Thoughts from the sky...

What purpose do religions serve in society? (A pragmatic view)

I sometimes feel it’s unfair to criticise early religions within the context of the highly developed, 21st century, welfare state that I live in.

Given a rural village in the 1500s Britain, religions were probably quite an effective way of keeping people motivated and providing a basic community support network and structure. If you take the approach that quality of life is the most important thing in a society, it doesn’t actually matter whether their teachings are “true” or not. In an undeveloped infrastructure, with poor communication and social welfare networks, it’s very fair to say that most mainstream religions can provide the structure needed to keep society in check.

Is it ideal? Hell no.

Do bad things happen in $SomeRelgion’s name? Yep.

Do people take things too far and cause upset? Of course.

Should you RageQuit now, or continue reading? Probably, read on – the clarifications are still to come.

If you have no police force, no education system, no social welfare system, no healthcare system and nothing to inspire people, most major religions go a long way in unifying communities and helping them improve their quality of life by implementing rudimentary support for these things.

Remember how most of the world couldn’t understand why, during the Olympics opening ceremony, lots of Brits started crying with pride during a segment on “their frickin’ health service”?

Imagine if the government funded NHS had never existed and instead religiously led institutions filled the function of free healthcare – can you imagine people might still feel the same of loyalty towards religious organisation that help their family and friends at a time of need? That’s how it used to be in our country, so it shouldn’t be too surprising it continues elsewhere.

And of course, in those cases, sometimes religious agendas override obvious, modern scientific and medical agendas, which sometimes means thing happen that we do not like at all (and are justifiably upset about). If we look pragmatically at whether the existence of those basic services to those without access to any services at all,  provide greater benefit or greater suffering then the balance is often in favour of a greater quality of life.

Often it would be great if something else could unify and inspire people to create an advanced community support network, and a society with lots of specialised functions (police officers, firemen, teachers, doctors) – though bear in mind that often when it’s not religion uniting people, it’s strong nationalistic views. But again, a poor communication network often means that isolated rural societies rarely are able to sustain mainly specialised functions at all, and so “the police” might also the local militia/military and are located several towns away, and most issues are fixed at village community level by whatever social structures exist to resolve it,.

To me, it seems likely that (as a rough rule of thumb) the less well connected, and the less access to social welfare a society has, the more religion is likely to find an obvious and comfortable place within that society.

(Scandinavia is one of those places which is widely regarded as being very developed, and whilst it is sparsely populated, the population is quite centralised in cities, with really good communication links and has one of the most fruitful welfare states in the world, and also, is one of the most godless places in the world. That’s not to say their society doesn’t celebrate religious holidays, they just don’t believe in god that much.)

Of course, it is absolutely fair to criticise religions for not adapting to the 21st century highly developed, welfare state society in which I live, but you can see why they’re in an uncomfortable position in the UK and similar countries; many of the clear and pragmatic benefits of religious institutions (basic law & order, basic hierarchies, basic healthcare, basic education, basic social welfare) have been eaten away by our developments in society – usually by governments or businesses, seeing the outreach functions of a religion, and reimplementing those benefits outside of the religious context.

Generally, I think that separating these services from religious movements is a good thing, (and you’d be hard pressed to find many religious people in this country to disagree), but given the role religion used to play here and continues to do so in other countries, it’s easy to understand why communities feel drawn together by its purpose.

Ultimately, I feel religion exists to improve a quality of life, of less developed societies – and its continued existence in those places (and decline elsewhere), for me, is a sign of that.

And what about you, you ask?

You’re free to try to change the societies of this world for the better in whatever way you choose.

You can choose what’s important to you, you can gain greater understanding of why it is, and you can help develop that vision into action.

And precisely how you do that, is entirely up to you. Good luck! :)

You may wish to also read “If I were a religious man” and “If I was an atheist, man“.

Just Look Up

If I was an atheist, man.

Every so often, I see atheists having a bonfire party, religious people getting upset, or religious people having a bonfire party and atheists getting upset. Given my beliefs and thoughts on religion, I find this quite saddening.

A degree of understanding and respect, even for people you deeply disagree with, can be very beneficial to you. Firstly, you’ll find other views less confusing, but mainly this is a great tool for helping the people you disagree with, change themselves.

When you take the time to sit down with people who hold different views and opinions, when you seek the common values that you all agree with, and then take your time to understand the other side’s point of view, you can really make an impact.

