What is the purpose of religion? Talking from an atheist or sociological perspective here, what is the purpose of religion? Is it to feel good about oneself? Is it to be good, to be moral? Is it a tool that helps people to live together, a way for a group to share common values and moral beliefs to facilitate community purpose and social interaction within the group? Is it about shared rituals and socialization, feeling a part of something greater than oneself?
I would say that the purpose of life is to obey God and that religion teaches the individual what God wants and what God demands so that one can then obey God, it not being possible to obey God unless one knows what God is telling you or commanding you to do. Religion then is an intermediary between God and the individual; God being the source of truth, the religion then interpreting or trying to understand and teach what the will of God is, the individual then learning what the will of God is based on what their religion tells them about what the will of God is.
A functioning religion then is a religion that accurately and with sincere intention seeks to understand and then teach the will of God to its adherents. God or the Superior Power is an external entity, an objective reality, something that is “real” regardless of what your religion is or whether you believe in a particular religion or not. A particular religion then designs itself to put together an accurate close to the truth story or version of what it is that God or the Superior Power wants us as human beings to do. If the religion is accurate and functional in its teachings and its understanding of what God wants from us then the religion will function well socially and give its adherents benefits and will produce a high functioning sustainable community in the sub-culture the religion creates. This then being what leads to the religion succeeding socially.
What about the atheist side of things? What about the individual leading their life outside of religion? Is it possible to be “good without God” as many atheists proclaim? I would say that it is possible to be good without believing in God but that it is not possible to be good without obeying God. Morality is not based on believing in God, rather morality is based on obeying God. As long as the atheist obeys God then the atheist is good.
An atheist in theory can lead a high functioning socially positive life on the condition that the atheist understands well what God wants of him and the atheist then obeys God with commitment to the best of his abilities. In practice however atheists tend to be lost and highly ignorant of moral practices and moral duties precisely because atheists are cut off from the external guidance and teachings of religion. It is very very difficult to be moral as an atheist because it is very very difficult to figure out what morality is and what morality entails on ones own.
Atheists tend to be morally fragmented and morally simplistic. Morally fragmented in that they do not have a morally consistent overall world view where everything fits together; where everybody plays their part in support of each other. Instead the atheist has fragments of morality; particular rules to follow in a particular kind of situation that works well in a given setting but that does not work well as part of a greater whole or in the context of the larger community. Also the atheist is morally simplistic. They tend to create a list of rules to follow and a few principles to adhere to in general and then that’s it as far as their moral understanding goes. How things play out in social context, how the individual affects others around them according to their social role in relation to others, what the individual’s social role in relation to others is based on; these things tend to not be understood by the atheist because they are based on complex social relationships and inherited gender roles; they go beyond the list of rules and basic principles the atheist is able to easily come up with on their own.
Functional religion tells you what to do, it has a well defined concept of what God wants, it has an understanding of what the gender role of the man is and what the gender role of the woman is and how men and women are different from each other and how men and women are supposed to relate to each other. Functional religion is strict, it is demanding, it is opinionated, it has a mechanism to punish those who violate the ethics or moral principles of the religion, it differentiates between men and women and establishes complementary gender roles for men and women to follow. What God wants is a serious thing, one is obligated to obey God whether they like it or not, and the purpose of religion then is to understand and teach what it is God wants and demands from us. Because God is a serious and important thing therefore religion is a serious and important thing as well since religion is what teaches us about the will of God.
Functional religion however is in decline, how seriously people take the teachings of their religion is in decline. This being in large part the reason why family relationships are so dysfunctional today, because people have not been taught by their religious faith traditions how to develop and maintain a committed happy relationship with the opposite sex that gives to children what children need from their parents.
Indeed, it appears that atheism is invading mainstream Christian faith in the United States. Christian Smith, a professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, makes the claim that what he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the actual de-facto religious faith of most teenagers today (Christian Smith coining the term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” in 2005). The 5 core tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism being:
“1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.”
As Christian Smith describes Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:
“First, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It believes that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, and responsible; working on self-improvement; taking care of one’s health; and doing one’s best to be successful. One seventeen-year-old white Mormon boy from Utah said this very clearly: “I believe in, well, my whole religion is where you try to be good and, ah, if you’re not good then you should just try to get better, that’s all.” Being moral in this faith means being the kind of person who other people will like, fulfilling one’s personal potential, and not being socially disruptive or interpersonally obnoxious. As more than one teenager summarized morality for us: “Just don’t be an asshole, that’s all.” Such a moral vision is inclusive of most religions, which are presumed ultimately to stand for equivalent moral views.”
In addition Christian Smith adds:
“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents.  This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etc. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.”
Further characterizing the God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism Christian Smith states:
“This God is not demanding. He actually can’t be, since his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist — he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process. As one fourteen-year-old white Catholic boy from Pennsylvania responded to our inquiry about why religion matters, “Cause God made us and if you ask him for something I believe he gives it to you. Yeah, he hasn’t let me down yet. [So what is God like?] God is a spirit that grants you anything you want, but not anything bad.” Similarly, this seventeen-year-old conservative Protestant girl from Florida told us, “God’s all around you, all the time. He believes in forgiving people and whatnot, and he’s there to guide us, for somebody to talk to and help us through our problems. Of course, he doesn’t talk back.”
What I find most striking about this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that Christian Smith describes is that it sounds remarkably like atheism; that this is how atheists tend to view the world. Atheists have a simplistic idea of what is needed to be good in this world; same with the Moralistic Therapeutic Deist. Atheists see God as being distant or absent and not very involved with life; same with the Moralistic Therapeutic Deist. Atheists think life is about feeling good and doing what you want and being nice to other people and being fair; same with the Moralistic Therapeutic Deist.
What seems particularly strange about this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is this idea that God exists to serve me. That is ridiculous! I exist to serve God, not the other way around. God is the creator while I am the created who owes everything to his creator. I exist to serve and obey God because of the nature of what God is and who I am in relation to God. Merely to live in the world that God created is God’s gift to me; I in turn use the gifts that God has granted to me to serve God.
Christian Smith makes the observation about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:
“Moreover, we are not suggesting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a religion that teenagers (and adults) adopt and practice wholesale or not at all. Instead, the elements of its creed are normally assimilated by degrees, in parts, admixed with elements of more traditional religious faiths. Indeed, this religious creed appears in this way to operate as a parasitic faith. It cannot sustain its own integral, independent life. Rather it must attach itself like an incubus to established historical religious traditions, feeding on their doctrines and sensibilities, and expanding by mutating their theological substance to resemble its own distinctive image. This helps to explain why millions of U.S. teenagers and adults are not self-declared, card-carrying, organizationally gathered Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. This religion generally does not and cannot stand on its own. So its adherents must be Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Jewish Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Mormon Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, and even Nonreligious Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. These may be either devout followers or mere nominal believers of their respective traditional faiths. But they often have some connection to an established historical faith tradition that this alternative faith feeds upon and gradually co-opts if not devours.”
Indeed, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a “parasitic faith” that co-opts and ultimately destroys whatever established traditional faith it latches onto; this is because Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the mentality of atheism, the atheist way of looking at the world incorporating itself into a religious setting.
Outright atheism is growing but it also needs to be recognized that the atheist mentality and way of looking at things has invaded the church itself; hence the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that Christian Smith describes.
I think Christian Revival is going to be what is needed to restore or rebuild the Christian faith; that only the part of Christianity that rebels against the culture will survive. The Christianity that goes along with the culture will turn into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and then ultimately into outright atheism.