Role of Religion as a Social Institution


Discussion by: sparkytwobillion
I’ve been thinking quite a while about how to phrase my question. The unfortunate events in Sandy Hook Connecticut allowed my question to solidify. 

During a news cast on the event a reporter was speaking with a pastor from a local church in Sandy Hook. The general thrust of his point was that they were doing what they needed to do to help their community heal from this horrid tragedy.

Regardless of belief, I think it is fair to say that a community that experiences this sort of tragedy needs to heal. The social institution that religion is often fulfills the social role of helping a community deal with tragedies and even individual families deal with personal tragedies which are not of broad scope, such as a death in the family, or a house burning down.

The moon beams and pixie dust part of a religion are not just useless but I dare to say harmful, yet religions fulfill several social roles which are necessary for a functioning community. 

I hope I’ve set the context for the question clearly enough. The question or questions rather are, how do we disentangle the moon beams and pixie dust from the helpful if not at times necessary social roles that are currently being fulfilled by religion? Is it even possible to do so or do we have to trash the whole lot and build secular social institutions from scratch? 


  1. In answer to your first question, I think it depends on the individual. In my case, I choose to celebrate christmas, I choose to attend church weddings and funerals etc. I see no conflict in this with regard to my militant atheism.

    I think religion is false, but I accept that it can provide social benefits. So my view is to take the good bits, the harmless bits, weddings and christmas etc. and leave the rest for the credulous.

    Although I believe the world would be far better without religion, I doubt it will ever happen.  So in answer to your second question, supporting secular social institutions is clearly a path atheists should take.

  2. Well, there are examples of secular social institutions providing comfort, what do you think student unions & labour unions started as? At most universities around the world, you have trained councillors & experts dealing with the pressure of being away from home, being bullied, being rejected, being threatened, being marginalized, being abused, in a scientific, rational & secular way. And as an added benefit, they don’t go around buggering altar boys & discriminating women as second class citizen. So no,  we don’t churches & mosques & temples & monasteries & synagogues to be a social species & to care for others. 

  3. Sparky
    I’ll always be skeptical about the religious do-gooders.
    I’m in no way questioning the personal integrity of the individuals involved and I don’t doubt that the majority of the people who jump to assist during crisis have the best intentions.
    However I think their efforts would bear more merit if done not under a religious banner but simply from one good person to another. 
    It seems to me that religious apologists are very quick to use such examples of altruism as evidence that God is good, which ultimately makes me question motive.
    I would like to hear about more secular organisations helping out in such situations. (helping rebuild houses, support groups, etc)
    It seems that such a discourse is the best way to gently show people that Atheists are just as considerate as the religious people, while helping out a good cause.

  4. Interesting, I wrote a similar but different topic for discussion. Mods: If my post is not being selected could you email it back to me? Unfortunately, I did not save a version. (Or maybe post it since the perspectives seem quite different???)


  5. The Civil Rights Movement was launched out of churches by church leaders. This is because religion provided the social hub and hierarchical medium for the social movement. Any religion would have provided this framework, and the success of the Civil Rights Movement was due to the ability of leaders to focus on secular values, and leave the pixie dust out.

    When the Tsunami hit Thailand, secular grief counseling was provided by Western cultures in the form of psychotherapists. They did more harm than good. The population is Theravada Buddhist, which is explicitly atheistic, denies the possibility of reincarnation or afterlife, and places emphasis on impermanence. The scientific approach from the West was tainted with theistic assumptions about psychology, and the result was tormenting the population with irrelevant grief models calibrated for Christians.

    Both of these examples demonstrate the irrelevance of secular and non-secular models when it comes to the expression of an enlightened society. Religion is not optimum, but neither are any secular options. It is the integrity of individuals that make society what it is.

    Hadn’t you heard? The shooting was the fault of the rise secularism.

  6. This is a great question and response by Sliver69.  One idea that comes to mind would be for religious institutions to recognize non-believers and each church start a section within their church for those who either are deist or atheist.  So, a local church would offer a branch of those who do not believe to give them a place to come together to help in community need as well as enjoy the soial aspect of community. They could offer two separate presentations, one religious  and one secular, and perhaps a third where the open minded religous could join the secular group for special community gatherings.  I’m afraid that might be too much to ask for, or would it?

  7. “Although I believe the world would be far better without religion, I doubt it will ever happen”

    I agree with everything else you said in that comment except for that sentence. I think you are just taking too short a time perspective. I certainly agree that religion won’t go away in my life time and probably not in the life time of anyone who is now living. But I think its virtually certain that religion, at least religion with supernatural beliefs about personal gods, heaven, and hell, will eventually go away. 

