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“.