"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

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Monday, 8 August 2011

Do we need religion?

The world is a rich tapestry of many different faiths, religions and spiritual ideas. The rules and customs of ancestral religions still give meaning, purpose and spiritual nourishment to most of the seven billion people on the Earth today. Something like 84% of the world’s population have a faith or religion, often with deeply held convictions, and of the remaining 16% one half claim to be theistic even if not religious. And surely spiritual nourishment is necessary for human flourishing, as recognised by the many who do not feel the need to join any organised religion on a regular basis but still pursue spiritual practices of one sort or another.
But the secular materialism of the West seems to hold the moral high ground, has the cultural initiative. And religion sometimes, indeed often, comes in for disdain. Worse still, there is a huge amount of intolerance or even persecution for religious beliefs in some countries, even in this 21st Century.
But why is this? Why can we not all respect each others' beliefs and ideas? Why can we not live and let live? Why do some atheists so passionately argue for the abolition of religion, as if that were possible? It is certainly not desirable. Yes it is true that religions have not always been forces for good in the world. But I think it was the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who pointed out once that humans have always been able to find excuses for violence and war without religion. And the religions historian Karen Armstrong has also reminded us that wars are mostly about greed, envy, ambition, land ownership, even if they are often cloaked in religious rhetoric to give them “respectability.
Why throw out religion? Religions are a huge force for good in the world. They are behind much of the humanitarian aid made available to those suffering across the globe from disasters however caused, and they have between them some amazing and enviable global networks, both interfaith and intra-faith, all working for the good of humanity.
And religion also provides spiritual nourishment and support at the all important individual and local level. UK Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has been derided in some quarters for his ideas of a Big Society. Some profess to be unable to understand what he means. But we have a Big Society writ large in our own church and community, everyone looking out for each other, extending hands of friendship and support to those in need, enjoying fun together in community events, and generally feeling a strong sense of belonging in what can otherwise seem a confusing and harsh world out there.
There is also so much in common between many of the world’s faiths. For a start they share what is called “The Golden Rule,” expressed in its positive format as “do to others as you would wish others to do to you.” For Jews this is expressed as: “What is hurtful to yourself, do not to your fellow man.” One of the Ten Commandments is after all “Love your neighbour as yourself,” and Jesus reminds his followers that this is the second great commandment (Matthew ch 22. v. 39). In Jainism they say: “In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self.” Hinduism expresses it thus: “Do not to others, which if done to thee, would cause thee pain.” And so on. Just imagine if everyone, religious or not, actually lived out that maxim. Surely at an individual level we do not want others to hate us, to hurt us, be rude to us, kill us, treat us with disdain, etc., etc? A good video to watch on this is Karen Armstrong’s TED talk, Let's Revive the Golden Rule.

But we should also celebrate our differences, and learn from them. We can learn and enjoy so much about other faiths and cultures if we open our minds. And here let’s extend this beyond religious differences, to differences of culture, sexuality, politics. We all need each other, whatever our beliefs, and we should use our multiple resources for good, not for violation and destruction.
Over the next few months I shall be exploring these issues in more detail, and looking at why so many see religion as a “bad thing,” why religion or at least spirituality is in fact so very important for the flourishing of the world, what obstacles prevent our tolerance and understanding of others’ ways of life, the emergence of new wisdoms, and a greater understanding of human consciousness and its interface with religion, and what we can all do to work towards a more peaceful, spiritual and happier world.
Comments welcome.

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