Issue #67 November 2023

On the Social Utility of Religion

Hannah Höch, "Fortgeschritten", (c.1958)

Life was once saturated with gods, spirits, and supernatural agents of all kinds. Religion wasn’t something you did over there, at this or that specific time. Of course, there were festivals, ceremonies and rituals, but religion didn’t stop when these events did. It infused all areas of life—it was the atmosphere you breathed. But at some point in history, so the story goes, religion retreated from public life and gradually became a matter of individual consciousness and private affiliation. No longer the pervasive background of our shared practices, religion lost its social function.

Some celebrate this as progress, others lament it as the decadence of the modern world (and some question the story altogether). We are used to seeing polemical debates on this topic—where atheists and (normally Christian) apologists try to get one over on their opponent. But both sides can make various concessions without giving up their position. The apologist might admit that there are some good things about the declining influence of religion in public life — like increased individual freedom — but still deplore the decay of tight-knit communities that comes along with this. Without religion as a repository of shared customs and traditions, they argue, we lack a sense of belonging that at one time would have encouraged trust amongst members of the group, thus facilitating cooperation; without religion, there is little to inspire sacrifice of self-interest for the greater good. Secularists, on the other hand, could accept that religion has traditionally been the source of collective identity and social cohesion, but still reject the call to revive religion. They think we are better off looking elsewhere. For instance, I’ve heard the British monarchy defended on the grounds that it binds British people together, generating a sense of national pride and fostering civic participation. And although the monarchy is bound up with the Church of England, most people don’t really care much about the religious element. This would make sense of the fact that, while the majority of the British public support the monarchy1placeholder, those identifying as Anglican continues to decline (just 15 per cent in a recent survey2placeholder—and only a fraction of them attend weekly services3placeholder). For most, then, allegiance to the Crown and deference to the monarch are more an expression of patriotism or collective identity than part of religious practice.

Perhaps the monarchy is capable of binding people into a community. Or there may be other alternatives to religion that can do this job. But even if there aren’t, I guess the secularist could simply bite the bullet and say we’re better off without religion anyway. Sure, the atomisation and isolation of individualistic society has its problems, but, on balance, this is still preferable to the problems that come along with a single religion dominating public life (e.g. persecution of religious minorities).

The debate about the relative costs and benefits of religion will continue. I doubt it can be resolved definitively. But even if, for argument’s sake, we say that religion, on the whole, improves the function of society, would this be a good reason to adopt a religion? Would this be enough to convince someone to convert? And, if so, how would we decide which religion to join? It might be easier to answer these kinds of questions if we take a specific historical example.

Ancient Rome could stand as a text-book case for how religion contributes to the healthy functioning of society. Pretty much everybody worshipped Jupiter, Mars, Juno, and so on, and they all participated in the same festivals, made sacrifices and offerings to the emperor (once the imperial cult took off), and participated in various other public rituals and ceremonies. But there were some non-conformists who chose to join private cults. And occasionally there were clampdowns on these groups. One of the most well-known cases is the Bacchanalia affair of 186 BCE. The cult of Bacchus had secret meetings, private initiation for members, and emphasised mystical experiences. Basically the complete opposite of the public religious activities that structured daily life. The reason authorities took action wasn’t because the cult members held heretical beliefs or were accused of impiety or anything like that.4placeholder After all, they had no problem with Bacchus himself since this god had already been accepted into the Roman pantheon.5placeholder Rather, it seems that the political threat of such a private association was what worried them. The Senate’s decree that was issued to deal with this situation focused on financial and legal bonds between the members of this religious group and thus the kind of loyalty this fostered between them—a loyalty that challenged loyalty to the state. It seems they didn’t want a well-organised group that could pose a political challenge to the current social order.6placeholder

