President Obama's recent speech at the National Prayer Breakfast has generated a lot of heated debate in the media and among both conservatives and liberal commentators. Whether there is a moral equivalence between the ongoing atrocities being perpetrated by ISIS, Boko Haram, Taliban, Al-Shabaab etc and the unimaginable evils committed in the past by popes, princes, and priests in the name of Christ is a matter which historians and theologians may never resolve. As President Obama pointed out in the same speech,
"There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith."
Every religion has the capacity to produce saints and reform sinners but the abuse of religion is all too common in all religions. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists can look at many dark spots in the history of their faiths with sobering thoughts and painful hearts. Most of the worst atrocities of history--wars, Holocaust, genocide, slavery, colonialism, bigotry, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia etc--have been partly legitimated through religious texts and interpretations. Many people today as a result of the abuses which they see perpetrated in the name of God question whether religion is a force for good. This is why Obama's call for a right faith, lived in humility, freedom and love should be commended. It is a message which is sorely needed in a world that is constantly in need of healing, justice, peace, reconciliation and the good of order.
I am convinced that the greatest threats to religion and a free society are false religious ideologies, religious extremism, religious intolerance and the abuse of religious authority and misleading religious orthodoxies. True faith leads to love of God and neighbor and love of the world of nature and all things for the sake of God and the higher good
Many scholars of religion, following the theories of Weber predicted especially at the beginning of the 20th century that the shaping of the future will no longer be defined through creeds, myths and sacred texts, but through political orthodoxies and secular social arrangements which were emerging in the West. Societies no doubt will tolerate the existence of religion but at the beginning of the modern era many Western sociologists like Weber and Durkheim predicted a decline in the influence of religion. However, the gods are not in retreat. Indeed, the gods are striking revenge in the world today as French historian of religions Gilles Kepel warned more than two decades ago. He notes that religion is staging a strange comeback after its marginalization in the West and globally in terms of growing religious fundamentalism and revivalism in most religions. But it is necessary to look once more at what one may consider the right faith or the kind of religion needed for our times.
The heart of every religion is love and the transformation of human hearts from selfishness and pride of self to loving and serving others without measure through humility and self-surrender
The ethical framework for this love is built on authentic human freedom, so that men and women can freely choose to act in such a way that their actions promote human and cosmic flourishing and give glory to God. The religion which will meet the requirements of the future will be a religion which promotes peace, love, friendship, compassion, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of fulfillment and responsibility, happiness within oneself and with one another. It will also be a religion which transforms human beings from within in order that they will create a harmonious and just community, embody regenerative ethics, fellow-feeling through a spirituality of intimacy with God and openness to all that is true, good, beautiful and loving in human lives and in the world of nature.
Religion also helps us to embrace the ambiguity of life and the complexity of evil in and around us with courage and hope. Authentic religion should move human beings to live for others, to give away the often self-destructive clinging to power, ego, possessions, and the religious presumption and wrong-headed certainty about the purity or superiority of the creeds and ways of life of one religious group over the others. Authentic religion should make people humble. It should lead to an understanding that life is short and fragile. Indeed, our true happiness lies not so much in defeating or suppressing the other but in lifting people up and standing together in bonds of friendship and love for the values and virtues which can heal the world and ennoble the human heart. True faith should inspire in religious adherents a life lived with and for others within a framework of mutual respect and responsibility.
Authentic religion should make us see every human being as our brother or sister and not our foes or rivals; there is something of who I am in the face of another. This is captured in the Golden Rule: Love your neighbor as yourself. The same message is expressed in the 42 traditions of An-Nawawi, "No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself."In the Muhabharata 5: 15-17 in Hinduism: "This is the sum of duty: Do not do to others what would cause you pain if done to you." In Judaism in the Talmud, Shabbat 312, we read: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. That is the entire law: all the rest is commentary." Buddhism, Udanavarga 5: 18: "Hurt not others in ways that you would find hurtful." African Traditional Religion, Rwanda, "What you do to others, these will give to you in return."( Religions for Peace: A Call for Solidarity to the Religions of the World,12-13).
Indeed, the measure of the value and validity of any religious act is whether it stems from love and transforms the individual into a loving and lovable subject of divine and human action. All religious acts should be judged by how they promote the ideal of love, justice for all especially those who are on the margins and create conditions for human and cosmic flourishing and make true and lasting peace and happiness possible for all people.
At the onset of the menace of Hitler, a sick and dying Sigmund Freud wrote a small book, Civilization and its Discontents, in which he bemoaned the irremediable antagonism between the demands of the instinct and the restrictions of civilization. Whether it is the death instinct that moves men and women to aggression or their egoistic self-satisfaction, the truth is that we need some self-renouncement individually or collectively to be able to live together in a common world where people, planet and prosperity can flourish. As Freud wrote:
"The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction."
We cannot reject religion because of the abuse within religions just as we cannot reject human beings because there are human beings who do terrible things. There is a hunger in every human heart; it is a hunger to love and to be loved in return; it is a hunger for meaning, to live for something higher than yourself, and to commit your life to the values that are life-giving, self-affirming and self-fulfilling, and values which will outlive us because they help to build up our lives, and that of our communities and the world
There is a hunger for connections. We want to live in communities and societies where we feel safe, accepted, and affirmed, and where the structures promote the highest aspirations of the human being for love and fulfillment. There is also a hunger in the human heart for transcendence. We all wish to reach for the skies, to touch and be touched by the Holy in the complexities of ordinary life; to go beyond ourselves, to unite ourselves with values and realities that are beyond us and greater than us. These values which we find in all religious and spiritual traditions are defeated by false religious ideologies, religious extremism, dogmatism, and any blind uncritical and unreflective faith. Right faith is the only path in our religious practices which can lead us to those values and virtues which we all admire in religious persons and in various religious traditions.