The importance of religion

It is important for all educated people to come to terms with religion for one simple reason: only 15% of the world’s population identify themselves as nonreligious; the other 85% claim affiliation with a religion.  If 85% of all people on the planet follow a particular way of life and see things in a particular way, it is essential that educators be prepared to address it with their students.

As I write these words, a young man in Nova Scotia is engaged in a showdown with his public school over a t-shirt he wore that reads “Your life is wasted without Jesus.”  Anyone who is interested can read the complete article here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/story/2012/05/03/ns-jesus-shirt-student.html

I am not prepared to argue here that the school was correct to require the young  man to leave the shirt at home; I only mention this incident because it demonstrates the power of religious belief.  A shirt proclaiming the importance of Spider-Man or Lego or any number of interchangeable professional sports teams would effectively be invisible.  But religion, like politics, evokes powerful emotions in people.  People are willing to die for their religion and, sadly, history (and contemporary events) have shown that people are sometimes willing to kill for their religion as well.  Because religion and politics are so powerful they have long been considered the two “social taboos”, the two topics that must not be discussed in polite company (sex used to be a third such topic, but hasn’t been for some time).

Religion has flourished everywhere that human beings have existed throughout all of known history for one primary reason: it attempts to answer questions that are otherwise unanswerable.  It gives structure, direction, discipline, community, and solace.  I especially like what Huston Smith wrote in his superlative book The World’s Religions (a book that would be my first recommendation for anyone wanting to learn more about this topic):

Being ourselves of a different cast of mind, we shall never quite understand the religions that are not our own.  But if we take those religions seriously, we need not fail miserably.  And to take them seriously we need only do two things.  First, we need to see their adherents as men and women who faced problems much like our own.  And second, we must rid our minds of all preconceptions that could dull our sensitivity or alertness to fresh insights.  If we lay aside our preconceptions about these religions, seeing each as forged by people who were struggling to see something that would give help and meaning to their lives; and if we then try without prejudice to see ourselves what they saw–if we do these things, the veil that separates us from them can turn to gauze.

I especially appreciate Smith’s observation that we can never quite understand religions outside of our own; statistically, most members of a religion were raised in that religion.  They have never known anything else and, even if they do learn about other faiths, they learn about them as an outsider.  Even if they convert to another faith, they join that religion as a convert, not a native follower.  It is a profound insight. 

Like most Christians (and most members of all the other religions), I was raised in Christianity.  I have never known anything else.  I freely confess my struggle with Christianity; it is a hard, demanding religion.  Anyone who disagrees has not closely read the Gospels: “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”; “He who loves me obeys my commandments”–these are nearly impossible objectives.  The goal seems to be to be striving towards fulfillment, rather than having any hope of attaining perfect obedience in this life.  Whether Christianity is more difficult than other religions I cannot say; Christianity is the only religion I have ever practiced.  However, as a student of the world’s religions who has examined them to some degree from the outside, it seems reasonable to me to suggest that all religions are difficult; all are demanding.  Yet surely that is the point?

In my own teaching religion as a topic of study has been integral to my Comparative Civilizations 12 course.  The course is essentially divided into two grand topics: religion and philosophy.  I appreciate the scope of the Christian religion, which ranges from Roman Catholics participating in a Latin mass at an ornate cathedral to Pennsylvania Quakers sharing ecstatic utterances in a small farmhouse.  Most of the world’s religions contain a similar range of expression (though some religions are more homogeneous than others).  At any rate, religion is a rich, vast topic which must form part of the core of any well-rounded liberal education.

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