What Good is Religion?

Religions may be declining in their ability to provide altruistically motivated, communally organized support, but we have few other models to work with.

The work of self-transformation can be done through psychotherapy, religious practice, reading self-help books, independent resolutions and intentions, consulting coaches, gurus, psychics, body healers, mind healers and faith healers of all stripes. People come to the work of self-transformation in moments of despair, moments of hope, after long reflection, through happenstance, and some, myself included, make the pursuit of self-transformation the central work and preoccupation of their lives.

By self-transformation I mean a somewhat ill-defined effort to be a better person, whatever that may mean to any individual. Education is transformational, but taking a course in engineering is not the kind of overall self-improvement I’m talking about. A course in literature, philosophy or music appreciation might, intentionally or unintentionally, lead to a more expansive sense of one’s humanity or purpose in life; so that kind of education might be included when we consider the set of tool available for self-transformation. Engaging in psychotherapy, listening to a sermon on forgiveness, or resolving to meditate daily are unambiguously acts of attempted self-transformation.

A few hundred years ago, religion had a monopoly on the self-transformation business. Self-transformation, moral improvement, efforts to get oneself or others to be morally better, have always been a central concern of religions (at least the ones sometimes referred to as Axial-Age religions), but seldom their sole concern. Religions also concern themselves with explaining cosmology, acquiring political and economic power, establishing and legislating social norms, killing or converting heathens. If religions stuck with helping people, non-coercively, in their attempts at self-transformation, they probably would not be ignored, hated or ridiculed as they are by growing numbers of the religiously disaffected.

Religions have certain advantages in the self-transformation arena that can’t be matched by secular forms of this work. One is the ideal–if not actual attitude–of religions towards money. Although the financial costs of religion can be quite high (giving away a tenth of one’s income is not uncommon), payment is generally voluntary; newcomers and poorer congregants can usually enjoy all the benefits of community, moral guidance and support, meaningful rituals, comfort in times of adversity, without having to pay more than they choose. Disingenuously or not, religions claim to be motivated by concerns beyond money, and obligate themselves to at least put on a show of providing services unattached to remuneration. For people outside the social welfare system, secular self-transformational help must be paid for. Much of the support in a religious community comes from other congregants rather than from paid clergy. As a special case, 12-step recovery fellowships, which include some of the largest organizations in the world, offer their members access to daily or hourly support, essentially for free, that could only be matched among secular service providers by extremely expensive in-patient treatment centers or psychiatry wards.

Atheist though I am, I am troubled by the widening gulf between people yearning for self-transformational support and religions that might support them. The well-known Pew Research study, Nones on the Rise, shows rapidly increasing numbers of Americans who claim no religious affiliation. The religious and spiritual opinions of the nones are anything but uniform, but I suspect there is a significant subset of this population that 1) is open to spiritual and religious ideas, at least partly as a means of self-transformation, and 2) chooses not to participate in traditional religions. My own name for these people, imperfect as it is, is “outsiders.” Outsiders, I would claim, have become a burgeoning, lucrative market demographic to be targeted by the self-improvement and the professional healing and recovery industries: psychotherapists, coaches, treatment centers, Oprah, motivational seminars, diet and exercise programs, alternative healers, etc.

I have no nostalgia for the bad old days of clerical authorities browbeating us into morality with their hands in our pockets. But I fervently yearn for a day when people wishing to be better have easy access to free or donation-based support, offered primarily by their peers, possibly facilitated by modestly paid clergy, and offered without coercion, without insistence that one set of beliefs is right and the rest are wrong, offered because people who actively pursue their own paths towards meaning, fulfillment and some vision of the good feel a generous desire to share what they’ve learned on those paths with others. Religions may be declining in their ability to provide that kind of altruistically motivated, communally organized support, but we have few other models to work with.

There are no easy answers here, but as we as a society grope towards the evolution of institutions that meet our spiritual needs without exploiting or oppressing us, we need to consider if, when and how we can use religions, individually and collectively, in our attempts at transformation. Are there changes we might make to religions that would allow them to work better? What if religions were to 1) reject any claim on exclusive truth and express genuine respect for alternative views; and 2) pay all their clergy, administrators and stakeholders modestly and transparently to avoid the possibility of financially exploiting their members; and 3) eschew politics and efforts to impose their values on others, focusing on congregants improvement of themselves and ability to offer support and love to each other and the wider world? Would religions like that win back those who have been lost to religion in recent decades? Would we welcome such a development?

