“What good is religion?” someone asks. Or even, “Religion is the source of most trouble in this world!”
Is religion important? Stephen Prothero’s book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t, answers in the affirmative. In it he says:
Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant of religion. There are Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels, Catholics who can’t name the seven sacraments, and Jews who can’t name the five books of Moses. (2007, 1)
If an understanding of religions is important, we suggest you explore our Religions Section for more information on world religions. Key questions are asked and then answered from the differing beliefs of a dozen major religions:
Who is God? Where did we come from? Why are we here? How do we know? What do we have to do? What’s going on today? How do we recognize it? What if I want to know more?
Granting its importance in our diverse, and terribly conflicted world, what are we talking about when we mention religion?
Dictionary.com offers a long list of definitions, or examples, of “religion,” including first
a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
And also: “something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience: to make a religion of fighting prejudice.”
(a) religious or spiritual belief of preference, regardless of whether or not this belief is represented by an organized group, or
(b) affiliation with an organized group having specific religious or spiritual tenets.”
Wikipedia’s opening paragraph helps a diverse audience focus on what we mean by religion.
A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world-views that relate humanity to an order of existence. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life and the universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.
None of these definitions and explanations of religion will be satisfactory or agreeable to all. They may seem to lack specificity, to be over-accommodating, feel pro-religious, or to be looking at religion from the outside—perhaps from a mere human point of view. But we must seek some, possibly “low common denominator” of understanding in order to begin a topic—both critically important and disturbing in today’s world.
Let’s look at one more academic’s description of religion from the University of Chicago’s theologian, Dwight N. Hopkins (“The Religion of Globalization,” The Other Journal, Issue #5, January 2005). From a very broad perspective, he suggests:
Religion is a system of beliefs and practices comprised of a god (which is the object of one’s faith), a faith (which is a belief in a desired power greater than oneself), a religious leadership (which determines the path of belief), religious institutions (which facilitate the ongoing organization of the religion). Religion also has a theological anthropology (which defines what it means to be human), values (which set the standards to which the religion subscribes), a theology (which is a theoretical justification of the faith), and revelation (which is the diverse ways that the god manifests itself in and to the world.
Would you be willing to describe your faith or religion according to such categories? And would it help you to have other religions so described?
Social science and its applied professions have tended to avoid religion. Recently, however, the social sciences are finding a natural instinct for meaning derived from the transcendent (e.g. YMCA, Dartmouth Medical School, Institute for American Values (2003) Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities, p.15): “Religiosity and spirituality influence well-being….The human brain appears to be organized to ask ultimate questions and seek ultimate answers.” Several of the most extensive studies of young people reveal a correlation between spiritual belief and practice, and avoidance of dangerous behaviors. (See the National Study of Youth and Religion and the Forty Assets of Search Institute, or instance.)
Here is a dilemma. On the one hand, many feel a deep dissatisfaction with organized religion and religious practice—even disgust and disdain for global conflicts coming from religious fervor and fanaticism. Then, on the other, there seems to be a natural instinct for the transcendent—if not in religion, then in the popular media.
Whether religious or not, whether a person of faith or not, one has a responsibility to hear the stories of those with different beliefs. Societies refusing to discuss politics, sex and religion will find themselves with difficult problems from any of these three undisclosed sources. We owe it to our neighbor to hear and respect the political, sexual and religious sides of their identities.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Do you consider yourself religious? If so, in what way? If not, why not?
How do you explain the empirical evidence that young people with strong religious beliefs and practices are less prone to participate in dangerous behaviors?
Are you able to discuss religion? How do you handle religious differences, which may be felt to be life defining, and how do you react and respond to those who hold tenaciously to their personal beliefs?
Let’s say religion is one of those issues you refuse to discuss: how do you think the religious tensions and conflicts of the world can be ameliorated without honest dialogue?
Do you believe the only solution for today’s global conflicts, fueled by religious fanaticism, is an acceptance of your religious beliefs?
Is it your opinion that global conflicts are inevitable as long as there are fast-held religious beliefs?
Would you agree that further study and discussion of this topic are necessary for us today?
The national security of countries, like Iraq, Nigeria, Middle Eastern and Western countries, seems to necessitate an understanding of religions and their extremes.
There does seem to be a correlation (if not cause) between moral behavior and moral and spiritual beliefs and practices.
If novels and films seem destined to raise questions about ultimate beginnings and endings, the purpose and meaning of life, it would seem they point to a universal need for ultimate or transcendent explanations. In a way, all atheists, agnostics, and naturalists may be seen to have a naturalistic or relativistic religion—a strong, underlying belief in something. While rejecting belief in God or gods and the supernatural, some atheists have affirmed their own belief in a moral life and even an afterlife. [See Samuel Scheffler’s Death and the Afterlife, Ronald Dworkin’s Religion Without God, and Huffington Post on Atheist Mega-Churches.]
The Christian Ecumenical Movement has failed—at least in any attempt to bring about an institutional “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Eastern Orthodoxy has not produced Pan-Orthodoxy, nor have Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism become one Church. Despite noble efforts, Protestant churches have not been able to unify themselves. Still, there are profitable deliberations and collaborations, without particular churches having to give up their ecclesiastical distinctive.
The world needs constructive dialogue and debate among its global religions. These cannot be forced to give up their core beliefs and values. But for the sake of peace, for those who are being killed, raped, oppressed and dislocated, there needs to be some broad agreement on the religious freedom and preservation of the dignity of all human beings. The so-called, and generally universally accepted, Golden Rule, is one starting place.
It should be possible to hold firm to one’s beliefs and to discuss broad issues for the common good with those with whom you strongly disagree.