Here’s Religion in a Nutshell!

I’ve learned a few things as I have gotten older…and formed some new perspectives and questions along the way! Near the top of my list of questions are the following two:

What do we really know about our creator and our ultimate human fate?
To what extent has organized religion been beneficial or detrimental to man?

Italy and Religion

As for the first question: Perhaps we really know much less about our creator and our purpose, here on earth, than we think we do. Virtually all of our beliefs come from scripture and hear-say in one form or another. How reliable are the scriptures? For many with a strong sense of faith, the scriptures are enough. For the rest of us, especially those of us whose belief system is rooted in the tradition of “the scientific method,” more proof is required. The paucity of solid, consistent evidence supporting religious doctrine is a problem, but where do we go from here? It appears that faith and common sense will remain necessary, if insufficient, co-attributes.

As for the second question: History proves that many of the darkest periods in mankind’s history have been the result of religious ideologies at war. Is that really what God wants? No, that must simply be what man wants. How can the documented periods in our history of religious strife and the byproducts of pestilence, and human suffering possibly be religiously inspired?

Did the cause of mankind and religion benefit from the Church’s persecution of Galileo Galilei because he espoused and slyly disseminated the Copernican belief that the earth moved around the sun rather than vice-versa? Galileo was sentenced by the Inquisition to house-arrest (in his own Florence villa). That occurred in 1632/33 and resulted from the publications of  his book, the Dialogo, or Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. In 1992, the Catholic Church finally got around to officially pardoning Galileo for his “heresy” and disregard for the Church’s scripture-based teachings on the matter at hand. Galileo, of course, was correct in his scientific contention, and proof of that was well established soon afterward. The Galileo episode reveals the risks inherent in taking the scriptures too literally and the Church being too adamant. The stakes are high when it comes to using scripture as a reliable guide for human belief and conduct. The Catholic Church is not alone in its authoritarian approach to religious belief despite flimsy supporting evidence …as in Galileo’s case.

I am a cradle Catholic who, as the years have passed, has adopted a modified perspective on a number of issues. As a youngster attending Catholic school and, later, catechism, I grew up with the confusing image of a two-faced God: One who might send you to hell for defying his law, but at the same time, was always there to forgive a true contrition – even for repeat offenses. Happily, the Church, today, projects a much more benevolent God. As an adult, I view some of the harsher aspects of religious doctrine as artifacts of a less enlightened and informed time when the Church, like a good shepherd, felt obligated to forcibly engage and impress its flock of followers who might otherwise have gone astray.

Stanford Chapel Moasic_1

Many years ago, one of the better priests to rotate through our parish was blessed with a fine sense of humor. During his sermon one Sunday in the midst of Lent, Father Nathan related a dream he had experienced in his youth: He was sitting in hell, seated between Adolph Hitler and Attila the Hun. Another of the inmates approached them and asked Hitler, “What are you in here for?” Hitler replied that he had committed unspeakable crimes against the Jewish people. The inmate then addressed Attila the Hun, “What about you?” The burly Hun replied, “I ravaged, pillaged, and raped thousands of my enemy, showing no mercy.” Turning to the youthful Nathan, he asked, “And you?” “ I ate a hot dog on Friday,” the future priest replied. True story about the dream… or not: I am not certain. It could easily have been Father Nathan’s wry way of making a point. He certainly got a hearty response from the congregation!

 In Defense of Organized Religion

As a cradle Catholic, I deeply respect the fine charitable work that emanates from the Church and its many positive influences. This has been the case for centuries and continues today. The Church is divinely inspired, yet it is administered by human beings, and we humans ARE fragile creatures who, despite good intentions, often lose our compass bearings. Religious doctrine reflects man’s propensity to lose his way, to stray from the path of rightousness and honor. I believe that many of her policies and doctrines stem from the Church’s realization that the human flock needs a good shepherd to show the way. We are today, a much more informed and enlightened flock than our ancestors, generations ago, and the Church needs to adjust to that fact in the way she shepherds and in the messages she sends. On the other hand, it strikes me that while technology progress has exploded in recent decades and made the world more accessible to us, basic human nature seems not to have changed a wit since recorded antiquity – blame it on the genes! A good shepherd is still necessary – one bearing an enlightened message.

These days, I gravitate heavily to the idea that one can find salvation in whatever the hereafter by simply living an honest, hardworking, constructive existence while doing no harm to one’s fellow man or the society of man. Put simply, live by the Golden Rule with one additional caveat: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you….AND conduct yourself as to do no harm to the greater good – to the societies of men and women necessary for humanity to both survive and thrive.

