“Religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.”
~ Karen Armstrong
Skeptics often wonder out loud why religion is still a thing. The prevalence of scientific thought alone puts a singular kibosh to faith, but if that weren’t enough there’s also the small matter of cruelty committed in the name of some religious creed (invariably a creed that denounces cruelty). Other detractors include modern ideologies, like Marxism, which places the clergy right down there in the gutter with the capitalists, and modern psychology, which dismisses religion as superstition, anthropomorphizing, and wishful thinking.
None of these enemies, however, are as contrary to religion as is religion’s own Achilles’ heel: its dependence on systems of dogma, practice, and social control. On careful inspection it appears that this dependence isn’t part and parcel of religion per se but rather something added to religion which religion might well do without. Still, it bears looking at, so let’s take this dependence apart a piece at a time.
Burying Religion Under Systems of Dogma
The part of religion that depends on systems of dogma, that is, on a set of thoughts tweaked and polished until they no longer openly contradict each other, falls into the trap of assuming that the human mind is capable of grasping the truth and possessing it, a line of thinking that Kant argued convincingly against in Critique of Pure Reason.
To construct and defend a system of thought in order to achieve conscious contact with the divine is to build a Tower of Babel and end up with the same communication breakdowns. Understanding and giving lip service to a set of integrated ideas will never in itself bring you any closer to the supernatural. Dogmatists go a mile further down the wrong road when they insist that membership in a particular religious group depends on total acceptance of a set of articles of faith.
Systems of pure reasoning are not of religion’s essence. Religion could toss out the creeds, theological treatises, and statements of belief and it would still remain essentially what it is.
Burying Religion Under Prescribed Practices
Now let’s look at religion’s dependence on practices. Sacred practices such as rituals, meditation, study of scripture, and various posturing and ablution techniques actually do have value in creating connection with the spirit world, and so they form part of the authentic religious life. But two problems emerge: 1) within a particular religion not all of the prescribed (sometimes dictated) practices will have value for all members, and 2) we humans have a tendency to turn spiritual practice into magical thinking. We might believe, for example, that showing up in certain buildings at certain times will automatically win us points with the entity upstairs, points obliging that entity to add to our prosperity.
Although it may be good advice that to set aside a certain length of time each day for prayer and meditation it can quickly morph into a foolproof recipe for success (in case you’re wondering, those don’t exist either), success in this case being the favour of the Most High. Unless we’re deliberately cultivating that connection with the sacred, our devotional practices are empty exercises.
Burying Religion Under Social Control
Now we come to what is perhaps the most touching weakness afflicting religion: its vulnerability to being hijacked by powermongers. Tyrants can only get so far without the fabricated spectre of an angry deity looming behind them, and even those dictatorships founded on ideologies always contain some deity-like element (like the Marxist’s proletarian revolution, the fascist’s Ubermensch, or the capitalist’s “invisible hand”). For the despot an angry deity is one formidable ace in the hole.
On a smaller scale religion as social control acts as a force to keep people working together for the common good, encouraging members to abandon their individualism and personal rights in favour of the prevailing order. This might look commendable in principle, but in practice it nearly always turns dark, prey to the kinds of scenarios found in the Spanish inquisition, the Salem witch trials, or in the short story The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson.
So Why Do We Still Have Religion?
So with all the downers, where’s the upside? There must be something to this religion thing or there wouldn’t be so many smart people still embracing it. The short answer is that religion survives because in its essence it delivers the most urgent, sincere, and moving call to compassion of any human institution.
Sure, secularists can claim that they too believe in compassion, and many nonreligious people have big hearts and work hard to alleviate suffering. It’s just that you don’t see any wind beneath their wings like you do with those few religious people who are in love not only with the source of all life but also with the central truths of their faith. Somehow connection with something bigger than all of us gives compassion a dimension that’s hard to find anywhere else.
That extra dimension has been behind many major human achievements. For example, without missionaries, much as they’ve been castigated, sometimes justly, for being merely tools of cultural assimilation, modern anthropologists would have had to start at square one. And then of course they’d be the ones accused of being tools of assimilation.
Essential religion was also behind the abolition of slavery in Europe in the Middle Ages, a feat achieved without bloodshed or economic disaster; the church simply decided that Christians should not be owned as slaves. (If religion’s capacity to empower compassion had taken precedence over the human urge to use religion for social control, feudalism might likely have perished then as well.)
Each of the major world belief systems has at some point in their story arc been responsible for gorgeous flowerings of art, literature, and music. The Hindu literary renaissance in India, the Islamic Golden Age, the Italian Renaissance, and Buddhism’s ongoing contribution to the arts with its emphasis on mindfulness, couldn’t have happened without the auspices of the sincerely devout.
The problem isn’t religion— it’s all the garbage we lay on top of it, and taking out that garbage might just free religion to do what it was always meant for: the construction of a just and loving society that respects both nature and the divine and works toward the good of all.