What’s good about religion?

So many people today say they are “spiritual but not religious.” I’ve spoken to hundreds of them and they give similar answers to what they don’t like about organized religion.  They say things like: “I don’t want anyone to tell me what to believe;” or “Religious services are just boring;” or “I get just as much from a walk in the woods,” or “All those people are hypocrites,” and other similar things.  But is there anything good about religion?  I’d like to know what you think.  Write me.  Dr. Linda


  • Salvador

    Dear Dr. Mercadante:

    Your thoughts reminded me of my own struggle several years ago. I was raised in the Catholic faith, but had stopped going to church many years before. During a particularly difficult period in my life which included divorce, deaths in the family and unemployment, I found it difficult to find a source of spiritual comfort, Friends pointed me in the direction of Native American spirituality, Buddhist philosophy, and generic mysticism.

    One day, while holding a rosary that had been misplaced for many years, I reflected that the religion of my youth (particularly as it’s traditionally practiced in my Latin American culture), provided all the spirituality, mysticism and comfort that I was searching for. That sent me forth on a journey of re-discovery of the value of organized religion: The sense of belonging to a greater community, and the knowledge that you are part of a greater spiritual universe. While my life continues to deal with the normal problems we all face, my return to a certain religious identity continues to provide me with great comfort and moral guidance.

  • LMercadante

    Thank you. I’ve interviewed others who’ve been on a similar spiritual search, only to end up back in their original spiritual “home” or, like myself, in one they’ve selected after much trial and error.

  • L Jeanette

    For me, the church was always a cornerstone of my family’s activities. We had a weekly “appointment” in our agenda where there weren’t phones, errands to run or computers to distract us. It was a time where we could just sit and be together as a family. Afterwards we would go and get breakfast and reflect on the sermon and how its lesson would affect our lives and the trajectory of our family. I think that for my parents who were professionals, it was hard to have family dinners and so this gave us a focus each week to “check-in” with one another and be present with everyone.

  • heronsplash

    Prof. Mercadante,

    I absolutely love the discussion of spirituality “versus” religion. I say “versus” because I really do not believe that the two concepts are in disagreement with each other. I personally feel that in order to have a good and quality religious experience you must have spirituality. Likewise in order to have a good and quality spiritual experience you must have religion. Religion brings the aspect of commmunity to spirituality. If one is solely spiritual, they miss out on being able to aptly identify themselves with others whom have similar concerns and ideas. Religion, though many times strict in its construction, allows for freedom of dialogue and spiritual togetherness that is not possible in mere spirituality. Religion is thus important because it offers a space for individuals to reflect there ideas and bounce concerns and ideologies off one another that I believe is missing in spirituality.

    That being said, I feel as though I am both a spiritual and religious person, as I try to develop myself in a spiritual manner, all the while constructing my personal understanding of religion and religiosity. I love this discussion about the similarities and differences because it opens up lines of communication between those in the spiritual frame of mind and those in the religious frame of mind. Also, it can remind all of us that there is no singular way of looking at things, but many angles to the discussion.

    ~Heronsplash 🙂

  • Rebecca

    Dr. Mercadante,

    Your statement above reigns truth. Though I once scoffed at those that mentioned their “spirituality” being separate from their religion, I have recently begun to understand their perspective. Though there is a fear and sense of being unsettled in the concept of religion, the core values and beliefs spark ‘good intention’ in many lives. I feel that too many times people think of religion as a cookie cutter and themselves a dough ball that either cannot fill that shape or must be cut off with their overflow. Despite this common outlook, religion can and does serve to promote hope, support and the attempt to understand one’s purpose. Religion, in the sense of ‘organized’, can provide a deep-rooted community to uplift and support through trials and triumphs. Religion, as we see with children and youth, can provide a moral guideline for what is right and acceptable in our daily lives, even if the “faith” stuff is removed. Religion can also serve as a comfort in times where hope is scarce, addictions are raging, loneliness settles within an ’empty nest’, etc. As long as individuals who are truly seeking faith through religion, see religion as the dough ball and themselves as the God created cookie cutter for who they are specifically, then their religion will always reign more comforting than discouraging.

  • YHechler

    Hi Dr. Mercadante,
    From my past Christian experience, I have learned and experienced that there is a difference between religion and relationship. Religion I believe, can be difficult to understand at first because it often involves language and rituals that we are not always familiar with, or if we are familiar with them, we are unsure of the deeper meanings behind them. Religion can seem so superficial and even wrong when you don’t dig deeper to gain an understanding of what it all means or point to. People who claim to have religion can do things as well,that discourage. I have found that relationship with God on the other hand, helps me to see the beauty of the rituals and gives me a greater understanding of the language. I believe that religion can possibly be a means to point the way to relationship for those willing to learn and grow and I believe that when we find a relationship with God, our religion gives us the confines to grow in our relationship. I believe both religion and relationship with God go hand in hand to help us grow in our beliefs.

