Creative Challenge #43: Benefit of Religion

This is an expanded version of a contest we presented a year ago: Creative Challenge #29: Name One Thing. There we asked “What benefits have we enjoyed from young-Earth creationism?” There wasn’t much, so today we’re going beyond that limited question.

This time, we ask you to consider all the world’s religions, and all their priests, prophets, preachers, swamis, monks, seers, sermonizers, etc., throughout all of human history. Our question today is: What have we learned from all of them combined — compared, say, to one Galileo, or one Newton?

We don’t doubt that religions have done some good. They encourage charity. They comfort the sick and the bereaved. They promote morality — although the morals preached by some are often different from others, and our own. They also provide a feeling of belonging to a community — at least among their followers. But they’re not the only people who do such things, so those benefits can’t be considered unique to religion.

They’ve also led some ghastly attacks on those who don’t share their beliefs. We won’t even try to total up all those who died in religious wars, or who were murdered because they were accused of witchcraft, blasphemy, or some other spiritual crime. But we want to be fair, so we’re not asking for something so wonderful that it compensates for the evil that religion has done. All we’re looking for is something that any religion has done for us that is: (1) unique to religion; and (2) unquestionably good, like the way our lives today are enhanced in countless ways by science.

The form of today’s challenge is that you must tell us, with reasonable brevity:

What tangible benefits have we enjoyed from and are unique to religion?

You know the rules: You may enter the contest as many times as you wish, but you must avoid profanity, vulgarity, childish anatomical analogies, etc. Also, avoid slanderous statements about individuals. Feel free to comment on the entries submitted by others — with praise, criticism, or whatever — but you must do so tastefully.

There may not be a winner of this contest, but if there is, your Curmudgeon will decide, and whenever we get around to it we’ll announce who the winner is. There is no tangible prize — as always in life’s great challenges, the accomplishment is its own reward. We now throw open the comments section, dear reader. Go for it!

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39 responses to “Creative Challenge #43: Benefit of Religion

  1. Love your enemies. Forgive those who wrong you.

  2. “They encourage charity. They comfort the sick and the bereaved. They promote morality — although the morals preached by some are often different from others, and our own. They also provide a feeling of belonging to a community — at least among their followers. But they’re not the only people who do such things”

    Easy to say.

    Can you give me some non-religious sources of what you cite?

    Are you drawing a bright line between philosophy and religion?

    To what end?

  3. Nothing whatsoever, honestly. I mean, in a perfect world, religion ought to compel a man or woman to be their best self for the sake of their god, but as this is not an imperfect world, and is instead one where being one’s best self for others works just as well, nothing.

    Well, apart from some lovely and unique art and architecture.

  4. Dave Luckett

    Chartres Cathedral. Michelangelo’s Pieta. Angkor Wat. Bach’s St Matthew Passion. St Basil’s. Borobadur. Fushimi Inari. The Ranganathaswamy Temple. The keystone at Macchu Pichu. The Lindisfarne Gospels. Milton’s Paradise Lost. African Sanctus… I could be here for a week.

    Those are tangible. I wouldn’t give them up. I wouldn’t give up having what inspired them as part of my world or the heritage of the human race.

  5. Random:
    “Love your enemies. Forgive those who wrong you.”

    I would agree. I am absolutely no scholar of world religions, but these two tenets seem to be at the heart of Christianity. Too bad so many who call themselves Christians don’t live up to them. After all, if these tenets were truly followed, there would be no wars between nations who consider themselves to be “Christian nations.” Or maybe it only works at the personal level.

  6. David Evans

    Dave Luckett, most of the architecture you cite was commissioned in and by predominantly religious societies. If an architect wanted to get something built that was probably the only way to do it. But there are also beautiful secular buildings – concert halls, castles, museums – and I guess if religion had not existed there would be more of those.

    Paradise Lost? Ah yes. “He for God only, she for God in him”. Maybe we can do without that. And the various passages in the Qur’an and the Bible (which, I admit, coexist with much beauty) recommending war on the unbelievers.

