When one looks at religion in a history text, it becomes clear that the effects of religion are twofold: for maintaining a certain moral standard and to answer questions about unknown factors of life and death. In order to establish whether or not religion is a "good" or a "bad" institution, in a modern society of empirical knowledge that is often at odds with traditional religious beliefs, is to weigh the evidence. We must look at the beneficial, as well as the detrimental aspects, weigh them with respect to each other, and come up with an acceptable conclusion.
Religion, in modern societies, is still able to function in several ways that are beneficial. One of the better arguments deals with the fact that religion establishes a sense of morality, which often dictates social order. Religion sets the basis on which all actions can be judged. Supporters of this position assert that if one human were to kill another, without religion to establish the fact that this is a wrong thing to do, it would not be considered wrong. Without religion to establish morality, we would be no different than any other animal on Earth. It is what separates us and makes us different.
The effect that can be seen from this is clearly beneficial. Morality serves as a benefit not to one, or only a small group of people, but it serves a great beneficial purpose to all people. The standards for morality that are established by religion are often emulated by jurisprudence, which is the basis for establishing laws. What is unique about this is that some feel that, religion aside, modern systems of government-enforced justice can supplant the necessity of religion. Many feel that jurisprudence can adequately replace the need for religion and set the standards of morality without the extra baggage often associated with religion. In many countries this has worked, although to different extents.
Another beneficial aspect of religion is that it gives hope by giving a meaning and a purpose for existence. We are given the hope of a future life that is almost always better than our own. The only thing we need do is to follow the standards of morality set by religion. If we follow the rules, we get the reward. It gives purpose to existence in that it shows us a goal, and a means of achieving it. Without this incentive, humankind would not have any purpose for existence. This is probably the most convincing argument for the beneficial aspects of religion.
If one is to judge whether or not religion is a "good" or a "bad" thing from a historical perspective, it is first necessary to establish what exactly constitutes good and bad. For this purpose let us use Christian definitions of good and bad. Most people know the ten commandments, which are rules that establish what one should, and should not do. Adultery, stealing, lying, and killing other people is bad. Treating your enemy better than he treats you is good. Loving your enemy is good. Philanthropy is good. Giving is good. These are what Christianity tells us is good and bad. These are the guidelines set for all Christians to live by.
Another thing one must consider, when trying to understand if religion is beneficial or detrimental from a historical perspective, is whether or not modern society is better due to scientific discoveries. This is important because as scientific knowledge increases, it is rapidly becoming incongruent with the traditional religious views of Christianity. Evolution is one of the best examples of this. Should a modern society believe in evolution as fact, or should it believe in the story of Adam and Eve form the Bible? Would society be better believing one over the other? These are the questions which must be presented in order to decide whether or not religion from a historical perspective is beneficial or detrimental.
Christianity tells us that killing, for any reason, is morally wrong. Despite this fact, however, many cultures and people around the world will attest to the fact that religious wars are the worst kind because they never end. Yet if one looks at the Crusades that occurred between the 11th and 14th centuries, Christians felt justified in killing in the name of religion as they were trying to defend their homeland from falling to the Muslims. Yet doesn't the Bible tell us to love our enemies just as much as our friends? And doesn't it tell us that it is wrong to kill even our enemies?
Another rule that Christianity teaches is that greed is bad. Jesus showed us that it is better to give to the needy thereby making yourself poor, than to keep material possessions to yourself. If this is indeed true, then why are churches built in such grandeur? In the Roman Catholic Church, indulgences were sold in order to forgive the sins of mankind while being on Earth. They were only valid while the sinner was on Earth, therefore he was still accountable for his sins after death. The sale of indulgences, which provided a major source of income for the Roman Catholic Church, was subject to much abuse by the clergy throughout Europe. Martin Luther addressed this issue in his 95 theses. It is argued that the sale of indulgences made the church into a profitable business, rather than a holy institution.
Jesus taught that one should give as much of one's material wealth as possible to the needy, or those who have less material wealth. If this is true, then why was the Catholic Church one of the wealthiest institutions in Europe for centuries? Under Clovis, the first king of the Franks and a ruler in the Merovingian Dynasty, the Catholic Church gained much wealth. Wealth at this time, as in later times, was dictated by land holdings. The Roman Catholic Church gained most of the land due to the fact that Clovis converted to Christianity after he married his wife, who happened to be a Christian. From this point on the Catholic Church had vast amounts of power in Europe, enough in fact to cause many kings to worry.
This also brings up another detrimental aspect of the Roman Catholic Church. It felt itself to be the rightful governor of the people, rather than allowing independent governments and monarchs to rule. Church and state were not separated completely, and in fact, the Church had the upper hand in this setting for many centuries.
Another position that may need attention is the way in which Christianity has a tendency to impose itself upon other religions because of the belief that it is, better than any other religions. The clergy asserts that all other religions, especially primitive ones, consist of misguided sinners who should be converted to Christianity. This was one of the main reasons of Columbus's voyages to the New World. The reasons he used to convince King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Spain were to acquire the many riches that he would surely find, which in itself amounts to greed, and to convert any natives to Christianity. The slogan that was used was "For Spain and theGlory of God!" What one can see however, is that Columbus went on several voyages to the New World, as it became to be called, yet no missionaries or church establishment was made in the New World for more than a decade after its discovery. The main interest at first was to acquire as much gold as possible.
