The role of religion in society compared to that of science/reason.
The function of religion in society, as it is generally (mis)understood, is that it provides answers to questions of our existence and how to conduct our lives in relationship to oneself as well as others. Another function of religion is that it prepares oneself for the supposed life hereafter. Many theists in modern society believe that, as another function of religion, the Bible has been a vital reference for the construction of our contemporary moral code and “law of the land.” If common law were governed by religious dogma such as the Bible, then we would still be practicing slavery, stoning people to death, etc. The basis for our moral behavior as a species is not influenced by any organized religion. If anything, I would say that our morality has evolved in spite of the Bible. This has been done through a constantly shifting Zeitgeist over history. We see this especially in issues such as sexism, racism, and slavery, all of which the Bible has at one point condoned.
Through time, religious moderates have come to cherry pick certain parts of the Bible that happen to coincide morally with the Zeitgeist. The parts of the Bible that jive with modern belief are merely a matter of happenstance. Humanity from every civilization throughout time has had some sense of morality, and they clearly have had no access to the Bible. It may have been legislation only through secular means that has allowed us to return to the Bible with the ability to cherry pick what we have come to understand as moral or immoral. There can also be a Darwinian explanation. But whatever has given us our contemporary moral outlook, it certainly is not the Bible. Furthermore, despite popular views that this nation was founded on Christian principles, I would argue that Thomas Jefferson, by today’s standards, would be considered an agnostic, if not an atheist.
To talk of immaterial existences, is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise. – Thomas Jefferson
Durkheim viewed religion as linked with a deep-seated division within all human experiences. This division, as Durkheim described, fell upon two ideas: The profane and the sacred. The profane refers to the realm of routine experience and ordinary, everyday life. The sacred, on the other hand, is the realm of human experience “outside” that of the mundane, whose existence is non-empirical. The sacred seems to demand a sort of unwarranted respect, as it is often seen as taboo to question someone’s faith. However, Durkheim’s postulated division seems to have gone into overdrive, as religion has gained an impenetrable cloak to criticism; whereas science seems to be chastised mercilessly for its doings – from the outset of teaching evolution in schools to current stem cell research.
The faithful direct their focus toward monuments, hymns, and ritualistic activities to make sense of things. This kind of behavior, for many, is relied upon for support and guidance in turbulent times, whether internal or external. President George W. Bush rushed to Virginia to speak at a large convocation the day after the college shooting and tried to set the tone for what could be said about them. “It’s impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering,” he said. Refrain from asking ask “why,” and do not even try to understand. It makes no sense according to Bush. Instead, his message was this:
These sources of strength are also in the faith that sustains so many of us. Across the town of Blacksburg and in towns all across America, houses of worship from every faith have opened their doors and have lifted you up in prayer. People who have never met you are praying for you; they’re praying for your friends who have fallen and who are injured. There’s a power in these prayers, real power. In times like this, we can find comfort in the grace and guidance of a loving God. – George W. Bush
But there are reasons that these things happen here, and they are pretty clear to the rest of the world. It’s just that, in the United States, no one is supposed to talk about the reasons. Instead, we are told by the President to have faith in the supernatural to make things better – consolation through a means of something no one can define clearly, if at all. In this case, religion functions as a blanket of comfort from all of the atrocities in the world, assuring that there is a better life after this one. This can potentially be a dangerous sentiment. It seems to be appealing at the surface level, but what happens when the idea is warped and then used by people who wish to take it to the extreme. I am, of course, referring to the religious extremists who, according to their own (perhaps literal) interpretation of a specific religious scripture, sincerely believe that if they harm or kill others (along with themselves) then they will be rewarded in the next life because they would be doing “God’s work.” In a warped and bazaar way, these extremists’ actions can be justified on the basis of the idea that their faith, too, should not be questioned. Murderous acts can also be justified based on a literal interpretation of religious text. As we can see, the extremist can take a seemingly moderate religious sentiment and turn it into a kind of smokescreen to commit horrendous deeds in the name of, in most cases, the same god that moderates believe in – as well as the same book they adhere to. Of course this is probably the grimmest function that religion can assume, but nonetheless true and ought to be reflected on.
Religion can also function as a source of comfort for the disenfranchised. Never mind the fact that God’s existence cannot be proven based solely on the idea that people find consolation in Him. This would be a circular argument anyway – but what about religion as actual consolation? Can religion act as a better solace than that of our fellow man? First of all, it seems narcissistic to think that the universe owes its occupants any comfort in the first place. Secondly, the idea of faith being such a vital source of comfort belittles that of the more terrestrial, secular and blatant. From a Darwinian perspective one might argued that we have actually socially regressed – from having close-knit, personal connections with one another – to religion taking the place of say perhaps the comfort that chimpanzees provide for one another through grooming, embracing, and kissing one another. Furthermore, because God’s existence cannot be proven based on a feeling of comfort, one must ask, then, what ought to be valued more in society – consolation or truth?
Science is constantly unraveling the mysteries of the universe, so why automatically and unquestionably give credit to the supernatural for that which we do not yet understand? Giving credit to something immensely less comprehensible than the questions at hand only magnifies the predicament; it answers nothing. Rather, this particular thought process merely evokes further questioning.