  7. David Evans

    Random, to talk about ethics without the backup of a religion is to be doing philosophy. The division is between religion and irreligion, not between religion and philosophy. There have been many atheist discussions of morality, but they tend not to get publicity. Here, for instance:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2007/07/basis-for-an-atheists-morality/

  8. Ceteris Paribus

    Unique to religion is the benefit which humanity derives from simply the mere chance to temporarily escape from the real bounds imposed by the immutable fact of physical reality.

  9. Mark Germano

    The climactic scene in The Godfather.

  10. ” They promote morality” BS! They don’t they promote THEIR BS morality. Real morality is what is done AFTER critical thinking on a point then living to its statement.
    “Love your enemies. Forgive those who wrong you.”
    For me it goes…Be my enemy, and the local bears will love you!!
    Charity? BS! They encourage you to give to the church, then a small part is used to help others, very few others with very little help!
    Religion has not helped anyone with any real help.

  11. @David Evans

    So for you, Religion = Philosophy + God(s)?

    I do not doubt at all the biological basis for and the evolution of morality by natural selection.

    Still, I ask you to provide example(s) of where such notions as love/forgiveness/compassion ORIGINATED in a non-religious setting, rather than were the valued remainders salvaged when God(s) were (justifiably) subtracted from Religion.

    (Which was happening long before 1859.)

  12. Re “We don’t doubt that religions have done some good. They encourage charity.” They may encourage charity, but in this country, the actual amount of church income that goes to charity is just a few percent. If all of the money going to churches, including that used to maintain property and pay employees, were to go to charity instead, a great deal of good would be done. So, you can look at churches as diverting charitable funds into nonproductive ones.

  13. There’s nothing like religion to give you an excuse to go over and give your neighbour a thorough arsekicking.

  14. Eddie Janssen

    Random, we don’t know if the oldest evidence of religion (any idea when?) predates the notion of morality and ethics in human society.
    So your question is difficult to answer.

  15. I’d like to say art, architecture and music qualify, but they don’t. For emotion, it’s hard to top a Bach mass or Ralph Stanley singing “O Death”, except, of course, for all the other Bach and Ralph singing about a dram glass. Nope, no unique tangible benefit from religion.

  16. Religion has inspired tons of art. Without religion there still would have been art, but it would be different – and we wouldn’t have what we have now.
    Also religion very well might have had an evolutionary benefit. There are some tribes without religion; for instance the Piraha (google Daniel Everett). However they didn’t exactly populate the entire world.
    On short term a significant part of mankind benefited from christianity because back then it gave the voiceless a voice and made somebodies from the nobodies – the slaves, the nominally free have nots. Of course as soon as christianity became state religion and state became Christian it did its very best to end it. But the genie was out of the bottle. Throughout the ages for 1000 christians who licked the boots of the men in power – or worse, became the men in power themselves – there is at least one who took up that first task. A recent example was archbishop Romero, who was murdered for it in 1980. Christianity is not unique in this respect, but it was one of the very first.

  17. @Eddie Janssen

    “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, eh?

  18. Reggie Rolltide

    A Jewish teaching 1800 years ago says that God created one Adam and one Eve (instead of multiple people) so that no one could ever say “My ancestors are better than your ancestors.” [Mishnah Sanhedrin, ch. 4.] Here is a religious teaching that implies that all people are fundamentally equal. By now this notion has entered many branches of secular thought. But I suspect that this religious teaching might be the original iteration of this noble idea.

  19. @Reggie Rolltide

    That strikes me as a dubious and far-fetched interpretation of that section of the Mishnah Sanhedrin, ch 4, since the Israelites’ only recorded egalitarian impulses seem limited to the indiscriminate slaughter of their enemies and rape of their enemies’ virgin daughters.

