Why Religion Matters, The Impact of Religions

Faith and Religion

by Jayaram V

What is the purpose of practicing any religion? The benefits which they offer pertain to afterlife in exchange for the sacrifices people have to make in this life. As far as the world is concerned they play more negative and obstructive role than positive. Do we need the religions at all?

Religions should be practiced, not used for selfish purposes. Jayaram V

These questions have become relevant only in recent times as people realized that the world's major religions are not so perfect and contain erroneous information about Nature, the world and the universe. Therefore, certain criticism and skepticism about them are valid. However, they cannot be completely discarded because they also contain valuable wisdom to improve our spiritual wellbeing. Besides, we do not have better means to validate metaphysical truths than the testimony of the scriptures and the words of a few wise masters. Therefore, religions are here to stay for a long time.

Religions are criticized by atheists, rationalists and materialists for their negative impact on society. They blame religious people for promoting irrational thinking, group-think and unfounded beliefs. It is fair to say that lot of their criticism is also borne out of their own prejudice, assumptions and beliefs. Group-think, opinions, beliefs and assumptions are not confined to religions only. They also play an important role in matters concerning worldly life such as relationships, politics, and even science.

Religions played both positive and negative roles in the development of our civilization. They still exert positive and negative influences upon the world and people. Like many other things in the world, religions are also vulnerable to use and misuse by people. All religions intend to do good only by promoting morality and common good. Therefore, the problem seems to be more with the people who practice them rather than the religions themselves. In this essay, we examine the positive and negative effects of the world's major religions, which are currently practiced by nearly 80% of the world population.

The negative effects of religions

Religions are faulted by critics for their negative effect upon people and the world. Since all religion are essentially human constructs, they are imperfect and contains both positive and negative features. Some people bring bad name to their religions by misusing them or using them for negative and destructive purposes. This has been true since ages. The following are some of the common criticisms directed against religions for their negative effects on people and society.

1. Religions promote fear and insecurity

Critics of religions argue that religions suppress free thinking and rational inquiry and induce fear and submission in their followers. According to them religions keep their followers under control by reminding them of the wrath of God and the possibilities of eternal hell and damnation due to sinful actions and disobedience to God’s will. By demanding absolute loyalty and submission to the scriptural injunctions, they brainwash people into submission and invoke in them irrational fears and defensive attitudes.

2. Religions lower self-esteem

Another argument against religions is that they make people feel bad about themselves by comparing their behavior and attitude to impossible ideals and superlative archetypes. They point to their weaknesses and imperfections and present an ideal life which is impossible to practice. It makes people feel guilty, embarrassed or depressed about themselves and their virtues and good nature. The feelings intensify as they try to cope with the unrealistic demands, the code of conduct and moral standards, which they impose upon them.

3. Religions promote ignorance and superstition

One of the chief criticisms leveled against religions is that they stifle mental and intellectual growth by promoting blind faith and unconditional allegiance to their scriptures, religious figures and teachings, reinforcing irrational beliefs, superstition, prejudice, obscurantism and offering resistance to innovative and scientific ideas which seem to contradict their basic teachings. In the process, they believe that religions slowdown the progress of our civilization, make people narrow-minded and keep them bound to ignorance, superstition and irrational beliefs.

4. Religions incite violence and conflicts

Religions are also blamed by critics for causing wars, bloodshed and violence, and for inciting fanaticism, discrimination and prejudice among their followers. In their defense, they cite examples of how religions were responsible for persecutions, intolerance, cruelty, slavery and communal discord. It is true that religions have been a major source of conflicts and bloodshed in the world. Wars have been fought to defend them, propagate them or suppress those that are opposed to them. Religious fundamentalism is a major, social and political issue in many parts of the world. The irony is that most religions inculcate unity and harmony among their own followers but not towards those who do not share the same beliefs.

The positive effects of religions

Religions play a significant role in human life. They not only help people cope with the problems and uncertainties of life but also keep them motivated to practice virtue, experience peace and happiness, and remain on the right side of life. Each religion provides their followers with the means and resources to realize their spiritual nature and find God within and without.

Religions are intended for common good only and save the humanity from themselves. They are meant to help people transcend their animal nature and find their inner divinity and deeper calm by practising certain ideals and virtues so that they can live with greater wisdom, awareness and understanding. In the following discussion, we will examine the importance of religions, their positive impact on people and society and why they still matter for the order and regularity of the world.

1. Religions give you identity

You have many identities, but the most powerful one is your religious identity. Apart from your name and family name, others know you by your religion and what you may believe in. They can draw many conclusions about you by just knowing which religion you practice. Each religion inculcates among its people certain behaviors and attitudes, which contribute to their group identity and cohesiveness. It helps them establish quick rapport and relationships with people of the same faith.

2. Religions promote brotherhood and belongingness

Religions may contribute to divisions and differences of opinion among people of diverse faiths. However, they also promote the idea of brotherhood, unity and belongingness among their own followers. In times of difficulties, they support each other by participating in philanthropic and humanitarian services. Because of their shared values, beliefs and social traditions it is easier for the people of the same faith to bond quickly and forge relationships. For the same reason, marriages between persons of the same faith are more common than inter-religious marriages.

