I have been hearing from those around me – more frequently than I would like – that religion is the cause of most of the troubles of the world, and that if a new and more just society is to evolve, religion must be eliminated (or, more gently, that it must disintegrate and crash by itself). I wonder when I hear this; it seems a skewed position, leaning heavily to one side of a spectrum. It seems like another try at the simplistic solution of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
It is not a secret that religions have their dark sides. The Crusades, for example, or the conquest of Canaan, the enmity between the grandsons of the Prophet, the ferociousness of Zen among the Samurai, are examples from the past. Currently, there are examples from the fundamentalists of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, in particular the anti-Islamic persecutors, the continuing occupation of and unrest in Palestine, and, of course, ISIS. And, in the farther East, the religious frictions among Hindus in India or the persecution of Tibetan Buddhists is perhaps less vocal, but equally present. Plainly, religion is not free of conflict, even violent conflict. This raises two questions. Does its dark side primarily define what a given religion is about? Is any individual among us free of such a dark side, thus able to “cast the first stone’?
I am not a religious scholar, nor have I spent many years studying religions. However, from what I have read, heard, learned, the basic precepts of ANY of the religions of which I am aware seem pretty consistent, and pretty much the same. Different words may be enunciated, different expressions may be enacted, but the central IDEAS are strikingly similar. And none of them seem to say, “Go out and harm and kill those who are different from you.” Conversely, there seems to be agreement that God (or Energy, the Force, Primal Origin, or the like) is essentially Love, a love which humans may not fully understand; Those who have grown in the understanding of their religion are equally aware that the “prime directive”, so to speak, is to love God as God is understood by that religion, and to love one another. Human beings are fallible, but those who are truly religious can be recognized by their unfailing efforts to learn and live up to that prime directive.
Another objection that people make to religion is that it has too many rules, that its major purpose is to control them. This view tends to be prevalent among those who perceive regulation as being punitively imposed from without, and among those who have not yet arrived at individuation, growing into a knowledge of themselves and their inner strengths as well as their limitations. They have a point. There are rules, and often those rules interfere with the desired action of the moment. They seem to limit one’s freedom. The problem is not the rules. The problem is that often people have not managed to think about them long enough to understand the reasons behind the rules; not the political reasons, but the deeper reasons over time, timeless or eternal reasons. For one thing, if there were no guidance or structure to human behavior, there would be the chaos of anarchy as each struggled to get as much of his or her own way as possible and avoid any responsibility towards anyone else. We are experiencing some of that energy in the world now. The paradox is that when one has arrived at a deeper understanding of the rules, one freely chooses them, knowing that they are in design an expression of love, ways that keep oneself and others safe and free to grow and experience the abundance of the universe. In its essence, religion does not deny one the freedom of choice; it actually enforces it. A choice to not choose is still a choice. As humans, the necessity to choose is built into us, and the responsibility for those choices is irrevocably attached to them. There is no need of punishments or fear. There is only choice and responsibility. Religion recognizes this, even though that seems restrictive to those who touch the surface of religion.
It would seem, then, that the desire to eradicate religion is premature. Yes, there is a dark side, as people have also dark sides. Throwing out religion or throwing out people does not solve much. Encouraging people to grow in depth and understanding of their own religious traditions, and sometimes of others’ also, seems a more constructive path. Perhaps we need more religion in our lives rather than less. After all, religion is part of our fabric.