What good is religion?

AA meeting sign

AA meeting sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sigfried Gold on what religion and 12 step fellowships get right:

The work of self-transformation can be done through psychotherapy, religious practice, reading self-help books, independent resolutions and intentions, consulting coaches, gurus, psychics, body healers, mind healers and faith healers of all stripes. People come to the work of self-transformation in moments of despair, moments of hope, after long reflection, through happenstance…


Religions have certain advantages in the self-transformation arena that can’t be matched by secular forms of this work. One is the ideal–if not actual attitude–of religions towards money. Although the financial costs of religion can be quite high (giving away a tenth of one’s income is not uncommon), payment is generally voluntary; newcomers and poorer congregants can usually enjoy all the benefits of community, moral guidance and support, meaningful rituals, comfort in times of adversity, without having to pay more than they choose. Disingenuously or not, religions claim to be motivated by concerns beyond money, and obligate themselves to at least put on a show of providing services unattached to remuneration. For people outside the social welfare system, secular self-transformational help must be paid for. Much of the support in a religious community comes from other congregants rather than from paid clergy. As a special case, 12-step recovery fellowships, which include some of the largest organizations in the world, offer their members access to daily or hourly support, essentially for free, that could only be matched among secular service providers by extremely expensive in-patient treatment centers or psychiatry wards.

Are these the thoughts of an evangelical seeking to extend the reach of the church into more lives at their most vulnerable moments?

Nope. The writer is an atheist.

I have no nostalgia for the bad old days of clerical authorities browbeating us into morality with their hands in our pockets. But I fervently yearn for a day when people wishing to be better have easy access to free or donation-based support, offered primarily by their peers, possibly facilitated by modestly paid clergy, and offered without coercion, without insistence that one set of beliefs is right and the rest are wrong, offered because people who actively pursue their own paths towards meaning, fulfillment and some vision of the good feel a generous desire to share what they’ve learned on those paths with others. Religions may be declining in their ability to provide that kind of altruistically motivated, communally organized support, but we have few other models to work with.

This is an interesting observation in the context of the concept of a monoculture that is organized around economics. This monoculture’s emphasis on individuality helps explain our cultural aversion to a recovery solution that is free, relational and demands interdependence..

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