Role of Religion in Society
Role of Religion in Society
Societies that claim to be religious today are mostly religiously pluralistic in nature. In such societies, religion acts as an influential factor in the day-to-day life of the members. The proper role of religion in these societies therefore, becomes an issue of concern. Religion is a very complex phenomenon, and holds a strong historical background. Throughout history, religion has played an important role and influenced notable historical events. However, different people perceive religion differently, and a universal truth on religion is impossible. In this paper, I will address the role of religion in society from the perspectives of Martin Luther King, Voltaire, and Matteo Ricci.
When people share same representations of sacred beliefs and practices, they see themselves as members of one society, who show concern for other members, due to a shared sense of belonging. People who believe in religion realize that they belong to a supernatural system, something beyond the physical. Religion therefore, forges connections and enhances solidarity among human beings, thereby alleviating tension among people. The symbol of “God” links people together and gives them identity. Religion guides people’s behaviors and interactions. It is the force behind the moral power in the society.
Earliest evidence of religion dates to more than 50 000 years ago, in South Asia and Europe. Organized religion has played important roles in history of humankind. For instance, before the nineteenth century, religion played a big role in the propagation of racism. This stemmed from the Europeans’ idea of missionary work in indigenous societies across the globe, especially African societies. Different societies have different religious beliefs and practices. These must be respected, and the idea of religious tolerance and relativism must be upheld in religious matters. The Europeans should have incorporated their religious ideas in the indigenous religions, rather than assimilating them. Assimilation leads to the notion that European religion was superior to other religions.
This took a turn when science later replaced religion as a vehicle for racism. In the late nineteenth century, religion underwent a revolution. Rooted in Protestantism, religion played the role of criticizing racism as well as slavery. This is a crucial role, which religion played in the African American community. Christianity in this era advocated for freedom and liberation of slaves, and objected their suppression. The African American community became awakened and was enlightened, forming a distinct group that took the role of promoting human dignity and equity, to the church. This way, the church took on the role of resisting the racial order that had developed. The church participated in the 1950’s Civil Rights Movement through availing of its leaders, masses, and ideological strategies.
Martin Luther King believed that religion should be a tool for reinforcing social justice in the society. Human life is sacred, and human beings carry in them the image of God. Therefore, any exploitations and violence toward humans is a rejection of their sanctity. Religion must restore the sanctity of human life where there is oppression and lack of freedom. However, the ideological strategies taken by religion to achieve this must reflect godliness. Martin Luther argued that, a nonviolence strategy should be adopted, other than the violent strategy. According to him, religion should enforce a peaceful co-existence in society; therefore, even in the struggle for social justice, violence must not be used, as it compromises peace in the society. Oppression is a moral evil that hurts the image of God in His people, and so it is the role of religion to fight such evils in society.
Luther also argued that religion has the role of enforcing, love, justice, peace, and unity in humanity. Religion must ensure equal treatment of human beings, and no minority groups exist. He thought that since human beings are a physical representation of God, any deliberate alienation of humans is a sin and unacceptable in the religious realm. Religion, according to him is also a measure of the worth of each human being. Intellectual capabilities or other worldly things cannot determine the real worth of an individual. However, only the individual’s relationship with God through religion can. To him, if an individual values God, then they have value.
Religion, through churches should play the role of instilling love, forgiveness, and the spirit of reconciliation in society. Martin Luther argues that this way, a community devoid of injustice, and other social evils would be realized. Religion should also advocate for people’s rights. Since religion considers equality of all human beings, then it must be the force behind the fight for human rights. He reiterated that religion must produce an integrated society and not a segregated one.
Martin Luther King argued that religion, through agape love, should produce an authentic society, where cultural relativity and ethnic pluralism are embraced and appreciated as gifts from God. He was not shy about his religious beliefs. He openly criticized the American churches for their apathy in the fight for justice in America. They did not effectively confront injustice, and they were concerned with the worldly things.
Voltaire was against organized religion, and suggested that it should be crushed. He preferred to believe in the universal God of nature, and not cultural religions. He greatly criticized religion, pointing out all troubles that emanated in the past because of organized religions. He mentioned the doctrines and moral connotations that separated religious groups and made them fight. In his work of “Candide,” he widely addressed religious intolerance. He portrayed most of the religious characters in this book in a negative light, and regarded religious groups as evil. Generally, Voltaire viewed religion in both negative and positive light. To him, the role that religion played in society is not purely positive. Religion can have detrimental effects on a society that believes and practices it.