Sigfried Gold writes at Tailored Beliefs and designs interactive data visualization software. Follow him on Twitter: @godforatheists.

Image via Geraint Rowland.

Sigfried Gold
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  • xexon

    Ever take a toddler out for a good steak and lobster dinner?

    The kid has two teeth in his head, what’s he going to do?

    Now you know why we have religion. You’re a spiritual infant of sorts. You require baby food. Otherwise you’d just turn blue trying the bigger stuff. You need to grow first. Religion is a structure to cling to and build on. Most kids are lousy at building. Until you get them started somehow.

    Religion is “normal”. Everyone goes through that phase as they expand their awareness to a degree that eventually will set them free of all belief. Religions don’t tell you that part, as it means their own end.

    But there’s sucker born every moment. Born hungry too. And at least in the beginning, you’re going to eat what your parents feed you. Baby food. Don’t be afraid to try something else later.


  • epespinoza43

    There’s no such thing as ST as it regards religion.

    Wanna know what “religion” is? It’s taking care of orphans and widows.

  • jdpetric

    Religion is a form of worship, in this case to our Creator, God and Father. And as being the Creator of all things in heaven and earth including life it’s self, he would know best what is best for His creations and how we can benefit ourselves in life.

    So says the Bible, “This is what Jehovah has said, your Repurchaser, the Holy One of Israel: “I, Jehovah, am your God, the One teaching you to benefit [yourself], the One causing you to tread in the way in which you should walk. O if only you would actually pay attention to my commandments! Then your peace would become just like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea.” Isaiah 48:17-18

    Unfortunately most religions fail in this regard by teaching false doctrines and traditions which are of no value and whom are no more than blind guides having no clue what the Bible is teaching us humans about our past, why the present is in the mess it’s in, and what the future holds for us here on earth based on God’s promises including the writer of the article above.

  • tim_anderson44

    What good is religion?

    – Starting genocides.
    – War.
    – Control.
    – Getting the gullible to depart with their money.

  • SimonTemplar

    I agree with some things in this article with the exception of a few off key jabs here or there. I have the greatest difficulty with the last paragraph prescribing what religion needs to do to make it more appealing.

    The Christians I know are open to other ideas where those ideas do not oppose the clear teaching of our scriptures (emphasis on the word clear). I don’t see any virtue in accepting ALL ideas. If we believe some things to be actually TRUE then we must believe that their inverse is false. One can not accept everything as true for some ideas, some concepts are mutually exclusive. Christians believe that it is appointed to mankind to die once then resurrection. Hindus believe in reincarnation. Atheists believe we die and cease to exist. These concepts are mutually exclusive.

    People who believe certain things to be true will act as their conscience is guided by those truths. This includes the advice they give to others, how they spend their time and money, how they vote and any other political activities in which they choose to engage – as is their right as American citizens, guaranteed to them by the Constitution of the United States. I see no reason why we eschew politics.

  • SimonTemplar

    Most clergy are paid modestly in proportion to the size of their Churches. While I will agree that the love of money has a corrupting influence, I find it interesting that clergy seem to be one of the few professions where that concern is raised. While people do not want clergy to be paid “too much” they themselves will kick and scratch and climb for the best salary they can get for themselves. No one else seems to worry about the corrupting influence money will have on themselves. How much money do politicians collect from their “followers?” I read somewhere that poor people spend close to 10% of their income on lottery tickets. I wonder what percentage the rest of the population spends on a chance to instantly win an enormous amount of corrupting cash. The state does not warns us in their lottery commercials that money can corrupt. Do scientists who raise money for their research (and who, in many cases, get paid quite well from those donations) ever tell their donors,” you can stop giving now, we have enough money.”

    I know many Christians who try to conduct themselves well, myself included. We try to follow ALL of the teachings of Christ. I’m sure most of us, myself included, often fail at this endeavor or we only manage to succeed incompletely, but we do try none the less. I believe this is how most Christians try to live, regardless of the stereotypes put forth in the press and media. I do not believe it is our primary goal to worry or about or fixate on our popularity and whether or not people “like us.” The “world” loves to tell us Christians that we should follow the example of Jesus, the founder of our faith, by focusing on what they say was His message of love. The “world” conveniently forgets to remind us that it executed our founder, in spite of His message of love. There will always be those who have some excuse for viewing us with disdain.

    “if the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.” – Jesus of Nazareth

  • leibowde84

    Key word is “believe.” It is essential that people recognize that their beliefs aren’t facts (at least beyond their own mind). Language that presents beliefs as if they are indisputable causes rifts and can eventually lead to violence. It breeds differences when it is essential that we find commonalities. We are all free to “believe” what we want to and feel convinced of, but we should never think that there is not a possibility we are wrong.