Something similar happened later when the first Christians started causing a stir. Now, this group’s beliefs really must have seemed strange; but the authorities were still more concerned with anti-social behaviour. These Christians wouldn’t participate in all the traditional religious practices that structured daily life in Rome. Sacrificing to the polytheistic gods was a form of idolatry and therefore impermissible for the members of this new religion. They refused to take part in the customs that facilitated social cohesion. And it’s not hard to see why Christians would refuse to participate. The stakes were so much higher for them than ensuring the healthy function of society. The fate of their souls was their principle concern—in comparison to that, the smooth running of daily life seems insignificant. Imagine saying something like the following to a Christian at the time: ‘look, traditional Roman religion is really useful for the preservation of Rome; our rituals, ceremonies and festivals have been around for a long time and ensure that our society thrives; without these shared practices and the background assumptions that come with them, trust in each other would fail, the social fabric would fray, and we would face societal collapse’. The Christian could simply shrug their shoulders. Sure, their new religion may undermine Roman tradition, but in the grand scheme of things it’s a small price to pay for salvation.

Nevertheless, the accusation of anti-social behaviour must have been a serious worry since many of the early Christian apologists felt the need to respond. Now, they didn’t deny that they were highly critical of custom and tradition. Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, for instance, both attacked customs they saw as largely thoughtless habits full of nonsense that should be rejected upon closer inspection.7placeholder Just because customs have been handed down to you by your ancestors doesn’t mean you should keep following them. Truth is what really matters, not the utility of customs. And truth is to be found in the God of Abraham. But although they admit that their religious commitments lead them to shirk participation in some aspects of public life, they make the case that this doesn’t make them bad citizens. In fact, they claim that the teachings found in their scriptures actually provide the surest ground for good behaviour, arguing, for instance, that the threat of eternal punishment is enough to ensure moral action.8placeholder

Justin goes even further and turns the tables on the pagans. He argues that tribal identification based on customs caused more harm than good.

“[…] we hated one another and murdered one another, and, because of custom, would not even live under the same roof as those who were not of the same race; now, after the appearing of Christ, we eat at the same table, and we pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who unjustly hate, so that those who have lived according to the good counsels of Christ might have a good hope with us of obtaining the same things from the God who is Ruler of all.”9placeholder

Tribalism might motivate individuals to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of the community, but the interests of the community are still too profane, too parochial, and too selfish—they elevate the self-interest of one group over that of another. Christianity teaches a genuine selflessness, a concern for all humans, and ultimately a concern for God. Justin, then, suggests that group loyalty isn’t all its cracked up to be since it falls short of a universal ethics.

This portrayal of Christians as people of the highest moral integrity would offer some comfort to the emperor. Assuming this is an accurate picture, he can relax a bit because there is reassurance that Christians aren’t going to attack fellow citizens, steal from local businesses, or engage in similar criminal activity. But simply establishing that they aren’t criminals is a fairly low bar. Presumably, a leader doesn’t just want law-abiding citizens, but citizens who muck in, who get involved, who go above and beyond—who are willing to fight and die for their people. The impression we get of Christians here is of well-behaved people who pretty much keep to themselves and are harmless enough, but who you wouldn’t trust to have your back in a tight spot.

A similar impression is made by Tertullian when he argues that Christians have no seditious intentions because they have no interest in politics. Sure, if they form no political groups, they’re unlikely to be a threat to social order. But this cuts both ways. If they have no desire to participate in political activity they’re also not going to be enthusiastic defenders of the current politicians in power either. Their detachment from worldly affairs makes them harmless, but impotent as well. So when Tertullian says ‘[t]here is nothing more unfamiliar to us than politics. There is only one state for all which we acknowledge—the universe’10placeholder, he expresses nicely the universalistic sentiment in the political realm that Justin expresses in the moral realm. But it is precisely the particularist, tribal goal of protecting your own community that Romans thought important, especially as a function of religion.

