Addressing social needs with study groups, services, and community outreach.

This section is divided into three main parts:
Religious followers have many beliefs in common, and this promotes harmony.
Believers are often encouraged to maintain their communion with God throughout the day- regardless of their surroundings, every activity should be carried out in God’s name and used as an opportunity to magnify His glory.

Musicians hone their skills by playing songs about God, dancers use such songs in their routines, and actors rehearse plays about the love of God in one’s life. Each of these sessions is likely to begin and end with a group prayer. (For more on how praying benefits those around you, refer to the section on Praying for Others.)

Believers view the world around them from a common perspective, and this shared understanding allows them to communicate ideas with a certain amount of ease. Believers appreciate how this mutual understanding with their spiritual siblings facilitates discussions and helps to reduce friction between individuals.

In fact, many notice the stark contrast between the quality of their relationships with fellow believers and that of their relationships with non-believers, and feel regret that their interactions with non-believing friends are not as deep and strong as they could otherwise be.

The more time spent amongst fellow believers, the stronger the interpersonal bonds, and the more unified the religious community. The establishment of such bonds between individuals increases each member’s loyalty to the community. A member typically identifies with the religion’s doctrines at an ideological level.

Such affiliations between people help to cement the links, and sometimes members identify with their religious community solely because of the ties they have to friends and family members- even after the passage of time alters their initial beliefs about religion and they no longer subscribe to its tenets.

Here are some ways in which a shared understanding between believers helps to smoothen relationships:
  • Each person recognises that God’s approval of their activities is highly desired, and that the furthering of His magnificent plans should occupy top priority in every consideration. People are more inclined to believe, from the outset, that they will ultimately reach some sort of agreement, because God has control over their future and can guide their decisions along the path that He deems best.

  • The awareness that God is keeping watch over all our actions brings out the best qualities in each individual. As a result, people are likely to feel more generous and understanding of a fellow believer, and are more likely to put the needs of the other above their own.

  • The belief that God is the supreme judge of one’s character and actions encourages each person to refrain from being overly critical of others. Religions tend to emphasise the fact that humans are fallible and no one is blameless, thus none of us are at liberty to condemn another’s actions.

  • Regardless of the details of the issue at hand, believers are conscious of the fact that everything they do is part of God’s overall plan, and each individual plays a small but valuable role in furthering His aims.

  • This promotes a sense of unity and kinship, which is similar to that experienced between individuals who are biologically related. What is good for the individual is good for the group, and indeed, for the rest of humanity, and vice versa.
Thus, in numerous ways, religious beliefs help to bring out the best in human nature.
Religious organisations thrive on interaction between members.
Many religious organisations offer services that lie outside domains that we might typically think of as ‘spiritual.’

Everything from yoga and karate classes, workshops on managing one’s finances or family life, to summer camps and sports competitions- for every activity you can think of that exists in the secular domain, you can count on its having been implemented by somebody, somewhere, in the religious domain.

The distinguishing features of religion-based activities are: An emphasis on God, and a high proportion of believers among the participants.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that religious institutions promote such activities among their members- after all, religion is sustained by communities of people who come together to socialise, support one another, and take pleasure in their shared beliefs.

Believers hold prayer meetings, form study groups to examine religious texts and religious topics, hold worship services, perform religious rituals, and proselytise. They exchange advice, emotional support, and financial assistance.

They may offer services to the public at large, regardless of whether beneficiaries are members of the faith or not. Religious institutions run soup kitchens and tuition centres, organise fund raising events, conduct volunteer work in the local community, and stage free theatre productions and concerts. Such altruism is admirable- such believers are role models. Much of the time, too, they attribute their generosity and sense of motivation to God, deflecting praise from themselves. (Read more about Altruism and Generosity.)

Let’s examine what happens during some of these activities.

Prayer meetings:

Believers gather to share ups and downs, exchange advice, and pray for one another. They reap the benefits of prayer (for more details, refer to the section on prayer), and conclude each session with the knowledge that their problems have been left in God’s capable hands. God is pleased when we share our innermost thoughts, and will eventually provide an answer when the time is right. Believers take comfort in the fact that even if they were unable to find a solution there and then, they have dealt with the issue effectively by turning it over to God.

Study groups:

Believers pore over the word of God and those of other authoritative religious figures, discuss interpretations of texts, and gain insights from each other. They are free to explore ideas as long as the topics do not overstep certain boundaries and undermine the stability of the religious institution. When believers are uncertain about an issue, they combine their analytical powers to tackle the question, and seek advice from senior members. Followers believe that their search is undertaken in the name of religion, and God’s wisdom guides their discussion. When someone offers an interpretation or explanation that seems plausible, and is the most reasonable answer available, the group of believers often embraces it collectively. Their faith in God, together with a strong sense of confidence in the combined wisdom of the group, allow them to believe that this is the answer to which God was pointing.

(For more detailed descriptions of activities carried out by believers, refer to the section on Rituals.)
Loyalty to loved ones includes loyalty to religion.
Religion is very much a social experience, for most believers. Many religious institutions place an emphasis on openness, trust, and maintenance of a non-judgemental attitude among members. People are drawn to their religion because of the warm, wonderful personalities of others who share that faith.

On the other side of the coin, many people are reluctant to leave religion because that means forsaking or hurting loved ones who are still religious.

People instinctively feel that if they reject or criticise some aspect of their religion, they are indirectly snubbing their fellow believers. After all, a person’s religious beliefs are part of their personalities, so by pointing out differences in beliefs, you are effectively pointing out differences in personality.

Criticism of those beliefs is construed as criticism of part of that individual's innate makeup. This intuitive association is hard to shake, even when you know, rationally, that religious beliefs can be rather subjective and that friends cannot be expected to agree on every issue.

This applies to criticism of the opinions of others in general, which is why we often would rather avoid the subject than risk getting into an argument and offending someone.

It can, however, be a particularly tricky issue when it comes to religious beliefs, due to the subjective nature of such beliefs, and sometimes, due to the difficulty believers may have with justifying and verbalising the rationale behind their beliefs.

People may continue to support their religious organisations as a means of endorsing their fellow believers’ efforts and personalities. We use our religious affiliations as a way of demonstrating our loyalty to friends and family. It's natural to want to align your beliefs with those held by people whom you love and respect.

This is especially true when someone has previously declared loyalty to his or her faith in a public setting, and promised loved ones that this belief will never waver. It's hard to retract your statements, even in the highly personal, subjective domain of religion, because people have the tendency to think that changeability in one aspect of life implies a readiness to change in other respects.

A loved one might think, for instance: ‘You claimed to love God before, but now you say that you don’t believe there is a God. In the past, you told me that you loved me. Now, how can I be sure that you still love me?’

The only real solution is for people to realise that a belief in God is always based on faith, without secure knowledge or proof. The declaration that one believes in God requires a leap of faith; a suspension of judgement; a commitment to the unknown and unverifiable.

Religion is an area in which such leaps are acceptable and expected. It's distinct from other domains, in which the existence of the subject of one’s declaration is established beyond doubt. (For instance, we can agree unequivocably that one’s family member, fiancé, or friend truly exists, whereas we're hard-pressed to do so with God.)

Shifting attitudes towards religion need not imply that a person is fickle or untrustworthy, since it deals with assumptions that were disputable in the first place. It should, instead, belie a willingness to explore contested beliefs, and the presence of mental stamina.
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