THE POSITIVE SIDE OF RELIGION
An Introductory Note
by V.V. Raman
We are multi-dimensional creatures. Even as biological entities we have several layers of existence: physical, intellectual, psychological, emotional, and yes, spiritual too. By the last I mean an inner experience and longing to be connected with the Cosmos. This longing expresses itself in a variety of ways, in most instances as a religious call. Evolutionary biologists and cultural psychologists may explain this away in the paradigms that are satisfactory for understanding the observed world. For practitioners, however, religious yearning derives from an external intangible source that is not directly amenable to empirical verification. If there can be neutrinos and dark energy that defy easy detection even through powerful and sophisticated instruments, one could argue, why can’t there be other intangibles whose existence is beyond meters and scopes? The matter continues to be debated, but this is not our concern here.
No matter what the source, this heart-felt beckoning and fulfilling framework almost defines the religious person’s existence. There are many in our group who are religious persons. Religion informs and inspires the values and visions that are part of one’s existence. It provides a backdrop for one’s life, present and future, terrestrial and beyond, real and visualized. The spiritual yearning has taken concrete forms in human history as different religions with deep historical, geographical cultural links. Though its essence transcends such links, it is through these that the religious experience becomes meaningful, enriching, and relevant in its observance.
There have always been conflicts not only between those who hold particular versions of the religious spirit, but also between those who accept the validity of the religious experience as a genuine reckoning of something beyond the physical and the temporal, and those who reject it altogether for whatever reason.
The unhappy expressions of religions – of which there are and have been many - are well known in our own times. But the positive sides of religion are seldom effectively articulated, especially in groups committed to the epistemic hegemony of science. Therefore it is good that a number of IRASians, all of whom have great respect for science, are reflecting here on religion from positive perspectives.
I am grateful to our members who responded to my invitation to write on this topic.
some positive aspects of religion
The most important aspect of religion is its relentless struggle to focus on the dimension of depth in our lives. We are subjected every day to the pressure to attend to the surface of things. Our culture urges us to lose ourselves in the surfaces of life—the condition that Herbert Marcuse described as the one-dimensional person. We live under an economic system that views human persons exclusively in economic terms; science and technology, whose great contribution to life is their explanations of the perceptible “outside” of things and their success in applying those explanations to making our lives easier and giving us more possibilities; the “medicalizing” of more and more areas of our experience, leading to suggestions that drugs and procedures can ward off aging and even dying; the omnipresent news media that inflame us to invest ourselves in concern for momentary happenings, insisting the ephemera of daily events are deeply significant.
The pressure toward one-dimensionality threatens to cut us off from the deeper foundations on which our experience rests. Religion stands in contrast as a signal of the depth-dimension. Its signaling occurs in several forms.
Worship practices or rituals. Prayer, singing, and rituals specific to each religious community are concrete, not abstract. I think of meals as well as festivals and pilgrimages. These observances focus on the stuff of everyday life and set it in the framework of more profound dimensions of life. The Seder meal reminds Jews that they are shaped by a very long history, a history that gives them identity; the Holy Communion meal signals to Christians that the center of life’s meaning is giving oneself for the welfare of others; in the Eid ul Fitr, Muslims give thanks after the month of Ramadan fasting that teaches patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God. Rituals also mark the major events of life--birth, puberty, marriage, death—with rites of passage that set the events in a larger narrative of meaning.
Texts or Scriptures. Most religions have sacred texts that offer wisdom, moral injunction, and inspirational stories that point to a dimension of what William James called the MORE.
Daily practices. Buddhists cultivate practices of mindfulness, peacefulness, and compassion. In one form or another, all religions inculcate these practices. The Jewish teachings about mitzvoth—the obligations to perform moral acts, particularly acts of kindness—and Tikkun olam (repairing the world) have inculcated over the centuries an intense commitment to social justice. Giving to charity is a fundamental mark of Islam. Such practices are constant reminders that there is more to life than the moment, more than individual, selfish “getting ahead.” The religions also include rituals of giving thanks and celebrating the goodness of life. All these rituals evidence a counter-cultural voice to the widespread philosophy of “things just happen.”
