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Religion? Why Bother?

Not to care about religion is to deny a fundamental part of our human nature. Here's why

It often happens there exist obstacles that block people from even beginning to take seriously the God question. Several of these obstacles have to do with a disposition to be hostile to or skeptical of religion in general.

We’ve already looked at a few in previous articles (here, here, and here). Another is simply the lack of motivation to be religious at all. What’s the point?

According to Gallup, the importance of religion among Americans is at a record low: 48%. This is a drop from 75% in 1952, when Gallup first asked Americans about the importance of religion in their lives.

What can we say in response? Why should we care about religion?

Foundational to our answer is understanding what religion is. So let’s begin there.

St. Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth-century Catholic philosopher and theologian, captured the essence of religion nicely. He wrote this:

[Religion] denotes properly a relation to God. For it is he to whom we ought to be bound as to our unfailing principle; to whom also our choice should be resolutely directed as to our last end (Summa Theologiae II-II:81:1).

Notice how for Aquinas, religion relates us to God on account of two things: he is the source of our existence, and he’s our life’s ultimate goal.

Inasmuch as religion consists in a relation to God as our life’s ultimate goal, the achievement of which constitutes our good, religion is a virtue, since virtue consists of the habitual disposition to what’s good for us. Religion, therefore, is a specific form of moral excellence.

Now, like all virtues, the virtue of religion involves certain actions, but actions that fit within that order or relation to God. Here’s where God as the source of all existence comes in: the actions that the virtue of religion elicits render worship due to God as the source of all being and the giver of all good things.

With an understanding of religion in hand, we can look at why we should care about religion.

Consider that religion, as we’ve defined it here, necessarily assumes the truth that God exists. So if God exists, then religion is important, because it involves having a proper relation to what’s real. And all human beings should be concerned about properly relating to reality.

Therefore, there’s a need to at least pursue whether there’s good reason to be religious. This can be done through philosophical inquiry into God’s existence and historical investigation into those religions that claim to have supernatural revelation from God.

A second reason that we should care about religion is that the practice of religion belongs to the essence of wisdom. And wisdom is something we should all care about.

Thomas Aquinas teaches that wise men “direct things themselves and govern them well” (Summa Contra Gentiles 1.1).

Now, to govern well means to direct something to its appropriate end or goal. Since our life’s goal is God, it follows that when we direct our lives to achieve that goal through the acts of religion, we are wise.

Religion also belongs to wisdom in that it helps us know how to intelligently live our lives, since knowing the purpose or end of something is the first principle of the intelligent use of anything. Suppose a man who’s never shaven before discovers a razor. He doesn’t know what it is, but he discovers that it cuts. So he tries to use it to cut wood. As you can guess, he ends up destroying the razor, making it fit only for the garbage. The point here is that we can’t relate to anything rightly unless we know its purpose. To relate to anything without such knowledge is to act blindly, or unwisely. A person may mean well, but good intentions aren’t a substitute for knowledge of purpose.

The same principle applies to how we relate to human beings, both ourselves and others. We can’t relate to ourselves or others correctly unless we know what man is made for.

Religion involves knowledge about the meaning and purpose of our lives as human beings. It tells us that worshipping God is our ultimate purpose in life. Supernatural religion tells us specifically how to do that in the right way, lest we go into error and worship God in false ways.

Therefore, religion, both on the natural and supernatural levels, helps us intelligently live our lives, which belongs to the essence of wisdom.

We should also be concerned about religion because it’s an essential aspect of what it means to be a good human being.

Consider that for anything to be good, it must achieve that for which it is made. A good oak tree is an oak tree that sinks its roots deep into the ground, takes in nutrients from the soil, and provides stability for itself. A bad oak tree is one that doesn’t do these things—because nutrients and stability are ends or goals that nature ordains the oak tree to have in order to flourish.

A good basketball player puts the ball in the hoop. A good martial artist defends himself without getting hurt and takes down his opponent.

The same line of reasoning applies to human beings as human beings. A good human being is one who fulfills the purpose of a human life, which is to direct our lives to our ultimate end, God, by giving him the worship due to him as our Creator.

Since religion provides us with the how-to for directing our lives to God, it follows that religion helps us to be good human beings. And being a good human being is something we all care about.

This leads us to another reason we should care about religion: because we care about happiness. We can’t help but desire to be happy. We do everything we do because we think it’s going to make us happy. We act only insofar as we perceive some good to acquire, the possession of which we think will satisfy us, or make us happy.

God is the ultimate good, the good beyond which there is no greater good to possess. As such, possessing God as our ultimate good is the only thing that’s going to make us completely happy as human beings. All other goods besides God will short-change us, leaving us to desire more.

Religion, therefore, is essential to our human happiness. It’s the means by which we can work toward achieving our life’s goal of possessing the ultimate good, which is God. Supernatural religion guarantees that such possession of God is attainable and provides us the means to achieve it. So, since we all care about being happy, we should all care about religion.

Studies actually confirm that religion is a key component to human happiness. As American psychologist David Myers writes in his book The Pursuit of Happiness:

Survey after survey across North America and Europe revealed that religious people more often than nonreligious people report being happy and satisfied with life.

He goes on to state that “86% of people who attend church services weekly report being ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with life.”

In a 2016 study, the Pew Research Center found that 40% of highly religious adults in America describe themselves as “very happy” compared with 29% of those who are less religious. Similar findings were reported in a study published in 2015 in the American Journal of Epidemiology by researchers at the London School of Economics and Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands. The study involved nine thousand adults and reported that the secret to sustained happiness lies in participation in religion.

Finally, religion is a human universal. You won’t find a society, today or in history, without religion in some form. This implies that we’re hardwired as human beings for religion. It’s something that belongs to us by nature.

So, not to care about religion is to deny a fundamental part of our human nature. And to think humans could have been deceived concerning such a universal impulse to reverence a being, or beings, superior to themselves stretches reason beyond its breaking point.

Relating to reality, pursuing wisdom, flourishing as a human being, the pursuit of happiness—these are all aspects of our human existence. Knowing that religion is intrinsically ordered to helping us succeed in all these human aspects, it becomes evident that to care about religion is simply to care about being human.

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