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Would The World Be Better Off Without Religion?

Would the world be better off without religion? This was the question debated on NPR’s Intelligence Squared the other day, and, like most debates, left me annoyed.

The pro side argued that religious people were happier, more generous, more likely to volunteer for community projects, and more civic minded than nonreligious people, and didn’t care if one was Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. as long as one wasn’t atheist. But if any religion is better than no religion, do religious differences matter at all? And if they don’t, what does that say about the religions themselves?

The con side argued that religion stymied science, dumbed down the human capacity for reason, and imposed outmoded mores on what would otherwise be liberal progressive societies, and didn’t care if you were religiously liberal or religiously fundamentalist, going so far as to call the former hypocrites. One ought to be a fundamentalist or nothing at all. Since this has never been the case historically, insisting that it be so now is silly.

The question I would rather debate is this: Given that religion in one form or another seems to be intrinsic to humankind, what kind of religion is best suited to the 21st century? Of course this isn’t a debate-style question, but it seems better than what was actually being debated.

I would argue for religions that recognize their theologies as myth (stories conveying truths and wisdom in a non literal way); that see science as a corrective to superstition and that continually take the wisdom of science into account in their quests for meaning; that recognize evolution, evolutionary psychology, and evolutionary morality (civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights, etc. are something new on the human scene and not intrinsic to ancient religions) as central to the human spiritual unfolding; that recognize contemplative practice as essential to testing the truth claims of religion; and that essentially see each religion as a unique cultural expression of a universal call to universal justice and compassion, and which, therefore, honor their cultural diversity without mistaking that time-bound heritage for timeless truth.

I don’t think we can do away with religion or religiosity, but we can shape new forms of the religions we have as well as create new religions for a new age.

So for me the answer to the question posed on NPR is this: The world would be a better place without imposing Iron-Age texts and medieval mores on postmodern society, but that in no way means doing away with religion itself.


Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. In the print version of our magazine, he has an advice column, “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” addressing reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more. His latest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art. Rabbi Rami hosts our podcast, “Essential Conversations.”

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