Another questionable act of Christianity is the way in which the people of the New World were forced to convert to Christianity. European culture, as well as European religions, have almost completely erased the existence of the religions and cultures of the New World. One good example of this is the way in which the Native American Indians have all but completely lost their traditional culture because of the onslaught of European culture. This is the same for religion as well. The Europeans, feeling that their religion was certainly superior to the primitive religions of Native American Indians, recklessly imposed their religion upon these people without any thought or remorse for the inevitable consequences.
Another aspect of Christianity that could be considered bad from a historical perspective can be seen in the slowness in which Christianity has adapted to modern society. The traditional beliefs of Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church in particular, have been almost impossible to alter, despite the fact that there would be more of a long-term benefit to the Church. One of the major problems plaguing almost every modern society is the problem of overpopulation. There is a simple way in which this problem can be controlled using proper contraceptive methods, yet the Roman Catholic Church refuses to accept contraception as an acceptable alternative. AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are also in need of attention. Many methods of contraception help prevent the spread of these deadly diseases, yet they are still not endorsed.
The lack of acceptance of scientific knowledge also plagues Christianity. One good historical example of this can be seen in the heliocentric theory developed by Nicholas Copernicus and later endorsed by Galileo. This theory went directly against the dogmatically accepted notion, which was supported by the Catholic Church, that the Earth was the center of the universe. The Church went so far as to personally order Galileo not to defend or teach the heliocentric theory. This is definitely not the correct approach the Church should take, although it is clear why they would take such an action. If any doctrines were to be proven wrong, then the legitimacy of the doctrines of the Church could be in jeopardy. In June 1633 Galileo was to be imprisoned for life due to suspicion of heresy. All of his works were deemed illegal and all printers were ordered to cease printing any of his works. This is one of the best examples of suppression of empirical scientific evidence by the Church which, at the time, had the power to do so.
There are several other instances where the Church has refused to accept scientific evidence that goes against it's traditional doctrines. One example is the fact that the Church, going on evidence in the Bible, asserts that the Earth is not more than a few thousand years old, when it has become blatantly obvious that, from extensive scientific evidence, the Earth and the rest of the universe is much older.
The best example of the power of the Church being used the wrong way would have to be the Inquisitions. Many see the Inquisition as an example of the barbarism of the Middle Ages, yet it is more than that. It is the best example of the power of the Church being used in a way that is injurious to both the reputation of the Church, and the beliefs of the people. It is a prime example of the susceptibility of the Church to religious fanaticism. The way in which the trials that were conducted by the religious officials were obviously undertaken in a way that would make a conviction of almost anyone possible. Due to this fact, Church and several monarchies used the Inquisition as a means of eliminating dangerous opposition. Often physical torture was used to force confessions. This was supported during the Middle Ages because Saint Augustine, the father of many of the Church's doctrines, had interpreted Luke 14:23 as permitting the use of force against heretics.
There are several other instances of religious fanaticism, one of the most famous in the United States being the Salem Witch Trials. It started when two sisters who lived in Salem, Massachusetts began to behave in an odd manner. It was discovered that they had been participating in rituals in which the future was foretold and incantations had been recited. The two sisters were examined by doctors and ministers, and were pronounced as being bewitched. A panic rapidly swept the town in which several hundred people were accused of being bewitched. The Church was closely involved in the trials and consulted the judges that personal "visions" that witnesses and suspects had had were admissible in the court cases. Scores were eventually killed either by hanging or by other methods. Clearly this is another case in which religious fanaticism had been detrimental to not only the community at large, but to the members of the church as well.
The theory of evolution has also shown many inadequacies in the church. Charles Darwin is granted with the discovery of evolution, although it was suggested much earlier, but probably not researched thoroughly due to preexisting religious beliefs. Darwin's theory of evolution held that all organisms on Earth evolve, that is they change through minor mutations, to better suit their environment. This increases the chances of survival and reproduction. Whichever species had the right traits to survive a change in the environment would prosper over it's predecessors without these beneficial characteristics. The position of the church states that all humans were descendants of Adam and Eve and that evolution was not an acceptable theory. In fact, in Tennessee in 1925 there was an extremely controversial court case in which it was argued whether or not evolution should be taught in Tennessee schools. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting evolution, the church chooses not to accept it. This is understandable because the credibility and legitimacy of the church is involved.
Although Christianity has shown itself in several instances to be beneficial to people, by giving hope and direction, and establishing a standard or morality in a society, as society becomes more and more modern, it is becoming clear that religion is not changing to conform to the new knowledge now obtained by humankind. In this respect, Christianity is a hindrance to progress. There are also some ironies in the way that the Church itself has gone directly against it's own doctrines, such as in the Crusades and the Inquisition. It is clear that several hundred years ago, when the Church was in a position of power and could control monarchies as well as people themselves, religion was a bad thing. It fended off any type of knowledge that may be detrimental to the church in a selfish mode of self preservation.
Today the role of the church is becoming more and more ambiguous. People want to believe, to have the hope and standards of morality that the church provides, yet they are at odds believing in an institution that defends doctrine is not compatible with true knowledge. Everything we have today that was not present in the Dark Ages or in the Middle Ages is directly attributable to modern gains in scientific knowledge. Had the church not been as powerful and overbearing as it had been in the past, modern knowledge would have progressed at a much faster pace. Evolution could have become a scientific fact, as it is now, by the period Charles Darwin was born. It is setbacks in acquisition of knowledge that has shown Christianity to be most detrimental to society.