Religion does more harm than good in the world. Agreed?

It’s been reported that two out of three Australians think that religion does more harm than good in the world. That’s not encouraging news at a time when there are questions being asked about whether or not the various tax exemptions and privileges that religious organisations enjoy in Australia should be wound back – or even dispensed with.

But the Ipsos Poll on which the report was based gave mixed messages about Australians and religion. While 63% agreed that religion does more harm than good in the world, 84% agreed with the statement, “I am completely comfortable being around people who have different religious beliefs than me”. So, on the one hand, scepticism about the value of religion and, on the other hand, high levels of toleration for religious diversity. What might this poll be telling us about Australians and their religions?

It’s worth thinking about how a poll like this works. In this case it was a telephone poll of more than 17,000 people across 23 countries. There would have been an attempt to get balanced representation but, even so, it could have involved only a very small number of Australians. Probably fewer than 1000. Also, those being polled were simply asked if they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements such as “My religion defines me as a person” (27% agreed) or “Religious people make better citizens” (25% agreed). So when some hundreds of Australians agreed with the statement “Religion does more harm than good in the world”, it’s not at all clear what they were actually thinking. It would have been a range of things. Certainly they would not all have had the same reasons for agreeing with the statement.

Nonetheless, it’s a worthwhile exercise to think about what some of those things might have been. What harm does religion do?

Some may have been thinking about religious bigotry and the harm that does in some families and communities. Australia has a sorry history of sectarianism – particularly of bitter conflict between Protestant and Catholic people. Thankfully those days are behind us now, but it was still a very real part of Australian society when I was growing up. Some people might have been thinking about religious extremism or about religiously motivated conflict. Some might have been reflecting on the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.

But about a third of those Australians who were polled did not agree with the statement. They thought that, on balance, religion does not do more harm than good. They might have even thought that religion did more good than harm (but we can’t know that). So what good might they have thought religion does?

If they practice a religion themselves, they probably do so because they find or believe that it has some benefit for them. There are many studies now that associate religious practice with improved mental health and wellbeing. They might have been thinking of the community life and pastoral care that’s made available to them in their faith community. But even the Australians polled who do not practice a religion themselves might have been thinking of the caring services that religious communities offer. Christian congregations run drop in centres, op shops, playgroups etc. Most religious organisations run schools, community services, hospitals etc. UnitingCare Australia, e.g., is a network of some 1600 sites with 40,000 employees and 30,000 volunteers. Their impact for good on Australian society is huge.

In the light of the Ipsos Poll a journalist asked me whether religion “should be trying to redeem itself” in the eyes of the Australian public. I replied that I thought not. The place of religion in Australian society has changed dramatically in recent decades. The proportion of Australians participating in a religion is now smaller, and the religious groups that Australians are involved in is now much more diverse. The community no longer automatically looks to religious representatives for moral leadership – or even for rites of passage such as weddings and funerals. In this situation it’s important that religious organisations don’t pretend that nothing has changed, and don’t try to steer things back to the way they once were – if that’s what “redeeming” themselves means.

Instead, religious organisations need to get on with doing what they do – developing communities, practicing their faith, serving their own members and the wider community at real points of need. And they need to do what they do with integrity, fairness and transparency. That will be more than enough for Australians.

talking on the phone

5 comments

  1. I recently wrote a couple of emails to you about the mental harm caused to my son by a uniting church school teacher. You did not respond to either.
    As an Australian, I obviously think that religion does more harm than good in the world.
    When your religion acts with integrity, fairness and transparency, I will be more than happy. Until then, I will have nothing but contempt for your Christianity.

    Trish Smith

    • Hi Trish. I appreciated being included in the emails you sent and I talked through the issues you raised with my faculty. Because they were emails sent to several people the most senior person responded (from memory, that was the moderator). I did have you and your son in mind (among others) when I wrote the blog.

  2. Hi Andrew,
    Even though you have not stated your personal opinion as to whether religion does more good or more harm(I assume your view is that it does more good otherwise why would you belong to a religious organization), you assume that the survey respondents who possibly believe it does more good, could be because, as you say:-

    “But even the Australians polled who do not practice a religion themselves might have been thinking of the caring services that religious communities offer. Christian congregations run drop in centres, op shops, playgroups etc. Most religious organisations run schools, community services, hospitals etc. UnitingCare Australia, e.g., is a network of some 1600 sites with 40,000 employees and 30,000 volunteers. Their impact for good on Australian society is huge”.

