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Power Of Religion

Worldwide over 80% of people identify with a religion. Pew Research Center conducted a demographic study of more than 230 countries and territories. The results indicated that in 2010 5.8 billion of the world population (which then stood at 6.9 billion) were affiliated with a religion.

The most prevalent are Christians, accounting for 32%, followed by Muslims, 23% and Hindus (15%). At present our default view of the world is of one broken up into nation-states. Religious institutions still wield great power- such as the Vatican- but they are more often than not bound up in a nation’s collective memory.

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, stresses that the UK is a ‘Christian country’ despite the ambivalence towards Christianity in the populous. Narendra Modi the PM of India is a committed Hindu nationalist and wishes to enshrine the religion in law despite India being home to many diverse religions. The conspiratorial theories surrounding Barack Obama’s religion show how a moralistic judgement is often made based on what religious forebears a person might have.

Religion is inherently linked with morals. It took until 2011 for a majority of Americans to say they’d vote for a “well-qualified” atheist President. Despite this a 2014 Pew survey found atheism was still the top negative trait for American voters when considering a candidate.

Why does religion still hold such weight in advanced liberal societies? When we look at history we see how religion offered answers where no one else could. In terms how to live a good life, how to get to the after-life, how and why we are here. Yet having experienced the Enlightenment and to an extent the Renaissance, societies now have the capacity to suggest quantifiable answers, reasons and explanations for these questions.

So if there are more thorough and reliable (in the sense of replicating experiments to find the same results) methods of establishing knowledge why is religion still so powerful? In order to answer this we must look at economics.

Religion has been an economic institution for as long as it has been a moral one. Lenient tax regimes and charitable status has meant that religious institutions are endowed with huge sums of money, resources and land. Principles such as tolerance and acceptance of religious diversity mean that we are unable to question the extent to which these resources should be reallocated and protected from abuse- one can look at Scientology to see how to make a profit from belief.

Without looking at historical developments we are left with a view that suggests religion is powerful because people believe it. But as rates of atheism and agnosticism grow we need to look at modern inventions such as the rule of law and political economy to truly grasp the power of religion.