  • leibowde84

    I think the Vatican is what needs to account for greed and actually change their practices to respect the name of Jesus Christ. One of Christ’s biggest points was that possessions were meaningless and riches too. His design for a socialistic community for his followers is clear in the Bible. So, why does the Vatican think it ok to keep billions of dollars worth of artwork instead of selling it off to help the less fortunate. Are they actually foolish enough to think that God would care about art hanging in the Vatican City?

  • Sigfried Steven Gold

    Two reasons clergy might consider holding themselves to a higher standard than others around money: 1) When they espouse a faith that glorifies spiritual as opposed to material things, wealth makes them look like hypocrites and damages their ability to provide inspiration to others (this is complicated when their congregants are impressed by their wealth–but when that’s the case, I would say there’s been a miscarriage in the transmission of values); and 2) people are vulnerable when they accept spiritual guidance and liable to financial exploitation–clergy should avoid both the appearance and the possible reality of taking advantage of their position of trust. This is exactly the reason there are so many laws regulating finances for politicians–whether these laws are effective or not, they are clearly needed.

  • AGuyCommenting

    Some people have a facility to personal transformation. I applaud your self-knowledge re: your personal limitations.

    Best wishes to ya

  • jdpetric

    “His (Jesus) design for a socialistic community for his followers is clear in the Bible.”

    What Jesus did promote was Theocratic Rule by God’s Kingdom of the Heavens and the end of ALL designed forms of human governess.

    1Corinthians 15: 24-25, “Next, the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has brought to nothing all government and all authority and power. For he must rule as king until [God] has put all enemies under his feet.”

    Matthew 6:10, “Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.”

    Luke 4:43, “But he said to them, “Also to other cities I must declare the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this I was sent forth.”

    Isaiah 9:6-7, “For there has been a child born to us, there has been a son given to us; and the princely rule will come to be upon his shoulder. And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. To the abundance of the princely rule and to peace there will be no end, … “

  • jdpetric

    Having said the above, one may look to how God structured the society of the ancient Israelites. Each tribe, each family owned their own land, and without mortgages.

    Further, that each will own their own land under God’s Kingdom arrangement is expressed in the following Scriptures of future prophecy:

    Micah 4:3-4, “And he will certainly render judgment among many peoples, and set matters straight respecting mighty nations far away. And they will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears. They will not lift up sword, nation against nation, neither will they learn war anymore. And they will actually sit, each one under his vine and under his fig tree, and there will be no one making [them] tremble; for the very mouth of Jehovah of armies has spoken it.”

    Isaiah 65:21-23, “And they will certainly build houses and have occupancy; and they will certainly plant vineyards and eat [their] fruitage.  They will not build and someone else have occupancy; they will not plant and someone else do the eating. For like the days of a tree will the days of my people be; and the work of their own hands my chosen ones will use to the full. They will not toil for nothing …”

  • SimonTemplar

    Yes, the social framework leibowde mentioned was something the first Church was moved to do for a time in Jerusalem but it seems they did not maintain the practice permanently or demand that other churches imitate them.

    @ Sigfried: Jesus said that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. He did not direct that warning at pastors only. It was directed to all of us.

  • SimonTemplar

    JD makes several good points. If I understand or remember the system correctly, a person could give away their land to pay off debt but that land had to be returned to them after 6 years.

    Your point about Christ’s kingdom is good too. It can be difficult for us in the West to completely grasp this. It seems it will be difficult for the people of the end times to accept it as well, since the scriptures indicate the world will war against Christ, presumably to try to keep His kingdom from coming.

  • jdpetric

    Yes, SimonT, the practice was for several reasons from drought and famine experienced by some in other congregations while others were not effected.
    After Jesus’ death, the apostles and other followers of Christ continued to show concern for the poor among them. In about 49 C.E., the apostle Paul met with James, Peter, and John and discussed the commission he had received from the Lord Jesus Christ to preach the good news. They agreed that Paul and Barnabas should go to “the nations,” concentrating on the Gentiles in their preaching. However, James and his companions urged Paul and Barnabas to “keep the poor in mind.” And that is what Paul “earnestly endeavored to do.”—Galatians 2:7-10.