    Relevant passage:

    “[The judges’ speech continues] ‘It was for this reason that man was first created as one person [Adam], to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.’ And also, to promote peace among the creations, that no man would say to his friend, ‘My ancestors are greater than yours.’ And also, so that heretics will not say, ‘there are many rulers up in Heaven.’ And also, to express the grandeur of The Holy One [blessed be He]: For a man strikes many coins from the same die, and all the coins are alike. But the King, the King of Kings, The Holy One [blessed be He] strikes every man from the die of the First Man, and yet no man is quite like his friend. Therefore, every person must say, ‘For my sake ‎the world was created.’”‎

  20. Reggie Rolltide

    Dear Random, Chapter 31 of the book of Numbers, which tells of the commandment to slaughter all Midianites except the virgin daughters, is incomprehensibly repugnant. But you surely overreach when you call that lamentable episode “the Israelites’ only recorded egalitarian impulse.” Do you not count it as “egalitarian impulse” when that same Hebrew Bible commands love for the stranger? That command repeats several dozen times!
    Someone commented that the Bible has some moral grandeur and some repellent ideas. But you take perhaps its most repellent idea and sarcastically treat it as though that is Bible at its best. That seems unfair.

  21. @Reggie Rolltide:

    “Do you not count it as ‘egalitarian impulse’ when that same Hebrew Bible commands love for the stranger?”

    No, I don’t count love as the result of an egalitarian impulse.

    Love = charity, which necessarily entails an unequal relationship.

    “Someone commented that the Bible has some moral grandeur and some repellent ideas.”

    I’m sure it does. No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, is there?

    (Not when you can “dash it against the rocks”, eh?)

    Don’t worry — be “Happy”. (Ps 137:9)

    PS: to the Midianites, you may also add the inhabitants of Ai, the Amelekites, Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, and any town that did not immediately surrender to forced slavery under the Israelites. Inter, I’m sure, alia.

  22. Dave Luckett

    Random: yes, the buildings and art cited were the products of a religious society. That’s the point.

    It does not follow that if the society were secular, and there were no religious buildings, there would be more beautiful concert halls, museums and public monuments. The converse seems to be the case. I cite that disgusting box full of toenails, the Sydney Opera House. Or the ludicrous Armadillo in Glasgow, or that appalling exercise in heedless brutalism, the Georges Pompidou Centre.

    Without the restraint imposed by the belief that they should be offering something graceful to God by celebrating His creation, architects often get carried away with an urge to exploit the power of human technology, and to display their own technical skill. The result is always something that screams defiance at the natural world around it, and incidentally achieves a degree of violent hideousness that might as well be studied.

  23. Dave Luckett

    I’m afraid your latest comment is misguided — nothing that I have said here pertains to art or architecture.

    I feel any discussion of the source of artistic “inspiration” would soon degenerate into a clash of subjective opinions with no evidentiary underpinnings.

    Plus, the subject does not interest me.

    Perhaps David Evans or Scientist or mnb0 would be willing to engage you.

    (Upon review, your latest comment seems more responsive to David Evans‘ comment of 23-July-2017 at 5:11 am than to any of mine.)

    Thanks, though!

  24. Deuteronomy talks about how Israel will be blessed if they welcome the stranger, the alien and the widow, how to ensure that they have enough food, how they are to keep open borders, how they are to hold slaves a workers and not slaves, and that by doing so there will be no poverty in Israel.

    It then says, “The poor you will always have with you.”* The call to egalitarianism is in the Bible, it’s just roundly and soundly ignored.

    * This is later quoted by Jesus in response to one of his disciples complaining about a woman who spent what he perceived to be too much money.

  25. The only tangible benefit unique to religion is that it allows anyone to excuse their behavior, no matter how horrific, as required by a universal supreme being who must be obeyed.
    Nothing in religion’s periphery including art, architecture or morality is unique to religion.

  26. techreseller

    Religion was the first effort to codify rules to live by. Of course because there are humans involved with agendas and bias’, there are contradictions and horrible stories. The key message is direction on how to live an ethical life. And I am a confirmed atheist. Religion certainly can be harmful. Still, the basic tenets of most religions are good.

  27. techreseller says: “Religion was the first effort to codify rules to live by.”

    Not quite. The Code of Hammurabi pre-dates Genesis.

  28. @Paul S:

    “Nothing in religion’s periphery including art, architecture or morality is unique to religion.”

    I SO want to agree with you, and I’m two thirds of the way there.

    Still . . .

    Can you give me an example(s) of a moral precept that was not left over, appropriated and/or rationalized from its original articulation as a part of a particular religion?