For me, the Atheism vs Theism arguments look a bit like this:

From F7U12
From F7U12

So when I find fundamentalist/evangelical atheists getting their knickers in a twist, or  fundamentalist/evangelical religious people doing the same, I just sort of tune out…

XKCD 774: "Atheists"
XKCD 774: “Atheists”

In my mind, evangelical Atheists and fundamentalist Christians have a lot more in common than they think they do.

You may also enjoy “If I were a religious man“.

Mountains near Nallo, Northern Sweden

If I were a religious man.

Occasionally forms have a field labelled:


followed by a bunch of tick boxes.

A tick in a box is rarely very descriptive and so I thought I’d try and explain where I stand on faith.


I was raised as a non-religious person in a largely non-religious pseudo-christian culture. What do I mean by pseudo-christian? Well, our family and friends have always celebrated Christmas and Easter, but as secular holidays – some of my family have been to local CE Church for midnight mass on Christmas Eve, but that is about as far as it’s ever gone – I’ve certainly not noticed any stronger religious influences in my family.

As I’ve grown older, and grown outside the environment in which I grew up, I’ve interacted and known various people from various different religions and faiths – I feel that going to school holding a very diverse distribution of beliefs has helped shape my understanding of the world.

If you were religious, what would you be?

Whilst one can “pragmatically” choose a religion in the same way you might choose which used car to buy, I’m pretty sure you don’t. This is not really how [at least most mainstream religions] are designed to work – “shopping around” for the one that suits you best isn’t what happens – in the vast majority of cases, it’s something you’re born into, occasionally it’s something people marry into and even less frequently, it’s something people find their own path and convert to.

However, if I were to look rationally and exceptionally pragmatically at the religious communities I identify most strongly with, two I’d point to would be the Quaker Movement and Unitarian Universalism.

(This is not an exhaustive list by any means – these the movements I’ve had the most chance to research and feel somewhat able to comment clearly upon. I’m certain that if I had more familiarity with different branches of other major religions, I could probably identify others with favourable aspects which might also be preferable, however after lots of time-consuming research I figured this was enough.)

The Quakers

The Quakers believe in creating a community that is free to challenge, question and explore their own beliefs, values and ideas. They believe everyone is equal and with no sort of hierarchical clergy, all decisions are made by consensus.

This [relatively] sane mode of governance (in Britain, taking place at the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends), has allowed them to update their religious doctrines and approaches to fit the changing attitudes within their community.

Most topical, Quakers in the UK (in line with changing attitudes) welcomed Equal Marriage to the point that they campaigned for it, since 2009.

Quakers seek to live lives built on principles of “simplicity, equality, truth and peace”, which resonates well with me.

As they neatly put it:

It is a faith and a way of life that is both timeless and contemporary.

(I should add the disclaimer that whilst both my parents and grandparents weren’t Quaker,  about 60-70 years ago, various friends and family on my mums side were, and whilst I don’t feel this affects my judgement, I feel it’s worth mentioning.)

Unitarian Universalism

The Unitarian Universalists don’t really have a set of doctrines or beliefs but they “affirm and promote

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

One of the things that make Unitarian Universalism attractive is that it is often referred to by its members as a “living tradition” so the religion is well suited to adapt and change with a changing world.

This means that in that often Unitarian Universalist congregations are happy to welcome LGBTQ relationships into their communities.

Personally, I find the emphasis on a personal search, respect for others, and the ‘auto-updater’ ability that allows for their community to adapt their values as they see fit.

This reddit thread goes a long way to explaining many of the virtues and this BBC article is also worth a read.

Realistically though, I’m not one of the members of these religious groups.

In the same way that you’re not a member of a political party just because you agree some things that are said, I’m not part of a religion, simply because I can find agreement with some of the things they say.

Where I stand

Now if I was to take Pascal’s Wager – I’d probably join one of these organisations – but ultimately, I remain unconvinced it’s necessary to do so.

I try to live life as a “good person”, so whilst I respect, and indeed follow many of the above movements aims, I don’t feel the need to be part of one of those movements to do so.

This is because I don’t feel that the existence or non-existence of a greater being would care whether I’d been part of one of those movements as long as I’d tried my best to do good things.

Effectively, I’m an agnostic, with a strong system of values and a secular/cultural approach to Christmas.

In my next blog post, I’ll ask, “If I were an Atheist, man.“…. stay tuned!