It seems to me that the main problem is this term “religion” in practice often encompasses negative aspects of culture, tradition, nationalism and exclusivism as well as the fine idealism found in concepts of forgiveness, kindness, an awe and respect for creation and more recently outgrowths like the Charter of Compassion.
It is reasonable to assume it is the balance achieved in practice between these sets of competing forces that determines for individual followers whether religion produces positive or negative experiences. Where religion is shown to be harmful in individual cases it may be for example that the cultural and exclusivist notions have come to dominate, and where fundamentalism is allowed to hold sway, religious practice can even become silly at best and dangerous at worst. Yet we should also acknowledge the best that religion has been able to do includes examples like setting up reconciliation in South Africa and providing motivation for the abolition of slavery. History teaches that for some nations, religion was a strong part of setting up the hospital system, the education system, and was associated with developing wise laws. Given the historical outcomes there is no need to condemn religion per se.
On the positive side, religion for some clearly offers solace at times of grief and uncertainty. I remember for example a time when there was a two minutes silence for victims for the Earthquake in Christchurch. I opened the church doors in case anyone might relate to a time of silence in the Church. A good number, almost all of them strangers, walked in off the street to pray and pay their respects. We might note too strangers to the church are prepared to ask for Christian services for burial of family. I have also noticed the positive aspects of religion in building community. At its best, the church appears to offer a centre where people feel welcome, at home and supported. It also offers opportunity for positive social interaction, and aids the community in reinforcing good standards of social behaviour.
Inculcating the golden rule and a respect for property and person is not the exclusive preserve of religion but is often a part of religion nevertheless. For me, I have to admit even religions where I might personally disagree with basic beliefs can have very beneficial side effects. For example although I am definitely personally unconvinced by beliefs of the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints, it is quite clear that many of the sociological statistics for the Mormon State of Utah show good health indicators and a low divorce rate compared with other states in the US. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, again a group where I am unconvinced by their theology, also appear to have better than average family indicators.
Although one main claim that some make for religion is that it makes it possible to have eternal life, we might do well to reflect on the wide range of interpretations on what this means for followers of different religions. Presumably all such interpretations cannot have equal predictive ability or equal correspondence with what is actually true in reality. This then raises a question. Is believing something to be true, when at best it has some likelihood of being untrue, likely to be unhelpful or harmful? Perhaps the answer here is that it partly depends on what difference it makes to the way you live your life as a consequence of that belief.
There are also some clear negatives to following some types of religious belief. From history we have ample reason to examine potential harm from religion. Some beliefs impose long term difficulties or even suffering. Thus for instance sometimes a religious belief can be used to determine whom one is permitted to marry, or to bar someone from remarrying. Sometimes religion is also used to drive someone out of a family for some supposed heretical belief or association. For many years the Pope’s forbidding of the use of condoms has exposed people to what many claim to be unnecessary risks eg AIDS and unwise and unplanned pregnancy. Female circumcision, stoning victims of rape, making widows commit suicide are also examples of harmful religious practices. Persecution based on differences in religious belief (sometimes for the intended safeguarding of the soul) is still recognised as appropriate in some societies. Even today there are civil wars and interstate disputes centred on differences in religious belief.
Religion can be criticised if it restricts freedom to think and question and occasionally it causes rejection of widespread scientific understanding. This may be a problem when conventional medical treatment is denied and some form of religious practice is substituted. Here we might think of those denied blood transfusions inoculations, chemotherapy or standard preventative procedures like the administration of insulin for diabetics.
The more extreme forms of abuse of trust associated with some forms of religion include fraud, brainwashing and sexual abuse by those in positions of trust. Some belief systems go far beyond truthful observation and insist on absolute acceptance of fanciful speculation. Repeated unsuccessful predictions for the end of the world characteristic of some sects should suggest a lack of honesty if beliefs are not modified as a consequence. One common misuse of faith is when prayer is used dishonestly persisting with forms of prayer for which evidence of success is absent.
So to return to the original question. Is religion helpful or harmful? Since it can be both, some self examination of one’s own religious belief and practice, asking the personal question of who benefits or who is disadvantaged by ones own beliefs may be a useful exercise. We may be surprised.
Question: Is there something more that needs saying?