The Importance of Religion, with or without God

 

In an article I wrote a few weeks ago I spoke about the eschatological view that some atheists predict or hope for, where our future world will have no religion or faith.  The link can be found here.  In that article, I finished off by noting that religion (or faith) is endemic to humanity and therefore it is extremely unlikely to disappear from our species anytime soon.  However, this is a factual claim rather than an idealistic claim.  In other words, I do not think that religion will disappear anytime soon, but is that good?  Is there something that religion and faith brings to our society that would lack if we lived in a world without religion?

To the person who has perfect belief in God or a specific religion, this question seems silly.  If one thinks that any religious book is The Word of God then of course they think that the presence of their specific religion is of utmost importance.  This article, however, is not targeted at people who wholeheartedly believe in God or their religion, they are not the ones who need convincing (and even so they may not agree with this overall message).  Furthermore, even if an individual does have a religious belief there is always a tinge of doubt that should go along with any sort of comprehensive doctrine that one holds.

The question of whether or not God exists, and if so – whether or not man has an ability to figure out his will (aka prophecy, revelation, or even divine inspired reasoning) is an old debate.  Both sides make good points, but in the end these debates always end up in a stalemate.  If one begins with an axiomatic assumption that God exists, then there is little that can convince them otherwise.  Similarly, if one has an axiomatic assumption that the only way to discover truths about our world is through empiricism then there is also little that can deter their worldview.  Rather then rehash this old debate I want to discuss a question that I find more interesting. If we assume that God does not exist, is religion important?

Religion represents a unique human attempt to connect to something larger than themselves.  Like various types of art or music, it is difficult to to measure by binary standards of true and false.  Different people will connect to different aspects of religion, some may connect to prayer, others may connect to a meticulous observance of the laws, while other may appreciate it more for the social aspects.  Like music, different people have different preferences depending on their needs, desires, and goals.  Religion is also not for everyone.  There are people that find religion immature or antithetical to human progress and that is fine too.  Even if religion is an important institution, that does not mean that every individual must appreciate it.

When people claim that religion is obsolete they are failing to understand its true nature.  Religious rituals and scripture are not simply pseudo-scientific hypotheses that have been debunked.  Many religious people understand that the literal events described in their respective scriptures are more mythical in nature than factual.  Furthermore, many of these people even recognize that the reason for specific rituals is not for some immature hope that God will repay them.  In actuality, there is a deep beauty involved in religion that reaches beyond simple minded, binary notions of true or false.  Religion offers a unique framework for the individual and community alike.  This framework allows for an endless amount of discussion, creativity, and productive discourse (see here and here for some examples).

In response to a comment by Richard Dawkins when he stated that religion is a pre-scientific or pseudo-scientific view of the world, Terry Eagleton wrote that Dawkins:

“is like someone who thinks that a novel is a botched piece of sociology, and therefore can’t see the point at all.”

Just like there is much wisdom and truth to gain from fiction, even though no one would claim that these books are factually correct, there is much to learn from religion in the same manner.

This discussion finally brings me to my last point, namely that a society needs religion to survive.   Now by religion I do not mean specific religions such as a Christianity, Hinduism, or Confucianism, but rather the religious process.  Religion allows for a crucial area of human progression that science or empiricism stymies.  In a religious setting ideas can be judged by their pure beauty and positive effect on the world, rather than for their factual correctness.  Ideas that people feel strongly about, but have little way of being empirically validated by science can be given a new voice in religion.  Ideas such as happiness, fear, sadness, and anger are ubiquitous throughout religious traditions.

In this light we can view religion as a type of poetry, or better yet we can view poetry as a type of religion.  A poet uses a wide array of literary devices, fictional settings, and a certain amount of ambiguity, not only invoke an emotional response in their readers, but to discuss certain aspects of our world and existence (or truths) that are untouchable in any other realm.

In truth, the beauty that I see in religion is so deep that it is difficult to contain my feelings for it in a mere article.  But then again this is exactly my point.  It is specifically the realms of art, music, and poetry that are in-explainable by pure reason, I too cannot fully explain the beauty of religion in a rational manner.  Just as a deaf man will never fully understand music, a blind man art, or an illiterate man poetry, one who has never fully enveloped him or herself in a moment of religious devotion can never truly understand the importance and value religion.

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