The Purpose of Religion

Religion has developed a bad reputation in the western world. A major reason for this is that certain ideologies and political opportunists have hijacked Christian religion (in the west. Same thing happens in the east with other religions.) to maintain political dominance. As a result of this all too obvious fusion of Christian religion with a particular political and ideological position, those who don’t buy the politics simply discard Christianity and religion in general as a stooge for what they see as oppressive politics. In this note, I would like to demonstrate that what is needed is exactly the opposite of what all the “I’m spiritual but not religious” and “I’m atheist because your religion is bad” claim.

First a definition: “Religion” comes from the Latin, “re” meaning “again” and “ligio” meaning “to be bound.” “Religion” is to be bound again or to be bound to a tradition or to be connected to a community. That is the definition and meaning of the word. It has nothing to do with “drinking the Kool Aid” of some ideologue’s rantings about social issues. It has everything to do with being connected to a community of grace (more on this later).

After confronting 10,000 years of religious, cultural and technological development in situ, I want to share some observations and dangerous generalizations about what I have seen. First of all, religion works best when it connects a group of people around a common set of narratives (stories), beliefs, values and things to defend. So when Bronze-Age Greeks in the time of Homer encountered Persians, both sides had their poetry and religious narratives to rally the troops as belonging to one side or the other. Both sides had warrior-myths and epic tales of the hero returned home after battle to spur them on. While much of this is ancient poetic literary history, consider this. President George Bush referred to the Gulf War as a “crusade” which may have galvanized a few troops on the western front, but it enraged the Al Qaeda recruiters resulting in a wave of tens of thousands of new recruits. Lesson: Real history AND narrative religious history can contribute equally to the fervor of young men and women willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause they scarcely understand.

In times of peace, religion as a common narrative giving lessons on morals, ethics, treatment of foreigners, the role of civil law, and family values, serves as a stabilizing influence on society. The Federalist writers founding the United States were not terribly religious in their church-going and observances, but they strongly believed that religion was vital to the health of the nascent nation because it helped promote stability and ensured “domestic tranquility.” The Olympic Pantheon of ancient Greece served a vital role in uniting disparate city-states across a large, mountainous and archipelagic geography. Because the narratives of ancient Greek religion united the people, the Greeks prevailed over the Persians and Turks ensuring that western civilization would become what it is today instead of a Semitic-language culture.

How are we to deal with religious plurality, diversity and religious tolerance today? First we should recognize that these are modern challenges to the very concept of religion that have never before been tested. Ethnically and religiously diverse nations of Europe and the United States are very new in world history. Heretofore we have had mostly monolithic cultures in each nation, where the culture was mostly Jewish (Israel), Muslim (Egypt, Iran…), Christian (USA, Europe), Buddhist (China, Korea), etc. Those models are completely outmoded now and the military conflicts we see today are largely a question of old ideology (my religion dominates this country-region) versus new (this country reflects a diversity of religions and beliefs). 

The technology of travel and commerce has changed the world from 1500 BC to the present. We cannot turn back the clock to the 1950s or the days when each country was mostly one religion or another. If religion no longer serves the purpose of providing a regional narrative of origins, history, ethics and community gathering, what should we do with religions today?

First we need to develop a global understanding that religions will not go away. At the same time the exclusivist claims of ALL global religions need to be relaxed if we are going to get along together. An enlightened globe needs to understand that when Christianity or Buddhism or Islam or any religion claims that “Their way is the only way” that such claims were made in order for a religion to compete and gain converts. This is a big hope of mine and a tall order for the world, but “My way or the highway” only leads to conflict and more destruction.

Consumerist, western culture wants to separate individuals and family units. This only increases our anxieties and drives us to buy more stuff. By falling for the marketing ploys of “You won’t be happy unless you buy XYZ” we become more isolated, depressed and anxious. Individualism and consumerism will only create a neurotic, needy nation. What we truly need are organizations that bring people together.

I will resist calling these “churches” or “synagogues” or “mosques” because it is not clear that these forms will survive the next few centuries. What I hope will emerge are “communities of grace” where people come together to help others, make the world a better place and support each other. These communities may grow organically arising from meeting one or more local needs. They may arise from traditional churches, but individual salvation and going to heaven will not be the objective of membership. Future communities of grace will be places where history, goodness and the future will be shared.

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