religions tend towards imperial conflicts. Apply this matrix to America and Iran to see how this can play out.

    2. Thanks for your comments, Craig--and for your supplying the Google translation of Noriko-san's comments. But, to say the least, there was much lost in translation. Using Google to translate to or from Japanese is of quite limited value.

      I suppose I should have translated her comments for all of my English-speaking readers who do not know Japanese, but I mainly posted her comments for my Japanese Thinking Friends who might see them.