Since the beginning of the history of human civilization, religion has been used to justify war, intolerance, injustice, murder and torture. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the history of violence in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia and 9/11 are just a few examples. This sordid past is one of the arguments that many atheists put forward in their critiques of religion.
On the other hand, religion has also provided millions of people with comfort in times of need, purpose in their lives and moral directions for their behavior. The Golden Rule (treat others as you would like to be treated), for example, is a universal moral teaching found in each of the major world religions. While many attribute The Rule first to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, he is actually referring to an earlier Jewish teaching; the rule can be found almost verbatim in Leviticus 19:18.
In a way, couldn't we put forth the same arguments used about religion, both pro and con, for politics and economics? Wars have been fought, lands conquered and people enslaved for political gain, disputed land boundaries and the accumulation of wealth. Do we, however, argue seriously today that we should do away with our political systems that also provide order and stability to society through the rule of law or abandon our economic systems which have steadily raised the standard of living and the lifespan of the global population over the ages?
To me, religion is different than politics, economics, science, history or other disciplines. While these other disciplines focus primarily on the "how" or the "what" of existence, religion attempts to answer the "why": the meaning of our existence. What does it mean (to paraphrase Hamlet) "to be"? This question of meaning is not one that has been answered by our advances in science and technology, even though we are better able to explain the mechanics of life. Yet as our lives over the centuries have grown more secular and less "religious," have we become a happier and more content people? In our age of political stability and a standard of living more comfortable than any time in history, do we not still ask the question: What is the purpose of our lives? My struggle has been how to reconcile my life in the secular world, my mind which is grounded in scientific thought and reason, and my desire to touch the spiritual dimension that I sense within my existence. These questions permeate my new suspense novel, The Breath of God.
When I began to seriously consider these questions in my 30s, I wished that more of these discussions were taking place in the church of my youth. The church rituals which, while familiar, did not hold any spiritual meaning for me. While the typical sermon related a Biblical story or theme to a current event, I felt that I couldn't relate because the underlying theologies on which these sermons were based didn't ring true. Now that I have learned that the priests giving these sermons had all studied the same theologians and philosophers that I have now encountered, I am all the more frustrated.
Why are we not discussing and debating and questioning our very views about God and the meaning of being human from a modern perspective in the very place where these discussions should take place -- our houses of worship? I think the answer is fear. Fear of where these discussions may lead.
Yet I sense a hunger for a deeper spiritual connection among people today. A hunger that is not currently being served by most mainline churches, yet a hunger that religion, for all of its imperfections, is ideally suited to answer. It isn't necessary to establish a new church in order to address these issues, but we must begin to shake things up in our own churches. Ask the difficult questions! I applaud those churches that are beginning to take steps in this direction. Many are bringing in speakers such as Marcus Borg, Barbara Brown Taylor and John Shelby Spong to challenge their congregations. And these events sell out. However, I wonder what happens after these speakers leave? Bringing in someone from the outside is a "safe" way for the clergy to touch on these issues without having to put themselves on the line by taking a controversial view, a view which many of them hold.
My purpose behind blogging on HuffPost is not to convert anyone to my particular viewpoint, but rather to pose these tough questions to encourage dialogue and thought. I do the same in my novel, through a work of fiction that blends mystery and mysticism and recognizes that questioning, doubt and searching are all part of the process of faith. What is your view of the role of religion today?