    Remember that a few centuries ago you would have been branded a fringe revolutionary for believing that people can govern themselves through a democratic process rather than have kings and queens ordained by birth, and you would have been considered delusional for suggesting that not only can such a democratic process work but that eventually it would be the dominant paradigm for most governments on earth. 

    The same goes for ideas about slavery, women’s rights, marriage across racial boundaries, gay rights,… things that would have been considered fringe or just plain crazy a hundred years ago are now mainstream. I think getting rid of conventional religion is just one more example of this type of evolution in human thinking. It will take time but it will almost certainly happen eventually.

  8. ‘This is not a Meme’s’ response was particularly good. Religion isn’t the root of evil, organizations that use it to control others are evil (and religion is a popular and pervasive vehicle for them). That being said, organizations should be judged on their own merits; for every shameless televangelist fleecing a gullible flock, there’s a decent church that runs food pantries and feeds the homeless. For every Bible-thumping fire and brimstone minister castigating his followers, there’s a man or woman who believes in spreading love and peace.

    Judging an organization simply because it has any connection to religion is prejudicial; look at what effect they have. It might be a net positive, and as with the people in Thailand, sometimes people are best served by something that they are comfortable with and that is culturally relevant. 

  9. I cannot help but think that the comments of former Governor Mike Huckabee are indicative of the religious right in general.  Huckabee is a failed candidate for President, a failed musician, and a failed Evangelical minister as well.  Included in his “thoughts” was this one that I paraphrase:  We have excluded God from the schools and any talk of eternity, and that is why this happened.

    The insane, and the criminals, need no reason for killing innocents.  No God would allow such acts.  No smoke and mirrors of any priest can make the 26 families destroyed by this act feel one bit better.

    Gun control in the US is a hot-button, political issue that cannot be solved by banning firearms.  In a nation of some 325,000,000 there are approximately 220,000,000 known firearms and ten times as much stored ammunition.  The entire argument is specious, as is the religious right’s boo-hooing about removing God from schools.

    The insane will be with us always, as Jesus might have said.

  10. Thanks Mods.

    Below is what I would have posted for this topic, hopefully it adds another dimension to your topic sparkytwobillion. Bottom line – We either need to be more patient or get a bigger heart and become more proactive.
    I recall titling it something like:


    “Residents and faith leaders were sure to reflect Sunday on the mass shooting and what meaning, if any, to find in it.”

    “On Saturday, overflow crowds packed ________ Roman Catholic Church. The Rev.______, a deacon, gave a homily.”

    (both quotes are from online news media.)

    Although this topic really does not have to do with the events that happened this Friday,
    let’s be sensitive to grief that people are dealing with as a result of
    this horrendous event. To slam people for turning to God does not help
    them; instead it causes a rift that prevents any compassion or dialogue
    to take place. To them it adds insult to injury, salt on an open wound.
    To tell someone that their loved one will not go to an idyllic fantasy
    land and died a senseless horrendous death seems profoundly more cruel
    than telling a child that there is no Santa Claus.  Shattering lives
    should not be on anyone’s agenda. It does nothing to heal their grief.
    It does nothing to say “I hear you. I’m here for you.” Yet, surely,
    message boards will get plenty of thumbs down or belittling comments
    from someone disagreeing with the God statement. Anonymity seems to give
    certain people a green light and consequence-free reason to spout off
    their opinions and not face the actual person on the receiving end nor
    the immediate situation of concern.

    I took off work from Friday to get some things done at home. Strangely, I
    also took off the day of the Chardon shootings. (I need to pick better
    vacation days.) I was deeply saddened by the news, and images showing
    horror on the faces of little children. I still find myself crying at
    the thought of what must have happened to them moments before their
    lives ended. 

    Although I did housework like crazy, I still could not get away from the news.
    Even people I know asked me if I heard what was happening. When I
    finally did watch the news, parents, children, psychologists, and
    priests/ministers gave comments. The clergy even gave comments on the
    radio. It seemed as if the news media ran to the local churches just to
    get their take. I understand this need; people need to turn to others
    for comfort, support, and an open ear. It’s as if we never lost that
    need for a big hug after we fall down and scrape our knees. No matter
    how old we are, we still need someone embrace us and  say “there there,
    I’m here for you.”

    Hopefully, there will be enough secular psychologists, friends with no agendas,
    and non-religious community services that will be available to help out.
    Possibly, a candlelight vigils will meet at the school and end in a
    local church. 

    It seems to me that secular options are lacking. Even a large
    non-religious community gathering will inadvertently have religious
    sentiments or rituals become part of the event. Surely non-religious
    community members will push aside their views and bite their tongue in
    order to lend a helping hand and be of service to their neighbor. 