The struggle for the meaning of life. The traditions of the religions are millennia long, and as such they embody the depth and variety of human efforts to understand what life is about and how we should conduct our lives. These traditions record how people in different epochs and different life-situations have probed the realities of human frailty and sickness, birth and death, evil and virtue, success and failure, wealth and poverty, abundance and scarcity, depression and exhilaration, loneliness and togetherness, alienation and reconciliation, sexual relations, war and peace, human diversity and otherness. These traditions are so diverse that they present a wide range of responses and a variety of answers to the perennial questioning of human existence.
When we participate in these traditions we join experientially the ongoing journey of discovery of what it means to be human. The search for meaning runs through all these traditions. For most but not all of these traditions, the idea of God is central; “God” is a way of talking about the depth from which our experience and its meaning flows. All religions, in one way or another, point towards the reality of soul, which is another way of talking about depth. As Sven Birkerts writes, “my soul is “the active inner part of me that is not shaped by contingencies, that stands free.” Many people today doubt that “soul” or “God” refer to anything real; they doubt there is an “inner part.” Questions of meaning do not interest them. This may indicate the power of the forces of one-dimensionality. Many poets today (even those who, like Birkerts do not accept God or religion) say that without a concept of soul, without a sense of depth, we cannot understand what it means to be human. The issue is not the death of God, but the death of the human.
What is positive about religion? For me it is this manifold tradition of thinking, acting, and shaping my spirituality with constant reference to the depth of life and the irrepressible struggle for meaning.
The Positive side of religion
Marjorie Hall Davis
Throughout the evolution of humans and cultures, religions have had a history of providing significant positive experiences as well as harmful experiences for individuals and societies. I will focus on 'The Positive Side of Religion."
Religions usually originate from particular experiences, which some call "religious," and for which humans have evolved the brain capacity. These include experiences which are variously described as awe, wonder, "presence of God," "oceanic," (in the sense that one may feel connected to and a part of "all there is"), or an "energy" which both includes and is beyond the individual. The experience is so profound that no language can adequately express it. Other descriptions of such an experience include words like peaceful, calm, compassionate, ecstatic, and life transforming.
We, humans have a need to make sense of our experiences in and of the world in which we live. Science, philosophy and religion are some ways through which we do this. Starting with human experiences, both objective and subjective, we seek to understand causes and effects and their significance for our lives.
Stemming from this search for meaning, any particular religion is a culturally evolved system, in which the persons involved develop and share common understandings, beliefs and practices and form community bonds of identity and support. Many religions claim a "mentor" who is revered and remembered as an "exemplar" for their beliefs, values and practices.
The beliefs provide meanings of life and death, and guidance in relationships and behaviors. Beliefs are expressed in the language of the particular culture, including the "available believable" of the particular age or time from the perspectives of geography, history, gender, age, roles and rules, as well as the "scientific knowledge" of that time.
Religious rituals not only aid in the understanding of beliefs, but also in facilitating new "religious" experiences in solitude or in community.
At its best, a religion can provide the following:
- Meaning, Purpose and Hope, based on the beliefs and values, often expressed in myths and stories
- Community gathering for rituals of worship and symbolic celebrations of religious holidays.
- Personal identity as part of a group with similar world views, beliefs, values, practices and lifestyles relationships of commitment to giving support and caring critique to one another.
- Opportunities in community to identify and provide needed action and service to meet needs of the wider community and the world.
- Rituals and practices experienced in community for life transitions of birth, commitment, forgiveness, and death.
- Private rituals that support identity, calmness, stability, and hope
- Educational opportunities providing history and understanding of religious and cultural traditions and beliefs translation of religious symbols, metaphors and language into contemporary experiences and language
- Guidance for living in "right relationship" with other persons (respect and caring for the "out-group" as well as the "in-group) guidance for living in "right relationship" with the natural world identification of personal, cultural and environmental needs which inspire concern and motivate responses of outreach and service.
Religion as community
Edward (Chip) Ordman
My father refused to send me to Sunday School or Hebrew School. When I asked why, he said, “I hope you will grow up opposed to organized religion, as I am. But I want you to have a better reason than the poor quality of the local religious school teachers.”