    During Emperor Claudius’ reign, a severe famine came upon various parts of the Roman Empire. In response, Christians in Antioch “determined, each of them according as anyone could afford it, to send a relief ministration to the brothers dwelling in Judea; and this they did, dispatching it to the older men by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.”—Acts 11:28-30.

  • jdpetric

    Yes again SimonT, most will not see it or understand it for several reasons like nationalism and patriotism. But note the following Scriptures:

    ““If, now, the good news we declare is in fact veiled, it is veiled among those who are perishing, among whom the god of this system of things has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, that the illumination of the glorious good news about the Christ, who is the image of God, might not shine through.” (2Corinthians 4:3, 4)

    “ So the disciples came up and said to him: “Why is it you speak to them by the use of illustrations?”  In reply he (Jesus) said: “To you it is granted to understand the sacred secrets of the kingdom of the heavens, but to those people it is not granted.” (Matthew13:10-11) This was because Jesus could see that their hearts were unreceptive.

  • Rongoklunk

    People who are “lost to religion” can see plainly that it’s basically not true. And truth matters to some people. God is no more real than all the other gods that folks made-up in ancient times. Most people who believe in god today are usually those who had it pushed into their little heads when they were too young to see that it was totally absurd. So naturally they believed it. I am sure that if I had been indoctrinated to believe in a God, then today I would believe in a God. If it works on others then it would work on me (I hate to admit). But religion can’t last forever in a highly educated world. It thrives on ignorance as Africa demonstrates, and weakens in educated countries, as Europe shows. In America most people still indoctrinate their children which more and more people see as a form of child abuse. As there are no gods it’s pitiful to tell children that there is one. It’s such a stupid lie. Science makes more sense than religion ever did. It’s the place to go if you’re more interested in what’s true than in what feels good.

  • jdpetric

    For you behold brothers, that not many wise in a fleshly way were called, not many powerful, not many of noble birth,  but God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put the wise men to shame; and God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put the strong things to shame,  and God chose the ignoble things of the world and the things looked down upon, the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are,  in order that no flesh might boast in the sight of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:26-29

  • Rongoklunk


    “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanour. Believers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of “God” to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines.”

    Sigmund Freud, from “The Future of An Illusion”

  • jdpetric

    So Mr. Freud was only half correct, he fail to mention that those who don’t believe in God have as much blood on their hands through their religion of nontheistic propaganda as those of bad religion.
    Regardless, neither premise disproves that an Almighty Creator does not exist. Neither premise disproves that a good religion doesn’t exist today. Neither premise excuses mankind’s behavior as accountable human beings. And neither premise invalidates what the Bible explains of mankind’s past, present and future. Having said that, you Sir are quite free to believe as you wish.


    Doing religion is performance based rituals made by man based on idol worship and works! Faith in our loving Creator and our redeemer (Jesus) is a gift of grace not based on any religious practice or performance on our part-very different from the worlds religions that are based on works! Essential Christian doctrine: Love God and love others! The worlds religions: do this, that and the other or you’re not part of the elect!


    Einstein regarding creation, a creator/God: we’re all like a bunch of little children walking into a huge library full of millions of books-someone must have written those books!

    What’s the alternative: we’re all very complex machines, made by chance/luck that crawled out of pond scum, into monkey then man with no designer, hope or evidence to back it up! Talk about a false religion! In God we should trust I would argue! Heck, we don’t even know what 95+ % of our universe is-dark matter!! What makes one think we know it all?? Only God!


    There room for one more!

  • jdpetric

    I’m not sure what point your trying to make about faith and works since both go hand in hand. You may want to consider what the Apostle James said about both being a necessary part of worship.

    “14 Of what benefit is it, my brothers, if a certain one says he has faith but he does not have works? That faith cannot save him, can it?
    15 If a brother or a sister is in a naked state and lacking the food sufficient for the day,
    16 yet a certain one of YOU says to them: “Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,” but YOU do not give them the necessities for [their] body, of what benefit is it?
    17 Thus, too, faith, if it does not have works, is dead in itself.
    18 Nevertheless, a certain one will say: “You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith apart from the works, and I shall show you my faith by my works.”
    19 You believe there is one God, do you? You are doing quite well. And yet the demons believe and shudder.
    20 But do you care to know, O empty man, that faith apart from works is inactive?
    21 Was not Abraham our father declared righteous by works after he had offered up Isaac his son upon the altar?
    22 You behold that [his] faith worked along with his works and by [his] works [his] faith was perfected,
    23 and the scripture was fulfilled which says: “Abraham put faith in Jehovah, and it was counted to him as righteousness,” and he came to be called “Jehovah’s friend.”
    24 YOU see that a man is to be declared righteous by works, and not by faith alone.
    25 In the same manner was not also Ra′hab the harlot declared righteous by works, after she had received the messengers hospitably and sent them out by another way?
    26 Indeed, as the body without spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
    James 2:14-26

  • Rongoklunk

    As we don’t know it all — as you say, then why on earth do you think that a god diddit?
    It makes no sense. We don’t know it all so you make things up about some really big skyfella. It is so childish; and totally unjustified. It presents greater difficulties than it solves. It solves nothing, and adds supernaturalism to the problem, and no evidence at all. Einstein himself thought god was a childish hypothesis.

