When Friedrich Nietzsche famously proclaimed that ‘God is dead’ in the 19th century, he was expressing a growing sentiment that the significance of religion in society was on a decline. Indeed, Karl Marx went even further to dismiss the function of religion in people’s lives by calling it ‘the opiate of the masses’. While there is no doubt that religion has been a source of tension, conflict and discord among people throughout human history, the claim that the world would be a better place if it did not exist is too absolutist. It would also be a parochial view as it fails to take into account the many positive benefits religion has brought to mankind such as providing solace and comfort in times of distress, providing moral direction in an age of uncertainty and offering us hope in a world that is increasingly fraught with fear and insecurity. I do not therefore agree that the world would be a better place if religion did not exist, and would in fact argue that things could be a lot worse if not for the stabilizing effects of religion.
Observers who hold the view that the world would be a better place without religion point to the litany of wars, conflicts, and strife which have seen perpetrators invoke the name of religion to advance their various causes and justify their atrocities. From the Crusades which pitted Christian armies against Muslim ones to the Thirty Years’ War which tore Europe apart with the Protestant-Catholic schism; from the ongoing violence between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia to the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, it appears that religion in its various guises has been the cause of much human suffering. Additionally, societies that have ruled people by religious precepts often end up abusing human rights and freedoms on the basis of religion. A case in point is the gender apartheid policy enforced during the extremist fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan. By claiming divine sanction and religious right, the Taliban misused the Muslim faith as the basis for its appalling treatment of women who were denied basic human dignity. This is not just limited to Islam: during the American Civil War, many Southerners evoked passages from the Bible to justify the inhumane practice of slavery. Elsewhere in Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army have used the Ten Commandments and the desire to create a Christian caliphate of sorts in Central Africa to justify their deplorable actions, which include the recruitment of child soldiers, child-sex slavery and murder. Hence, critics of religion believe that because religion is often used as a vehicle to promote conflict and violence, it is unnecessary and has become incompatible with modern ideals of world peace, freedom and equality.
Another oft-cited reason for why religion has little place in our modern world is the notion that with the advent of science and technology, man no longer need to be dependent on religion to provide answers for previously unexplained ‘mysteries of the universe’. Many of the teachings in the various faiths are predicated on faith and belief, rather than facts and reason, and opponents of religion assert that this runs counter to modern scientific thought. Some view religion as a primitive attempt to understand nature and the world at large, and that it has since been superseded by scientific inquiry. They therefore conclude that religious beliefs, founded in superstition and ignorance, are at odds with scientifically-proven evidence and merely perpetuate flawed ways of thinking onto future generations. Some conservative American states are considering including creationism in the curriculum, or at least allowing teachers who introduce creationism as a legitimate scientific theory avoid legal liability. If these measures are passed, there would be a direct impact on the way science is taught, and consequently how the leaders of tomorrow perceive the natural world. In recent years, the scientific community has indeed been growing louder in their denunciation of religion as seen by the publication of such bestselling books as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As such, with the alleged clash of science and religion, some hold the view that our world would be better off without religion as it poses as a hurdle to rational and logical thinking.
In similar fashion, opponents of religion assert that religion has no place in an increasingly secular world which is built upon the concept of the separation of church and state. In most democracies, there is a growing wariness of how religion can creep into the political sphere and affect major national decisions. The argument is that religion should be kept out of politics and the public sphere as we should not impose our own personal and private religious beliefs onto others in society, since it has the potential to infringe on the human rights of individuals or create divisions This can be observed in the United States, where the debate over safe access to abortion has at times devolved into a one. This understanding underpins the government’s desire to keep religion out of the public space in Singapore. While Article 15 of the Constitution guarantees the right to ‘profess and practise (one’s) religion and to propagate it’, it is qualified by Article 15(4) which guarantees freedom of religion only insofar as it does not contradict other laws relating to public order, health or morality. This sort of ‘accommodative secularism’ was introduced precisely because founding father Lee Kuan Yew believed firmly that while the freedom of religion should be enshrined in order to recognize the plurality of Singapore, freedom from religion was crucial in preventing destructive competition between the different religions. Thus, to those who regard religion in a negative light, religion was, and is, one additional aspect within society apart from race, gender, sexual orientation that segregates people and keep them apart. Because religion often inflames passion, self-righteousness and intransigence over ultimate truths, it is arguable that without religion, there would be one less source of tension in our already problematic and conflict-ridden world.
