Why Religions Work: God’s Place in the World Today

So why DO we need religion?

There are huge inequalities across the world in terms of standards of living, availability of food, water, adequate and safe shelter, proper sanitation, education and health welfare, and the ability to work gainfully; all of these are basic human rights.

And wherever in the world help is needed, the world’s religions are there, providing food and shelter, helping with finance to support business opportunities, fighting disease and promoting health, responding rapidly to humanitarian disasters both natural and man-made, and most importantly also helping people get back on their feet again, build their independence.

Every year organizations such as Episcopal Relief and Development and CAFOD, the Catholic aid agency, along with many others, reach out to millions of people in many different countries to provide essential aid; bringing hope, compassion and solidarity to poor communities, standing side by side with them to end poverty and injustice; helping to create a safer, more sustainable and peaceful world. There are dozens if not hundreds of such organizations; as well as those just mentioned, the USPG Anglicans in World Mission, Christian Aid, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Jewish Care, Muslim Aid and the Salvation Army are just a few of the better known ones but there are many others. All this valuable work is born out of the compassion for our fellow beings that is taught in all religious traditions.

The world’s religions are social capital WRIT LARGE! And the religions between them have amazing global networks and resources – able to respond quickly and for the long term – It is a well-known adage that the Vatican thinks in terms of centuries. Religions can do that. Governments cannot!

Religions relieve suffering and injustices across the world – issues that should concern us all – if only from a humanitarian standpoint, but also because injustices fuel unrest that fuels violence and worse. We cannot have peace where there is injustice. And the religions promote many environmental and sustainability initiatives – providing important resources for the green movement.

The world’s religions also have an enormous influence in education; indeed they are involved in the running and support of more than 50% of the world’s schools.

Religions play an essential role in tackling female illiteracy and population issues, and in providing health education and services, often concentrating on education for poor underprivileged children. Religions may provide the only hope of education in the poorest parts of the world. In the developed West such schools also have a history of providing better educational performance than their non-faith counterparts. Where faith schools are available in an area, they prove popular amongst parents of all beliefs or none for the values that they teach.

How can this not be a good thing?

What about morality? The religions demand ethical obligations in the contexts of family and society. They teach love and honesty, self- denial and self- sacrifice and promote living according to need rather than greed.

But is religion needed to support ethics and morality? The humanists would argue that they need no religious code of conduct to tell them that they should behave in a ‘decent’ fashion. That’s all to the well and good, if you are well educated and have been brought up in a family that teaches such values. But let’s not forget that the values that we promote for the good of society, values such as love, compassion, honesty and non-violence, have their origins in the teachings of the ancient wisdoms and faiths anyway.

And secular alternatives do not seem to serve us well!

And what about the rich cultural inheritance and shared values that religions provide?

Instead of insisting on any particular religion’s uniqueness, let’s celebrate the common ground between religions. All our great religions share what is known as the Golden Rule – love one another and love our neighbor as ourselves. It is around this rule that Karen Armstrong has founded her Charter for Compassion. The fact is that we have imperiled ourselves by losing sight of this Golden Rule. Then consider that we are all created in the same image, regardless of our faith. We are all of equal worth and value. We have a basic humanity in common.

And consider hospitality, deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition, and also an essential part of most if not all other religions. What an important tool for promoting world peace we could cultivate, emphasizing religious convergence and the universal spiritual truth at the heart of all religion.

Of course I realise there are arguments made against religion; I understand the obstacles put in the way of recognising its valuable role in the world:

Are religion and science incompatible?

Lots of books and debates on the internet explore this from both sides of the debate. Of course the advances in science were in many ways responsible for the abandonment of religion by many. And Dawkins, using Darwin, fuels the atheist debate.

