Can religion help with society's problems, or is it part of the problem?

Can religion help with society's problems, or is it part of the problem?

September 12th, 2015 by Shawn Ryan in Life Entertainment


The Episcopal Church has several outreach programs:




Document: Al-Humbrecht

Al Humbrecht, Soddy-Daisy Holy Spirit Catholic Church

Document: Bill-Tepper

Bill Tepper, Mizpah Congregation

Document: Donald-Fishburne

Donald Fishburne, retired rector of Saint Paul's Episcopal Church

Document: Doug-Fairbanks

Doug Fairbanks, First-Centenary United Methodist Church

Document: Greg-Nance

Greg Nance, Signal Mountain Church of Christ

Document: Mark-Flynn

Mark Flynn, Christ United Methodist Church

Document: Morty-Lloyd

Morty Lloyd, Chattanooga Church

Document: Regis-Nicoll

Regis Nicoll, Hamilton Anglican Fellowship

Document: Render-Caines

Render Caines, Covenant Presbyterian Church

Document: Todd-Gaddis

Todd Gaddis, First Baptist Church of LaFayette

Lines have been dug in the sand over same-sex marriage.

Sides are chosen over climate change.

Racial divides — some brutal — pop up daily.

The war on poverty seems never-ending.

Literal battles are being fought over religious beliefs from Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism.

In times like these, many turn to their faith, relying on it to give them a sense of comfort if not actual peace. They pray for better times, for intervention from above, for anything that may help.

But what can religion do about the world's problems? Can it help at all? Or is it part of the problem?

A Gallup poll from 2014 showed that 57 percent of Americans say religion can answer today's problems yet, in the same poll, 30 percent say religion is an antiquated concept. Even some believers say that, while their faith is real, the idea of institutionalized religion has little relevance in today's world.

Reaching out to religious leaders in the Chattanooga area brought a range of responses on whether religion can cure the world's problems. Some say it must be the foundation of any serious discussion that deals with society's issues. Others, however, say religion cannot be the source of change because it was created by man, not God. Yet some of these same people say the power of true faith can make a difference.

"I have found religion to be insufficient to handle my own personal issues. I'm certain practicing religion hasn't the power to eradicate, or even diminish, the problems facing our world," says Ken Duggan, senior pastor at Dallas Bay Baptist Church in Hixson. "A casual glance at history reveals that religion has had more to do with causing chaos, violence and inequality than many other forces commonly blamed for negatively influencing mankind.

"However, the most potent force for change in an individual as well as the world is the transforming power of faith," he adds.

Todd Gaddis, pastor at First Baptist Church of LaFayette, Ga., also blames religion for creating some of the strife seen daily in the world. "Take, for example, the carnage that results from the global radical Islamic agenda," he says. But religion isn't the biggest issue, he insists.

"Our biggest problem is sin," he says. "Religion can't help with this deadly blight. Our only hope is personal, eternal reconciliation with God, which can only take place by way of a relationship with his son, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross and rose from the grave to make that possible."

That point of view is echoed by Morty Lloyd, pastor of the nondenominational Chattanooga Church.

"As Jesus' followers, we want to make this world a better place. We should fight against racism, terrorism, environmental destruction and the many other evils that plague our society," he says. "Regardless of our efforts, evil in this world will always exist. The secret is not in trying to make them go away, for that is impossible. The secret for dealing with them is found in a relationship with Jesus. Religion can't, but Jesus can."

A worldview that's based on religious beliefs is needed to "shape our moral and ethical conscience," says Regis Nicoll, lay pastor of Hamilton Anglican Fellowship.

"The solution to any problem comes down to two basic questions: What can be done and what should be done?" he says. "Science, which can tell us what we can do, cannot tell us what we ought to do. Science tells us how to clone a human being, but not whether we should; when life begins, but not what value to attach to it and when; how to kill the terrorist but not how to love him; how to change our bodies, but not our hearts.

"The questions of oughts and values, unhinged from transcendence, are matters of personal belief, popular opinion or political power, which are ever-changing with the cultural winds of fad and fashion. Only the religious worldview provides an enduring, universal basis for moral action and human dignity."

Rabbi Bill Tepper of Chattanooga's Mizpah Congregation says a religious group can create an important bond between a disparate group of people and lead them in the same direction.

