Religion. What is it Good For?

Religion has produced some of the greatest achievements of humanity but this fact is often obscured today as people and the media focus on the horrors resulting from its power.

By now we should all know that if people want to use religion as a method to get their own way, they have an ominous weapon.

Religion taps the very source of motivation because it has to do with the absolute and the eternal, so if somebody or a group successfully manipulates it for negative ends they can achieve their aims with the help of followers whose morale is sky high.

Down the centuries there have been many wars and atrocities because of this manipulation of religious feeling and allegiance. When that happens, religion becomes a counterfeit version of the real thing.

As Abdu’l-Baha said:

Any religion which is not the cause of love and unity is no religion.1

He goes even further:

If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division it would be better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act. For it is clear that the purpose of a remedy is to cure, but if the remedy only aggravates the complaint, it had better be left alone.2

It has become fashionable to focus on the negative results of this perversion of religion, and condemn all religion because of it. A parallel would be to focus on negative results of those who use science for negative ends, such as the production of nuclear weapons, and then condemn all science. Or to condemn all political theory because fascist ideology (not religion) caused the biggest conflict of the 20th century, in fact the most devastating war in history.

Let’s just have a brief look at some contributions of just a couple of religions. In an intriguing book Post God Nation? Roy Williams writes about how we, at least in the West, live off Judaeo-Christian capital.

That capital includes the scientific method; the teleological (a given thing’s purpose) view of history, parliamentary democracy; universities and mass literacy; the moral duties to be committed and charitable; and the primacy of individual conscience. Throw in music, the novel and naturalistic painting, and it is quite a package.3

Of course, some may question the contention that religion was the sole cause of all the items on this list, but surely it is beyond dispute that those inspired by religion contributed to each one.

Another author, the pre-eminent Baha’i scholar Dr. Moojan Momen, in his excellent book The Phenomenon of Religion separates out the three aspects of religion.4 It is worthwhile to look at these and see how each of these three have contributed so profoundly to human civilization and personal happiness.

The first aspect is the focus on the religious experience. Dr. Momen describes this as being the experience of the ‘holy” and “sacred”—it is the personal experiential aspect of religion. To those who have experienced it, this is the most wonderful experience in the world. It usually arises as the result of the religious practices of prayer, meditation and selfless service to others — sometimes it arrives spontaneously.

This “religious experience” can be hard to describe, but let’s have a go. When it happens we feel like we have gone from being a radio that has been slightly off the channel with all its static to one that is receiving a signal strong and clear. There’s a feeling of a connection with the creator whose love and power is infinite. It is more inspiring than even the greatest music or other pleasures, and has been labelled down the ages as the experience of “grace”.

People are hardwired to seek transcendence over the mundane aspects of physical existence, such as eating, keeping safe, reproduction, sleep and death. They yearn for something more, a purpose. To confirm this, just take a look around. Some people seek this transcendence by burying themselves in their work, or drowning out things via alcohol and other drugs, or by fanatically following a sports team, obsessively focussing on cooking shows and eating, or by travelling incessantly.

There’s nothing wrong with those things in moderation—work, coffee, watching a good game, cooking a great meal, and visiting exotic places. But if taken to excess – effectively a bid for transcendence – they ultimately disappoint because they are a blind alley. They don’t satisfy what I think is an inbuilt quest for the divine. But taking religious practice to excess is also an intoxicating diversion which involves neglecting the instruction to be moderate, and which can lead to, or cultivate strange and harmful habits contrary to the teachings.

Down the ages, people have rejected these diversions and have experienced grace via prayer, meditation and service. There have been thousands of written accounts testifying to this but we can be confident that many more millions of ordinary people in their usually unrecorded lives have had similar experiences.

As the Universal House of Justice says:

This same force [religion], that operated with such effect in ages past, remains an inextinguishable feature of human consciousness. Against all odds, and with little in the way of meaningful encouragement, it continues to sustain the struggle for survival of uncounted millions, and to rise up in all lands heroes and saints whose lives are the most persuasive vindication of the principles contained in the scriptures of their respective faiths.5

That leads on to the second aspect of religion which, as Dr. Momen explains, is at the conceptual and doctrinal level. People want to clarify their relationship with some ultimate reality. Some choose science, a limited and often bleak choice. Religion, on the other hand, without rejecting science, provides the solutions to this desire and that, in turn, usually leads to positive outcomes by inspiring less selfish and more moral behaviour among its adherents.

By following the guidelines given to us by the divine messengers such as Krishna, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and the Bab and Baha’u’llah, we establish a connection with the creator, and restrain the selfish material side of our nature, develop our spiritual attributes such as love, justice, patience, gratitude, persistence, and humility, and try to do our best to follow their guidelines for social behaviour, which adjust for the times.

