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Religions, whatever their form, can have major social impact in some societies - for good or for evil. Of course in some religions any social impact they have may be secondary or incidental to their main declared aim of relating people to God. This site is not here concerned with considering the religious aspect of religions, but only with considering their impact on society. And the social impact of religions is normally less to do with the religion itself than its institutional form or church.
The social impact of any one religion in any society is strongly affected by whether it is supported by the majority of the population or by a minority. A majority religion not only directly impacts more people, but is also likely to have substantial impact on government and on society values. Generally it is the poorest societies that have the greatest proportion of the population supporting religion, though that may mean several religions rather than one religion. But for religion's social impact, the major difference will often be between poorer societies and less-poor societies.
Religions generally have greater social impact in poorer societies, where they tend to be supported more strongly by the majority. Often one religion will predominate and will have substantial effect on the government - either the religion controlling the government, or the government using the religion in a majority-poverty society.
It is this type of situation that Karl Marx referred to when he stated that "Religion is the opium of the masses". Any religion that has a 'better afterlife' will tend to help the poor to live with their poverty and perhaps with exploitation and government oppression. So the poor will tend to more strongly support religion, and governments in poor societies can tend to encourage or use religion to help maintain social control. Majority churches as institutions tend to support governments and the wealthy who can finance churches better than poor believers can. In these societies religions will help maintain a social order that can include exploitation and oppression.
While a majority religion can be an ally of government or a tool of government, there are of course cases of a religion gaining control over government and effectively being government, and this often means church policies dominating a society - especially 'spread our religion'. This can mean other religions being oppressed and wars being encouraged or started against other religions. Christian Europe saw anti-heretic, anti-witch and anti-science oppressions and crusade wars against 'Infidels', moving to missionary-led worldwide oppressive colonisations - and societies motivated by other religions have done similar. And where a poor society had substantial support for two or more religions then fierce civil wars have often resulted.
As shown for example by the Catholic Church in Ireland, it is possible for a church to appear to be moderate and loving while actually being extreme and evil or having parts that are. And an additional issue when a religion controls government is that they are often lacking in the kinds of skills needed for efficient government, lacking skills in business, in dealings, in compromising and in handling opponents. So with the best intentions, religious government often achieves little actual good.
News. The world economic crisis that hit in 2009 sees poorer countries being hit by dramatic declines in trade and in foreign investment, and their poor facing more hardship now. This economic downturn seems to have increased the abandonment of children and of elderly women in poorer countries, and to have increased the murder of children and of elderly women in poorer countries.
Often with 'justifications' that they are witches or devil-possessed, with total annual numbers estimated to be some millions. see - Victims.
In less-poor societies, religions generally are not supported as widely or as strongly as in poor societies, and many people will generally have less social problems also. There is somewhat less of a social need for religion, and generally religion has a somewhat weaker social impact.
Where the poor have become a minority, support for a formerly majority religion can tend to coming predominantly from the non-poor and shrink among the poor who see the church as having deserted them. Many of the minority poor may tend to switch to other minority religions, while the mainstream religion continues to give weakened support for a social order that can include social exclusion of the poor and other minorities.
However, religions can often be socially at their best where they are a minority religion - especially if the minority concerned is oppressed or socially excluded. Then the church may have a useful role in socially supporting that minority. The church will be seen as independent of government and of the wealthy, and be seen as 'our church'. In this case the minority religion may also be able to somewhat press government to moderate the social exclusion of that minority. In the modern richer countries which have seen a general shrinkage in support for religion, there has also tended to be an increase in the diversity of religions with particular religions associated with particular social classes or with particular minorities.
In many societies there are charities that have been set up often by churches or religious individuals, and by others. These charities generally aim to somehow help some people with some problems. Sometimes their good intentions do actually achieve a lot of real good, sometimes a little good and sometime more harm than good.
One main problem with charities is that they are often run by people who do not really understand the needs of those they are meant to help. Charities for the poor are generally run by the rich. Some do try to find out what help is really needed but many charities only do what they think is needed and get it very wrong. Instead of giving training a charity may give food, and instead of helping a family a charity may split-up the family. Of course government 'help' will often have similar problems and often also do little real good.
The social significance of different religions.
The relative social significance of different religions in the world today is perhaps somewhat difficult to estimate.
Statistics indicate Christianity as currently having the world's largest number of supporters, around 33%, and as being concentrated more in richer countries. But at present Islam seems a close second on number of supporters, about 22%, with Hinduism in third place at around 15%. Currently Buddhist supporters seem to follow on about 6%, with Chinese Traditionalism at around 4% and Judaism at only about 0.2%.
See Knowers Ark and Adherents.com.
However, these numbers do not fully take account of the fact that most religions are divided between often many different competing churches. And these numbers do not take account of strength of support - for some religions including many more nominal or marginal supporters than for other religions. Also some religions may help or encourage business or political action more by its members, than other religions do.
Generally it seems that the social impact of religions is tending to fall as countries get richer, but much of the world does still remain in poverty with religions having much influence.
NOTE. Some religions have a 'God made the universe and mankind' creation story and, despite the fact that such religious stories are about God and do not claim to be science, some see a claimed conflict with evolution science. Interestingly the Jewish-Christian creation story involves mankind (many of whom are very ungodly) being created 'in the image of the maker' and then immediately the maker 'ends his work and rests'. This looks quite like the development of an intelligent species progressing to making robots in their own image to do their work - like the development of mankind, or maybe of another intelligent alien species ? (See an interesting new science website on Philosophy of Science.)
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