What is the purpose of religion?

What is the purpose of religion? I recall as a child being told it meant to rebind (to God), or to bring back to God. That seemed to make sense since the religion I was familiar with, Protestant Christianity, was all about how sinful we were and how Jesus came to save us.

We also studied a lot of Old Testament stories – Noah and the ark, Adam and Eve and the serpent, Jacob and Esau, Joseph (with his amazing multi-colored coat!), baby Moses, Moses parting the Red Sea – all pretty amazing and miraculous stuff. God seemed rather powerful; people not so much.

So how was religion supposed to bring us, weak and sinful, back to God, the all good, all powerful? Well, we were taught that the Jews were the chosen people. God had Moses lead them out of Egypt to Canaan, the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, which was unfortunately already occupied. Things didn’t get better. So Jesus came along. The Jewish leaders rejected him though, turned him over to the Romans, and he died on the cross. He believed he was the messiah, the savior, but for some (rather unaccountable) reason, he had to die on the cross to save us. Then if we had faith in him we would be with him in heaven when we die.

So Christianity teaches us to have faith in Jesus and that will bring us back to God. But we have to die to get back to God in this scenario. What about our life on earth? People are suffering. How does religion help?

People are still sinful, as the minister constantly reminded us. And I could see how people dressed up for church on Sunday, all pious, having spent the week (well particularly the previous night) being sinners. So this salvation didn’t seem to stick in the earthly life. I wondered how being dead would miraculously make people good, and close to God. Ah, that’s one of the mysteries!

Anyway it was, and is, apparent to me that there is plenty wrong with the world, and the people in it. Basically, people are broken, dysfunctional, and unhappy. If religion is supposed to bring us back to God I guess that would involve fixing us. Surely to be bound back to God would mean we are whole, functional, and happy. So how does religion do this?

There are plenty of Christian ministers who preach ways to “fix” broken people. Some talk about faith, others go with more of a psychological approach and practical ways of living the message – love God and love others, the Golden Rule, and so forth. This isn’t limited to Christianity of course; all religions have their guidance on how to live a good life. There is plenty of advice available, and some of it is really helpful.

But, they all assume that all people are “broken” and their job is to help them, to “fix” them. But why are all people still broken? These religions have been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Why hasn’t the “fixing” worked?

I studied psychology, and I was not interested in fixing broken people. I wanted to know how people could grow up to be “normal” – healthy and happy human beings. So I studied child development. It seems that children are perfectly capable of learning all kinds of things, better than animals really (who seem a lot less broken than people). So why do these children all turn out broken as adults, sometimes even while still children? Of course, the environment does it; all those other people hurt them. But why do those other people hurt them? Because someone hurt them. So we go back in time and find that people have always been hurt by other people – all the way back to when Cain killed Abel after their parents were evicted from the Garden of Eden for disobeying God’s commandment.

If we stick with the Bible, Adam and Eve seemed to be close to God. They didn’t seem to need religion to bring them back to God. They were given the Commandment directly by God, and God called out for them after they were tempted by the serpent. If they hadn’t been evicted from the Garden of Eden they would have lived with God. They wouldn’t have needed “fixing” because they wouldn’t have been broken.

So, religion should bring us back to God. But then, what does bringing us back to God mean? Well, it shouldn’t just involve a temporary “fix.” What is the point of fixing people only to have their children and all their descendants also broken and need fixing? Why can’t people be fixed and have them stay that way? Then they could give birth to children who grow up and live with God, as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Seems to me that is what religions should be all about. Otherwise, we will always be the sinners who need God’s grace and forgiveness. We shouldn’t have to wait until we die to come back to God. Religion should make us whole again, brought back to God “on earth as it is in heaven.”

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