It is common and easy to criticize religious organizations. The failure of the Roman Catholic Church in some sexual matters is well known. As religious organizations become bureaucratic, they tend to protect and even enlarge themselves at the cost of their official mission. I view these as failures to which all organizations, including governments, are subject. The tendency of religious, tribal, and nationalist fanatics to attack those who differ with them seems to have been around for millennia.
Let me try to argue the case for religion at three levels.
1. The individual. My wife Eunice says she saw no way to either prove or disprove that God exists, so she had free choice. Would she prefer to live in a universe with God, or in one without God? She felt she that a universe with God would better give her life purpose and values, and started from there. This does not lead to beliefs that agree very well with organized religious bodies, but allows participation in those that do not examine details of individual belief too closely.
Eunice argues that petitionary prayer is helpful whether or not there is a God. “We are not going to ask God for a stick of chewing gum.” Deciding what to ask for helps us to sort out priorities, keep them in mind, and work toward achieving them.
It is well known that thankful prayer, that is, counting and appreciating one’s blessings, helps with emotional health and happiness. Many religions teach and encourage this practice.
2. How do we make the world a better place? There have been important prophets: Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed, to name a few, who have preached ideas and values that have contributed very substantially to the improvement of the human condition. Religious movements have spread these ideas and brought these ideas to the attention of many more people than would have been likely to have encountered these ideas in any other way.
Could the good values that have been a part of Western civilization have been spread as widely as they were, and inculcated in as many people as they were, without the impulse of Christianity? The fact that the words of the Hebrew and Christian prophets were so widely studied in so many times and places, under such different social and political circumstances, seems to me a considerable plus.
3. A local congregation often provides advice, care for the poor and sick, and other services on a far more personal level, and sometimes more effectively, than the government.
It is perhaps striking the extent to which repressive governments find that to destroy a spirit of independence among the people, they need to repress either the existence or initiative of individual congregations. Examples include Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Communist China, and today’s Syria. During the Communist rule of eastern Germany, an East German told me “I’m an atheist, but I attend church. The local (Lutheran) pastor is the only one you can talk with freely, he can speak more freely than anyone else since so many people would know and object if the government arrested him.” Many of the repressive Arab governments insist on the weekly mosque sermon being read from a government-approved text.
So I think that at the individual level, the local level, and even the transnational level, religion can provide a common understanding of some goals, help, friendship, and understanding for people in need which other structures, including governments, do not do as well.
positive aspects of relition
Roger L. Brown
I find my corner of the "religious world" very meaningful to me, and will share some of its positive aspects in my life. I will share personal experiences in my religious tradition, and then put them in perspective. So, let me first introduce myself. I am a United Church of Christ (UCC) clergyman with extensive experience serving Congregational churches mostly in New England. Much of my career has involved helping churches refine their identity, clarity their purpose, and improve their organizational effectiveness, so I am acutely aware of the frailties and imperfections of the church as an institution, yet I believe in its value. Professionally, I offer interfaith spiritual direction. In this work, I am concerned with guiding a person’s spiritual journey within their religious tradition, or outside a religious tradition. I grew up in the Congregational Church in the small town of Brattleboro, Vermont, so I have been living and working in the religioius tradition given to me by my family. However, I have a master's degree in science and of course, being a member of IRAS, I have a broad perspective on the nature of spirituality and religion.
First, a word or two about "religion" to orient the approach in this reflection. Religion refers to a particular set of "religious" beliefs which are most often supported by some form of institutional structure or organization, though these beliefs may be held and practiced outside the instition. In my understanding of the typical "spiritual journey," there is a common thread in the spiriitual journey for every person regardless of the institution or belief system in which they make that journey. However, a person’s spiritual journey may be undertaken in a more structured way by using the wisdom and experience of spiritual masters of a particular religious tradition.
Now I will reflect on some positive aspects of religion from my tradition, and generalize from there. One primary value of the Christian faith which attempts to be lived out in the church is the idea of creating a loving supportive community within the church. So I have experienced a good degree of loving community within the local church of my membership and in the wider-church. Within my local church, I have formed caring and supportive friendships, and gained a sense of belong to a diverse group of people who seek to live out some common mission in life. Within this community of faith, I am able to receive and give in ways I might not manage to do alone. Similar community and spiritual support may be found in the Synagogue expression of Judaism.
