Is Religion Just a Social Program?

In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett ends the book with a chapter titled, “Now What Do We Do?”, in which he poses the title question with regard to breaking the spell of religious belief. His answers focus on the continued scientific study of religion and belief and the continued examination and inquiry of religion by those interested in the phenomenon. He also advocates dialog and discussion among the religious and the non-religious. But, as informative as his book is, I think he falls short in this final chapter. What’s missing are suggestions for the non-religious to begin a process of replacing religion or at least setting religion aside as no longer needed.

In an earlier post, I described some of the hypotheses of why religion exists and why humans are so universally drawn to it in so many different flavors. In another post, I examined one of the hypotheses that describe the evolution of religion as a social institution, as presented by Robert Bellah (Five Stages of Religious Evolution). Each of these assumes that religion is a social construct of humanity, evolved to fulfill social needs.

But what if religion, in general, is just a social program of sorts? What sort of evidence would exist to support that hypothesis?

First, religion would serve to provide for the down-trodden of society –the less fortunate who cannot provide for themselves without outside assistance. Ideally, such a social program seeks to get the individual going along so that the training wheels might come off, as it were. Faith based organizations exist to provide food and shelter for the homeless, assist the addict in getting clean or sober, providing shelter for battered women, and to bring comfort, companionship and outreach to the elderly or disabled. These are, of course, just a few social services provided by faith-based organizations, and their effectiveness is debatable: some more effective than others.

Second, religion would serve to provide enhancement to the existing routines of the individual: youth outreach and mentorship; day-care and parenting skills classes; life coaching and motivational groups; counseling for marriage; etc.

Third, for religion to be considered a social program, it would include fellowship opportunities that increase community involvement. This might include pancake breakfasts, community-wide flea-markets, plays, performances, concerts, car washes, and so on.

Of course, religion provides all these services and more to the community.
I, for one, don’t believe for a moment that only religion can provide these services. But for religion to no longer be necessary, it might be required that secular organizations do a better job at replacing religion in these areas. If humanist organizations are developed to fill the need for social programs (women’s shelters, outreach for homeless & elderly, afterschool programs, etc.), this would give viable alternatives to religious organizations, allowing those dismayed with their results to choose other programs. Even five years ago, it was apparent that faith-based initiatives were not living up to their expectations:

After five years of aggressively implementing a Bush-style faith-based initiative in Texas, positive results have proven impossible to document or measure,” Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), said at an Oct. 10 Capitol Hill press conference. “Evidence points instead to a system that is unregulated, prone to favoritism and co-mingling of funds, and even dangerous to the very people it is supposed to serve.” (Faith-Based Failure [AU])

Secular community involvement becomes incumbent upon secular humanists and atheists interested in seeing the influence of religious-based organizations that provide inadequate, dangerous (abstinence only programs to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa), and ineffective programs or services more interested in proselytizing or indoctrinating others in their myths or ideologies.

A List of Secular charities and services that I’ve been able to find:

1. 4H (
2. American Cancer Society (
3. American Foundation for AIDS Research (
4. Americans United for the Separation of Church & State (
5. Amnesty International (
6. Atheist Charity
7. Doctors without borders (
8. Earthward (
9. Girl Scouts (
12. Heifer Project International (
13. Humane Society (
14. Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (
15. Humanitas (
16. Mama’s Kitchen (
17. Nature Conservancy (
18. Oxfam (
19. Planned Parenthood (
20. Population Connection (
21. Public Radio (
22. Rails to Trails (
23. Red Cross (
24. Sierra Club (
25. UNICEF (
26. United Way?
27. V (Jim Valvano) Foundation for Cancer Research (
28. Women for Women International (
29. World Wildlife Fund (
30. Zoological Society of San Diego (

Alcoholism/Substance Abuse Recovery:
31. Moderation Management (
32. Secular Organizations for Sobriety (
33. SMART Recovery (
34. Women for Sobriety (

About Ylooshi

An anthropologist who is an atheist. My blog at concerns itself with breaking the spells of superstition and religious belief through examining human superstitions and religions scientifically and rationally. Breaking Spells, the blog, also focuses on atheist and secular concerns such as the separation of church and state as well as the negative influences of Islamo-Judeo-Christian religious cults on society.
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