    I agree with you that these services impact Australian society in a hugely benevolent way. But Christian organizations can only take the credit for these services if they are funding them.
    Who pays the salaries for the 40,000 employees? Who pays for the CEO’s salary packages at a commensurate level to CEO’s in secular organizations.
    My understanding is that this funding comes from the public purse i.e. The Taxpayer. The government offers grants for organizations to perform such work. Outsourcing in other words. If the government of the day employed & organized all these people to perform these services, they would probably be labeled “socialists”.

    How much money actually comes from the church’s “coffers” to perform these necessary services? How many of the 40,000 employees are Christians. Not the majority I would say. Most of those people in these organizations are purely working there so they can financially support themselves.
    Is this religion doing “good” or is this the church acting like any other big business?

    Three years ago I was looking for an aged care facility for my elderly mother. A daunting task but I managed to view most of them in my area whether they were privately run or church based. In my opinion, the church based facilities were more expensive, the rooms were smaller and the staff were no more or no less caring.
    Like privately run aged care centers, church run centers are funded by the client as well as subsidised by the government. I understand the only difference is that the private aged care facilities pay tax on their profits and the church facilities don’t (not for profit).

    Is this religion doing “good” or is this the church acting like any other big business?

    Andrew, you also stated that most religions run schools. These schools, I understand are funded by the child’s parents as well as each student being subsidized by the government.
    I think it is unjust that elite, privileged private schools often receive more funding than public schools in lower socioeconomic areas where there is so much need.
    Is this religion doing good?

    One area where the Christian church does provide community service free of charge is in the area of chaplaincy in public schools, public hospitals and age care facilities. I have noticed that the Pentecostal Christian chaplains are always eager to take up these positions. Children, the elderly and the sick are all vulnerable citizens so I wonder whether this is really an act of goodwill or an opportunity for proselytization.

    I could also talk about why I think religion has done more harm than good. War & conquest, subjugation, enslavement, racism, xenophobia, homophobia(suicide),genocide, enemy to diversity, tolerance & intellectual inquiry, child abuse in all its forms, converting most world indigenous populations to the preferred religion………BUT I won’t!

    Love & Peace

    Trish Smith

    PS: I haven’t always been this cynical. Not until your church school really, really harmed my son & had no interest in in helping, healing,caring, apologizing or acknowledging.

  3. After my attack on religion, I have to say that I have so much admiration for this guy, what he says, believes & lives by….Pastor Brad Chilcott. If only I had a smidgen of his commitment to the care of the human race & the world!

    “I’m a pastor and, depending on who you ask, a Christian. There are lots of people in my world who don’t like it that I’m a person of faith, who find it all a bit suspicious, and I understand why.

    So, for those who’ve wondered, here’s what my faith is about.

    Following Jesus is about living your life for the sake of others.

    That means striving to improve the lives of people on the margins, showing solidarity with those with less power than you and working to create compassionate communities where true equality is experienced.

    It means seeking to utilise all the resources of your own privilege, possessions and ability towards dismantling the systems that cause poverty, inequality, oppression and exclusion.

    It means seeking to emulate the kind of love that Jesus was on about – costly, self-sacrificing love.

    It means being ambitious for change, for renewal, for reconciliation, equality, hope and wholeness – not for status, title or wealth.

    And it means recognising how your own battle against ego, greed and self-interest is not always a winning one.

    I believe men and women should be equal in every way – including the right to aspire to any role, title or position in society (including the church). I believe people of every sexuality, gender and culture are equal in every way and naturally deserve access to all the same opportunities – relationships, marriage, parenthood, leadership etc – in both society and church.

    And I believe we are called to struggle towards this equality becoming a lived reality for all people across all of society.

    I believe we dehumanise ourselves every time we allow another person to be treated in a way we would not want for our own lives, or that of our children and friends.

    When we allow our own comfort and convenience, materialism, ambition or defending our religious or ideological brand to distract us from standing alongside people who suffer we become less human and instead are part of the problem.

    At its best, the Christian faith calls you to a lifestyle of risking your own prosperity, reputation and security to stand in solidarity with those who are excluded, marginalised, abused or exploited.

    This is a worthy aspiration. I’m a long way from embodying it.

    But I hope that when I get to the end of my usefulness I’ll know my energy was spent standing with and for people, for fairness and for equality.

    I also hope that I’ll remember standing alongside people of all faiths and no faith, all cultures and every background as we joined in, and won, the beautiful struggle together.”

    A little talk I gave today in the Mall. (Brad Chilcott)

    Posted by Trish Smith

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