In my experience, there is a lot of comfort food of the faith that I cannot seem to find in the secular world, though it can exist in many forms. Sharing the times of formal worship reminds me of the basic aspects of the faith, inspires me and re-affirms my sense of belonging to the worshipping community.. This does not mean that some of my essential spiritual practices are not practiced outside the formal institutional setting.
Secondly, the comfort food of religious rituals helps me through life's common transitions – the birth of a child, the death of a loved one or friend, or the marriage of friends or family.. Within Christian tradition, these are rites of baptism, marriage and funerals. These special events within my life experience provide tremendous comfort and healing memories.
However, another positive aspect of religion is that a person's spiritual journey may be undertaken in a more structured way by utilizing the resources and concepts of a person's particular religious membership. I have found personally, that, for example reading the Christian mystics such as John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila gives me a road map for the possible directions of my spiritual journey. I have also found that modern interpreters of the mystics' spiritual journeys such as Caroline Myss, make their ideas more accessible and adaptable to other religious contexts.
Within my own Christian tradition, I have found the person of Jesus Christ to be a model to be imitated and a person whose teachings I can readily follow. Thus, another positive aspect of religion is that a religion may provide "teachers" and role models whose life and teachings have been tested over a long period of history. The Buddha is another example of a spiritual role model and teacher.
Another value of religion is that of membership in a particular religious community. This might be membership in a church or a synagogue, for example. As a member of a religious community, one has both the relationships and support from members of the community. Another aspect here is that membership can provide a sense of personal identity and belonging -- e.g. I am a Christian. I am a member of First Congregational Church, or the Insight Meditation Society. Religious identity is a fine value unless it is taken to extremes or promotes exclusion toward other religious groups.
Another positive dimension of religion, for both those who belong to a particular religion or those who are "academic observers," is that it can provide a sense of historical connection to the past and a vision and connection to the future. For example, both Christians and Jews, feel a sense of belonging and connection to the ancient Biblical people, the Israelites, and their journey of identity and nation building within the state of Israel, both in ancient times and in the present.
Religion also provides the opportunity to live within an ethical framework, as a way of putting the world and modern life within its perspective. Religions have throughout history provided a role in guiding and structuring laws and society. The value of religion here gets mixed reviews because for many centuries and in many cultures this has produced oppressive cultures and governmental structures.
From the scientific perspective, neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel writes of research which indicates that those persons who believe in God tend to have a mindset which is more open and creative. Also from a scientific point of view, meditation, mindfulness, and meditative prayer have been shown to help emotional well being. Rick Hanson's Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, is an example of a book where spirituality, science and practical living come together.
There are other positive values of religion, but these are, I think the most important. All of them have a negative side that needs to be managed well for human and community mental health. However, I believe that religions when operating from an open and flexible perspective have much to offer to strengthen healthy community and personal well-being.
positive aspects of religion
My brother died last year. He will be missed. About a month after his death, his family and friends gathered for a Celebration of Life event. My sister-in-law and many of his friends spoke, recounting memories and telling stories. There were some tears and lots of laughter. They did well. Except for one speaker, my nephew who read some Scripture, the celebration was totally secular. There were no words of assurance, no words of hope for meeting again, no words of comfort, and no words of anything remotely religious in nature.
A totally secular Celebration of Life is what was expected.
The second week of June this year, I attended the Annual Conference of our Northern Illinois Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, about 800 people who mostly don’t know each other, gathering to do our Church’s business. Among the many presentations, we heard about the start-up of thirty new churches. Among these were a Vietnamese church, a Chinese church, several Hispanic churches, a French-speaking African church, and others. As diverse as these various ethnic groups are, they are united in their common faith and purpose.
Every year we have at Conference a Memorial Service honoring those of us who had died during the previous year. We mourn and remember clergy, clergy spouses, children, lay members, anyone who had been connected to us. We honor them for their faith, for their service, for their love. It doesn’t matter that few of us actually knew any of these people. We memorialize their lives anyway. We do so by projecting their pictures, by mentioning their names, through song and word, and, most especially through prayer. We were 800 people honoring the lives of many people from a new-born to those who were long retired, people we, for the most part, didn’t even know. It is always a sad service, but a joyous one too.