  • BBKY

    Dr. Mercadante,

    It is my opinion that while some “organized religions” do tend to dictate a person’s beliefs, others are more interested in guiding one away from, shall we say, less favorable interpretations of spirituality. For instance, my husband tells a story of a supervisor he had at a Christian television station, who advocated the belief that Jesus was a space alien who came to recruit people to come to “heaven”, his home planet. This person did not belong to any “organized religious” group. While I am in no way claiming to be the ultimate authority on religion or spirituality, I believe that his understanding of Jesus was divergent from the traditionally accepted one. Therefore, I think that if this person had been connected to a religious group, he might have been guided to explore his beliefs in light of that group’s traditional beliefs and literature; and, if the group’s beliefs did not fit with is own, another group’s might have. It is difficult to defend your beliefs if you are the only one who believes them. Occasionally, this is considered psychosis.

    Like many others, I have done my fair share of searching for the right “fit” in religious groups, only to end up where I began in the first place. However, this group has, on the whole, offered me a place of belonging and acceptance, in spite of my differences, and at times opposing beliefs. I have been permitted and encouraged to not rest on the lessons learned as a child and make my faith my own. At the same time, I have been challenged to defend my beliefs according to not only the tradition of the church, but as a Christian, to defend them biblically and logically as well.

  • Rebecca

    I have found that some people have had negative or oppressive circumstances in the name of religion and even if they believe in God and the bible they have not found a place they can feel good about deepening their understanding or knowledge about God so they consider themselves spiritual but not a member of an organized religious group.

  • Whit

    Hmmm… I have never thought of myself as “spiritual but not religious”. Even when I was in High School and my church attendance was very sporadic, I thought of myself as a Christian, even though my beliefs had little resemblance to the historic Creeds.

    After my conversion experience I consciously sought to shape my beliefs to the creeds, and succeeded. I entered 12-step recovery several years after returning to active church attendance, and have always tried to channel my spiritual growth in my programs through the canals cut by historic Christianity, though I tried out several different denominations. I ended up with a spirituality that is probably best described as neo-medieval mysticism.

  • Kristina

    I think there are many great things about religion that may get overlooked in the chaos of today’s society. Having just moved to the area, I attended a non-denominational church two weekends ago. It was a fairly enjoyable service, but I could not push aside in my mind the obvious fact that so many people wanted to be rushed in and rushed out. In fact, the sermon ended with an “Amen” and nothing else. No benediction, no closing prayer or song; I was left feeling unfulfilled and rushed.

    The following weekend, I headed to where I know I should have started: a Methodist church. Not only was it good to be back at “home,” but I was reminded of the things that really make me appreciate “religion.” Being surrounded by Methodists is an inspiring feeling. Through worship songs, hymns and sermons I continue to see one main theme; “open hearts, open minds, open doors.” When it came time for communion, I could feel the presence of God not only with me, but with everyone in the congregation. We could take part in an organized eucharist which in my eyes, equalizes everyone, as we are seen from the eyes of God. I believe that “organzed religion” offers an opportunity for people to grow together and become a stronger and tighter knit community, which in turn can impact the world.

  • MKerns

    Dear Dr. Mercadante,

    While the term religious makes me shake, the thought of my own religion makes me feel secure. Religion, much like our own creed or life motto, gives us security and a sense of belonging to a community. Hopefully, this community provides love, training, and support. However, there are ‘religious communities’ which ultimately do more harm than good. These are the church communities which choose to put everything and everyone in predetermined cubicles–boxes, only to make us feel like we do not belong, because we do not ‘fit’ into their cubicle.

    Religion, in my own life, is much like a tailored blazer. It provides structure and warmth and is a dependable, basic part of any wardrobe. Just like a blazer is a good ‘go-to’ piece when we are not sure what to wear, religion, or actually the religious commununity provides a good set of ‘go-to’ people when we need direction.

  • Susan

    I have had similar feelings to what Salvador was addressing. During early college, I stopped attending a church. After a few terms I got incredibly angry with Christianity. I was so very tired of being ridiculed or having everyone assume all my beliefs were judgmental. I wanted to become a different religion so I wouldn’t have to put up with the discrimination. I felt very alone and an emptiness in my soul. I experimented with some pagan traditions that worshipped nature, but couldn’t seem to really believe any of it. I missed feeling that there was a God that loved me and wanted the best for me. In the last year I have moved back home with my parents and started attending church with them. It has been a real eye opener to all the gifts the church gives my life. The fellowship, the powerful feelings in worship and music, and the guidance from a pastor were all things I had been seeking.