    At this point in time, at this point in history, atheist views – the
    debating, the questioning, the intellectualizing…serve no purpose in
    situations like these. There seems to be a long, long way to go before
    we are absorbed into society to the point in which non-religious
    compassion and a lending hand are second nature to all of society. it
    seems as if truly non-religious options for help have yet to be conceived.
    There is a long road ahead of us. Most will
    see it as a road of reason, truth, and fact. Yet, let’s not overlook the
    side streets of compassion, healing, understanding and service to
    others in need.

  11. I think that in our christian dominant societies we have just accepted this false correlation simply because they continually repeat it and shove it into our heads, but there is absolutely no connection between the church and people doing good things.  The church just always attempts to take the credit when people do good things.

  12. I think religion is becoming outdated as a social institution. In some places people turn to it for comfort because of no other obvious alternatives.  Personal experience of severe family trauma (gratuitous murder etc) resulted in my family under going professional trauma counselling which was very helpful. The thought of using local religious institutions  did not even enter our minds.  
    Typical religious priests/pastors whatever cannot be compared with highly  trained trauma counsellors.  At best, these religious people might be well meaning and sympathetic but very unlikely to offer more than a bit of superficial comfort often couched in religious mumbo jumbo. I’d go so far as to say that by even pretending to help, they are being fraudulent as they mislead their congregations into thinking that they actually are skilled in trauma counselling.  The consequences are that the trauma victims may well suffer later from post traumatic problems that would not occur if proper counselling had happened at the time.  
    The definition that  ‘faith  is pretending to know something you do not know’  can be applied here…these religious people pretend to be able to provide comfort! 

  13. The part that religion takes as a social institute is no more relevant to our world. we can use our reason imagination and  creativity to create other social institutes that can take a part of the world we all want to see in the future and to come over our so called spiritual needs .The false opinion that religion its an individual aspect of our live are supported by the ancient (absurd by it self) believe of free-will.
    The humanity need science based structures the support people and gave them alternative believes that fill the empty spaces in their lives.

  14. You hit the nail right on the head with your question. The easy answer for me is that even though I am agnostic , I would not want a world where religion ceased. To me its a matter of political checks. Just as I’m fairly liberal ,I still would not want the abolition of conservatism. I’m in a peculiar position in that I do not support religion yet I do not want to see it eradicated. Funny that!.

    As Mr Dawkins would say, its ‘Butery’ of the highest order.:)

  15. Personally I am uneasy with the possibly widespread view that it is somehow more reasonable to attempt to “cherry-pick” some social aspects of a religion as an atheist, rather than reject the lot and construct philosophy/ideology/policies/practices on a secular basis.
    If anyone disagrees with my reluctance to cherry-pick, but rather likes say, hiking in the outdoors wearing shorts, camping, singing around a campfire, straight highways and rocket science, then are you OK about cherry-picking social aspects of those practices from the Nazis with which they are strongly associated?

  16. “If anyone disagrees with my reluctance to cherry-pick, … then are you OK about cherry-picking social aspects of those practices from the Nazis with which they are strongly associated?”

    Uhm, yes I am OK with that.  The Nazis called themselves socialists but I think democratic socialism is a pretty good idea. The Nazis were the first to develop a highway system for the whole nation, something Eisenhower copied and again, at least at the time, was a good idea. The Nazis developed some awesome rocket technology, which I’m glad the US and USSR built on for space research.

    Just labeling something is a very weak form of argument. “X is bad because the Nazis (or Muslims) do it” is not at all convincing. 

  17. Well, I celebrate Christmas with my wife, purely to keep her happy and because I like the fact that its; a quiet time with no work calls or any chance of them. I work for an organisation that support small business with no religious connotations. I have a number of friends most of whom are non-religious…. and I believe I am “good” in that I’ve lived the last 58 years without getting into trouble, not because I’m frightened of going to hell but because I don’t fancy spending time in jail and because I’d rather act in a way I’d want others to act when I’m around.  If someone is full of sorry I try to help but not by invoking spells… I’ve been part of photographic clubs, computer clubs and all sorts of ways in which people get together with absolutely no religious content. 

    As I get older, I do feel more and more that we need powerful forces to get rid of religion before it causes more wars. Sadly large numbers of people are badly educated and hence perfect fodder for those who would spread religion or any other mis-truths – you have to look no further than the “free energy” crowd on YouTube to see how gullible people are and it’s almost entirely down to poor education.