There are several commonly listed positive aspects of religion. Among these are community, identity, meaning and purpose, order and service. Any and every religion offers these to an adherent. So, too, do any number of secular organizations.
We find a sense of community through religion, community with God (or whatever), with other people, with nature, and so on. We find community, too, in any organization that shares values or interests with us.
We find our identity through our religion. When asked who or what we are, we can answer with our religious affiliation. What’s more, we adopt symbols, habits, dress, and so on that identify us as belonging to a particular faith. If, for example, I see a man with a blue shirt, a beard, and a straw hat, it is a pretty good guess that he is Amish. If I see a man dressed in black with side curls, it is a pretty good guess that he is Hasidim. All religions have their own symbols and identifying markers. So, too, do other organizations. If I see a man with a Fez hat and a coat and tie on, I would identify him as a Shriner.
Religions give us meaning and purpose. These might be obeying the laws of God, or serving the poor, or doing what is needed to “get into heaven,” or some other purpose. We can get the same from ideologies, political affiliations, social causes, and a plethora of other such sources.
Religions give us order. These may be a system of laws, or rituals, or standards of conduct. Most importantly, order comes from the understanding and interpretation of life that each religion has. There are, of course, other sources for the same sorts of order. For instance, fraternal organizations, such as the Masons, have standards of conduct and elaborate rituals, too.
Some, but not all, religions give us a reason and an outlet for service, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, work to eliminate poverty and other evils. There are plenty of other secular organizations that offer us the same obligation and opportunity.
All of these are positive aspects of religion, but they are not unique to religions. Our needs for these may be met in any number of secular ways. Furthermore, every one of the above-listed offerings, whether they are found in religions or in some secular source, have been used to separate people, to harm people, to oppress people.
Recently, a friend sent me a video entitled, “Three Talented Girls Sing Hallejuah.” (Watch it on You Tube!) I have watched it several times. Every time I did I had to shut out everything else and concentrate on that video. When done well, religion gives us all the implications of what we call spirituality. Whether done through song, meditation, ritual, or prayer, we are lifted out of ourselves and connected to God (or whatever we choose to label that connection). Our minds and spirits are refreshed, redirected, reborn. Once one has had that experience, one can never go back, one is committed, one is changed forever.
Someone once told me that he had no desire to see the Grand Canyon. For him it was just a “big hole in the ground.” I could argue with him. I could give him all of the relevant statistics and anomalies about the Grand Canyon. I could describe it in great detail, but he would still think of it as a “big hole in the ground.” I told him that he had to see it, that he had to experience it to truly understand that the Grand Canyon was a lot more than “big hole in the ground.” True, it is a “big hole in the ground,” but the first-hand experience of that big hole will transform anyone’s life.
One could list a great number of the positive aspects of religion. One could argue from them. One could try and persuade someone based on those lists. Doing so is the same as trying to convince someone about the magnificence of the Grand Canyon by listing the facts about it, its size, colors, and so on. Won’t work. Such an approach will convince no one. Listing positive aspects of religion in a rational sort of argument will not convince anyone that religion has value, any more than reading about the Grand Canyon will do the same for it. I would say the same for the rational-sounding arguments against religion. They will convince no one who wasn’t already predisposed.
An old story, that I have read with some variations, tells of a man who gave a blistering lecture about the evils and futility of Christ, God, and religion. When he was through, an older man calmly walked to the podium and began to slowly eat an orange. When he was through, he turned to the lecturer and asked him, “Was that orange sweet or tart?” Exasperated, the lecturer angrily replied, “How could I know which? I didn’t taste it!” “Exactly,” said the older man. “How can you talk about Christ, God, and religion when you’ve never tasted them either?”
The only way any person will be convinced that there are positive aspects of religion, that religion has value, is to experience it. Religion is experience, not rational arguments. The more one experiences religion (and faith) the more convinced one gets. The more involved, immersed, and committed one is in a religion, the more value one sees in it. John Wesley was told to “preach faith until you have it, then you will preach it because you have it.”
