How important is religion in today’s society?

By Joe Evans

This question is of interest due to the almost constant refrain of fundamentalists stating that the modern world has often lost its respect and interest for religion. Has God once again been declared dead, as was the case in the early 1970s?  Or is this simply that organized religion will need to redefine its origin; a dilemma similar to the one facing the Republican Party.

Religion and its importance in today’s society were the topics of recent interest for one university study which found a correlation with age and religious importance.  About two- thirds of people living in the U.S. over the age of 65 stated that religion was important in their lives while more than half the people under the age of 50 stated that religion was not important.  The survey suggested that this represents a shift in religious importance and is evidence of a new generation gap in America.  Whether this is actually true or not, there still remains a basic question.  Not so much the question on the importance of religion to various segments of society but a more general question of who is served by religion.

Is it good for some and does it serve a purpose in society?  If religion does not tolerate society’s values should society tolerate religious values?

Two recently viewed movies suggest different conclusions.  In the movie “Religulous,” Bill Maher suggests that religion suppresses one of our most important human attributes—doubt.  He suggests that our ability to question—question authority, question existence or question society— is critical for human progression.  He states that religion replaces doubt with a false, unsubstantiated surety. According to Bill, religion causes us to actually lose direction. Even worse, fanatical religious zealots or those who profess “they know” when that knowledge is only an illusion, become dangerous.   I tend to agree with much of what Maher says and have noted in the past that our basic ability to question nature, society and in particular authority is essential for democracy, and this ability is often lost within religion.

On the other hand I also recently re-viewed the movie “Monster.” This particular movie is one of the most disturbing and truly frightening movies I have ever watched.  It depicts what can happen if someone has no direction in their life.  If their only purpose is existence in what can be a very cruel world, and they have no respect for basic laws of work and reward. If they consider themselves good people but have no sense of responsibility. If they are only satisfying a basic need for survival, then their loss of direction, work and what would otherwise be a basic understanding of right and wrong can result in terrifying results.  A true loss of morality.

Hence religion, like most institutions, represents good and bad.  Religion becomes a necessity for some and a restrictor for others.  It represents a moral compass for those who have none and also holds back a basic need for development of a more democratic society.

While not having all the answers, I would suggest one common thread.  Something we can all recognize.  Religion stands as an important institution that can serve society but it also requires basic human temperance.  Religious organizations should concern themselves with helping those who have no other guidance in their life.  They should reach out to people who need and want direction.  They should provide a social safety net and in order to accomplish that goal, they likely need the support of those who already have well-established values.  Therefore religions not only require support by those who are well founded in their own sense of morality but religious organizations should make their number one goal helping those who have no direction.

On the other hand, religions need not be over-zealous.  No need to fight among themselves as to who is right or wrong. No need to enlist everyone in their ranks.  No need to make themselves something more than what they are.  No religion is free of tyranny if its entirety of teachings comes from one leader or one small group of like-minded individuals. Zealots become dangerous.  Too powerful. Too fanatical.

Religions should likely remain as a formidable institution within society but not its cornerstone.   Many can live happy, moral and godly lives without religion.  Many do better and are better people when religion does not run their life. However, the downtrodden, the ones who don’t know what it means to love thy neighbor, the ones who need direction, or simply those who want the company of others every Sunday—these are those who benefit from religious organizations.

Joe Evans of Pocatello is an environmental scientist.