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Why We Need Religion

January 29, 2018

Every once in a while in the newspaper I read about a new study that demonstrates the health benefits of religion. According to the reports, on average, those who attend religious services on a regular basis feel better about their lives, have a stronger sense of purpose, enjoy better health, and live several years longer. Of course, correlation does not mean causation. Maybe people who practice healthy habits are more prone to being religious, rather than religion leading to a healthier life. But I suspect religion has a lot to do with mental and physical health. Religion helps us find our place in the universe, grounding us and making sense of things, giving us meaning. That can’t help but make us more well.

Recently I came across a sociological study that demonstrated that religious people are also more generous with their time and money. Unsurprisingly, religious people donate immense amounts of money and time to their religious institutions. But what I find surprising is that in addition to that donated time and money, religious people, on average, still give more time and money than non-religious people to their communities and secular charities. There is something about religion that makes us much more socially cooperative and altruistic.

I was also interested to learn that religious communes–communities that share resources and work together–have been far more successful than secular communes that were founded on an ideology. This is true both for 19th century utopian communities founded in the U.S. as well as 20th century Israeli kibbutzes. When a group has a religious basis and religious practices, it tends to last longer.

Why is this? What is it about religion that does a better job of gluing people together, enhancing cooperation, altruistic behavior, and better health? I think it is its connection with the sacred. Religion is a group practice of ritual that connects the members to a reality that goes beyond the mundane reality of work and survival. Religion connects us to a deeper reality where we find such things as meaning, coherence, beauty, and goodness. It also connects us to one another–especially to the others who share the religion–as well as to the entire universe.

A number of researches in the past decade have been suggesting that religion is a human evolutionary development that made possible humanity’s unique capacity for super-social behavior: a high level of cooperation that has led to the development of culture, science and technology.

Of course, religion can also be a source of conflict between groups as well as with science. So it matters how we practice religion, and it matters even more what beliefs and attitudes come out of our religion. A “good” religion must foster nonviolence and an attitude of deep caring toward all people as well as toward the animal kingdom and the environment.

The Christian faith is grounded in an encounter with a self-giving God of unconditional and unconquerable love, embodied in the ministry of a human being. This gives the Christian faith a powerful basis for being a “good” religion as described above. But we Christians need to make sure that our practices and attitudes conform to this basis. Too often the Christian faith has been high-jacked and wildly distorted by the desire for political power and dominance, or by a narrow-minded nationalism, or by fear of those who differ from us. The result is something that looks quite different from the ministry of Jesus.

Humanity needs religion. It needs to connect with the sacred in a way that enhances human cooperation. In a world where a scientific worldview is often blind to the sacred, and in a world where sick religion gets all the attention, we need a healthy and healing religion more than ever.

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One Comment
  1. Aaron Keith permalink

    I enjoyed the blog it was an amazing perspective very enlightening I know that with my earlier practice with Buddhism that my perspectives and my growth Within Myself was phenomenal I’ve often compared that to the growth and spiritual health that people gain through Christianity or in any Source or form of religion I was very impressed with the perspective that you put out Ryan

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