I began this essay with a description of two contrasting memorial services. The differences between them illustrate my point here. For what they were, they were both fine and appropriate and well-done. One was a celebration of a life, a recounting of good times. The other was solemn and joyous and spiritual, 800 people who really don’t know each other, thanking God for the lives and service of other people they probably didn’t know either. We can, perhaps, get a sense of both memorial services from my descriptions, but just a sense. I guess you had to be there, and that is the whole point.
Positive Aspects of Religion
One of IRAS’ purposes, as expressed in its Mission Statement, is to “formulate . . . positive relationships between the concepts (italics mine) developed by science and the goals and hopes of humanity expressed through religion.” The “natural world” is affirmed as a primary source of meaning for those of us in IRAS, with our quest deepened by scientific inquiry. The Mission Statement expresses that from there our quest for meaning, and living a shared set of values in the world, may, or may not, be intertwined with the paths of various religious traditions.
Having been active in IRAS for twenty-eight years, I can recall hearing about a slightly different emphasis in the early descriptions of the purpose of IRAS – beginning in the mid-50’s. I understood the original task of IRAS to be that of healing the meaninglessness which some experience when religion and science seem alien to each other. As a major figure in the origins of IRAS, Ralph Burhoe wrote about science being able to foster an understanding of religion, like all of culture, as part of gene-culture co-evolution. Burhoe deepened our understanding of the potential power of religion to create good in the world when its concepts and belief systems are grounded in the context of an ever-evolving scientific worldview.
For many years I have thought that reflection on religious concepts, at least in IRAS conferences, has played second fiddle to scientific reflection on the theme of the week, and, to what conferees might do with the practical information from the week to help heal the world. For example, speakers from various fields of science occasionally reveal a stereotypical view of religious concepts as “supernatural”, and therefore not worthy of serious study. I think that most of us in IRAS who embrace religious concepts do so in a non-dualistic sense – finding that meaning in the natural world and meaning in religious concepts are one.
I was unable to be present for the recent wonderful work on the IRAS Mission Statement. One change I would have suggested, reminiscent of Burhoe, would have been to emphasize the important role of religious concepts in the interdisciplinary venture. I would say that one of our purposes is (in contrast to the wording above) to “formulate . . . positive relationships between the concepts developed by science and the concepts (italics mine) developed by religion to further the goals and hopes of humanity.”
Clearly, both science and religion are powerful tools for shaping human behavior and values – for good or for ill. Hence, part of the mandate of the interdisciplinary task of religion and science is that those of us in each discipline do our best to understand the sophisticated concepts and nuances of the other. For example, all of us in IRAS should work to understand such things as the details of cosmic evolution, quantum mechanics, the neurobiology of meditative states; panentheism in Spinoza, Hartshorne, Emerson and Einstein; feminist thought in a variety of religious traditions.
When I entered Unitarian Universalist ministry twenty-eight years ago, I had to nail what I meant by words such as religion, spirituality, theology/world view, etc. What I wrote then sticks with me, and applies to my understanding of IRAS, since I experience it as, in part, a meta-religious community.
That is – all people struggle with the meaning of life, questions by which we search for a place and a way and a reason to be in the universe. The understanding, the world view, we reach for and experience as individuals can be called our spirituality. The understanding, the world view, we help each other reach in community can be called religion. In religious community, world view (for some, theology) is the critical and relevant appropriation of those elements of language, ritual, history, belief and affective commitment which constitute one’s community of belonging. In order to be critical, one’s world view must be informed by philosophy’s examination of the ontological and epistemological bases of truth claims. In order to be relevant, one’s world view must be informed by a current understanding of the world in which we live – an understanding gathered from, among other things, science. In order to be appropriated, or lived, one’s world view must become part of our work for good in the world.
Religion, thus understood, is the heartbeat of the community of belonging we call IRAS; and science is its lifeblood and body.
on the positive aspects of religion
In answering the question “What is the positive effect of religion?” I am reminded of the old joke: “Have you stopped beating your children lately?” The point of the joke is that “yes” or “no” is only a relevant answer if one ignores the assumption that the hearer is beating his or her children. Likewise, naming the positive effects of religion risks ignoring the role of the believer in religion. It tends to suggest that religion acts upon the believer as if the believer were a passive receptacle, filling him or her with bad or good depending on the religion’s content.