    I believe from the outside looking in people have a hard time understanding what the real benefit of belonging to something is. Part of it is our strong desire to be independent, but I think the main reason is people are afraid to take a stand. They fear, like I did, the negativity that has become dominant in our culture towards Christianity. I have no idea how we turn the tide on this, but it is a very sad state of affairs.

  • daughter of a "good" person

    My Mom is always telling me that her mother was the best Christian she ever knew even though she didn’t go to church. She uses this excuse to say that you she, nor anyone else, needs to go to church to a) be a good person and b) be a good Christian.

    In your last class you mentioned something about not having to be a Christian to be a good person, and I think that may be the missing link for my Mom. She’s scared of not being Christian, to a certain extent, perhaps securing her “salvation” this way.

    There are others who have had similar conversations with me – I think knowing my vocation, they assert that they are good Christians, even if they don’t participate in a Christian community.

    I try to encourage my Mom to go to church, telling her it would be good for her and because she likes to be social – thinking she might even grow along the way. But “good” seems to be good “enough” for her.

  • Jenny

    Hypocrites in the church? Well hello it has been my experience that we are all hypocrites at times. Otherwise we would be perfect and others would either worship us or kill us. Where there are humans there are varying levels of hypocrisy. The alternative to interacting with hypocrites is a life of solitude and that’s pretty much it. What is important in any group that I participant in is that we do our best to live by example and are able to hold each other accountable for our actions. Not to expect perfection but freedom with responsibility. I value the freedom to make my own choices but also have a responsibility to those in my community. Organized religion is very much about community. It is supposed to be a family of like minded individuals. To offer support, insight and fellowship. In my limited experience with various religious groups this is the common denominator. I also strongly believe there are good people everywhere. We just may need an open mind and a little tolerance to relate to them. Two things that we expect from everyone else but sometimes aren’t so quick to offer in return. I agree that everyone will not fit into every church but I also think or hope rather that there is something out there for everyone. I also feel if someone does not feel the need to be part of any particular religion that is fine too however I hope these people have a solid support system of some sort.

  • LaFe

    I believe there are clearly negative elements of organized religion, including the tendency toward exclusivity, irrelevance, and judgmental attitudes. I have been personally impacted by the less gracious side of religion. However, that is not the whole story with regard to religion. In fact, in my experience, that is not the predominant story of religion. Religion has been a guiding and comforting element in my life. I can recall countless stories of church meals, prayer vigils, benefit concerts, and other acts of benevolence which occurred in my community of faith. I understand that this is just my personal experience of religion and others may have a much different and less favorable narrative. That said, in addition to holding religious communities accountable for the harm that is done as a result of their actions and attitudes, I think it is important to acknowledge the good that I and others have experienced as a result of our involvement in a community of faith.

  • Chad

    There is much to be claimed as good in religion. I am United Methodist today because a UM pastor told me that the United Methodist Church would not ask me to “check my brain at the door.” I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and was accustomed to having a priest tell me what to believe about the life and teachings of Jesus. I found it refreshing to have my thoughts and beliefs not only accepted, but encouraged in discussion with others including the pastor. I believe there is much to be gained in the sharing of spiritual ideas. Even if my mind is not changed in conversation with others, the breadth of my belief is widened and perhaps the conviction of my own belief can be strengthened.

    Another important “good” in religion is the sense of community and family that can exist in communities of faith. As people gather around worship, fellowship and prayer, relationships are formed. As those relationships grow, trust is built and the ensuing conversations result in opportunities for mutual spiritual growth. Religion is good, the religious sometimes are not.

  • RAMJ

    I was one who wore a “spiritual but not religious” label in my early adult years. At that time, “religion” was the label I gave to the tangible and visible church experience that left sour tastes in the mouth heading into college. My efforts, thoughts, and feelings around my relationship with God was labeled “spiritual”. Admittedly, my definitions for those terms back then were not technically correct, but the feelings and thoughts behind their use did reflect where I was. This experience alerts me to one of our human tendencies, that being “one bad taste, tainted for life.” When I hear the phrase, “spiritual but not religious”, I am reminded to be sensitive to the importance of demonstrating that religion “does not have to taste bad to be good?”

  • David

    I think that religion is a positive in society, despite where people currently place it. The individuals that claim spirituality, but not religion, must then be forced to always practice their spirituality alone. A definition of religion I learned once was “to bind together. With this definition, any person who discusses their spirituality and finds common ground with another person, have just formed what one might call a religion, even if it is just a religion of two. With that, religion brings people together in community, which I believe is a positive in society.

  • A Leigh

    I think in considering if anything is good about religion, it’s important to note that the word “religion” has taken on a negative connotation within our culture today. Rather than being simply ‘the service and worship of God or the supernatural’ (one of the merriam-webster definitions), it’s taken on tones related to the actions of specific organized religions. Religion, for many, has come to mean rules for how to “live right.” It’s come to mean condemnation and guilt. In some cases, it’s even come to mean irrelevancy to the current world. Some churches even position it as a “dirty word” – the opposite of relationship with God… or it’s likened to the law, but not the freedom in Christ.