The great irony is that in putting forward the idea so robustly that evolution is selfish, robotic, pointless, mechanical and indeed Godless, (ideas that are not only bleak but also contested even in scientific circles), the Neo Darwinists with an atheist agenda quite simply seem to have turned more Christians and others away from Darwinism and towards alternative and possibly less credible ideas of Creation and the origins of life. And these alternative belief systems are the very same that the neo atheists use to mock and deride the religious amongst us, for our obvious stupidity.

Sheldrake, turning conventional science on its head in his book The Science Delusion, surely breaks down some of this perceived incompatibility and brings science closer to religion and spirituality?

Because the religious are not stupid or ignorant or both, as the militant atheists claim.

Just look at the credentials of many of our most eminent scientists who believe in God, for example Dr Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project, and the theoretical physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne KBE, FRS. From the past, we can add many famous scientists to the list, including for example Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Michael Faraday, Sir Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes and Galileo Galilei.

I’m a scientist with a First Class Honors degree, a PhD, as well as being a Chartered Accountant, Tax Consultant and IFA, now retired. I am not stupid!

But why is my wisdom better than your wisdom? I don’t believe it is!

It is true that the zeal of the missionaries also gives religion a bad name.

Personally I see no reason why any particular wisdom should claim superiority. Satish Kumar somewhere wrote: “The rivalry among religions would cease if they realize that religious faiths are like rivers flowing into the same great ocean of spirituality.”

I like to think of a mountain with many different paths winding their way up towards the pinnacle of enlightenment. Christian I am, and Jesus certainly said “no one comes to the Father except by me” but I respect other beliefs.

Then we have the question of War

People say to me that they won’t have anything to do with religion – because, they say, they cause all our wars!

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote that excuses abound for war and violence without any need for religion. The religions’ historian, Karen Armstrong, in her book The Case for God, shows us that wars are much more about greed, envy and ambition, cloaked perhaps in religious rhetoric to give them ‘respectability.’ And no one can deny that they can certainly be fuelled by religious difference. But we are also attached to too many possessions, and it is this attachment, rather than religion per se, that is the cause of so many wars that are too often blamed exclusively on religion. Much more civil strife is caused by the injustices of poverty etc.

Fundamentalism

Ask any man in the street what he means by religious fundamentalism and words like intolerance and violence will almost certainly spring to his mind. This perception is fuelled by articulate atheists, who tend to focus on the militant fundamentalist aspects of modern religion, as if they are an essential part of mainstream religious belief, although this of course is not so.

The original meaning of fundamentalism has been hijacked from a movement spawned from Protestant disagreements in early twentieth century America. Certain Presbyterians of the day protested against the scientific progress of the time including the new Darwinian evolution theory, promoting instead their strongly held view that the Bible represents literal historical truth, as to the creation of the world, for example. These so-called fundamental truths of Christianity were published in a series of pamphlets, The Fundamentals. Hence the name of a movement was born that has now gathered such negative twenty first century connotations.

Religious fundamentalism has been described by Gustav Niebuhr as ‘an elastic term lately stretched to cover a vast variety of militant tendencies including violence,’ but the province of only a small, if significant, minority.

Fundamentalism need not always be a threat to freedom and tolerance. The Jains and the Amish are themselves fundamentalists, although largely speaking in a good or positive way.

And media bias simply does not help religion’s cause – the media have a great responsibility here and I write at some length on this in both my books.

Of course I’m not blind to the many difficulties and seemingly irreconcilable differences between faiths. Those between Islam and Christianity, our two largest religions that between them comprise more than 50% of the world’s religious, are a very significant case in point.

So interfaith tolerance is a huge issue. And I shall cover that next.

This is the second of three adapted extracts from a talk given by Eleanor Stoneham to a local group meeting of the Scientific and Medical Network, an international network “exploring and expanding the frontiers of science, medicine and spirituality.

Eleanor is the author of Healing This Wounded Earth: With Compassion, Spirit and the Power of Hope (2011), O Books, Hampshire.

And Why Religions Work: God’s Place in Today’s WorldCircle Books, Hampshire, due November 2012.

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