This is not how I see religion. Though one can believe that religion is inspired by God, there is no faith tradition that I know of that does not recognize religion itself as to some degree a human construct. Some traditions are more honest than others in recognizing the potential of this construct to be flawed. But while some more liberal conceptualizations view God and religion as being virtually the same, the one being constructed by the other and not necessarily existing apart from human consciousness, the more fundamental conceptualizations which get blamed most handily for the failures of religion are however clear that God exists separately from religion.
So there is no escaping the bad and the good of religion alike as depending a lot on the free will of the people who believe in a religion. Regardless of what the religion holds to be true, the person nearly always has a measure of choice about his or her own actions in the name of the religion. Thus the “positive effect of religion” would seem to describe a situation when the person’s actions are good, are in keeping with his or her religious beliefs, and a positive correlation can be drawn between them.
However, this formula itself runs into problems. It can be argued that what is good and ethical in human behavior is more the same than different across the variety of human cultures, and does not need religion to encourage it. Likewise, it can be argued as well that if a religion promotes untruth, one should not need belief in the untruth to behave well. So I am finally disinclined to speak of the “positive effects” of religion. I am more inclined to say that religion tends to propose inherent positive elements in existence and to encourage humans to find them. It would be good to be able to show that this project also encourages people to behave well. In this view, even if religion itself were not strictly necessary in all its details to promote ethical behavior (any more than the study of nature does, for instance), it certainly need not conflict, and it can guide humans in a direction that has demonstrated positive effects.
What is religion good for?
We read of so many harms committed in the name of religion that the question naturally arises, is there some countervailing good? I have committed my life to a religious path, so one would expect I would have to answer the question affirmatively, but it is surprisingly tricky.
The first obstacle to answering the question is whether we are allowed to assume religious values in answering it, or are we required to find a meta-religious perspective? It would be obviously circular to say that, for example, Buddhism is good because it provides a path for release from the endless cycle of death and rebirth, or that Islam or Christianity are good because they allow the believer to attain eternal life. The alternative is to try to take a secular perspective, arguing that religion is good for one’s health or the health of society, or that religion performs a useful function in human evolution.
But this approach feels sterile; it is not a cost benefit analysis. At gbottom, religion is a recognition f the interconnectedness of all people. To posit the question of whether we should have religion or not is to assume an independence, and individualism which si a cultural product of the post-Enlightenment West but does not in fact represent the human situation. The word “Religion,” as we preachers never tire of saying, comes from “re-ligio,” to bind again. It is the connective tissue of the human race.
Think about human anatomy. You don’t ask the question “are ligaments a good thing?”. They just are there. The capacity for religion is part of our psychic and cultural makeup. Emerson, said, “A man will believe in something.” The task of religion in the present age is coming to terms with the truths of science and evolving beliefs which are consonant with human welfare.
Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion improvement is a good example of where religion can be going in a positive direction. Start from an ethical premise of the Golden Rule, a version of which is found in almost all religions, and test one’s precepts against that. We see all around us religions wrestling with the question of just what of their traditional doctrine and what interpretations of their sacred scripture can be used in the contemporary age.
What each religion needs in order to adapt to modern life is a recognition that most of these the sacred scriptures were composed at a time when the understanding of how the world works were very different than the understandings we have today. This is tough if there is a strong doctrine that the scriptures were composed by God and that God is unchanging. But there are many fields of human endeavor where we are required to determine what is transient and what is permanent.
The urge to make meaning is hard-wired in the human brain. We have the ability to manipulate symbols and we use that ability constantly every day. Religion can be seen as the ultimate end of meaning-making, attempts to answer the unanswerable questions such as why we are here, how we came to be, where we are headed.
What about the historical landscape? Communism was an officially atheistic political movement which was overtly hostile to religion, but when it collapsed after seven decades, traditional religion made a comeback. In most of the secular west, on the other hand, traditional church centered religion seems on the decline. I have been basically arguing that religion is inherent, but I have to admit that evidentiary support for this proposition in the contemporary scene is ambiguous.
But for all its faults, religion offers us connection. We of course can perceive our interconnectedness in studying DNA, or the composition of our bodies, or our evolutionary past. But when we perceive our connection through scientific insight, the perception is basically a religious one.
Copyright 2013 by The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science