  18. Whenever I take the bus, drive or a walk, it is very essay to pick out what building are churches or house some king of religious institution. Their symbols are well known to me and they are always large sighs in case I’m not sure. So if I needed help, or find myself in a desperate situation a church is almost always a block away. Sometime even knocking at my door or slipping an invitation into my hand at the bus stop.

    Religious instructions have made the investments necessary to ensure that they are there for us when things go wrong; when our defenses are down and we are most vulnerable. Yes they may offer hope and healing which is great. The problem is they leave us worse off as a society every time they come to our rescue. Whatever the problems are that lead to tragedies like we had at Sandy Hook not only do we need to grieve and heal. We need to take action to resolve the problems in our societies that result in these tragedies. Our problems are natural and we have only ever solved them naturally, nothing has every come from the supernatural and belief in if only creates barriers

    Personally I fell we need more secular institutions, they need to be more visible and take on more. It should be that I should be able to go to my local Richard Dawkins chapter for reason and science not because I have anything to say but because I’m Lonely. Or look forward to going to the local gay and Lesbian Chapter on Sunday not because I’m gay or what to help with the cause, but because they will be discussing the poisonwood bible and I happen to like the book.

    We are social animals so we will always need others to help us when we suffer. As we heal however we need reason, and science to help us move forward; to ensure that the way forward well result in the least amount of suffering for everyone. It feels good to just sit back and trust in god because he has a plan and is all knowing. But where does it get us, more shootings, more bombing, more laws that discriminate, and you can go on. There may not be a hell but religion is doing great job creating a model of what it would look like here on earth.

  19. I have no issue with religious aid groups so long as they do not preach while they reach – too many organisations out there use the façade of aid to push their message, especially in the third world (that is one reason why the rate of religiosity in Africa is so high). What needs to change, however, is the public opinion that this work can ONLY be done by religious institutions, there needs to be a resolving of the information failure on this issue. Churches are good at helping sure, but they often ask for your belief in return, and that is what we need to stop.

  20. Militant Atheism is really the difference between saying that religion is false (Atheism), and saying that not only is religion false, but that is harmful for society and as such needs to be fought back against, at least in the intellectual and academic sense of the word, I don’t know any reputable atheist out there who condones physical violence against theists, its one of the great things that separates our past from theirs (note the Crusades, among other thing).

  21.  good points there, I think that good counselling is about letting people talk about their experiences and then allow them to move on or find ways to deal with them that are helpful and person centred ie. chosen by them rather than the counsellor, so it’s a facilitation process, I agree that secular culture and religion have their pros and cons and that integrity is the most important thing

  22.  i agree that people should take responsibility for their own actions, not because of a particular religious doctrine, although there are teachings in religion that can and do inspire people to do good things as i am sure there are secular, humanist, atheist teachings, the most important thing is the personal integrity and the capacity to demonstrate love and care from the heart, not just the head

  23. I agree the community needs to heal, as with all dis-ease, healing begins with looking at the cause, so that it doesn’t repeat itself.  It seems pretty clear that the boy was a social recluse who was also hooked on destructive internet games, so that’s the first place to start, looking at the culture that influenced him, TV, violence, and so on.  As far as the churches are concerned, I am not Christian but if the churches are able to help the community heal, then that can only be a good thing, look at the positive aspects of what they can offer, but don’t force your opinion onto other people, do it because you care, not because you are promoting religion….

  24. No doubt that religious groups do very good things as a social institution, although it is all based on a lie (God’s plans). The point is that it is not religion that does good things, but its followers, who are engaged in good causes and have a common ideal (in case of religion, faith). The atheists are unfortunately still not many, but as soon as the number of atheists grows we’ll definitely see the same social role being executed by them.

    Although religion has indeed its good aspects, it doesn’t make the religion spoken God be true. Therefore, I see no point / benefits in supporting it for the future generations.

  25. I think you are a dreamer.  These people are not out in the world to help you for free.  They are thralls to their memes, a sort of super-life-form that cultivates them the way we nourish the bacteria in our guts.

  26. Thanks for this interesting insight.  The offer of solace is the hardest one to get right, but the alternative of offering nothing is kinda harsh.  I know from bitter experience that grief is physical.  I suspect that the reason we cry tears is so as to attract human commiseration, so perhaps evolution itself is directing us to hug a person in distress.  Is there anything else we can do?

  27. That’s well put Sparky, another example who live alone watching shit on telly during the week have little contact with neighbours and when they attend church on Sunday with all the singing and praising with other sad cases they then feel “gods touch”. I felt amazing listening to the police with thousands of other police fans but it was because i was in the company of other fans listening to some rocking sounds I could say god was part of this great moment but what would sting think.

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