"Belonging to a religious group implies community and belonging, a set of shared, if not totally agreed-upon values, in addition to common direction and purpose," he says. "The Jewish religion teaches us — among its vast array of lessons — to respond to the needs of the most-vulnerable and to resist overlooking the suffering of others.

"We are lovers of life, as the rabbis of the Mishnah (first major codification of Jewish law) taught: "When one saves a single individual, it is as if that person saved the whole world" (Sanhedrin 4:5).

Going out into the world to address social justice and environmental concerns is part of the Episcopal Church's focus and is accomplished through ministries, mission trips and pilgrimages, says the Rev. Donald Fishburne, who retired this year as rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. For instance, there are programs that take high school and college students to such cities as Birmingham, Selma and Charleston "to experience the history of the civil-rights movement in this country," he says. "Learning from history, people of faith work more effectively to end racism in our day."

The Episcopal Church's Awareness Foundation tells Christians "to be a counterforce of love and peace to the intolerance and aggression that now prevails in so many of our communities and to build understanding between the faiths," he notes. "The Awareness Foundation has been working for years to help minister to people living in the midst of warfare — and to people having to flee, as we see these days in Hungary, Austria and Germany."

Render Caines, senior pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA), says the Old and New Testaments "contain the wisdom we need to deal with the questions confronting us as a culture."

"These Scriptures are not handbooks that deal directly with each and every issue before us, but they do teach how to think God's thoughts after him and provide us with the moral guidelines to confront the issues of our day."

Monsignor Al Humbrecht, of Soddy-Daisy's Holy Spirit Catholic Church, says he's among the 57 percent of Americans who believe religion can fix the world's problems, but it won't be easy.

"A problem that has to first be addressed is our society's desire for a quick and simple solution where 'I don't have to change anything,' " he says. "Before any of these contemporary problems can be addressed, each of us must first ask ourselves how we might be contributing to the problem. There can be no true buy-in on the part of believers if we expect others to make the sacrifices necessary to bring about a change."

The reluctance to make personal sacrifices, even when they benefit the greater good, is an ongoing problem, agrees Doug Fairbanks, senior pastor at First-Centenary United Methodist Church. And it's true that Christians have "contributed to the negative perception of religion. We must be and do better."

"However, from my perspective, to say religion is the problem is to speak from a fantasy that has far too long been held by we humans, the fantasy that we are our own gods and we can solve it all on our own," he says.

Greg Nance, pastor of Signal Mountain Church of Christ, says confusion about right and wrong is exacerbated by the number of different religions in the world, each with its own beliefs, goals and definitions of morality. If the word "religion" is an indication that mankind knows it is separated from God and has created a way to reconnect with the divine, he says, then the solution is for everyone to be under a single banner.

"Instead of ridding the world of religion, we need to unite under one," Nance says. "Jesus Christ claimed to be the only way to the Father (i.e., divine). If every human submitted to the Lordship (full authority) of Jesus Christ and worked together practicing the moral ethics and graciousness he commanded, we would respect one another and the creation around us."

"Study of 'climate change' would fit under respect for God's creation. Wars, terrorism, racial issues, etc. would fit under obedience to the prime directives. The answer is simple, not easy," he says.

But Mark Flynn, pastor at Christ United Methodist Church, says the entire question of whether religion can solve world problems is off tack. Such questions "assume a religion's goal is to bring about world peace and harmony, and if they do not accomplish that, then they have failed. That is not true," he says.

"The goal of religion, at least the major world religions, is to enable individuals to discover their spiritual identity (how they are tied to a spiritual world that is beyond measurement), find reconciliation and peace with that spiritual reality, learn the ways of a spiritual life and embody its teachings in their words, actions and thoughts."

The ultimate responsibility for living a spiritual life lies with the individual, not the religion itself, he says.

"Could Christianity or any other religion provide sustainable solutions? Of course, as could any 10-year-old: Stop being selfish, share what you have, take care of the Earth, treat people with kindness, don't take more than you need when other people don't have enough, compromise instead of fighting, etc. These are not hard concepts.

"Can religion bring world peace and harmony? Sure, but the majority of people around the world have tended to ignore the answers religions give. They have chosen to keep using the methods of war, violence and greed and thus, the problems that were here 2,000 years ago remain with us."

Contact Shawn Ryan at or 423-757-6327.