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Does Religion Do More Harm than Good? by Rupert Shortt

29 March 2019

John Saxbee reads a calm examination of an oft-heard contention

IN HIS earlier mini guide to the God question, God Is No Thing (Books, 15 April 2016), Rupert Shortt put into the hands of often tongue-tied believers a clear and succinct response to those described by Schleiermacher as the cultural despisers of religion.

Now he seeks to do something similar in relation to claims and counter-claims regarding the positive and negative characteristics of religion in general, and the great world religions in particular.

It is, indeed, a very short book, and he makes no claim for it to be considered comprehensive or definitive. But, like its predecessor, it gets straight to the point, avoids unnecessary clutter, and remains as even-handed as possible while being unafraid to come down on one side of the argument in the light of hard facts and sound judgement.

He begins by defining the terms of the question. The claim that religion does more harm than good has become something of a commonplace in what he describes as “our age of growing endarkenment”. Clearly, false claims to infallibility, the negative impact of religion on politics, and the perceived chasm between religion and science have fuelled anti-religious sentiment. This is in addition to philosophical challenges to the rational basis for religious belief.

Shortt readily acknowledges that religion can be hijacked by other agendas, but rebuts suggestions that responsibility rests with religion itself rather than with those who recruit it to serve malicious ends, or wilfully tar all religions with the brush wielded by its misguided adherents. Furthermore, claims of a genuine clash between religion and science are illusory.

He asserts that religion, in fact, does more good than harm because “The two pearls of greatest price in most people’s lives are love and happiness. Neither can be commodified; neither is to be obtained directly. The best mapping of this mysterious terrain comes in the major religions.”

After exploring the points of significant complementarity between the main world religions, Shortt builds on what Rowan Williams identifies as four core constituents of religiously informed human maturity: the management of dependence and freedom; the educating of the passions; attitudes to time; and the acceptance of mortality.

Finally, he seeks to establish the distinction between good and bad religion — and whether “faith does more harm than good in practice”. A comparative study of violence in relation to each of the main world religions leads him to his first conclusion: religion does more harm than good when its practitioners are intolerant or violent — but it is not in the nature of religion that they have to be. On the other hand, and this is his second conclusion, religion does more good than harm when it evinces love of neighbour — and especially the stranger.

A score-draw? No, because “human understanding is not exhausted by mapping the world of nature. People will always ask larger questions about what the good life consists in. And through seeking answers, they will stumble upon moments, places, relationships and experiences that have a numinous character.” At its best, religion meets this need, and thereby does more good than harm.

This is an accessible and engaging book, although not as clear or persuasive as those by Keith Ward and Peter Vardy on the same theme. Perhaps more needs to be made of the distinction between faith and its formalisation in organised religion — too little of the former in the world, too much of the latter? But, that said, Shortt provides plenty for the sceptic and the believer to debate and decide upon without obduracy or rancour.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

Does Religion Do More Harm than Good?
Rupert Shortt
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

Read an extract here

Listen to Rupert Shortt talk about his book at churchtimes.co.uk/podcast

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