3. Religions promote peace and harmony

Although outwardly it may seem that religions contribute to conflicts and violence, without an exception all religions teach the values of nonviolence, peace, compassion, and forgiveness. They also remind people to avoid evils such as anger, pride, egoism, delusion, envy, lust, etc. In many religions, nonviolence is considered the highest virtue. If people wage wars in the name of religions, the fault is not with the religions but with people who misuse their faiths to incite violence or divide people. Those who see God in all as the all-pervading supreme Being do not ill treat people or discriminate against them.

4. Religions give you peace of mind

Worldly life is stressful. Those who pursue materialistic goals disregarding the laws of God and moral injunctions find themselves paying a heavy price for their actions. Religions recognize this problem. Therefore, they emphasize the importance of securing peace and happiness by leading a balanced life, without compromising the morals and values that are enshrined in the scriptures. As a remedy, they recommend transformative practices such as yoga, mindfulness, prayers, meditation, study and recitation of scriptures, devotional services, charitable activities, etc., to find peace and equanimity and deal with stress.

5. Religions give you hope

The world is a difficult place to live. Religions help people to face the challenges of life and pursue their desires and dreams with resolve and optimism. Every day, you are subject to numerous desires. With your limited abilities and resources, you cannot fulfill all of them. It is where your faith comes to your rescue. It gives you hope, strength and courage to pursue your dreams and desires by seeking divine help and reposing faith in God. It gives you the assurance that if you pray to God with devotion and sincerity, your prayers will be answered.

6. Religions increase your confidence and resolve

With your limited abilities, you may not achieve much in your life, but when you bring God and faith into your thoughts, you greatly improve your chances of success. Through prayers and worship you can offset your limitations and manifest your deepest thoughts, desires and aspirations, overcoming any obstacles that you may face. It is not an exaggeration to say that many people will not practice their religions if they do not inspire them to pursue their goals with resolve or give them courage and strength to face their problems and difficulties. Religions are humanity's most powerful morale boosters.

7. Religions make you feel secure

Religions are also humanity's most powerful mental shields. Fear rules our minds. The impermanence of the world is a great source of fear and insecurity. The unpredictability of human nature, and the depths to which human wickedness can sink are themselves sources of anxiety and fear to many. Material possessions also do not guarantee freedom from fear. Many people cope with their fears and insecurity with the help of their religions. Through prayers and worship and by seeking divine help, they find solace and relief from fear and anxiety. For many people the very name or thought of God is assuring and comforting. They find their faith the best antidote to fear.

8. Religions make you feel good

Religions serve as world's best moral compasses, providing direction to many people. They let people know whether they are corrupted by evil, heading in the right direction, making right choices or staying on the right side of life. Continued practice of religions inculcates in people positive spirit, religiosity, conscientious living, peace, happiness, and the moral strength to pursue their spiritual goals without feeling conflicted or remorseful. Religious people have the satisfaction that in the battle of life they are with God and on the side of truth and Dharma. They know that they are with God, and God is with them.

9. Religions help you endure suffering

Suffering comes to us in many ways. Irrespective of your background or circumstances, you are vulnerable to suffering and the unpleasant aspects of life. Everyone is its victim. All people suffer from problems in their individual ways. People draw their strength and determination mainly from their religions to deal with the oppression of life and the feelings of fear, vulnerability and helplessness. If you believe in God and practice your religion, you are less likely to feel oppressed by fear and uncertainty. Your faith gives you a personal philosophy, spiritual justification, courage and strength to endure your suffering and accept it as part of your learning and purification.

10. Religions promote virtue, morality and good values

Religions keep people within moral bounds by inculcating in them strong beliefs about virtue, morality, fear of God, sin and karma or divine justice. If a large number of people still believe in good values and virtuous conduct, it is because of their faith in the rule of God and the promise of the scriptures. Every religion teaches its followers to cultivate virtue, follow the law of God and live righteously. Thus, religions are the moral guardians of the world. They ensure that the world does not fall into chaos and moral confusion. Without religions, it will be difficult for people to keep their faith in the virtue of righteous living.

Religions help you see the larger picture

Religions point to your spiritual nature and to the possibility of an eternal life. Thereby, they stretch your thinking and imagination and inspire you to think beyond your current life and your limited interests. By pointing to the possibility of an eternal life, they broaden your perspective and help you see yourself and your existence on an eternal scale. With that awareness, you learn to live responsibly, avoiding the pitfalls and snares of worldly life. As you view your life on a broader time scale, beyond this lifetime, you will automatically transcend your small thinking and narrow-mindedness and strive to qualify for the eternal life.

Thus, one can see that the value of religions depends upon the people who practice them, and their positive effects upon the world and society are more than their negative ones. These truths are well represented in Hinduism in the conflict between gods (devas) and demons (danavas). Both worship the same Trinity (Trimurthis) and follow the same faith, but they do so with different mindsets and for different ends. The divinities perform their religious duties and follow the Trinity for the order and regularity of the worlds, while the demons do the same rather insincerely for selfish reasons to secure supernatural powers to control and oppress others and create chaos.

Since people are driven by their essential nature, their thinking and attitude towards their faiths also vary. Some use it for spiritual purposes, some for selfish and egoistic purposes and some for purely destructive and cruel reasons. Hinduism caters to them all, but holds them squarely responsible for their actions. Hence, in the Vedas you will find prayers that are meant to do good and prayers that are meant to harm. One can use the knowledge of the Tantra to practice self-discipline and attain salvation or to cast spells, curses and evil influences or perform blood . How you will make use of that knowledge is left to you.

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