J. M. Pressley
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A Sense of Religion

We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.
     — Jonathan Swift

Humanity obviously needs some form of religion, if 5,000 years' worth of written history is any evidence. People tend to make gods where they see capriciousness as a way to make sense of it and gain at least some form of control over their lives. Add in some philosophical questioning of why we're here and what happens to us after we die, and you have religion's raw ingredients. Take an ancient agrarian society, for example. You need the sun for crops to grow? Worship the sun god. Is the sun god not cooperating? He must be angry with us. Can we appease the sun god? Make a sacrifice; get his attention with a nice gift. If we please the sun god enough, perhaps he will let us live with him in his sky kingdom when we die. Over time, whatever seems to work best becomes tradition, and thus arrives religion. But this does require a social contract amongst its practitioners.

Of course, this implies that religion is created for a collective good. It has to inspire some sense of community to function as intended. We're human beings, after all, and can rationalize nearly anything that appeals to us as good for me. Part of the societal good that comes of religion stems from surrendering a part of yourself to a greater whole, having to consider the welfare of others. It's a simple proposition, really, to love God and your fellow man. Most religions have some equivalent of the Golden Rule, in that you're expected to treat others as you would have them treat you. Most teach you to respect the rights and property of others. Half of the Ten Commandments concern one's relation to others: don't covet what your neighbor has, don't steal it, and don't kill him for it. People need to agree on those sorts of things, and to foster that successfully, a religion has to involve at least some common denominator of dogma.

By codifying that shared dogma into creed, however, religion naturally sets up an ethical opposition of "us" and "them" that has been known to cause tension over the past few millennia. If the sense of community greatly narrows or sees other communities as nemeses, religion tends to foster more hostility than goodwill. There is a myriad of pejorative epithets by which you can ecumenically address those who, shall we say, fail to see the wisdom of your professed religious affiliation: apostate, blasphemer, heathen, heretic, infidel, pagan, unbeliever, idolatrous scum. Where faith begets unconditional certitude, it's easy for arrogance to beget insult.

Ironically, religious obduracy appears comforting to many people in this world who, when faced with all the uncertainty and randomly nihilistic occurrences that make up the average life, find solace in the fact that there is at least one set of infallible principles by which they can look forward to reaping their rewards while everyone else gets their come-uppance. This is an understandable reaction to changing times and societal mores. Against a tide of change, religion presents a bulwark of faith that allows its practitioners a resolute codification of right and wrong. You need neither to apply reasoning nor to assume personal responsibility for salvation; salvation is clearly laid out by adherence to the tradition, and it's damnation for all else.

Well, the world is painted in color, not in black and white. The problem with any religion doesn't stem from the internal practices of its beliefs. The problem arises when those practices negatively impact relations with other communities, religious or secular. This usually evolves from either a selective or an intractably literal interpretation of a doctrine's creed, leading to an intolerant, paranoid worldview in which dissension from orthodoxy is a grave threat. Thus, despite all apparent commonality, religion has often been a rallying point for conflict and persecution throughout history.

Religion has been used as an excuse to murder all types of believers, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or otherwise. Religion has seen people burned at the stake because of ideas. Religion caused two centuries of useless military strife in the Middle East that ultimately served neither Christian nor Muslim. Religion was the fervor that led to torture in the name of the Inquisition. And even now, when we've had two millennia of history to serve as a lesson, we still see bloodshed in Europe, in Asia, in Africa as a result of sectarian religious hatred. It's even more tragic because it so poignantly demonstrates that the hijacking of religious principles by a hardened few can paint a hideous portrait of an entire faith in the process. It makes no difference whether that few is al-Qaeda, Machteret, or the Ku Klux Klan.

Practically every major religion touts itself as a way of peace. That seems fitting and easy enough for the average person to understand. Here's the part that seems less comprehensible: cycles of violence and retaliation are not only antithetical to religious principles, but are counterproductive to the aims usually espoused by those resorting to violence.

Ghandi achieved his political aims only through systematic nonviolence. So did Mandela and Bishop Tutu in South Africa. Martin Luther King did more for African-American civil rights by way of peaceful protest than did the militancy of the Black Panthers. Likewise, did the Watts riots in 1965 or the Los Angeles riots of 1992 do anything to advance race relations in America? Northern Ireland has the Belfast Agreement only because the IRA, the SDLP, and the British government were able to negotiate a joint cessation of violence.

Contrasting these successes are the utter failures wrought by violent means. The Jewish Zealots of the late first century ultimately ushered in the sack of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple. When Serbs assassinated Franz Ferdinand in 1914, they struck in the name of Serbian nationalism. Their lasting achievement was World War I and the eventual assimilation of Serbia into Yugoslavia. The PLO was created explicitly to foment the destruction of Israel; it has yet to achieve that means by way of terrorism, and violence has done nothing to alleviate the living conditions of the long-suffering Palestinian population. Violence didn't get the British out of Belfast, nor has it yet removed American troops from Kabul and Baghdad.

Peace can only be achieved with the diminishment of bloodshed. It would serve everyone's interest if people of all creeds could stop using religion as a conduit for hatred, cease the fanatacism that views another community's very existence as an affront, and try living their beliefs instead of killing for them. Emerson says that peace can only be attained by understanding. Religion exists because we've needed to understand the world in which we live. We need to use religion to go a little further and understand the people with whom we share this world. With a little practice, we may even actually learn to share the world with them.

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