Voltaire also considered religion as a cocoon in which evil people hide. In his book Candide, he portrays the Catholic Grand Inquisitor as a hypocrite who blackmails a Jew with religious persecution. Another former baron becomes a priest and practices homosexuality. In addition, a monk reveals he is involved with a prostitute. In real life, these religious people are the ones we would treat respectfully, but Voltaire unmasks their religious veils to reveal their hypocritical and deceitful nature.
Voltaire addresses the extent of religious corruption in society. However, he also shares a different thought on religion. In Candide, an Anabaptist character, Jacques, is kind-hearted, but is killed for doing good, while trying to save a murderous sailor. Voltaire speculates why good people die, and not the evil ones. This imperfect nature is again illustrated through the pope’s pure-hearted daughter who faces many adversities in life, and is sold into slavery, despite her good and selfless nature. 
Voltaire is provoked by organized religion and considers it a superstition. He despises it and thinks organized religion is harmful. He advises readers to take charge of their own lives and not to rely on the religious authorities to determine their salvation. He recommends that each individual should have a personal relationship with their God, and not rely on the organized religions to link them with God. From this, Voltaire makes it clear that organized religion has no role to play in society; in fact, it is just corrupting.
Matteo Ricci was a Jesuits missionary in China. His methods of evangelization were effective as he managed to attract a considerable number of followers in China. He delved into the Chinese culture, learnt their language, exhibited great friendliness, wrote books in Chinese, and adopted their mode of dress, among other things. His drawings and paintings, books, and artifacts with Chines religious themes had a positive impact on his ministry. He also shared the culture of the intellectual aristocracy by joining and adopting their language, philosophy, and customs of the Confucian. Matteo’s strategy of identifying with the people gave him a breakthrough in his evangelism.
Matteo Ricci’s successful mission shows that religion is intertwined with culture. Religion, just like culture, plays the role of identification. The culture of people includes their beliefs and values, which make up religion. Matteo had therefore realized that culture is fundamental to society. Introducing people to a new religion would mean that this religion be simplified to identify with the people’s culture in order for the people to identify with it. This is why Matteo learnt Chinese, to evangelize in it; he drew religious pictures, and religious paintings symbolizing Chinese practices. He also wrote religious books in Chinese, so that many people could identify with the message in them.
Voltaire’s views on religion differ with those of Martin Luther King. Martin Luther considered religion as a perfect tool for the society to get close to social perfection. Voltaire on the other hand criticizes organized religion, and thinks that it is the cause of most evils committed in society. Matteo Ricci on the other hand, believes that religion goes hand in hand with culture. These three express different views and different people will agree or differ with them basing on their perceptions of religion.
In conclusion, religion continues to play important role in the society, even though it is watered down by secularization today. Martin Luther King valued religion and thought of it as the only weapon that would bring sanity and peaceful co-existence in the world. Voltaire did not believe in organized religion, as this is the cause of many social evils in the world, with the evil people hiding behind the veils of religiosity. Matteo on the other hand, sees that religion is found in people’s cultures, and in order for evangelists to win people, they must identify with their cultures. Nonetheless, different people have different perceptions of religion; however, religion still plays a role in the society as everyone believes in a supernatural being.
Fontana Michela, Matteo Ricci: A Jesuit in the Mining Court. Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.
Fredrick Brotherton, Religion, and Race – Regeneration, 1912-2007, new rev. ed. Cassel,
University of California.
Nwonye Jerry, Role of Agape in the Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Pursuit of Justice. Proquest, 2009.
Voltaire, Candide, trans. Lowell Vair. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003.
Fredrick Brotherton, Religion, and Race – Regeneration, 1912-2007, new rev. ed. (Cassel, University of California).
 Nwonye Jerry, Role of Agape in the Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Pursuit of Justice, (proquest, 2009).
 Voltaire, Candide, trans. Lowell Vair (New York: Bantam Dell, 2003).
 Fontana Michela, Matteo Ricci: A Jesuit in the Mining Court (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).
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