Sunday, July 28, 2013

Religion's Greatest Hits

So I have a confession to make.

For a guy who is not religious, I am fascinated by religion.

It's power to bring people together, and to divide them into warring factions is unparalleled in human history and if the week I had last week is any indication, the debate isn't going to get resolved any time soon.

Of course, resolving a debate on religion is an oxymoron because despite the many things religion is, it is not something that can be debated to a finite end.

It is, after all, about faith. And by its very nature, faith is not something that can or needs to be proven to be true. That is contrary to its nature, which is the belief in something for which there is no empirical proof.

(Although, I should point out that I think arguably most religions have some kind of "proof," usually in the form is miracles, but that's a whole different subject I think.)

Religion brings society many worthwhile things that often get overlooked by smug-faced, know-it-all agnostics such as myself.

It sets the boundaries of behavior, what's basically right, basically wrong; It creates a structure within which
Mother Thersa
we can find a place and feel like we belong to something larger than ourselves.

Religion also creates a place and framework for ritual, something I think we human beings need more than we realize, to give us that sense of continuity.

Religion is also the source of countless good works, the kinds of things of which history makes little note; caring for the elderly, helping the poor and hospitals for the sick, taking in unwanted children.

The overall impact of these millions upon millions of acts of kindness and love over the course of religion's history always should be weighed in its favor and, if you're being objective, may well put religion in the overall positive column when balanced against its many more notorious offspring.

The Crusades was outright warfare of religious conflict
One need not look too hard through the pages of history to find examples of religion dividing and hurting people: the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, Jihad, the split between Suni and Shia, the 100-Years War, the Holocaust, the Salem witch trials (in which, if family lore is to be believed, one of my distant ancestors was tried and convicted) the list goes on and on -- and so millions died because of religion.

These conflicts are most often the result of perhaps the least admirable aspect of religion, righteousness; when faith leads to surety and then intolerance for those who don't agree with your truth, and then to one's "obligation" to spread the "truth" you are so sure is right to others, often whether they're willing to hear it or not.

It's a kind of "my God's better than your God" mentality that often pervades our history.

On some level, it's easy to understand such zealotry.

After all, I would imagine the the faithful are very excited about having found what, for them, is "the answer" and faith, giving them surety, they want to pass it on to others.

The problem, of course, springs from those others resisting the "truth" being brought to them, which casts doubt, or derision, on the truthfulness of the message brought by the bringer.

Well, we can't have that can we, not if we're going to be true to our beliefs?
Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, was exiled from Boston for

espousing different religious views. He was renown for living peacefully
with the native Americans.

Result? Conflict; conflict which is, ironically, often at odds with the very teachings of both sides of the conflict. Ah well, human beings. Can't live with 'em.....

For a time, I think, it seemed that the founding of the United States held out hope for a break in this cycle of religious conflict.

Although the first residents to the North American shores came in pursuit of America's true religion -- profit -- by the time the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, after shooting a few natives on Cape Cod, the tradition of seeking religious freedom in America had been born.

(Of course, the Pilgrims in Boston had apparently failed to learn tolerance from their experience in England and exiled more than a few of their own members for coming up with their own religious interpretations. And so we gained Rhode Island. I'll leave it to you to decide if we come out ahead as a result of that....)

But the religious freedom which marked America was primarily a freedom to practice Christianity how you wished, and the other religions, well, OK if they were quiet about it.

It was from a desire to avoid Europe's religious wars that the founders sought to separate church and state.

So here in America, we talk about the conflict between religion and politics whereas in many places, Iran for example, the two are one and the same.

And it is from this tension between church and state that we arrived at the two stories last week that have me musing about religion.

The first is hard to miss -- Montgomery County's decision to insert itself into the nation's same-sex marriage debate by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

At issue is a Pennsylvania law, similar to its federal sibling which the Supreme Court found to be unconstitutional, which defines marriage to be between a man and a women.

For the most part, the foundation of this law is a religious one, and the people who turned out at the courthouse Friday to protest it, did so largely on religious grounds.

The second might have escaped your notice because of the first; it was a story about Pottsgrove principal Bill Ziegler's religious radio show.
Mercury Photo by John Strickler
Bill Ziegler

I admire Ziegler not only for being true to his beliefs but also for not foisting them on the unwilling, and for crafting a show that, for the most part, is designed to help Christians peacefully co-exist and thrive in public schools where religious practices can be fraught with Constitutional pitfalls.

The First Amendment protects the rights of Ziegler and the protesters and I was pleased to see that not only did the protesters not harass the same-sex couples coming in the courthouse to get their marriage licenses, but that many of the couples expressed their support for the protesters right to voice their opinion.

I think public opinion is shifting in favor of same-sex marriage, and so far, the change seems to be occurring with little to no violence, something about which I am infinitely grateful.

I suspect its mostly a demographically driven change, the next generation sees it as no big deal.

Perhaps its time we learned from our children.

As for Bill Ziegler, I think that the conversation about religion's proper space in the public sphere will be going on for a much longer time.

As a non-religious person, I feel my frame of reference for understanding western civilization and its history has been handicapped by not being more familiar with the Bible.

(I am still smacking myself, figuratively, for not taking a course in college called "The Bible as Literature" because it might have closed that gap, but let's face it, we don't always make smart choices as college students.)

Like it or not, the Bible is THE major cornerstone of our society and people's fear of allowing its importance and contents to be taught in public schools for fear of the evangelizing that might happen, means schools will not be teaching about what is perhaps the single most important cultural touchstone of western civilization.

And that's a shame.

I wonder sometimes if we could ever walk that line, but my confidence is not high.

Nonetheless, I will confess something else, I am enjoying the conversation.

1 comment:

  1. I find myself in the same boat Evan!! Fascinated with the conversation. I was forced to go to sunday school as a kid, (something I resented), as a consequence I retained virtually nothing of the experience or the teachings - except this disturbing image of God on a thrown in heaven looking down on me, scowling and shaking his index finger when I called my brother a nasty name.

    As a teen, when my father announced that he was agnostic, I was relived because I never felt at home with religion, I must be agnostic too! I have never strayed but, I can be moved to tears by the rituals found in some religions and I am always awed by the devotion that so many have to an unproven ideology.