Hannah Hoch, "From Above", (1927)

It seems, then, that it doesn’t always make sense to argue for religion on the grounds of its social utility—at least not if you’re a Christian. If you believe your religion is the true religion, then you won’t be persuaded to give it up for a false religion, no matter how useful. And even if Christianity turned out to provide social cohesion (which its defenders argue was the case once it finally became the official religion of Rome), this shouldn’t be the reason to become Christian. As T. S. Eliot put it: ‘what is worst of all is to advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but because it might be beneficial.’11placeholder Nevertheless, some Christians today do argue for their religion in terms of the worldly benefits it can provide. And this is understandable. There are many places in scripture that promise the faithful will be rewarded with material gain, with land, health, fertility, and so on. In my discussion of Christians in Rome I’ve focused on their soteriological and eschatological commitments, and on how these commitments don’t fit with the view of religion as socially useful. But, as noted, the bible does deal with other concerns beside the fate of our soul after death and the end of the world. There are promises of worldly salvation as well as otherworldly salvation, of flourishing in this life as well as in the next. There is guidance for maintaining and reproducing the current world as well as for preparing for its end. We find praise and awe of creation as well as denigration of it as inferior to the life to come.

To be honest, I haven’t managed to figure out how these two strands are supposed to fit together. But even if they can’t be reconciled, the advantage is that a greater diversity of potential followers can be accommodated. No matter what your inclination, you’re likely to find something to suit you. If the weight of the body has become too much, if your hopes for material satisfaction seem unattainable or even undesirable, then you can dedicate yourself to transcendence and to escape from this inferior reality to a higher one. This approach has been favoured by ascetics, mystics and some philosophers. But it’s not just these head-in-the-clouds types that are seduced by the otherworldly dimension of some religions. For those that have experienced extreme horror or trauma, the kind of horror that could never be compensated with anything in this world, only the promise of a perfect world-to-come could redeem their suffering. By contrast, if your hopes are firmly fixed on improving your lot in this life, on the possibility that things will get better, then you can put your faith in providence, in the idea that everything will turn out for the best, that suffering will be compensated and hard work rewarded—if not in your lifetime, then at least in your children’s or your children’s children’s. Whichever state of mind you find yourself in, you’ll find something to meet your needs in Christianity.

But the real power lies in the fact that Christianity can satisfy the most ambivalent of us—and most of us are ambivalent; we don’t belong to one category or the other. We oscillate. At one moment our attention is focused on material goals, on our health, on making enough to get by, or on fun and pleasure. At other moments we long for something less transitory, more substantial, and spiritual goals take centre stage. We can find ourselves caught up in worldly pursuits, only to become dissatisfied with the comfort it brings. Feeling like something is missing, we go off in search of something more, dedicate ourselves to some greater purpose. But if we go too far down this road we end up neglecting our more basic needs—we deprive ourselves of sleep, adequate nutrition, or of human relationships and intimacy, all in the name of commitment to some project or ideal. We may come to the realisation that we’ve sacrificed all those things that are part of a life well-lived and may then decide to return to a simple life. But with time we get bored or dissatisfied again, resetting the cycle.

Incidentally, a similar tension seems to have been very productive in the history of Western thought. Sometimes the leading theologians and philosophers emphasize the distinction between the creator and creation, at other times they try to bring them closer together. One the one hand, we need to maintain a separation between world and God if we want to leave room for hope that there is something more, something better than this life—that the horror and suffering we experience belongs to this world but not the creator. On the other hand, we also need to believe that God is present in all of nature, that God manifests in the miracle of life. This not only helps explain why we find beauty and wonder around us, but also reassures us of the value of this world. So, we need to say God is both transcendent and immanent at the same time. And some theologians have tried to hold this paradoxical position. But they haven’t managed to convince many of their successors, usually facing the criticism that they really end up privileging one pole or the other. Each new generation claims to be correcting some excess, arguing that their predecessors were too one-sided or that they overlooked some important aspect. But the new position then receives the same treatment in turn: it is accused of going too far, that it’s fix was an overcorrection, and so on. Since there can never be a satisfactory synthesis of transcendence and immanence, there will always be room for criticism and thus room for another answer to be proposed.

