What is the Point of Religion?

HawkgrrrlAsides, church, diversity, doubt, faith, God, Happiness, Mormon, obedience, plan of salvation, religion, salvation, theology, thought 16 Comments

I read an interesting blog site that posed this very question from a Hindu perspective.  It was thoughtfully worded, so I thought I would include some key excerpts.

For purpose of this discussion, the site was not questioning the existence of God (or in the case of Hinduism, Gods or entities), merely asking what the practical point of religion was, even with the existence of God.  Surely God does not require human worship, and humans can judge right and wrong without religious leaders telling them how to behave.  Individuals can pray in times of need and can care for one another without a formula telling them how to do so.  So, in responding, assume that there is a God, and consider only what the point of religion is.

Blogger Reema poses this scenario:  “Imagine just for a minute that if there had been no religion since the time Homo Sapiens became civilized how would have the world turned out to be? By no religion I mean none at all!  So the concept of God entered in, but why did it divide into so many different religions which I feel are nothing but different ways to please the same entity?  Why did the concept of God get mixed up with the concept of worshiping? If I believe in some entity why is it required that I need to please him with flowers, incense and all the jazz instead of my activities? Why are the right and moral things defined by a code of mythological stories centered around God and in case of Hindus, so many gods? Can’t we humans (being the most superior and intelligent species) behave and act out of our own conscience, judgment and discretion? Do you think if religion wasn’t there we wouldn’t know that it’s bad to kill other living beings or that it’s bad to disrespect one’s elders or that it’s bad to steal or to be greedy or to drink alcohol?

I mean if the right and wrong acts had been simply documented over ages, wouldn’t the result be the same but without the religious angle?  What is the necessity of religion to define the code of living for humans? Why should religion dominate the way of living of a person?  Why  should going to a temple or a mosque or church label me as a good person? What is the necessity to belong to a religion, any religion to remember God, given one believes in the entity?  Why should a particular method be specified to worship the entity?  Why should there be a need to worship at all?”

“We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”  (Jonathan Swift)

“All religions are the same:  religion is basically guilt, with different holidays.”  (Cathy Ladman)

“Man is a Religious Animal.  He is the only Religious Animal.  He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them.  He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.  He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven.”  (Mark Twain)

“An Inuit hunter asked the local missionary priest:  “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?”  “No,” said the priest, “not if you didn’t know.”  “Then why” asked the Inuit earnestly,” did you tell me?”  (Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

Is religion just the place where we as human beings have chosen to list the rules for living (the right and wrong acts)?  Without religion, would we still know right from wrong and act accordingly?  Does religion make us better human beings or merely divide us (or unite us into divisions)?   Does God thrive on our worship or is this for us and not for God?  What do you think the point of religion is?


Comments 16

  1. Oooh, thorny questions. I have to argue that the gospel is essentially communitarian, in that it gives us a gritty, face-to-face reality in which to perfect ourselves. Broader than that, if you accept the thesis that the knowledge of God’s existence originally came from God himself (a la Lectures on Faith), then all religious difference was spawned by misunderstanding or misinterpreting the original divine will.

    More philosophically, to your final questions: Religion and the threat of divine retribution have proven to be effective ethical motivators for many, and so I would argue yes. For all its obstreperations to the contrary, atheism has not produced a coherent moral scheme of its own apart from religious influence.

    Ultimately, the word religion means the same thing as at-one-ment. It invites us to come together, and only in perversion does it drive us apart. Our worship of the Father is what slowly transforms us into beings more like him–and without that true worship, religion may be waylaid and used as a lever for untoward ends.

  2. Let’s start with the basics.

    What do religions do?

    Currently in the world, Christian religions MOSTLY are social and doctrinal. Non-Christian religions ALSO include a focus on ritual. I may be missing something, but we have three essential functions. I could elaborate on how I arrived at these conclusions, but I think it’s fairly straightforward to distill religion down to these three things:

    The social circle
    The doctrinal teaching
    The ritual behaviors

    To consider each of those in turn is important (and we should probably ask ourselves why most Protestants have abandoned ritual for the most part–all that is left is the most informal vestiges thereof).