Yet, notwithstanding the above arguments, the claim that the world would be a better place without religion fails to take into consideration the many benefits that religion accrues both to the individual and to society at large. With regards to the thesis that religion has no place in our world where scientific thought has become dominant, this is also the exact argument why religion is even more needed in our society today. Today, scientific research is advancing at breakneck speed and pushing moral boundaries and extending new frontiers in the process. This is especially true in the field of biotechnology and genetic engineering, where issues such as stem cell research, cloning, cross-species transplant surgery and designer babies are all no longer merely the stuff of science-fiction novels and movies. In order to ensure that we do not violate the moral values which we hold close to heart or devalue the sanctity of life, we urgently need the moral principles upheld by religion or at least its moralistic framework to act as a moral check-and-balance to curtail the excesses of scientific research and scientific hubris. Religious and moral values must draw the lines and set the parameters under which science must fall, without which, the danger that the frenetic pace of scientific research might erode and outstrip our basic moral sensibilities is always present. Even outside the realm of science, the moral guidelines that underpin religion are imperative to serve as a moral compass to inform our decisions with reference to such complex issues as abortion, capital punishment, drugs and euthanasia. In tandem with secular education, we need religion to inculcate and develop moral values within people: Buddhism teaches benevolence to all living creatures; the Bible preaches against adultery, murder, greed and other societal vices; Islam teaches peace and respect for fellow human beings. Without religion to provide a much-needed moral voice, our society may well degenerate into a world where moral values are seen as secondary, or worse, irrelevant and unnecessary.
For society, the earlier argument that religion promotes division and gives rise to a ‘us versus them’ mentality needs to be balanced by the fact that religion plays an important role in our world today as a unifying force, creating to hold people together in communities where individuals feel safe, accepted and respected. Organized religions foster a deep sense of community among their followers, and the moral and cultural common ground of these communities makes them attractive to people who hold similar values. Religious festivals such as Thaipusam, Hannukah, Easter and Hari Raya witness people coming together in a show of solidarity and community bonding. As a consequence, religion does provide a measure of civil order by nurturing a sense of belonging among people, which is far more desirable in preventing violence and conflict than societies with no central guiding principles save that of materialism and self-centredness. Indeed, many religions advocate practices that place helpful limitations on the behaviour of their adherents. Teachings such as the Ten Commandments in the Torah and the Bible, and the Middle Path in Buddhism, reject extremism and embrace moderation, leading many to view them as positive influences which potentially protect adherents from the destructive or even fatal excesses to which they might otherwise be susceptible. Many, if not all, religions promote peace, and the unfortunate fact that conflicts take place in the name of religion is more a reflection of how a minority of believers have misconstrued and distorted certain doctrines in their religions either out of misguided teachings or to serve their own narrow and selfish agendas. This is therefore an indication of our innate human nature rather than an indictment of religion as an institution in society. Hence, religion can and does serve a useful purpose in modern society in this aspect.
In addition to the role that religion plays in the areas of community identity and moral guidance, religion also has a cherished place in society because of the positive impacts which are manifested in practical and concrete ways. By championing the universality of humanity as a race with shared values, dignity and respect, religion often brings out the ‘human’ side of mankind in the areas of charity, compassion and altruism for the betterment of humankind. The 2018 Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami witnessed international aid coming from non-Muslim organizations like the Salvation Army in the well-intentioned provision of humanitarian aid; Christianity is noted for the founding of many missionary orphanages and schools; Buddhist welfare organizations are often at the helm providing food and medical supplies to the needy. In fact, the most well-known international humanitarian organizations – the Red Cross and the Red Crescent – were initially established as religious outfits to provide humanitarian aid and comfort in a suffering world. Offshoots of organized religion, such as A Rocha’s Ecochurches in the United Kingdom, also lead efforts to promote conservation of the natural environment. Formal research also suggests that religion can be a force for good as it promotes a sense of engagement with the community. Research conducted by the Religious News Service suggest that religious people are three to four times more likely to engage in civic activism, be it volunteering with grassroots organisations or donating money to a selected social cause. In today’s world which places great emphasis on profit-making, personal and corporate goals, selfish materialism, it can be argued that religion is more needed than ever to teach us to think and act beyond the narrow confines of our own comfortable worlds.