Perhaps any fruitful system of thought needs irresolvable tensions to give it life. Take philosophy following Kant, for example. Kant was worried that progress in scientific knowledge would undermine our sense of freedom. Since we are part of nature, aren’t we just as determined as the rest of it? Kant’s prolific output could be seen as the result of his attempt to make human freedom and natural necessity fit together. Whether or not you think he succeeded (and most think he didn’t), you can’t deny the system he produced was spectacular in scope and invention. And it’s probably for the best that most philosophers were dissatisfied with Kant’s answer because this dissatisfaction led to many more attempts to reconcile freedom and necessity. Hegel, for instance, thought he was improving on Kant by showing how free action is part of a larger (objective) process, namely history. But then critics of Hegel thought he didn’t do much better, and in fact just ended up crushing the individual in the cogs of his philosophical machine. And so it goes: one philosopher is accused of putting necessity on top, which is then deposed by the new generation who put freedom (or the individual, or existence, etc.) in its place, which is then challenged in its turn, and so on and so on. You can even see this pattern within certain sub-traditions in European philosophy. Take Marxist thought, for example: at one extreme there were those that insisted on iron-clad laws that govern history (sometimes grouped under the label ‘scientific Marxism’); on the other, there were those that emphasized the role of free human action in bringing about change (sometimes grouped under the title ‘Marxist humanism’). The abundance of debate and theoretical invention in the history of Marxist thought has been partly driven by the irresolvable tension between freedom (political action) and necessity (historical forces).

Just like these other systems, Christianity could run out of steam if it didn’t have opposed commitments that needed to be constantly negotiated. If it were to embrace worldly concerns wholeheartedly, becoming integrated into all social institutions, it would end up as the background of daily life with little spiritual content (as Kierkeggard had feared was the case with Christendom). If it were to embrace the otherworldly exclusively, it would become the niche interest of a few mystics and ascetics, and atrophy into a specialised practice detached from all other human concerns. So, if Christianity were to finally resolve the tension between worldly and otherworldly aspects, or if it were to come down firmly on one side or the other, it may lose its vitality. It seems Christianity is in the difficult — perhaps paradoxical — position of having to embrace its social utility while simultaneously not allowing this to become its justification.

John Lumsden completed a PhD on Hegel, Schelling, and Adorno. He is currently interested in political theology, theodicy, and mythology.

Works Cited

Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, in Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885

Clifford Ando, The Matter of the Gods. Religion and the Roman Empire, University of California Press, 2008.

T. S. Eliot ‘The Idea of a Christian Society’, in Christianity and Culture, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1967.

Justin Martyr, First Apology, in Justin, Philosopher and Martyr. Apologies, ed. Denis Minns and Paul Parvis, Oxford University Press, 2009.

John A. North, ‘Religious Toleration in Republican Rome’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 25 (1979), 85–103.

Eric M. Orlin, Foreign Cults in Rome. Creating A Roman Empire, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Tertullian, Apology, in The Fathers of the Church, Volume 10, trans. Rudolf Arbesmann, Emily Joseph Daly, and Edwin Quain, The Catholic University of America Press, 2008.


Eric M. Orlin points out that Livy’s influential suggestion that the cult was suppressed because it was based on foreign beliefs that conflicted with Roman beliefs has been widely rejected by historians (Foreign Cults in Rome, p. 166-67).


John A. North, ‘Religious Toleration in Republican Rome.’


See Ando, The Matter of the Gods, p. 10-13.


See, for example, Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, p. 311-12 and Justin Martyr, First Apology, p. 105.


Justin Martyr, First Apology, p. 101-3.


Justin Martyr, First Apology, p. 113.


Tertullian, Apology, chapter 38, p. 97.


T. S. Eliot, ‘The Idea of a Christian Society’, in Christianity and Culture, p. 46.


November 2023


Doing (the) Nothing: Eric Santner and Giorgio Agamben on Suspending the Apparatus of Glory

by Timothy Lavenz

Berkeley/Norinaga/Marx: Money, capital, “solarpunk”, others

by Raphael Chim

Libidinal Politics: The Role of Sexuality and Desire in Legal Embodiment

by Riley Clare Valentine

On the Social Utility of Religion

by John Lumsden