Who Speaks For Religion? And What Good Is It Anyway?



Here in Canada, as in much of the Western World, there is a plethora of voices condemning religion. The essential claim is that religion is both false and harmful. The falsity or veracity of religions is open to honest debate and disagreement, and can’t be settled by simple argumentation. The means employed to argue for the harmfulness of religion, however, are frequently shot through with bigotry, misinformation, shoddy argumentation, and caricatures. These should be refuted.


What one frequently hears is that religion is bad for people. This is proven by taking the worst examples of people claiming religious motivation for acting badly and presenting them as “typical” of religious behaviour. Violence, hatred, irrationality, psychologically or physically harmful behaviour, when given a religious justification, become in anti-religious polemics “religion”. On one level this is no different from any other type of bigotry. Bigotry works by taking an “other”, some identifiable group, and then assigning negative generalizations to the group as a whole. Of course these generalizations, by stigmatizing the other group, make your own group superior. Anti-semites find examples of greed, corruption, or chauvinism among Jews and say “this is how Jews are”. White supremacists find examples of African Americans committing crimes or performing badly at school and say “these people are violent and stupid”. Buddhists point to examples of Christian intolerance or extremism and say “you see, Christians are like that” and Christians point to Muslim terrorists and say, “That’s Islam”. And here’s the kicker: secularists point to violent, irrational or intolerant religious people and say, “Religious people are like that.” 


The truth is that some religious people are like that. Just like some Jews are greedy, and some some atheists are debaucherous nihilists. Some but not all, and not even most. Making the worst example of religious people stand in for the group as a whole is a polemical and psychological technique, not an attempt to approach the truth. 


To understand this, consider: If a person wanted to understand medicine, who should they ask? An intelligent approach would be to approach an expert- someone who excelled in both the theory and practice of medicine. That person understands medicine, and embodies its wisdom. Going to an amateur doctor, or worse, a quack, would not teach you about what medicine is and can be. Taking that as a guide, when wanting to understand religion, who should one ask, to whom should one go? Those who have a superficial understanding of their religion, those who only practice it for an hour a week on Sundays, or worse those who use their religion to covertly or overtly seek power, money, sex, or the expression of their desires for violence and cruelty?


I am not saying that we have nothing to learn from studying the behaviour, individually or in groups, of religious people. Quite the contrary. There is much to learn both for the religious and the non-religious in studying the way different types of religious people tend to behave. For instance, one might argue that religion is a kind of neutral tool whose significance is entirely in the use put to it. Good people use it well, bad people badly. That does not appear to be true, however. Both scientific and historical studies of religion demonstrate that on the whole it more often a source of good things than bad. Studies of the effects of religious adherence have demonstrated over and again that it tends to promote happiness and longevity. Historical studies have demonstrated that in the West our human rights tradition derives mostly from the Bible, that Christianity “invented the idea of children as human beings”, that Judeo-Christian values reduced and then eliminated slavery, fought against racism, operated a massive hospital and orphanage system for centuries, were the seedbeds of science and amazing creativity in art and music. Hinduism has enriched the human understanding of the body and mind and expanded human ideas about the cosmos and the spiritual realms for millenia; Buddhism advanced all of humanities understanding of the workings of the mind and has been a voice for non-violence for 2,500 years. Speaking of the West it is surely also true that Christians and Jews often did not go far enough in their reforms, had blindspots, and sometimes resorted to religiously motivated violence. These failures are rightly sources of grief and self-criticism to religious people, but they say more about doctrinal or institutional practices that need reform, or about the human capacity for evil, than they stand as blanket condemnations of such an important and beneficial human activity as religion. On the whole religion has largely been, and is, a force to enrich life and address the needs of the soul, as well as to redeem civilisations. 


It is this last point I would like to linger on for a moment. I would argue that a significant part of the meaning and purpose of religions lies in their ability to (at least partially) redeem the civilisations they exist in. What I mean by that is that religions have in the past reduced human vices like greed and violence, been a refuge for those who fall through the cracks, stepped in where the political structure failed, inspired art and culture, and acted counterculturally against the defects of their time (at their best). When civilisational structures changed one of two things happened: either old religions changed and developed (eg. the birth of Rabbinic Judaism, Hinduism developing out of Brahmanism, the Protestant Reformation) or new religions were born out of or on top of the old (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam). These new forms than struggled to develop in redeeming ways in cooperation with or in struggle against their own socieities. That has always been the case until today, a time when all of the old religions are struggling mightily to catch up to the fastest and most disruptive level of civilisational transformation in human history. My belief is that catch up they must and catch up they will, because we are homo religiosis. They must catch up because we need them. Those who say we can do without religion are making an assertion that is totally speculative, and which in fact has mounting facts against it. Some individuals seem fine without it, at least by their own estimation. Civilizations which leave it behind, however, are largely burning the leftover moral capital that religions created without making anything new. Time will tell whether science and reason, operating in a fluctuating human space with no centre and no limits, can guide the human race towards peace, love, and justice. I have my doubts.