As the Universal House of Justice says of the efficacy of religion in nurturing moral character:

When it has been faithful to the spirit and example of the transcendent Figures who gave the world its great belief systems, it has awakened in whole populations capacities to love, to forgive, to create, to dare greatly, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common good and to discipline the impulses of animal instinct.6

The author Roy Williams says the following “ much maligned dark alley test “ still holds good in 2015:

Imagine that you are walking home at night and encounter a group of ten men in a dark alley. Would you not be relieved to know they had just come from a Bible study class?7

And that brings us to the third aspect of religion as described by Dr Momen — the creation of social cohesion, establishing some form of social or institutional order.

Religion has the power to bind people and societies together. Throughout history, we have seen societies united and inspired by faith, functioning productively and peacefully. In fact, rather than seeing history as wars interrupted by peace, it is more accurate to see it the other way around — long periods of peace interrupted by wars.

These societies have used the power of religion to unite and not divide. They have created the greatest art, architecture and music that even today amaze, uplift and inspire humanity.

Author Alain de Botton,8 an atheist says that we should look to religions for insights into how to build a sense of community; make our relationships last; overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy; escape the twenty-four hour media; go travelling; get more out of art, architecture and music; create new businesses designed to address our emotional needs.

So what is religion good for?

In summary it gives individuals the spiritual methods (prayer/meditation and service) to experience divine grace, providing satisfaction without peer.

It provides teachings and guidelines that lead individuals to live virtuous lives with ever-deepening understandings of reality.

It gives us the unity, the social cohesion to build great civilisations based on law, and which produce the flower of thought—art, architecture, dance, music, literature, theatre, medicine and the other great sciences.

Aware as we should be of how such a force can be misused, we need to be fully conscious of the power of religion and recognise its oneness — that the truth underlying all religions is in its essence one.

The Universal House of Justice writes:

The great advantage of the present age is the perspective that makes it possible for the entire human race to see this civilizing process as a single phenomenon, the ever-recurring encounters of our world with the world of God.9

Inspired by these words of Baha’u’llah…

The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.10

…it becomes clear what religion can do for us in this particular time in history.

True religion, together with its sister branch of knowledge, science, can give meaning to the lives of all those on the planet.

It can also give us the vision of a united world society and the motivation to build that long-awaited peaceful and productive global civilisation.

  1. Esslemont, J.E. Baha’u’llah and the New Era. Wilmette, Il: Baha’i Publishing Trust,1980, p. 158. []
  2. Ibid, p. 158. []
  3. Williams, Roy. Post-God Nation? Sydney: ABC Books. HarperCollins Publishing, 2015, p.60. []
  4. Momen, Moojan. The Phenomenon of Religion. Oxford: One World Publications, 1999, p. 27. []
  5. Universal House of Justice. Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders. April, 2002. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Williams, Roy. Post-God Nation? Sydney: ABC Books. HarperCollins Publishing. 2015, p.280. []
  8. de Botton, Alain. Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion. Penguin. 2012. []
  9. Universal House of Justice. Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders. April, 2002. []
  10. Baha’u’llah. Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah. Wilmette, Il: Baha’i Publishing Trust,1976, p. 286. []

About the Author

Michael Day is the author of "Journey to a Mountain", "Coronation on Carmel" and "Sacred Stairway", a trilogy that tells the story of the Shrine of the Bab, as well as a photo book “Queen of Carmel" on the same topic. He also authored the 2021 publication "Fragrance of Glory: An account of the Ascension of Abdu’l-Baha". He was a journalist for daily newspapers in Australia and New Zealand. Then, from 2003-2006, he was the editor of the Baha’i World News Service at the Baha’i World Centre. Now based in Benowa, Gold Coast, Australia, he is researching and writing on aspects of Baha’i history.

Discussion 2 Comments

  1. Michael,
    This is a really deep and well-written piece. I’m glad that you were able to take the space necessary to explore all three aspects of religion so as to give a clearer answer. Great job!

  2. Michael,
    A great article. Simple, objective, motivating and easy to understand. Some will say, ‘it’s only because you believe all that stuff’ to which I would say, ‘I do’.
    As you note – all religions are in essence one. Any religion preaching hatred and division should be left alone.
    The fact that I try but don’t always step outside of myself awaking myself to the power of love, don’t always overcome prejudice and don’t always make sacrifices for the common good can never deny the fact that the religious beliefs I have freely chosen have led me to feel a truth I have not found anywhere else.

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