Photo by David Oliva under Flickr's Creative Commons License
More and more Christmas is a secular holiday. Or rather, I should say, a commercial holiday. That is not true for everyone and I think more and more people are trying to resist the commercialization of it and focus on family, love, peace, you know.. the good stuff, which may or may not include a religious aspect to the holiday. Anyway, my point is that regardless of the secular-ness or non-secular-ness of Christmas, there is a lot of talk about religion around the holidays.
After years and year of considering myself agnostic, I am beginning to question my own beliefs. We started going to Church this year for the community, the singing, the space and time to reflect on the week, the space and time to think about others and their experiences and their struggles. In the process of that we have found a particular church with a particular perspective and it has caused me to question my view of religion.
As a result, I also find myself paying attention more to what people say about religion and even, disagreeing with some of the criticism. Odd, because even five years ago I would listen and find myself disagreeing with those who seemed to pull religion into everything, trying to thrust their opinions on others. I still disagree with thrusting of opinions on anyone, but I also find myself defending the value of religion in my head. So I thought I would write it out.
I am not going to suggest that religion is all good. It isn’t. One of the reasons I became agnostic is that I strongly feel that all kinds of religions have been used by people in horrible, terrible ways resulting in pain, suffering, death and torture. Quite honestly, religion has given bad people the ability to claim their actions to be moral, ethical and right when they are far from those things as possible.
I think regardless of how religion currently fits (or doesn’t fit) in our society, if we are honest, religion was one of the earliest forms of government. It has the ability for some people to claim authority and the right to make decisions. It defines groups of people and makes clear who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. There is this concept out there (that ironically I heard about at Church) that people can function in groups of up to a maximum of 150. It is called Dunbar’s Law. From Wikipedia, “Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group.” From this perspective, religion was an early tool for establishing the types of rules and laws required when people started to live in larger and larger groups. Religion may be useful for this purpose, but it also means that religion has often been used to control and impose authoritarian order, which in our democratic society is generally frowned upon. And it has been used to exclude people, for a large number of reasons; ethnic background, language, geographical origin; the exclusion of women from positions of authority. In the current context is has been used to exclude people from the homosexual and transgendered community. I strongly disagree with this aspect of the way some religious communities operate.
On a related note, I just really can not wrap my head around the concept of ‘chosen’ people. No God I would want to follow would choose some people over others to know the ‘truth’ and exclude others as ‘heathens’. That just doesn’t make sense to me.
And then you have individuals or groups of individuals within the Church (across many different religious groups) who use their power and office within the church to exploit others. You all know what I am talking about, I won’t go into detail.
All these reasons and more are why I have chosen to identify as agnostic since I was a teenager. Because I felt like I just couldn’t buy in, given the history (not that all these bad things have stopped) of organized religion. Because I felt by associating myself with Christianity I was condoning the bad behavior, past-present-future.
You might be wondering, so why am I not an atheist? I choose to be agnostic because I also can not believe that there isn’t some kind of higher power. Not a guy with a long white beard who sits on the clouds ready with lightning bolt. Not a god in the literal, physical, tangible sense. But a power, a meaning, a energy which is beyond us. I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe there are things beyond our ability to understand. I believe the world, the universe, holds a kind of mystery and awe that only seems to make sense to me within the concept of a higher power. And I believe that some people don’t believe this, which is just fine too.
I don’t believe that some people are ‘right’ and some people are ‘wrong’ when it comes to religion. I believe that all religions have the potential to support people to have good, moral lives. All religions have aspects of Truth. I believe we live in a world where what is good and moral is not black and white and we are just trying to do the best we can.
I reject some of the main questions posed to religion. Why would a benevolent God allow bad things to happen to good people? I reject the question. If God is not a sentient being then the question is irrelevant. If God is a spirit, a power, an energy… then the question itself becomes absurd, in my opinion. To me, the concept of God and ‘Mother Nature’ is very similar. Why do forest fires start by lightening, killing trees? So renewal can occur. God does not judge individuals, God just is. (Which is why, by the way, I always find it utterly absurd when people pray to win a game show, for example… if I am wrong and God is a sentient being I am pretty sure God could care less if you win a game. I’m just sayin’.) God is a force in our lives and that force can be healing. It is that force that connects us. And that force, when we listen to it, can encourage us to do good. Or at least good to the best of our abilities.
Anyway, enough spouting on about my beliefs. What I have learned this year by going to Church is that my views, beliefs and values do to fit into the Christian faith. Not all Christians would agree with me, but my view points are valued with the religious community I belong to. I can dislike a lot of things about organized religion, but I can also be a part of a organized religious community that represents my views. And that doesn’t mean I have to agree with 100% of what is said. As I have discussed in an earlier post, I am becoming more comfortable with ambiguity. I can identify myself as Christian, without condoning the bad ways in which many Christians have behaved. (And not just Christians; there are many people from many religions whom have behaved badly under the auspices of their religion.)
Religion is not what makes people do bad things. Religion itself is not bad or good. People do bad things regardless and then use whatever they can to empower themselves and justify their behaviour. Religion is not worthless just because bad people have claimed themselves to be religious.
What religion can offer is the opportunity to believe in something greater then yourself. To trust. To forgive. To reflect. To connect with supportive people. To be a part of a community that is actively engaged in doing good things. And true, you don’t need religion to have these things in your life. There are millions of people out there that reflect, forgive, believe, trust, connect and actively engaged in doing good in many many other ways outside of religion.
But what bothers me is the implication that religion is worthless. Or all lies. Or without any value. It is meaningful to me. It is meaningful to millions and millions of people. Many different religions are meaningful to millions and millions and millions of people. It is not all bad. Not every community is the same. Not every religious community is the same. Not every Church is heavy on the judgment. Sometimes you just need to find the one that feels right to you. Or not. But don’t discount the positive impact that religion can have on some peoples lives. Do not dismiss all those who count themselves as religious as deluded, ignorant and crazy. And don’t blame a belief in something higher when blame should really fall to individuals for bad things and bad things ignored.
Religion is what we make of it. Disagree, criticize or get angry at specific aspects of religious thoughts or practices. But don’t discount it completely. It may not hold value for you, but it does for others.