Religion is under fire, and at least in the media, it appears to be losing the public relations war. Recent studies indicate that the rising generation is becoming inactive in or rejecting religion altogether. In making a case for religion, one is pressed to look at it through a lens that younger, academically-inclined people and few in the media understand or appreciate. Public, so-called “intellectuals” have become “shock jocks,” keen to blast religion as the fulcrum upon which many, if not most, of our current societal ills rest. While there is an obvious measure of truth in this critique, when one actually takes the time to look at religion and the role it plays historically in the individual lives of its devotees and in society generally, one finds that religion plays a critical and perhaps indispensable role in communicating and modeling productive life-giving and peace-inducing values. Indeed, there is much about religion that is good and productive.
Many cannot get over the idea that there is an increasing threat in what might be best defined as extreme or radical religious sentiment and enterprise. Whenever one turns on the telly or gets on the Internet, one sees the fruit of religious enterprise. The thinking error many apparently are making is to knee-jerk a conflation of religion and bad outcomes. While this conflation is easy to understand given the media’s obsession with the shocking fruits of bad religious interpretation, one is best served by stepping back and seeing religion in its broader historical context, where it comes from and what purposes, in the ideal, it serves.
Religion gone prodigal or extreme, rather than being a positive, becomes an obvious negative as it serves to, in sometimes wanton fashion, show aggression against traditional values that celebrate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. People across the globe are ever pressed by the apparently religion-informed and driven destruction of human rights and even life itself. The media, with its obsession with what sells, makes it look as if this religiously-informed aggression is the stuff of religion itself. This in turn serves to create the illusion that religion, by definition, instigates bad outcomes and problems for civilized people to deal with. When all else fails, blame religion.
It is here that one needs to pull back and, rather than falling prey to the temptation to conflate religion with extremism and its fruits, see that religion, in phenomenological terms, is entirely separate and distinct from the fruits of extremism and its agenda-informed activity. In point of fact, religion, in the ideal, is a source of peace and comfort for the vast majority of good people across the globe. While religious devotees sometimes get a bit caught up in what church or religious movement is true and which is false, and admittedly bicker too much along these lines, most see religion for what it is – an attempt to find peace and happiness in a cruel and sometimes bitter existence. On this front, making a case for religion is as simple as referencing the majority of religious folk finding peace, comfort, purpose and meaning where perhaps the facts should suggest otherwise.
Religion, according to mid-twentieth century philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich, is best defined as ultimate concern. That is, humankind, from the dawn of civilization in both the East and West (roughly five-thousand years ago), have been asking ultimate or, otherwise put, primal questions seeking meaning and purpose in what, for all intents and purposes, appears to be a random and quite meaningless existence. Indeed, questions concerning the origin and purpose of life have been at the forefront of every recorded civilization.
If one takes a humanistic and entirely objective/academic approach to the study of religion, one finds that the earliest presentiments of religion formed and materialized, in phenomenological terms, in response to what Gautama the Buddha referred to as human suffering. Primal questions arose in response to the sometimes horrific realties of day-to-day life. When things are going well, human beings tend to be content and do not challenge their existence. But when things go south, the questions start pouring in. When humankind started asking primal questions, it was looking for answers that served to either mitigate the suffering, or, in the ideal, resolve it. While there is no seeming resolution to the problem of death and dying, religious answers addressing same tend to be those that bring context, understanding and, ultimately, comfort.
For example, when one loses a child, while that child cannot come back, people find comfort in the idea that they will see their child again. This is the stuff of religious enterprise and to call for the banishment of religion or belief in God, as some are wont to do, is to essentially give the aggrieved parents no hope of joy or sense of peace for the rest of their lives. The well–ntentioned atheist might rejoin by asking how belief in mythology could ultimately serve the parents’ interests. Would it not be best, they might ask, to simply accept that there is no life after death and move on? The simple answer is that the often well intentioned atheist’s inclination to label belief in life after death as mythology is itself the stuff of mythology and requires its own level of faith. The perhaps inadvertent hypocrisy here notwithstanding, whether something is ultimately true or not is less the issue than what serves to produce peace and comfort in difficult times. This is, as a religious issue, a personal issue and one that should remain outside the realm of the atheist’s critique.
In the end, religion serves on many fronts, but it serves humanity best when it helps people deal with the sometimes horrific aspects of life. These problems are often referred to, in philosophical terms, as the problems of existence, or, as philosophers study it, existentialism. Where do we come from, why are we here, what is the purpose of life and why do bad things happen to good people are the questions well-intended and thoughtful people have been asking from the beginning of human consciousness and self-awareness.
Existential angst is the anxiety and emotional pain most feel in a world where all relationships end in death and much of life is filled with pain and suffering. Religion helps people deal with the sufferer’s cry to the heavens for help and the silence that seems to naturally follow, and the fact that, despite our best efforts, most of life is desperately lonely and difficult. Where in the pantheon of suffering, many ask, is a loving God ready and willing to solve or at least mitigate existential problems and concerns?
This problem is at the root of the rejection of religion for many good and thoughtful people who see no utility in suffering and might assume that a loving God would not allow the kind of suffering we see on a daily basis. The question becomes more pressing when there is an innocent child involved. Many children suffer debilitating, very painful and ultimately terminal diseases, leaving many to ask why a loving God would allow any of it. But for those that allow the teachings of religion to hold sway, they find peace in answers that suggest that while there is mystery in most of life, consistent with the idea that God is both loving and omnipotent, God will never ask the human family to endure anything that cannot ultimately be configured as having some sort of utilitarian or useful capacity. This religious worldview leads to the life lived in faith. The life lived in this type of faith is, for many, positive,as it is life and joy affirming, the pain notwithstanding.
The great religions of the world serve existential problems like these and many more with the promise that ultimately there is purpose and meaning in all of it. While some choose to forgo belief in a deity or formal religious movement that would teach that there is utility in suffering, especially for the innocent, religion, at its best, brings a quality of peace and comfort where it has no sensible business existing. But this is the beauty of religion – it has a calming effect and brings a smile where there might otherwise be only sorrow and regret.
The primal questions that humanity has asked from the dawn of not only civilization, but of sentience and awareness, beg for answers. While for some the humanities and sciences will serve nicely on these fronts, for many others, having a personal relationship with a deity, or a body of scripture that helps them get through extraordinarily difficult times and otherwise helps them make sense of the seemingly senseless cannot be seen as anything but positive. While the existence of God or ultimate truth in religious enterprise is a matter of faith, religion can and generally does, current extremism notwithstanding, play a very positive role in bringing peace and comfort into a very difficult world. Not only this, but as religious enterprise is seen in its peace-inducing capacity, it rarely stands in the way of scientific progress, but rather works towards the same ends.
Making a case for religion, upon reflection, may be as difficult yet as simple as the notion that it is in the midst of our most difficult times that we see the best in ourselves and the beauty that is a collective of like-minded people gathering on a regular basis, perhaps the Sabbath, in order to serve each other and attempt to bring joy into a world that when left to its own devices, is sorely punishing and horrific. Albert Einstein, perhaps inadvertently, best defined formal religious enterprise and the fruits thereof when he said that enjoying the joys of others and suffering with them are the best guides for man. This is not just a good definition of formal religion, but is, when pressed into its ideal, a thoughtful invitation to a struggling world beset with its own set of very powerful and vexing primal questions and concerns.
Opinion by Matthew R. Fellows
When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1978), Harold S. Kuschner
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