The comments suddenly dried up on the thread where we were discussing morality in the Bible; I hope I didn't offend anyone or something. If I have done anything to upset anybody, I think my email is posted somewhere around here and you can drop me a line to tell me so. I'd rather know than not know!
Today I want to talk about the good things religion provides. Like I have said before, religion is not a single thing, like a list of propositions, it's a huge combination of things.
1. For one thing, it's a community. And because it's based on the most important beliefs and practices that people have, it's not a superficial community like book club. People feel the closest bond to people who share their dearest beliefs, and so it's no surprise that it's the people at church who are most willing to bring a casserole for a sick parishioner, watch your kids for you or trust you with theirs, or make friends with a new person in town.
2. It's a place of moral encouragement. Not only does it have a nice clear moral code, but you can surround yourself with people who share the same one. It can be hard abiding to a higher standard of morals than the people around you -- with your religious friends, you know you are all on the same level. This is really easily seen on NFP forums -- it's very painful to be the only person you know who doesn't use birth control, but when you're surrounded by others making the same choices, you feel much better.
3. It's an honor group. I've written about honor groups before -- the point is that it is a group wherein you get respect, both from members and nonmembers, for abiding to a stricter moral code than average. When you tell someone you are seriously religious, even if they don't approve of your specific religion, you earn a bit of respect just for being willing to follow the rules. People think of you as a moral person -- which is why there is so much scandal when a seriously religious person does something immoral.
4. It's an answer to serious philosophical questions: life, higher meaning, moral questions, death. Everyone has to face these questions in their life, but most people don't have the time to dedicate to answering them all personally. It's like having to reinvent the wheel. With religion, all you have to do is find one decent proof, and then the rest all follows from that. If you think the Catholic Church is true, and you're worried about death, simple -- just believe what the Catholic Church teaches about death. Crisis averted, and you don't have to spend hours or weeks doing philosophy.
5. It provides us with a useful vocabulary for discussing our interior life: words like sin, temptation, discernment, all describe real things we experience but which can be hard to explain otherwise. It also gives us a whole mythic landscape to use for imagining things we can't clearly define -- as I talked about earlier.
6. It is a program of self-improvement. Most people who are not seriously religious don't spend time every day considering their actions of the past day and trying to see how they could do better. Religions encourage people to do so, which is a definite advantage.
7. It gives serious weight to all our actions. Sometimes, especially in an age where we know so much about the universe, our whole lives seem insignificant, to say nothing of our individual actions from day to day. It's nice to think of your choice to be kind to a stranger, for instance, as part of a larger plan, which could at the very least cultivate grace in your soul, and at most might save theirs.
8. Of course it brings you into a relationship with God, which many people find fully as rewarding, if not more so, than their earthly relationships. Even from the outside, you have to see that people are getting something they value out of this, despite not experiencing it yourself. They have someone to share their sorrows, talk over their problems with, and thank for their blessings.
9. Ritual -- times to mark the passage of time, to see the seasons pass, to remind you to take certain times for reflection. I love ritual, whether it's a daily cup of tea, a yearly holiday, or a once-in-a-lifetime rite of passage like confirmation. Most people find their most important rituals in their religion.
10. Most religions include an afterlife, and that is a great comfort. Death is one of what I call the great mysteries (along with love, sex, and birth) and it's nice to have a simple answer. The answer usually includes the idea that good people (oneself, for instance) can be rewarded after death and bad people can be punished. That gives people a sense of satisfaction, plus it may curb any desire for vengeance or encourage people to do things that otherwise wouldn't be rewarded.
Some of these can be obtained without religion. Others can't, and unfortunately it's just those which can't be enjoyed by someone like me. They are hidden, in Leah Libresco's phrase, behind the paywall of faith -- if you don't believe, you don't benefit.
However, for those who do, it's pretty easy to see what draws people to religion and makes them stay even in the face of occasional doubts. It has actual benefits.
On the other hand, the benefits aren't the only reason anyone stays -- and I want to write about that next time.