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Religion: What Good Is It?

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While it is not necessary for societal human good, religion is nevertheless an invaluable source of benefit to society. This is not to say it is without problems, for much violence, such as the Crusades, has occurred and continues to occur due to religion. Because of its enormous influence and power, whether religion has positive or negative effects depends largely on how that power is used. Problems occur when religion becomes so powerful that it can blind its followers, limiting them to a single, prescribed view of moral action. Yet despite the potential for great harm, religion is nevertheless a valuable source of societal human good.

Before it is discussed how religion influences societal human good, it is important to determine why religion is so powerful, because the source of religion's power will be the ultimate cause of any influence it can have on society. Firstly, religion provides an explanation of the big, overwhelming questions with which the majority of us struggle throughout life. For those who believe it, religion provides a distinct comfort in the knowledge that there is something greater. Because it is not uncommon for humans to fear the unknown or the violence that is a part of human life, and provided religion gives purpose and meaning to an otherwise seemingly random life, religion has great attraction and the ability to integrate many people.

Secondly, nearly all religions include a specific set of codes and values by which followers are expected to live. The Ten Commandments, the Five Pillars of Islam, and the Eight-Fold Path are just a few examples of the many ways religion prescribes daily action. Religions not only have the power to tell followers how to act, but also tell them how to think. That they instill in people moral beliefs gives religions enormous power to shape and influence the population. This power is also bestowed upon the leaders of religions, as they are the teachers of followers and the shapers of their thoughts. A. C. Grayling, a professor of philosophy at the University of London, agrees about the power that religions have over their followers, saying that the majority of people are passive members of society, but "significant minorities have a crucial influence on cultural development and content - chiefly: religious leaders" (Grayling, p.22). The influence that religious leaders have over culture gives religions the power to greatly change society.

Thirdly, when one religion becomes clearly dominant in a society, it can bond very closely with other sources of power and influence within that society. This is probably most significant when religion heavily influences the government. As a religion becomes intertwined with a government it gains the ability to use the government to regulate life in accordance with religious doctrines and beliefs. The United States of America, during its foundation, recognized that religion had the potential to bond with the government and, deciding that such a possibility was bad for the country, tried to separate church and state. The Islamic Republic of Iran instead embraces the idea of a religious government, enforcing that all laws must be compatible with those of Islamic Law. In the case of Iran, Islam is in a much more influential position than it otherwise would have been had it not been an Islamic Republic because the government not only supports Islam, but is forced to abide by it.

The influence that religion holds gives it the power to promote great societal good throughout the entire world. One very critical element of a good society is that it ought to ensure certain standards of living for all its inhabitants. This could include a wide range of standards such as sufficient nourishment to the liberty of free speech. A good society must not only recognize that all people have basic needs to live a healthy life, but also uphold its duty to provide for those needs. Because of the obvious poverty and poor living conditions that exist to some degree almost everywhere in the world, many religions attempt to help the situation through the promotion of donation. Religious groups are frequently involved in local community service projects to benefit those that are in need of help. Both Christianity and Islam, the two largest world religions, include the giving of alms as a fundamental religious ideal.

Another element of societal human good is the promotion of a fulfilling life and the strength and ability to lead such a life. Citizens who find meaning in their lives and are able to cope with the hardships that are inevitable in any life will undoubtedly be happier and lead better lives. Religion can provide this for its followers and empower them to lead more fulfilling lives. It gives people the comfort in knowing there is something greater at work and gives them strength in times of struggle, such as after the death of a loved one. Anthony Brandt, a contributing editor for Parenting magazine, relives the story of a mother and father who lost two daughters when their house burned down:

My wife went to see the bereaved parents. They were devout Catholics and they took their loss amazingly well. They talked to her about their two girls being angels in heaven now, and they really believed it. At the funeral they were strong and brave, braver than many others there, including myself (Brandt, p.191).

The way Brandt tells his story demonstrates how powerful religion must have been in order to give the parents the strength to cope with such a devastating loss. It enabled the parents to accept the death of their two daughters and start to move on with their lives, all the while letting them focus on the good side of the tragedy (the daughters becoming angels). Religion allowed the parents to take their loss amazingly well because it provided for greater meaning of the otherwise seemingly unnecessary destruction of innocent life.

Perhaps the most important way to contribute to societal human good is through the promotion of peace between all people. No person is going to feel secure in a society fraught with violence or the potential for harm. A good society should work as hard as possible to prevent all violence and ensure the complete safety of its citizens. Because nearly all religions include a set of certain values and beliefs that all followers are expected to practice, religion inherently reinforces moral thought and action based on an ethical system. Religion has the ability to keep people in check who otherwise might



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