Friday, 24 February 2012

Why & How Religion is Good

Religion has found its way to the front of the newspapers of late.


Baroness Warsi, led a British delegation to the Vatican to argue for the role religion has to play in the public sphere.

The National Secular Society won a case against Bideford Council outlawing prayers at meetings and Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science have produced evidence that not even Christians think of themselves as religious.


Actually the most forceful imposition into my consciousness of this recent flurry of religious newsworthiness came on Wednesday when I was spending my day off constructing IKEA wardrobes while the decorator was at work in the hallways. The decorator likes listening to talk-radio while he worked and there I was, power screwdriver in hand, listening to a presenter on LBC baiting religious listeners with a cascade of denials of the use, meaningfulness and sense of religion.


So what use is religion and should a space be made specially for it?


The piece about the phone in show on LBC that riled me so was the basic assumption, that I’ve heard too many times to mention, that religion is responsible for the great wars and battles of our time. And this is a claim that is made by people who claim to follow only matters of provable evidence.

Let’s take the last century as an example.

The First World War, let’s say 16 million – nothing to do with religion

Stalinist purges, let’s say 2 million - nothing to do with religion

Chairman Mao’s purges, let’s say 5 million - nothing to do with religion

The Second World War - nothing to do with religion, unless you blame religion for the Holocaust, which seems more than a little unfair.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki  1.5 million - nothing to do with religion

Vietnam War - nothing to do with religion.

I could go on – I found a web page[1]

75000 in Sierra Leone - nothing to do with religion.

60000 in Nicaragua - nothing to do with religion.

80000 in Angola - nothing to do with religion.


What multi-million death horror committed in the name of religion could possibly compete?

And that’s even assuming that any outbreak of violence that could be associated with religion can truly be blamed on religion.

Perhaps there were 17000 who died in the Six Day War. That’s 17000 bereaved families, that’s horrendous, but I’m not sure I would blame the Six Day War on religion.

There are certainly several thousand who have indeed been killed in the name of a God mistakenly understood by foolish pseudo-religious devotees to want the death of others of different faiths – and perhaps we would have to count the 3,000 who died on 9/11 in this number – or less anyone would think I don’t have murder committed in the name of Judaism in mind the 30 murdered by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron in 1994, then surely a person who weighed up the evidence for religion would feel compelled to place on the other side of the scale the extra-ordinary acts of fighting for freedom, peace and liberty that have been profoundly and deeply rooted in religious faith.


Of course I have a soft spot for that pre-eminent act of overthrow of despotic tyranny, the original Exodus from Egypy, but let me again limit myself only to the last century.


You have the Reverend Luther King’s leadership of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

You have the Hindu inspired Satyagraha of Mahatma Ghandi.

You have the role played by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the overthrow of South African Apartheid.

You have the striving of the Tibet people led by the Buddist monk The Dalai Lama.

And that’s putting aside the simple acts of kindness.

The charitable work both inside and alongside the official charitable sector all committed in the name of faithful peaceful religion.

If you were indeed a person who paid attention to the data you should never blame religion for the ills of the world.


I needed to get that off my chest.

Let me make a more theoretical point.

I’m not going to make the claim that irreligious people are by definition immoral or that there is any marker of being a religious person that guarantees moral supremacy. That’s clearly nonsense

But I do believe that being religious helps.


If there is one central tenant that unites certainly the deistic faiths it is this – there is something more powerful than you.

It’s possible, clearly it’s possible to make mistakes about what this more important force wants from you but my claim is this – it helps to be in training, it helps to have an understanding that my grasp is not total. It helps to have a sense of humility.

I think that can make a person more moral.

The problem – and the place where religion is due its critique is the place where this sense of there being an exterior power becomes solved.

That’s the problem of fundamentalism.

But we are not a fundamentalist community and frankly I can’t understand how any Jew could confuse Judaism for a faith that would permit such hubris.

For me the will of God is a mystery.

Finite human with finite understanding stands before the infinite – it’s not even that I am not going to get everything, it is that my understanding is going to be qualitatively errant – if I make the potentially catastrophic error of confusing my understanding with God’s will.

The problem of ascertaining God’s will is that it is simply not a mystery that can be solved. It’s a mystery that one should engage in, but gently – and with the fear of getting it wrong.

It takes study, practice, standing on the shoulders of the great who have gone before us.

And it requires that we never lose a personal inbuilt sense of what a decent God would expect as acts of decency.

For me the central challenge that comes once one accepts a belief in God is what does that God want of me?

And that is a very different kind of challenge that the non-believer faces. The central challenge of the non-believer ought to be where to find a morality, where to find the limits on a self-centred creed.


It does seem to me that the religious person has an advantage over the believer even if the religious person can’t be sure what the infinite God wants, even if the non-believer thinks they can establish their own moral compass all on their own simply because of the will to posit the importance of something outside.


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