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Why Religion Won't Help Improve Society

One complaint I hear very often from the far right and even those who aren't quite that extreme is that "because we've become a more secular society, nobody has any morals any more and this is why we're having problems with drugs, irresponsible sexual behavior, violence, etc." They then go on to suggest that in order to fix things we need to have our government encourage religion in some way that they approve of.

As an educated individual with a background in psychology and child development, the whole argument doesn't make logical sense to me. I'll explain elsewhere what my own personal religious views are, and what my views of freedom of religion are. This essay will deal primarily with the role of religion in morality and society.

In case this is the first essay of mine you've read, please don't assume that this is an "attack on religion" - while I will freely admit my own agnosticism, I demand nearly absolute freedom of religion for everyone, even those who have beliefs I consider logically impossible. I believe the only way for religious individuals to have their right to worship as they please is for them to permit me not to worship. When I speak of religion "not being good for society," I speak not of the value it can have for an individual or a family, but of whether the potential value is sufficient to justify denying me my freedom not to worship.

Further, I want to make it clear that "not being beneficial to society" does not equal "harmful." I am perfectly aware that many individuals and groups are benefitted by religion and its practice. I am not claiming that individuals or society are HARMED by religion. I merely claim that extending the reach of religion due to some mistaken belief that it is somehow universally helpful would be wrong.

I do not believe religion is inherently good for society for two reasons, both grounded firmly in psychology. The first is based on current information on children's development of morality, the other is based on my behaviorist training relating to mentally disabled individuals.

Child Development

The primary reason I do not believe that religion brings about a better society is because it goes against what I know of the development of morals and ethics in human beings. Kohlberg, one of the best-known researchers in the development of morality in children, finds evidence for what I have come to believe intuitively.

In a nutshell, Kohlberg developed a "stage theory" for moral development that fits nicely with intellectual and emotional stage theories. A good "Readers Digest" summary would be that children go from thinking only about what they want, to understanding that breaking rules will bring negative consequences, to recognizing that rules are important for everyone to get along, and then further into even more mature beliefs.

Let's look at an example of how a child views the rules of a game.

1. A very young child is generally incapable of playing a game with other children because s/he cannot understand rules at all. The child would focus on the fact that s/he cannot have the ball, not understanding the idea that they should give up a ball to another child.

2. A somewhat older child starts to be able to understand that there are rules, generally those set and enforced by adults. For example, a preschooler can understand "taking turns riding the tricycles," and if s/he follows the rules the teacher set up, s/he can wait in line for another turn while others ride them. However, at this stage, if the adult isn't there to enforce the rules, this discipline would break down fairly rapidly. The child believes, at this stage, that rules exist "because grownups say so."

A slightly later stage of this development is when a child can understand

My primary disagreement with religion as a source of a moral society is that I perceive "Be good or God is going to do something to you" ("play the game by the rules or Dad will send us to our rooms") or the next step "Don't do that because God said not to" ("play the game by the rules because that's what they say") as LOWER stages of moral development than recognizing that certain acts harm others and are wrong for that reason, or that certain acts are risky, and should be avoided or done sparingly or in moderation.

Look at it from the viewpoint of a parent. A parent begins moral/ethical education by attempting to teach a child what is wrong through punishment for inappropriate behavior. Over the course of time, however, the parent needs the child to internalize the CONCEPT and avoid the inappropriate conduct even in the absence of an authority to hand out consequences. I believe using religion to instill morality retains too great a reliance on the crutch of allmighty authority and does not permit people to understand WHY certain acts are inappropriate.

Learning Theory :

While BF Skinner's writings are not popuolar with those who are more concerned with "free will" and human cognition, behaviorist theories are easily observed to be an accurate description of reality as it relates to early learning. I fully agree that learning theory only explains one part of human development, and behavioral psychology has limited relevance to therepeutic intervention with normal adults; however, the power that external consequences have on our behavior can never be denied.

In my opinion, Christianity in particular says "after you die, you will receive the ultimate consequence(s) for your behavior through your placement in Heaven or Hell for the rest of eternity." Further, Christians believe that faith in Jesus leads to forgiveness of sins (mistakes).

This violates a number of the "rules" of learning theory, which anyone who has raised children (particularly difficult children who needed more guidance as to their conduct) or trained animals will recognize.

  • Consequences must be immediate. While intelligent humans are obviously able to wait for rewards, and are often able to learn from delayed punishment, extreme variances in this can and do lead to problems. Imagine a two year old being spanked at bedtime for misconduct committed at 9AM - do you think s/he would really understand the lesson the parent was trying to teach? And even adults prefer their consequences sooner rather than later - you can tolerate an agreed upon lag between your work and your paycheck, but there are limits.
  • Consequences must be contingent. If you can escape punishment simply by "believing" or "apologizing," the consequence is *not* contingent on the desired behavior. While good parents will often let a kid "off the hook" after seeing remorse or requiring a simple apology to a wronged party, they wouldn't do this time and time again, nor for all "misconduct."
  • Rewards for "general conduct" at the end of some period of time have limited value. A parent who wishes to give a collective reward at the end of the day needs to use some visible means of showing a child his/her progress towards the delayed reward and an objective means of deciding whether the reward is received at the end of the day.

Bottom line, "going to Heaven because you were good and believed in Jesus" violates important learning theory principles. That doesn't mean it isn't a moral compass for some individuals; it simply means that there are good and sufficient reasons not to go overboard in assuming that because some individuals find value in it, it is good for everyone.

What do I believe this means for us as a society?

Contrary to what many people might think, I'm not advocating forcible removal of religion from society. Far from it. It fills a need within individuals and groups. I believe firmly that every individual should be able to follow his or her own conscience in terms of religion and spirituality and should be able to worship or not as s/he pleases (within limits, of course, primarily that a religion cannot cause you to break secular laws without just cause).

It is also possible that at an earlier stage in society, religion did fill a role as a moral guide. However, just like a child grows and needs to understand the reasoning behind rules rather than than "Mom will punish you if you...," our society may have grown beyond the use of God as a Cosmic Parent.

What do I recommend?

I think it's time that we, as a society, took a good look at our rules, written and unwritten. We're doing many things wrong in all phases of creating and enforcing these rules. We need to apply sound thinking to our public policies and how laws can be enforced. If a law cannot be enforced, it reduces respect for the laws themselves, lawmakers, and society.

Within a framework of religious freedom, we have to develop a more mature understanding of morality and how children learn to behave. While adherence to religious rules may be important to a particular family's morality, as a society we need to recognize which traditional moral strictures can be justified through secular means (and thus enforced on society at large) and which are primarily religious in nature.

This may require everyone to do a little soul searching, religious and non-religious, conservative and liberal alike.

Care to read more from someone with a similar viewpoint?


Want another point of view?