    I’d be curious how ‘spiritual but not religious’ folks would have responded if the question were rephrased to avoid the “dirty word” of religion… perhaps something along the lines of, “is there anything good about people with similar beliefs gathering and living out there beliefs together?” Ok maybe that’s not the best way to phrase it, but hopefully you all get the idea?

  • PhilipL

    I have heard many people make the declaration, “I am not religious but spiritual.” Usually, after discussion, it means they do not care for church attendance or to be involved. However, being religious does include church attendance, along with other do’s and don’ts that lead to the pathway to the Jesus Christ. If the goal of religion and/or spirituality is not Jesus then its useless. Paul proclaimed, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

    I became involved in religion looking for Jesus Christ. I believed the passage written stating that Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) If Jesus Christ is not the goal of religion and/or spirituality what is the point of being either?

  • Brad

    I believe that religion is good for all people. It bring people together in one common belief and holds them accountable in that belief. As a United Methodist I am able to speak and debate my beliefs which influence my Theology and reflect upon them as I grow in my Faith. I am not perfect just because I believe that religion is good but am reminded that God loves me for who I am.

  • John Chapman

    I have been spiritual throughout my life, but not religious, despite going to church to set an example for my children. Spirituality has not helped me or my children deal with addictions, our religious beliefs have. When confronted with the sin, a violation of trust between ourselves and God, as well as between each other, my children and I have had to fully confront ourselves as to whether our choices are worth the benefit of immediate self gratification that came from the sinful act. Our confrontation has, in the vast majority of situations, led to a change in behavior because our relationships with each other and God have been more important than the self gratification. Such choices have been hard, complete with regression, but forward progress toward love amongst ourselves and with God. And, with this love, we have realized that our religious behaviors needed to be strengthened and regularly reinforced, for we are human and forgetful. Our strengthening and reinforcement comes from regular church, Sunday School and event attendance, bible readings, family dinner conversations and prayer. All of these take time out of our all ready full schedules, but time that is well worthwhile in comparison to cleaning up the moral messes that we otherwise leave behind.

  • John Huff

    I feel that most of the people that I have met who say that they are spiritual but not religious have been afflicted by someone or a group of people within a certain congregation. One of my roommates while I was in undergrad stated that he left due to be told that his theology was heretical and non-Christian…This troubles because instead of condemning people we should be welcoming and educating others to know what they really believe. John

  • Shaun

    I think there are a lot of good things about organized religion. Even though religion as a whole has a poor outlook in the media and people usually do not like “religion” as a whole, some of the good things that can come from religion is “community.” As the old song goes, everybody needs somebody to lean on, and the church, or organized religion can provide that forum for whenever people are struggling with certain issues. As I said in my seminary essay, I would be attempting to become a pastor even if this stuff (Christianity) was not true. What better of a job could there be than to love on people whenever they are down, and organized religion provides a forum to do just that.

  • Nick Fed

    After a quarter of seminary…I am forced to look at things from a comparative academic perspective. I can examine how different cultures and people make meaning and create structure- i.e. what are upheld as sources of truth, what purpose are certain actions intended to serve, and so on. Different people or groups have different answers to these foundations.

    Some people have a good reason to be skeptical of “religion”, if their only experiences have been negative. If something (whether an institute, person, or “idea”) has been a source of stress, misery, anxiety, or pain, a person is understandably going to want to flee.

    At the same time, there are clear benefits to having some sort of “religion” on top of one’s own spiritual outlook. The author Brian McLaren, an “emergent”/postmodern Christian, talks about how ritual seems empty to people if they don’t know what it means, or if they’re not choosing to participate. At the same time, if one sees ritual as an opportunity to have a structured, deliberate action with a certain spiritual goal- it can be beneficial. It can force one to refocus on spiritual concerns, or to set some time aside.

    The communal aspect of religion is also very important. (Again, this is heavily based on Mr. McLaren’s book “A Search for What is Real”, which I’m reading now) While people are ultimately responsible for themselves, and their own decisions/meaning-making actions, we cannot function in a vacuum. We need relationship- shared experience, encouragement, even to be challenged to think beyond ourselves.

    However, to experience these realities, in a way we must choose to do so. Whether as part of a community, or as an individual, we need to decide just what kind of meaning we want to be based upon. Religion has its benefits for creating a structure, or a foundation of meaning, or a community, around which to seek the answers to life’s questions- spiritual concerns. Fortunately, modern Americans have the choice of many religions, or none at all. Thus, whichever choice one makes, it is indeed a significant- and deeply personal- one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *