Dr. Darrell Arnold, Professor of Philosophy
Note – My last post elicited multiple thoughtful comments from readers but I thought that Dr. Darrell Arnold’s were worth reprinting in their entirety. I have known Dr. Arnold for more than 30 years and he is a careful and conscientious thinker whose thought I highly value. Here is Dr. Arnold’s commentary followed by a brief rejoinder.
Clearly, religion has done and continues to do much harm. And most of the everyday religious dogmas should be taken no more seriously than the idea that Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. But beyond providing individual consolation, which you note, religions also provide much more. They often provide the impetus for social justice, provide individuals with a strong sense of belonging, and through spiritual direction offer something akin to analytic counseling.
Major social justice movements of the 20th century and of the present have had strong religious impulses. We can look to the movements of which Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were leaders as examples. In Miami, through obligations associated with the Catholic University where I originally worked, I became involved with a Social Justice organization that works on local (progressive) politics that is comprised almost exclusively of Justice committees of local churches, synagogues, and mosques. These congregations do provide an infrastructure for social coordination at the local (and national) level. And it appears to me that many of the adherents … derive [ a sense of purpose] from that work “being their brother’s keeper” and from the sense of community that the organizations and the collective work provide.
The non-religious often lack the social bonds, outside of family, that religious organizations can provide, and they often lack the organizational infrastructure for collective social justice work. You’re probably familiar with Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. He reflects on the lack of community in contemporary life and problems of social belonging and so on related to this. We can, of course, join Green Peace or the Sierra Club or various organizations and work together for good purposes. But it appears that there is a bit of a vacuum often left by those who leave their churches.
But these are a couple of the roles that religions also fulfill that can be important for a meaningful life. It was this social function of religion that Durkheim focused on more than the question of individual comfort or of religious experience (such as William James writes about). Those without religion (or those who hope that religion will fade) will likely do well to find other ways to facilitate community. This, I’m sure, is part of what is behind the efforts like Alain Botton’s School of Life, which has meetings in London and other places, or the various Atheist churches. Some of them couple that with some other functions of religion, such as philosophical counseling as a stand-in for spiritual direction.
Mostly what I’m getting at here is that there is more that religion provides people than the individual comfort of a supernatural belief system. Many of those things are vitally needed for many people to have a good life and are benefits of a caring community. Maybe that last phrase should be highlighted since I think that a lot of the appeal of religion comes down to that. For all the sicknesses of any religion I’ve encountered, you can often find in the midst of that elements of a caring community — at least some group of people who are focused on a moral life and who find meaning in acts of kindness toward individuals and in work for social causes greater than themselves.
Brief reply – I agree with everything Dr. Arnold writes here. Religions have done, and motivate believers to do, many good things. (And the corollary is that many non-religious persons have done terrible things.) Religions also provide a sense of community to many, especially in a culture like America where isolation is such a big problem. I really think that religions are social clubs as much as anything else. It was Kierkegaard I believe who said that when you tell someone what religion you belong to you are basically telling them who you hang out with. The social and emotional aspects of religion also explain why rational arguments have so little effect on believers.