    The social circle may seem tangential, but it serves a large part in abrogating behaviors that the religion forbids. Seeing that God prohibits certain behaviors (why this is the case can be seen as part of the doctrinal teaching), the social structure and circle acts as a method of reinforcing this. In some instances the social structure is formalized and in others it is informal. In the LDS culture we have both. The priesthood leadership (which gets into the ritual behaviors) also acts as part of the formal social structure, but there are so many informal relationships that it is hard to track everything. Part of the point of religion is to provide a common ground for group cohesion (in-group status) that protects God’s followers from the outsiders, thus increasing their likelihood of survival.

    The doctrinal teachings survive better in a formalized religion. Both the existence of a organized body to care for the canon, and the ability to know who is authorized to add to that canon is an immense benefit to the adherents–even if they claim that the canon is closed. If the canon is completely open, it is too easy for conflict to creep in and cause confusion. It also allows for a clearer delineation of the history. I would say that the doctrinal teachings are typically the root of most religion.

    Finally we come to ritual, which is where I think that some people get confused. Rituals serve to focus the mind. The are symbolic methods of teaching that can hide more complex or perhaps trickier doctrinal teachings until a student is advanced enough to understand it. By requiring a person to invest effort in the understanding of the hidden meaning, the ritual insures that the adherent is more dedicated to the religion by the time they understand something the might potentially distract them from the religion. Don’t buy that argument? Look at it this way–when you invest time in something, you come to own it, and don’t want to give it up. So by hiding certain portions of the religious doctrine behind the ritual, it forces a person to think more deeply (thus strengthening the teaching) and more carefully on the topic. It increases loyalty and commitment.

    Does God thrive on worship? That’s a tricky question, but I’m going to give a qualified yes. In the sense that God looks at our participation in ritual as being beneficial to us, and therefor is pleased when we participate, he thrives on worship. In the sense of getting an ego boost from it, no.

    Is worship designed for our benefit? Absolutely, but I DO think that God does gain when His children make progress. In what way or how this works, I am uncertain.

  3. God reveals truths to man. Man attempts to understand these truths, to make sense out of them. Then he organizes these thoughts in an attempt to share what he knows with others. The result is religion which is then often misused by other men. Clues remain as to how to progress. By following the clues we more or less individually rediscover the path for ourselves.

  4. Nobody has yet come up with a more efficient vehicle for passing one generation’s morals on to the next.

    I disagree with the guilt quote, by the way. Most people are naturally predisposed to it, and most religions give them a way to deal with it or escape it. So here’s another practical benefit: religion is a good way of dealing with guilt without losing motivation to improve. Areligious approaches tend to focus on the idea that you’ve done no wrong to feel guilty of, or that guilt is an intrinsically unhelpful (or worse) reaction. Religious approaches tend to acknowledge the utility of guilt, and provide some means of absolution that doesn’t decrease the possibility of feeling it again for the same offense.

    Christianity’s absolution from all guilt past and future conditioned on discipleship is rather unique AFAIK.

  5. Religion is the attempt of humans to define their relationship with the universe. Monotheistic religions tend to define the universe as God, while polytheistic and pantheistic religions stay focused on the universe.

    If we reduce religion to ethics, we have missed the point, I think, of wonder, which is at the heart of all lasting religions.

  6. Howard,

    Is your definition of religion seriously meant? That is, God dictated the Koran to Muhammad but his followers misinterpreted it in the same world in which God dictated the Bhagavad Gita to Indian scribes but their followers misinterpreted it? In the very same world in which God dictated revelations to Joseph Smith but his followers misinterpreted them? It sounds like a confusing world.

  7. I’ve often wondered seriously why our Father would require worship. I have an atheist friend who asked me that even if there is a super entity out there that is human, why does that mean he must be worshipped? I didn’t have an answer, and realized that like Adam when he was sacrificing and the angel asked him why, he said he didn’t know, only that, the Lord had commanded it, similarly, I don’t know why, and I do as I’m commanded.

    But recently, I’ve pondered more carefully, and realized that worship is worthy-ship. It is, on one hand, that God is actually worthy of our adoration. And what is adoration? Reverent honor, or giving honor. Why would I not want to give honor to my God? Especially because of what he has done for me, and that I’m worth nothing more than dust? And of course, there is the element that what our heart is on, that is our god. If I’m so caught up in a material thing that I love, like a car, that I spend all my time polishing and waxing and making look perfect and spending all my money on, that is a false god.

