The Checklist Manifesto and Organized Religion

We were having dinner over the weekend with a friend who is part of the scientific community. He brought up a book called “The Checklist Manifesto”. The subject of the book was how something mundane, the use of a checklist, had been shown to decrease infections in hospitals and lead to better outcomes. As we talked about the book I couldn’t help but think of the role of organized religion.

Practicing good medicine is a process. If a doctor is going to operate, going to cut into a human body, many small steps must first be taken. The area of the planned incision must be cleaned. Surgical drape must be put around that area of the body. Hands must be washed. Doctors and nurses take these steps every day, thousands of times a year. Yet we are all human, and sometimes in the rush of the moment we forget, or we take shortcuts because of the pressure to do more, faster. The checklist didn’t tell the doctors and nurses to do anything they didn’t already know, it just served as a reminder of what it took to practice good medicine. And the checklist helped create a community of responsibility around good medicine – if a doctor skipped a step, the formal checklist made it easier for a nurse to speak up and insure the necessary steps were taken.

Being a good human isn’t all that different than being a good doctor or nurse. Most of us know what is right, and most of us try to live moral lives. But sometimes the rush of the day, or the pressure of the situation, causes all of us to take shortcuts, to do things that we know in our hearts weren’t quite right. Organized religion, in many ways, provides that checklist of how to be a good human, a reminder that even in trying situations our outcomes will be better if we do behave morally. And organized religion can provide that community of responsibility as well. It places us in a broader group of people that are also trying to lead moral lives, and that can remind us of the importance doing the little things necessary to be a good human even when it isn’t convenient.

Many of my friends are skeptical of organized religion. It’s easy to point to terrible acts that were taken in the name of God and the everyday hypocrisies of many religious leaders. But it’s also easy to lose sight of the fact that organized religions are communities of people that are trying to lead moral lives. They join together because humans are human and we fall short of our own beliefs. Organized religion provides a checklist of how to lead a moral life and the support of other people trying to do so also. Organized religion, for all of its faults, helps many people be better humans.

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