A few weeks ago I heard a CBC radio interview with sociologist Reginald Bibby. The CBC host kept asking if religion was still needed in our secular culture.
Dr. Bibby tried to be diplomatic and scientific. He laughed and said his data supported the idea that religion was valuable. Yet the interviewer kept bringing the conversation back to the more emotional topic ‘is religion still needed’.
Religion is an easy target. Religion has to take some of the responsibility for being an easy target too. It has oppressed people by using authority badly. It has been simplistic in contemporary theology and philosophy. Most seriously it has divided people when they needed anything but division.
The religious unrest in the Middle East, Ireland, China, South Africa, and India is testament to that.
Religion should be criticized like every aspect of our culture. What I want to know is why aren’t people also talking about the good of religion?
New moms’ groups like the Le Leche league, seniors’ groups who get together for conversation and fun, day care facilities, drop-in centres, self help groups like AA or CAA, children’s groups for dance, scout and tutoring, choirs, political meeting spaces for debate and polling places all take place in religious communities. Who would take them in if religion was not needed?
I want to know when a child is born or a loved one dies where do we speak about life and death? Where do we speak about ‘what are we doing on this planet’ or ‘what our life means’? Where in our culture is the appropriate place to ask these existential questions without inviting ridicule? I want to know when you or I are depressed, when we are confused, when we ask ‘what is it all about’, is there any other public place where we can heal with others who understand these concerns?
We might make fun of words like god, salvation, spirit or soul, but what words do we use when our awareness transcends our experience? How can we explain an experience that transcends memory and language? Where can we go to explore these very human experiences?
When we are in the hospital and life is threatened, when we are old and wondering if our lives mattered, when we are scared about the future, I want to know, like the Lakota shaman Black Elk, that “life hears me and knows me,” even if no one else does. We need meaning to make life not only palatable, but wonderful.
Religion has profoundly influenced music, dance, art, architecture, language, poetry, healing, science (yes science) and community development. Civil rights, peace, social justice, and respect for human dignity have often been solely religious initiatives. Anthropologist Wade Davis believes when we throw away religion, we throw away generations of discovery about meaning. This devalues our culture and insults our ancestors. Throwing away religion is arguably throwing away 40,000 years of human development. Davis likens it to “losing an old growth forest of the mind.”
Current chaplains, imams, rabbis, priests and ministers are likely some of the most compassionate, well educated, hard working, and creative people you will ever meet. Keep in mind the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Thich Nhat hanh, Martin Luther King, the poet Rumi, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Ghandi were all clergy.
Isn’t it time for the media to host an honest program about the goodness of religion. We forget, even the word, ‘goodness’ comes from the old English word for God. Our ancestors designed it this way because they thought goodness was similar to the creative intelligence of us all.
Maybe it is time to ask deeply spiritual people the questions we have been lobbing to atheists and the cynical in science and media. Their answers might surprise you.