We know the usual things about the benefits of religious living. Religious people tend to live longer, stayed married, be healthier and report themselves to be happier than members of the general population. I hear these things touted from proud pulpits across the land.
On the other hand, those who live with religious people but who do not practice the religion themselves, or only nominally, lose all the benefits. Apparently, proximity to religion does not have the same benefits behind this veil of tears. Nominal religious practice or mere proximity to religion (living in a decidedly Christian, Muslim or Pick Your Religion society) does not help us live longer, or happier or healthier.
To have practical value in this world religion requires practice. We actually have to pursue the faith, as Jesus taught, as Paul preached, as Wesley insisted. The benefit of religion is the practice of religion.
And I disagree, but only as to degree. This is my contention: to live by Christian principles, mores and insights will benefit a person (or a culture) even if the person never actually believes in God. The often despised Paul broke out his ethical teachings early and often but never more clearly than in his love letter to the church at Philippi.
The Philippians had no major correctable errors, unlike the churches at Rome, in Galatia, or, Heaven help us all, the people of Corinth. Therefore, Paul could just speak love, not mingled with correction. Is it any wonder we get the wonderful words of Philippians 2:5, wherein Paul suggests we “…adopt the attitude in us that was in Christ Jesus…?” Paul goes on to describe the humility, self-sacrifice and final exaltation of Jesus as the Christ. Before he starts all this, however, Paul gives what might better be described as an Ethics lecture, wherein he writes, “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of the other higher than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3).
Even a cursory reading of Paul shows his Ethical motif. He sets down a means of practical living, marries this practical daily living to the spirit and then ties it all to the Christ as his (Paul’s) supreme example of unconditional love and sacrificial living. So, he could blithely repeat, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus,” while at the same time telling us to think on all that was good, truthful, right, et alia (Phil. 3:8,9). Paul points his readers to good living and ties good living to the Christ he worships. A disconnect between good living and Christ (for Paul) is empty and shameful. A similar disconnect between Christ and good living, wherein Christ might be worshiped but Ethical living not practiced, is just too empty for Paul. For real benefit, one must know how to live Ethically and know the Person from whom Christian Ethics come, the Christ. In this way, a person can be led to walk down One Path, the Way. Health and happiness can result.
For the person who cannot believe, however, unconditional love made available to our family, friends and foes alike, can still help. Charity, compassion, mercy, kindness, altruism and self-sacrifice, the things Paul mentions repeatedly that are good and true, the worthy walk, can help all persons, even if the practitioner falls short of technical belief in the Christ.
We might say, “Live as if you believe even if you do not believe until you can believe.” Some will argue with vehemence that this is inoculation against true faith, just enough to make one feel good without inner change. Jesus argued for the inner change and made the Law stricter. For grace we have to run to Paul, who understands grace because he sees himself as a proficient, even enthusiastic, sinner. Paul is busy living what he sees as an Ethical life until, one day, his inner practices undergo a dramatic alteration. He comes to believe what he once despised. His whole system of Ethics then points to faith in Christ, through grace. If Paul can be changed, it is doubtless true that anyone may feel her heart strangely warmed by the Word of Truth.
Until then, we practice and we benefit from the practice. We could most completely benefit, I think, if we could practice Ethics with faith.