Skip to main content

22nd September 2014

Religion: Force of Evil or Force for Good?

Ben Farren and Samuel Gilmore argue each side of the coin in answer to the question: Is religion detrimental to society?


Ben Farren

This piece could easily be filled with complaints of the divine, lack of sufficient evidence and a lot of rambling on about how religion poisons everything. It is lazy to just stick to these fairly juvenile arguments about proving someone’s idea of God wrong.

It is lazy and it results in the sort of echo chambers you see online, if you try to find this out for yourself. The hard line atheist community, which claims humility in the scientific method, wants nothing less than to be proved right. This attitude is the opposite of the scientists’ humility, who, at their best, look for every possible way in which they could be wrong.

No worse is the religious community, where science is sometimes discarded and children are brought up to believe things which are morally repulsive. This is child abuse and, along with narratives of hell, apostasy and salvation, religion raises children to be fearful and unable to think for themselves in such an important period of their lives.

When times are hard, in recessions, depressions and wars, people curl up in a ball and do what they know. This sort of conservatism is what I will continue with, not the political aspect. This is precisely what has helped humans survive for as long as we have been humans, this tribal activity; creating an us versus them mentality has been generally successful evolutionarily.

Religion is inherently conservative. This conservatism is counterintuitive, for example, when you consider the nature of Jesus’ mission: to come and change the way things are done and to give hope to people who, for generations, had been immobile in society’s ranks. This was a chance to enter the Kingdom of God as an equal. Laws were generated around this system and they were followed closely.

The supreme nature of God’s word is the origin of religious conservatism; it simply cannot be changed. To be changed would be a religious perversion, a redacting of purity; it would cease to be God’s word in the eyes of the religious. That is it. This creates a status quo, and as a progressive, the status quo isn’t desirable. It is not desirable because there is a lot of suffering in the world that can easily be prevented or relieved.

Of course, this conservatism can change into progressivism as it has done in many religious organisations; charities inspired by their beliefs are fantastic and so long as they do not package up their religion with their aid, then all is well. However, religious conservatives exist and they exist in large numbers.

To suggest that religion is the root of these attitudes’ existence would be dishonest of me, and I do not think it is true. There is something fundamental in human nature which the beliefs of religion can hook on to and propagate. This is the crux of Yes, although I could easily turn this argument into a No.

Looking at Soviet Russia, for example, we see Communism effectively preached as a state religion. Evil leaked through the streets and gulags without a God or a Holy Text. This was a belief far more damaging than some religions.

My point is that you cannot argue that if the same damage can be done another way, then religion is not damaging. Religion is damaging, it is just not uniquely damaging.

Ultimately, if you are to make the argument that religion can lead to good, then you must be able to accept that it can lead to bad things too. It seems self-evident. If you are to make the converse argument that it is people who do bad things and religion alone can lead to good things, you must see then that the secular charitable organisations do as much good in their work as those religiously affiliated.

Religious affiliation and the dogmatic following of religious rules never implies, other than in their own beliefs, that those without belief are in any way lesser.

I am not an extremist, and there are two sides to every coin, but unlike my colleagues from various positions of the spectrum, I cannot claim a whitewash; sometimes the coin is weighted to one side and religion is detrimental.

The bureaucratic church, which has its fingers in lobbying and politics, and those who pay more attention to Leviticus than the Gospels are the most troubling side of religion.

The slow erosion of the kindness, compassion and revolutionary thought of people like Jesus and the Buddha is a crushing indictment of the human tendency to catalogue and organise and as a result to stop thinking and reflecting.

The word of God became so solid in the eyes of believers that it could no longer be reflected upon or questioned; the overarching messages of religious figures like Jesus became lists of rules that appear counterintuitive to original messages of love and tolerance.

We went from swinging in trees to discussing the right to die; it was always going to be a difficult journey.

This is why I must say Yes: religion is one phenomena that unlike Soviet fascism is going to take centuries to remedy. Having it slowly removed from more and more aspects of life will let us sow wholesome seeds and create a more compassionate society.


Samuel Gilmore

Whilst not being religious myself, I do think a compelling case can be made to argue that religion can have a positive role in society. Having grown up in a Christian family, yet later deciding that I do not have faith, I do strongly believe that religion can have an extremely positive influence on its followers. This is not say that all religious practices are good, as I shall later discuss, but that overall religion is good to have, and to condemn it for marginal extremist practices is damaging. Whilst it’s cool and popular to bash religion, I ask people to contemplate why they do so.