    “The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive.”
    from The Portable Atheist ed, Christopher Hitchens. p257

    “It was of course a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
    Einstein in a letter in March 24, 1924

    “I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.”
    from The Quotable Einstein p218

    “I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it,”
    Einstein in a letter to Baptist Pastor in 1953. from “Albert Einstein the Human Side”. P39

  • Catken1

    DRJJJ – “The theory of evolution doesn’t make me feel good” is not a valid or sensible argument against it.

  • jdpetric

    Catken1, neither is evolution proven or that God does not exist by what Freud or Einstein say or believed.

  • jdpetric

    “God is a Spirit, and those worshiping him must worship with spirit and truth.” John 4:24

    He is not our soul, nor are there negative aspects is worship the One and only True God Jehovah.

    The so called “negative” aspects of worship come from not following God’s commandments.
    ” If anyone makes the statement: “I love God,” and yet is hating his brother, he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot be loving God, whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that the one who loves God should be loving his brother also. 1John 4:20-21

    As far as prayer by “chanting” , we have these words of council: “But when praying, do not say the same things over and over again, just as the people of the nations do, for they imagine they will get a hearing for their use of many words. So, do not make yourselves like them, for God your Father knows what things you are needing before ever you ask him.” Matthew 6:7-8

  • herzliebster

    The author asks “What if religions were to 1) reject any claim on exclusive truth and express genuine respect for alternative views; and 2) pay all their clergy, administrators and stakeholders modestly and transparently to avoid the possibility of financially exploiting their members; and 3) eschew politics and efforts to impose their values on others, focusing on congregants improvement of themselves and ability to offer support and love to each other and the wider world?”

    This pretty much describes the so-called “mainline” or liberal Protestant denominations … and they (we! — I’m one) are the churches losing members the fastest. It may be what other liberals (believers and non believers like this author) want churches to be, but apparently it isn’t what most people are looking for in a church. Way too many people are looking for a community to tell them what to think … and to tell them why other people who don’t think that way are wrong and going to hell.

  • persiflage

    Tranformation by way of religion requires immersion in esoteric methodologies. Psychologist William James was one of the first Western observers to see the value in mysticism and contemplative practices. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell also added much to the conversation. Thomas Merton wrote extensively of his own experiences with the cloistered Catholic monastic life, but was torn between the mythos of Christianity and the supreme existentialism of Zen.

    This is a solitary or semi-solitary pursuit, rather than a denominational goal of any kind. Membership in a religious congregation just about guarantees a generic social experience that has nothing to do with inner development of the transformative kind.

  • persiflage

    Origin of Alexandra should be Origen of Alexandria………….

  • jdpetric

    “Membership in a religious congregation just about guarantees a generic social experience that has nothing to do with inner development of the transformative kind.”

    That may be true for the apostate church’s of Christendom where false doctrines have replaced truth in worship and where little truth is taught, but no so with true followers of the Christ as explained by his Apostles .

    Notice what the Apostle Paul encouraged at Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider one another to incite to love and fine works,  not forsaking the gathering of ourselves together, as some have the custom, but encouraging one another, and all the more so as you behold the day drawing near.”

  • Sigfried Steven Gold

    I was interrupted writing the above yesterday, so it’s not entirely coherent, and I noticed later that herzliebster was probably not implying he/she is clergy as I thought. Still, this is an issue for further exploration. Can religions find MLK’s passion in the absence of cataclysmic social movements? That speech of King’s doesn’t actually center on civil rights or anti-war sentiment. King’s compassion for his white, racist jailers is a sign of the abiding moral commitments he shows throughout: to decency, humility, love, and justice. Those epoch-spanning values are as available to us today as they were in the sixties.

  • persiflage

    Paul was the founder of the most enduring political organization in history – the Catholic Church.
    He never seemed to fully comprehend the meaning of his own mystical experiences.