Saturday, June 12, 2010

Churches in society -- a force for good or not?

These few days, partly provoked by news regarding the investigation of individuals and groups linked to City Harvest Church, I have been thinking about and discussing the following question with a few of my friends.

"What role should churches have in society?"

However, before I proceed to discuss this question in greater detail, please note that although the specific term of "churches" may be used in this post, the following points in this post can arguably be expanded to also refer to other religious entities or even religion in general.

Also, looking back at history, it may be observed that while churches may have started off solely as religious institutions which catered only to the needs, particularly those spiritual or religious in nature, of their congregations, they have however, over time, collectively acquired the status of being one of the most important social institutions in people's lives. This is in light of how churches have, besides only catering to the spiritual needs of their congregations, have moved into areas such as the provision of healthcare, education, humanitarian aid and welfare for the marginalised and disenfranchised in society. At times, they have also taken on social or political causes, with a positive example being their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. And while it may no longer be as politically powerful or influential as it used to be, the Vatican or Catholic Church nonetheless had a long history of being a preeminent political institution or power in Europe.

On that note, it can be observed that while the influence and role of churches as social institutions may no longer be as extensive as they were in the past, they nonetheless collectively retain the status of being one of the major social institutions present in today's world.

Yet, the question is: what role should churches have in society today?

One possible answer to this question, as was offered by an atheist friend of mine and which I can somewhat agree with, would be "none at all", except perhaps catering to the spiritual or religious needs of their congregations. The reason for this, as was explained by my atheist friend, is that while they may have a positive impact on society through their work in different areas, this is ultimately outweighed by the negative impact churches have and continue to create for society; thus, in the final analysis, the net social impact churches have is arguably negative.

Also, although they may be doing good work in various areas, the concern is that churches are perhaps doing so with the "ulterior motive" of winning over converts or self-promotion. And while their religious beliefs may inspire them to do good, the same set of beliefs may lead to them having a skewed, if not prejudiced, perspective on what needs to be done (cf. Christopher Hitchens' critique of Mother Teresa and this article about American Christian missionaries "kidnapping" orphans from earthquake-stricken Haiti).

In addition, as Steven Weinberg has astutely pointed out: "With or without [religion], you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion".

Thus, in light of the negative impact and potential abuses that may occur with churches taking on a social role, it would perhaps be best if churches retreated from the public sphere and confine themselves only to the role of catering to the spiritual or religious needs of their congregations.

However, while I may be somewhat sympathetic to the above stance, I nonetheless find it akin to throwing the baby out with the dirty bath water. Specifically, although it may indeed be true that the net social impact of churches is negative, I however do not think it is necessary or that the only option available to us is to eliminate all the good contributed to society by churches in order to curb the negative impact they may also create. Anyway, in light of their entrenched and enduring nature, I doubt churches as a social institution can or will easily wither away anytime soon.

Hence, in the final analysis, it would perhaps be necessary for us to find a way to preserve the social good brought about by churches while guarding against or curbing the negative social impact they may also bring about at the same time. How this can be done is however beyond me and best left to better minds to figure out.

Sidetracking, it occurred to me, as I was pondering over the question of what role should churches have in today's society, that while I may disagree with or feel threatened by churches taking up social or political causes which I do not agree with (for example: anti-homosexuality or the advocation of creation science), I however do not feel the same way when churches get involved in social or political causes which I am sympathetic towards (for example: providing aid and speaking up for the marginalised or disenfranchised in society or advocating for social justice). A case of double standards on my part? Perhaps.


Terence said...

It is difficult to determine if churches have a net "positive" or "negative" impact on society. Very problematic.

First, you need to determine what is positive or negative. Second, you need some form of qualitative or quantitative measure to determine whether the good outweigh the bad. Coming up with such criteria can be a headache.

LCC said...

To Terence,

Yup, I have realised and thought about the subjectivity involved in determining whether churches have a net "positive" or "negative" effect on society. I was trying to allude to this with my very last paragraph in the post about how I myself may have double standards when it comes to evaluating the work done by churches.

Recognising this subjectivity, I, while I am somewhat sympathetic to my atheist friend's stance, however do not think it is that simple to just say the negative impact of churches outweigh the positive impact they have and thus, they should have no role in society.

sloo aka steve said...

If churches (in the christian sense)) devoted their actions and words towards the good of all (even those with no or are from other religions) without the end goal of converting them, then surely the positive will outweigh the negative. But when churches act based on their prejudices on what they feel is morally good or bad for society and people, then the possibility of negative outcomes is high.

Based on this criteria, when u look at the crusades and missions that have been sent out to do good for others and also to 'save' their souls, how would this be seen as a positive? Can we speculate that non-christian societies that who are the subject of such mission ended up being better or worse after they received help and aid, and after the population converted?

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