    Or, as I asked David Evans earlier,

    “Still, I ask you to provide example(s) of where such notions as love/forgiveness/compassion ORIGINATED in a non-religious setting, rather than were the valued remainders salvaged when God(s) were (justifiably) subtracted from Religion.”

  29. Random,
    I think you have it backwards. Moral precepts were not concepts of religions, they were co-opted by religions. If you have any one in mind I’m sure we can find an earlier society that wasn’t religion X that had the same moral precept.
    If love, forgiveness and compassion were non existent prior to the invention of religion we wouldn’t be here today.

  30. @The Curmudgeon:

    “Not quite. The Code of Hammurabi pre-dates Genesis.”

    The following passage is from the Preface to the Code of Hammurabi:

    “When Anu the Sublime, King of the Anunnaki, and Bel, the lord of Heaven and earth, who decreed the fate of the land assigned to Marduk, the over-ruling son of Ea, God of righteousness, dominion over earthly man, and made him great among the Igigi, they called Babylon by his illustrious name, made it great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom in it, whose foundations are laid so solidly as those of heaven and earth; then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.”

    Sounds like Anu and Bel may have been Gods, doesn’t it?

  31. @Paul S

    Oh. So you have no examples, just unsupported suppositions.

    Pity, that.

    If I’d had an example, I wouldn’t have asked you, now would I?

    Thanks anyway.

  32. Random,
    You asked. Can you give me an example(s) of a moral precept that was not left over, appropriated and/or rationalized from its original articulation as a part of a particular religion?

    Yes I can, all of them. I’m reading this as an implicit claim that religions are the originators or moral precepts and that simply cannot be the case. If your claim is that religions were the first to write down moral precepts, I tentatively agree but would have to point out that there aren’t many writings that are pre-religious since religions have been around for a very long time, unless you have a particular religion and moral precept in mind.

    It would be easier if you had something particular in mind, like not killing people in your social group. That’s specific and we can discuss where that idea may have originated.

  33. @Paul S

    All of them?

    Yeah, right.

    Thanks for the lack of evidence and absence of reason.

    Enough of this. Later.

  34. In case you check back in, the general notion of “thou shalt not murder,” where we define “murder” as killing one’s own species or in-group without cause*, can be rather handily demonstrated in a variety of different species as a simple survival trait. I mean, yes, you do find intraspecies killing an awful lot as well, but as a general principle it’s rather uncommon, or at least has some in-species justification.
    * Almost all religions that forbid murder have some sort of exception for some group or another.

  35. @dweller42

    Very interesting approach (if I understand correctly):

    Proving that human morality predated religion by demonstrating the existence of its evolutionary analogue (or precedent) in a non-human species.

    Neat.

    (Assuming it isn’t a case of convergent evolution.

    And also assuming the animal had itself not first developed religion before morality.)

    Thanks — worth thinking about.

  36. Emergency TP in hotel rooms.

  37. Mary L. +1 for an actual tangible benefit. I like to dogear the naughty bits,

  38. Random, I’m not being flippant with my answers, I’m serious. As an example of what I mean.
    The bible has proscriptions against murder and theft. Those are moral precepts. However, those aren’t concepts that originated with the bible or any abrahamic religion. The Egyptians who predate Judaism by thousands of years had civil laws against murder and theft. So as far as the bible/quran go, unless you can think of something that’s original to them, we can discard with everything abrahamic.
    In all seriousness I cannot think of any moral dictate in the bible that is original. If you know of one I’d be interested to know what it is.
    If you want to argue the Sumerians or Mesopotamians had morals precepts that we still hold today and that they based their morals on religion I’ll admit to the possibility as my knowledge of their societies is little to none.

  39. “What has religion taught us?”
    An ER nurse told me about a couple of people she took care of. One was a 20 year old, autistic male who apparently is obsessed with trolls. His mom left him at home to run some errands. While she was out, he called her and said “I caught a troll”. When she arrived at home, he showed her a dwarf Jehovah’s Witness he had tied up with his jump rope and locked in a closet. The 20 year old just said, “See, I told you”.
    Both only had minor scratches and the JW declined to press charges.
    Educational value- JW proved it is a bad idea to knock on random strangers’ doors unannounced.
    Tangible benefit- I laughed for a long time