Saturday, December 23, 2006

Is Religion Divisive?

In a word: yes.

And that's what 82% of Brits believe as well.

There's no need to get into a great debate about religion v secularism to understand how religion is divisive. By their very premises, each religion believes it is the only path to salvation, God, nirvana, the light, truth or what have you. Religious people are taught to defend their faith and while preaching inclusiveness and tolerance of others with different beliefs (including non-religious beliefs) the bottom line is exclusivity to the secrets of life.

The broader questioned posed by the Guardian's poll - whether religion does more harm than good - is a bit more complex, but the majority of Brits expressed concerns that the negatives do outweigh the positives in a country with a much different religious demographic than what we experience in North America. It's interesting to note that Britain is not typically seen as one of those godless, liberal, socialist countries that so many right-wingers decry as bringing down civilization as we know it, yet the open-mindedness of its people to rightly question established religions despite or perhaps because of the history of religious conflict gives us a glimpse into a society that is small "c" conservative overall, definitely multicultural and that is much more secular than many would have perhaps thought.

So, does religion do more harm than good? I tend to believe that as some religions are practiced, which is not the same as what their holy books or tenets might actually preach overall, the harm is definitely measurable. Since I'm a buddhist (with zen tendencies) however, I find it difficult to take a word like 'good' and define that in a simple manner in order to judge the effect of religion overall ie. what we often perceive as 'good' or 'bad' turns out to be the opposite. There are, no doubt, effects of religious beliefs that have caused great harm: religious wars, the crusades, the mantra of 'the chosen people' v those who are not, selfish righteousness and arrogance, the misappropriation of selected holy book quotes that are used to justify bigotry and discrimination - attitudes that must be defended in the name of religion in generalized ways like this:

"We live in a society that seems to take care of everything, but in fact gives us nothing," Father Victor Agius told his congregation on a recent Sunday. Later, in an interview, he recounted his belief that "behind every homosexual, I've never found one who did not have a very sad story in their childhood."

It would be just as easy for me to say exactly the same thing about heterosexuals. We all have our sad stories, don't we?

This time of year brings numerous documentaries and shows about Jesus and the history of Christianity - which is rife with divisions and whose central tenets were decided by men of the day with political interests such as those at the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 320) who proclaimed that Jesus was the manifestation of God in the flesh after Constantine* had his 'light-bulb moment' . Since that time, the various factions of Christianity have battled amongst themselves (in some very nasty ways) in order to justify divine supremacy of religious thought as have Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.

And then there's the more encompassing debate about faith vs reason or religion vs science.

My bottom line is this: I have no need to believe in a god or gods. My life is not emptier without such a belief. I understand why others do, since I used to be a Catholic until my teens. There's no doubt that religion brings a measure of comfort, direction and meaning to billions of people. Tolerance and compassion are vital. If only all religious practitioners could live that without proclaiming their superiority over others who they think need to find their exclusive path to god or heaven, we might all get along better.

And no, I don't claim that Buddhism is in any way superior. It's what works for me because it involves constant questioning, rationality, honouring scientific development and progressiveness of thought - things I do need. I don't attend a temple. I'm a free-range Buddhist. As with many people these days, what I believe in is an eclectic, pragmatic and practical view of the world. It's the idealist and logician in me that attracts me to what I do study and I know it's not for everyone. Nor should it be.

I'd be content if we could take organized religion out of the public consciousness and just replace it with an overall commitment to peace, love and justice - things that do not require religious guidance and which are too often complicated by it. We know the way. It's that voice that speaks inside of us: intuition. Everything beyond that is just window dressing - but I admit to enjoying window shopping sometimes.

As John Lennon wrote:

Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

*Recommended reading: Constantine's Sword by James Carroll

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