Before any arguments are made, let me first frame the debate as to how I define the terms given. Religion, as I see it, is a huge scope of different faiths and practices. I believe it to be simply too crude to simply refer to religion in general. Referring to such a broad body of beliefs in one fell swoop, I feel, is not constructive at all and does not allow accurate debate. To throw in compassionate Christian practices with extremist Islamic terrorism with relatively unknown eastern religions as one conglomerate of religion, all responsible for another’s actions is far too basic an analysis for critique. Additionally, to claim something as either good or bad for society, whatever that may be, is somewhat ambiguous. This is not to end the debate before it has begun, but to simply remind oneself that when dealing with religion, it can get very complicated very early on.

Firstly, I’m going to argue that religions aren’t actually bad, people are. Religions don’t kill, people do. Religions don’t start wars, people do. And so on. The point I am making is that as much as religions can be perceived to be horrendous agents of committing acts of atrocities, ultimately religion cannot be held responsible. People will always do bad things, yet they will seek some form of justification to try to legitimise what they do. Religions, mostly being ancient forms of power structures, will regrettably include people who will do terrible things and I believe that these people would still have done terrible things had they no religion as a cloak to distort and misinterpret their preaching. I firmly believe that ISIS in the Middle East is strongly out of line with the vast majority of Muslims’ beliefs from around the world. Similarly, Catholic priests who have sexually abused children are extreme and extremely misrepresentative of the Catholic Church’s preaching. By criticizing these horrendous freak examples as demonstrations of what all religion is like is a lazy straw man fallacy, when better analysis would evidently show that bad things have always been committed by people, regardless of religion.

I have argued that religions don’t commit bad actions but people do. This is not to say that people are bad per se but that they distort religious teachings to be bad. I shall now argue that religions are good and inspire their followers to be so too. I must stress that not only religions can do this; atheists can be perfectly moral people, of course! What I am saying is exactly this: religions, when practiced without distortion and with careful consideration can do an awful lot of good for society.

In a time of increasing neo-liberalization, I believe the compassionate conservative spirit that religion has to offer, in a world in which everything has a price, to be refreshing. For example, since the Tory/Lib Dem government in 2010, there has been an acceleration in the project of neo-liberalism; privatization of the NHS, condemnation of the poor for being lazy by destroying the benefits system and the further aggregation of wealth by the already wealthy. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was extremely vocal in his criticism of payday loan companies exploiting the poor. Food banks have been set up by churches to help the poor. Internationally, charities such as Tearfund and Islamic Relief make hugely beneficial changes in places where devastation is widespread. These charitable deeds are not driven by the sense to one’s own religion, but by the strong beliefs in their respective religious teachings, typified in the case of the Good Samaritan. This is not to say, of course, that the secular community doesn’t do this, but the benefit that religious organisations have is a coherent movement to combat the bad in society.

Religion can be a good thing for society. I do believe that so many rich traditions offer a strong critical alternative to how society progresses. This is not to say that limiting people’s freedom of action, generally due to a religious minority, is good (for I return to my point that this is essentially people distorting religious teachings, not religion itself), but it is extremely healthy to have checks and balances in society that help frame discussion and ask: “Is this a good thing to do?” I will continue to support the good deeds that religious organisations do for society and I feel no contradictions in thought in criticizing religious people who abuse their authority.

More Coverage

Challenges facing international students at the University of Manchester: Where do we fit in?

Under-resourced UK universities lean on international student fees to supplement their institutions; simultaneously, Britain’s borders are becoming more restrictive to students under the current government. This paradox leaves international students caught in the crossfire

The post-diss bliss…or is it?

The promise of post-dissertation freedom was quickly squashed by essay deadline demands, and the desire to do anything but re-open my laptop is taking over

200 years of the University of Manchester… celebrating white male alumni

As the University of Manchester prepares its bicentenary celebrations, it’s time to address the less-celebrated alumni, and question why these individuals have received less attention

Why are we still talking about ‘women who have it all’?

The ‘women who have it all’ narrative is alive and kicking in 2024, but instead of being empowering, it’s a patriarchal trope designed to pit one against another