Many of the things that religions have banned or declared sinful should be explained by the Church in their more proper, practical context. Sex outside of marriage, for example: Is it to be discouraged because sex is “bad” or simply because church doctrine forbids it? Most mature adults realize that religious policy, in that case, is rooted in the practical reality that children which may be conceived are best nurtured and raised within a dedicated family unit – for their own good and the good of society. If the necessary degree of parental dedication can be demonstrated without the need for official paperwork….so be it, but, given human nature, that may more easily be said than done…and the Church recognizes that fact. The growing numbers of single parent households across this nation signal the recent failure of the Church’s message; as a result, we are beginning to feel the practical ramifications as a society. I wish that messages from the pulpit sounded less authoritarian and more often appealed to the sound, practical aspects of church doctrine.

I am quite convinced that organized religion which becomes too organized, bureaucratic, and intolerant tends to stray beyond the simple, essential message of the Golden Rule and, inevitably, does more harm than good in this world of ours. Along with the Golden Rule as a guide, I would include the admonition to “KNOW what is right, and DO what is right.” That is the obligation of each and every one of us. Perhaps when we, the sheep, have finally learned the twists and turns of the pathway and have learned not to stray from it, the Shepherd can relax.

7 thoughts on “Here’s Religion in a Nutshell!

  1. I’m sure I’ll comment further (this is clearly an area of interest for me), but for now maybe I’ll stick to one of your earlier statements:

    I always struggle with statements like “History proves that many of the darkest periods in mankind’s history have been the result of religious ideologies at war.” I feel like that sounds right to our ears, but doesn’t stand up to real scrutiny. A great deal of ink has been spilled on this subject in recent years, so let me just point to the top two results from Googling “is religion really the cause of war.”

    Maybe people disagree about the list of “darkest periods” of history. I would think that any list of those would have to include the two world wars, neither of which qualifies as a result of religious ideology.

    I guess I wonder why religion gets blamed for all the wars (even the ones it had little or nothing to do with) and never gets praised for its role in the brighter moments of human history. Perhaps people disagree on the list of brighter moments of human history. I would include religions contributions to science, philosophy, moral reasoning, art, music, education, health care, notions of human dignity, caring for the poor, change brought about through peaceful resistance, etc.

    • Thanks for your comments, Scott. I do not believe that religious ideology is the cause for all or even most wars. The operative word in my post was “many.” I would stand behind the use of that word. The Huff Post article which you cited raises an interesting side issue. There, the point is made that, even in conflicts which stem from political, territorial, or ethnic issues, religious differences are often used to differentiate and exacerbate the differences between “us” and “them.” While religion is sometimes THE defining factor in conflicts, it is often “held hostage” in others by the combatants and used as one more rallying point to further their cause.

      Admittedly, a blog post is a small space for such an extensive topic as religion, but I nevertheless attempted to relate my appreciation for the good and charitable works and ideals that spring from the many faiths. Although my viewpoints have changed over the years, I still maintain my birth-connection with the Catholic Church in recognition of that fact. Sometimes, the Church is “caught in the middle” of an issue. For example, many criticize the immense treasure in the form of art, books, and manuscripts that the Church has accumulated over centuries. “Why not use that gilded wealth to help the poor?” is a common attitude. On the other hand, some of us are thankful for the Church’s role in literally preserving the culture of our civilization.

      As you well know, there are dark sides to the history of the Church: Overbearing authoritarianism (the Galileo and Giordano Bruno cases, among many), the Inquisition, corruption and hypocrisy in the Vatican – including some popes, and the current abuse scandal. There is much resultant human misery represented throughout the centuries – whether directly associated with war or not. On the bright side, I am delighted at the gift of Pope Francis and have high hopes. The Church is what it is, but it can be better – just like us followers.

      • I appreciate your point of view. I definitely agree that much human misery has been caused by people in the name of religion. I’m just not willing to say that that is religion. I’m sure you’d agree that overbearing authoritarianism, corruption, hypocrisy, and abuse are damaging no matter what excuse someone uses to justify their actions. What defines religion for me is the search for all that is good and true and beautiful. I’m definitely thankful for people like Copernicus, Galileo, and Lemaître whose faith led them to explore creation. I’m also thankful for people like Father Damien, Mother Teresa, and Pope Francis whose faith led them to serve the poor and the suffering. I’m not suggesting that we should deny the darkness in human history (lest we repeat it). I just think it is our light that defines us, not our darkness. As someone once said (okay, it was Jesus), “I am the light of the world.”

        • Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Linda (my wife) and I both agree that the attitude which reflects a “glass half-full” is preferable to that which sees only a “glass half-empty.” That particular viewpoint is constructive when considering institutions like the Church, our government, and, yes, our fellow humans. It is my wish that all peoples (and their institutions) would espouse attitudes of tolerance along those lines – particularly in the face of demonstrated good intentions.

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