Besides the positive functions of religion at the societal level, religion also meets many needs for the individual. Although much has been made about how religious faith is at odds with rational analysis, many famous thinkers and intellectuals actually found their way to God through the path of cognitive evaluation and rational analysis. Prominent figures such as C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Antony Flew have written extensively on how the teachings of religion most closely describe the realities of the world we live in, with both Lewis and Flew being staunch advocates of atheism before converting to Christianity after weighing the historical and intellectual evidence for the existence of God. Beyond cognitive reasoning, religion also taps into the emotional wellspring of our existence by providing deeply-satisfying emotional experiences. From the singing of traditional hymns to the practice of solitary meditation; from the trance-like states produced in such practices as the Whirling Dervishes to the graceful motions of yoga; believers of religion are able to find emotional relief and fulfilment by participating in such rituals and acts. But it is at the spiritual level that religion most attend to the needs of people. Through postulating a reality which includes both the natural and the supernatural, both the seen and the unseen; both the temporal and the eternal, religion helps man in his search for meaning and answers to life’s fundamental questions that science, technology and materialism have not been able to provide adequate answers. Why do we suffer? Why are we here? What happens after death? Such issues as the human condition, the purpose of human existence on earth, the afterlife, can only be answered by religion and faith in God that transcends our finite, material and physical existence, providing hope in an eternal life. But even in this life, religion also fills a spiritual gap that gives believers strength and resilience in the difficult times. Abraham Maslow’s research after World War Two revealed that Holocaust survivors tended to be those who held strong religious beliefs, suggesting it helped people cope in extreme circumstances. This was most famously enunciated in Viktor Frankel’s moving book entitled ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, detailing his experience with the importance of religion in his survival of the concentration camps of the Holocaust. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, what shone through was that instead of renouncing religion bitterly, many turned to God for solace and comfort. As can be seen, in today’s world wrought with conflict, disasters, and uncertainties, religion has not declined in relevance, but instead increased as it becomes embraced as a coping mechanism for people in their grief and despair.
Finally, in our current frantic pace of life, religion provides an avenue for the fatigued and the frustrated. As a result of technology and globalization, a whole slew of health-related problems have emerged in modern society, with depression, stress and burnout being just a few of them. Many stressed-out individuals have been known to take time off from their hectic work schedules to be alone for reflection and contemplation, often turning to religion for respite. In Singapore, retreat centres such as the Catholic Spirituality Centre and the Maranatha Retreat are becoming increasingly popular among working adults who seek havens to rest, recharge and restore their personal ecologies in a world away from the everyday busy routine of life’s demands and stresses. Catholic churches, Buddhist temples, Hindu temples are also witnessing more people entering their sacred sanctuaries during lunchtime on a workday or after work to pray and seek rest and comfort. Thus, religion can be said to provide a much needed stabilizing and calming effect in our society that is fast being deprived of assurance, direction and security.
In a world where the winds of globalization are blowing strong and the domination of science is growing deep, we desperately need religion as an anchor to provide a sense of identity and community and as a compass to guide us and offer navigation in the uncharted waters of new scientific discoveries. Granted, religion has been used to justify much tension, violence and human suffering but we do need to also acknowledge the many positive benefits it has brought to mankind both at the societal and individual levels. Getting rid of religion would not only fail to solve many of our current problems, but would remove a much-needed institution in a world increasingly fraught with fear and insecurity and marked by a culture of excess.