    Since I am human, God knows that I have need of focusing my love and attention on SOMETHING, just because I’m naturally in need to do so out of instinct. And so, rather than having me focus that intense inner need to focus all my heart and attention on something else, he commands me to focus it on him and his glory, with an eye single to it. To me it is not so much that he needs me to, but rather, that because of human nature, I need to be focused on something. So to righteously do it, that focus must be on him rather than something else.

  8. John,
    Generally yes. Religion with continuing revelation remain closer to God’s word than those without, ever play telephone?

    Did God dictated the Koran? I don’t know, “dictate” is pretty strong and specific. I haven’t studied the Koran or it’s history and I have no testimony of it. But every one of us are entitled to God’s revelation.

    Are some religions simply made up by man? Probably.

  9. I think the “second law of humanistic thermodynamics” gets in the way of religion. By that, I mean all human have a tendency to decend into caveman ethics, but need a building force to stabilize and communitize them. It could be religion or political ideology. Can you be a good person, believe in racial equality, women’s rights, environmentalism, and social welfare without being a Democrat? Same question, different application. Religions and ideological movements stablize communities. In actuality, the very thing people complain about religion (and ideologies) is the intolerance and separation the said systems invoke. Not all religions or ideologies are created equal. Those that teach true tolerance (such as Mormonism) but aren’t respected by the adherents are victims of the second law of humanistic thermodynamics. The entropy of humanity is to blame. Some religions and ideologies (such as communism) preach hate and intolerance to other systems, so they should be excoriated.

    In summary, much of the critique of religion is in our own humanity, which some religion tries to bridle. Other religious and ideological systems preach destruction on the heretic or heathen. The brush is too broad and doesn’t reach deep enough to the core. Religion as tool, if used correctly, is a winner of system for people. America’s Constitution, Natural Law, the Enlightenment, the Magna Carta, are all illustrations of religion and morality put to good use.

    Bottom line, the world is a dark place with religion in it. It would be even darker without it.

  10. What if “worship” were replaced with “admiration”? What if it were only really for us to look up to and draw closer to God and become more like Him, not some abstraction in which we tell Him how awesome He is?

    Why does God not just communicate directly to us vs. through prophets or inspiration? I think it’s two things:
    1 – we aren’t developed enough to receive direct communication from God without misunderstanding it or misinterpreting it to some extent.
    2 – making us work things out is better for our development and spiritual self-sufficiency than having things handed to us

    Anyway, just some thoughts.

  11. “Why does God not just communicate directly to us vs. through prophets or inspiration? I think it’s two things:
    1 – we aren’t developed enough to receive direct communication from God without misunderstanding it or misinterpreting it to some extent.”

    Do you think prophets ever misinterpret communication from God?

    (Hi! Been around, just lurking mostly – good stuff!)

  12. ECS – great to hear from you again! Do I think prophets ever misinterpret communication from God? Yeah. We have examples of that in scripture as well as modern day. Although I don’t think that should give us a pass :).

  13. It brings me joy and peace and a sense of self amid uncertainty – and it provides the motivation to be as complete and whole and fully developed as I can be. That’s good enough for me. Everything else is gravy.

  14. ECS
    God will communicate with us. We just don’t listen and in most cases we are just not worthy. So he gives us profits who are.
    If you fast; pray with a pure heart; and ask for understanding you will recieve it. You can recieve gifts form the Holy Ghost and testimonies of all kinds of truths. You will be tested and as in my case you may need to be prepaired. With knowlage comes understanding then wisdom.
    Remember if you don’t listen and do as he ask why would he talk to you.

  15. #14 – That wasn’t ECS’s question. #11 addressed a different question entirely.

    ECS, I just want to echo Hawk. It’s good to know you are lurking here. I hope you delurk occasionally; your comments elsewhere are always focused and insightful.

  16. The late essayist David Foster Wallace in a commencement address Gave a very powerful examination on the ‘whys’ and ‘whats’ of worship. I include the relevant portion here and I recommend reading the whole address. (http://www.marginalia.org/dfw_kenyon_commencement.html)

    …in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

    If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

    Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

    They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

    And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible — sounds like “displayal”]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

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