Religion gets a bad rap nowadays. And it’s not entirely unjustified. Recently, there’s been the Catholic priest scandals, the religious extremists turned terrorists, and the glaring hypocrisy between many followers righteous beliefs and their poor treatment of other human beings. Before that, there were the Crusades, the burning of witches, the Spanish Inquisition, and so on. All these atrocities committed in the name of God, Yahweh, Allah, or some other deity.
So it’s easy to see why more and more people identify as “spiritual”, agnostic, or atheist than ever before.
But these people can be just as near-sighted as those they criticize. They often fail to acknowledge the gifts bestowed on humanity by those who believe deeply in an entity or a being greater than themselves. For example, the Catholic Church, despite its many flaws, provides an estimated $5 billion dollars to charities each year according to The Economist. (It could do more, however, as this is less than 3% of its annual budget). Religions have also given humanity beautiful stories with wonderful messages. From the Bhagavad Gita to the Torah to the Bible to the Koran, these stories help us understand what it means to be a human and how to live a moral life. More tangible testaments to religion exist in some of the world’s most lasting and awe-inspiring buildings and art. There’s the Sistine Chapel, the Hagia Sophia, Michelangelo’s David, the Pantheon, the Acropolis, and even the great pyramids – all of which are tributes to faith, demonstrating the great heights mankind can achieve when it is united in a common belief.
So how do we reconcile the gifts religion has bestowed on our world with the many atrocities that are committed in its name? What is the takeaway from this glaring contradiction?
Not that religion itself is bad but that belief is a powerful weapon we must use wisely. What is wrong with many religions is not the religion itself; it’s the people who follow them, particularly those who use belief as a means of division rather than unification. These people, who focus on narrow excerpts of doctrine to justify violence, hatred and bigotry, cast a long shadow over organized religion, causing more and more people to distance themselves from these institutions.
I include myself in this group. Personally, I will always be a searcher, trying to find peace with all that I don’t know as well as all that I do. Even though I went to Catholic school, as a teen I struggled to maintain the beliefs I was raised in despite overwhelming evidence that undermined everything I had been taught. Eventually, I found myself looking at those who still believed with condescension and incredulity, my sense of superiority at having freed myself from an irrational creed and meaningless ritual hard to suppress. And yet my smugness never brought me the same peace and sense of purpose that my faithful friends possessed, leading me to look more kindly on followers of all faiths. After all, life is difficult and filled with sorrows so whatever helps people cope with disappointment and death does not deserve my scorn and resentment.
And more importantly, the beliefs I now hold dear, beliefs that have become my sacred text are also present in nearly every sacred text ever written.
This is where I go a little hippie on you dear reader, so bear with me.
My religion is love; my gods – compassion, education, tolerance, patience, honesty, generosity –far worthier ideals to worship than anthropomorphized gods that are vengeful and often contradictory; furthermore, almost every religion praises these virtues, exhorting their followers to be the living embodiment of these ideals.
In the end, what I believe and what most people believe is that life is sacred, if not because it is sanctified by god, then because it is the only existence we will ever have. And because none of us will ever be able to prove our god is the true god, that what we believe is the truth while we are still living, we need to focus on the ideals that unite us rather than the labels – Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Conservative, Liberal, American, European – that divide us. If we can harness the power of our shared belief in these ideals, imagine the world we would live in.