Mention the word religion and you risk opprobrium from many quarters. It can make you the victim of a fatwa or excommunication, even imprisonment, if your view is considered blasphemous. No one definition of religion fits all. Individuals’ views of it change over time – as many who take religious vows when young later discover. It is, however, a vitally interesting subject and one that seems to be becoming more, not less, important.
And this is curious because belief in the tenets of many religions has declined significantly since the discoveries and pronouncements of Michelangelo, Newton, Darwin, Hawking. Even so, I hear many people say ‘I’m glad I was brought up a Christian / Jew / Muslim but I don’t believe now what I was taught then’. It is a statement about having something to focus on when a child, that may later be replaced with more reasoned purpose.
What is religion? The Wiki tells us that it is ‘the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods’. The ‘controlling’ bit is where I fall off the belief cliff. If we are being controlled we do not have free will. Would a benevolent controller deny us choice? Surely not. I want to be responsible for what I do – both the good and the bad – and I see my life as a journey, hopefully towards being better. Our individual ability to influence how the world develops may be extremely small but it is ours.
There are two religions (using the word broadly) about which I don’t hear the ‘glad I was brought up’ statement made. One is Buddhism, of which I know very little but which seems to be an attractive and socially cooperative style of life. The other is philosophy, which is certainly a religion. In fact, I think a better definition of religion is ‘philosophy supplemented by faith’. If you accept this, the ‘supplementing’ is there to fill in the gaps not yet satisfied by philosophy. This many explain why, for all the drifting away from religious belief and practices, some very advanced thinkers are even today asking themselves the question “yes, but what was before ‘before’?” Who created the creator is what gives rise to the concept of eternity.
Follow this thinking and you develop an interesting view of why religion is still flourishing and, indeed, becoming a major force in world politics. As the old beliefs were questioned there were two possible reactions. One was to deny the new discoveries, often the laws of physics, thus allowing faith to continue. The other was to shed old beliefs and acknowledge the apparent logic of the new revelations. Many people took this second route only to find that their purpose had disappeared and they were left without both faith and certainty.
The very fact that faith is unprovable means equally that it cannot be disproved. This can generate extremes of faith as we well know. As with everything, extremes are poor substitutes for reason and kindness. So the need seems to be not for a kind of Federal Religion or even a World Religious Union but for a Religious Commonsense. This would say something along these lines:
“What is proved is probably right but always needs a wary eye keeping on it. The proven have sometimes turned out to be wrong. What is unproven is up for belief which should be an open-minded, cooperative search not a dogmatic declaration.”
It would encourage us to explore other beliefs than one we may have.
It would enable us to see a little further through that dark glass.