I’ve been a skeptic of religion for a long time. I’ve seen many religious institutions as a block to human progress as they were in the middle ages against science and social change. I cannot go a day without hearing scum like Rick Santorum or Michelle Bachmann talking about how unreliable science is because it does not follow scripture, that we can’t buy into climate change because humans are incapable of it, or how gay people are causing hurricanes and the ever impending apocalypse.
I’d like to think of the flaws in religion as the result of a multi-generational telephone game gone wrong. It’s hard to imagine such enlightened founders of the world’s major religions, dedicated to an all mighty being, would approve of witch burnings, crusades, and genocide. But I know better. Bigotry and intolerance have their roots in rigid religious philosophy just as the rest of early civilization does, just as governments and the empires of humanity’s past and present do, even if the followers of such do not see it that way.
A lot of religious practices at this point in human advancement are by very definition archaic or obsolete. Things like women being forbidden from leadership positions, hostile views of contraception, priest celibacy, demonizing of gays, and the refusal of certain foods. Though they are perfectly fine personal preferences, they are un-natural things to impose as necessity of faith. A lot of old religious text devalues women and puts them into unfair scrutiny and objectification. That said, the longer these institutions have been rooted in economically developing areas with a growing young population, the less prevalent these practices become, and many institutions to their credit are on the cutting edge of reform and change.
Early human society would not have coalesced into advancing civilization without religion. Whether it’s the Aztecs or the Celts, the Greeks or the Romans, our species formed society, law, and democracy because our culture at one point found a purpose beyond anarchy and conflict. In the face of plague, constant war, poverty, and famine, who would have the gall to declare faith to anything useless for the millions over the ages living miserably, holding onto the promise of inclusion and better fortunes? But morality was going to evolve as society did regardless of religion, something often confused. Religion is not the foundation of morality, but it was among the first organizations hoping to be dedicated to such.
Despite the bad and ignorant things that happen in the name of religion, there is tremendous good. Most Churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples all do amazing things out of good will. They host food pantries and homeless shelters for the poor, travel the world building schools and delivering aid, bring communities together, push for world peace, and console countless grief. Bad apples exist in every corner of the imperfect human world, and our age old cultural practices are not exempt.
In developed industrial countries like the U.S., religiously unaffiliated people are the fasting growing population in surveys. In one survey, 20% of the U.S. claims to have no affiliation, and 34% said religion was not an important part of their daily lives. Nearly 90% of the world’s scientists claim to be atheist or agnostic. The decline in religious involvement in advanced countries, I would suspect, is the product of science, education, and industry all providing answers for much that was once unknown while providing better lifestyles. One of the reasons why education is so vital to our youth is that it can stamp out a lot of the medieval knowledge that still plagues us today.
Following any political or religious ideology blindly is dangerous. Without reasoning or critical analysis to support thought, you are just regurgitating words learned like a child. Supporting a statement with “the bible says this” or “my party says that”, and using that as an irrefutable basis is not logic. A personal religious belief is fine until you try to impose that non-logic based belief on others, particularly in this country. If you believe the bible takes a specific stance, fine, but if it’s not in the constitution it holds no legal ground. The future of religious institutions needs to be dedicated to humanism and the abandonment of overruling science, focusing on community outreach and improvement that does not coerce religious involvement but guides individuals in a way that is not alienating or exclusionary.
If the world’s religions want to remain relevant in the future, they need to modernize like much of the world around them has. They need to give broader appeal to a population beyond the children growing up in their pews. The future is one that embraces gay rights, equal value of women, scientific research and the embrace of it, tolerance of other cultures, and a rejection of rigid, non-fact based thought. Religious leaders or sects that claim ancient religious text trumps democracy and a changing world will continue to decline. There is a clear path for leaders to recognize that religion can accept the science of evolution, medicine, and climate change as well as an acceptance of certain personal controls over fate in a way that is not detrimental to their base teachings.
There was a time I thought that for humanity to reach its peak, religion needed to collapse. But it’s naïve to think that society could ever be altruistic enough to function in such a utopian vision, or that progress cannot go in hand with a reformed religious establishment. The best and worst of the world will always need some form of faith to help get through the tragedy and struggles of the day-to-day world. That form is completely different to each individual.
I consider myself agnostic. I don’t pretend to know anything that cannot be known by mortal man and I’m not pessimistic enough to think a god cannot exist. Most religions have provided a meaningful order and structure that has tried to guide many to a more fulfilling life. It is man kinds’ ancient old remedy of dealing with the impermanence of existence by achieving immortality in the heavens they pray to or by the legacy of the virtues they ground into their descendants. It’s about finding a personal peace. I can’t think of a more natural and noble goal for any individual or society, and who would I or anyone else be to claim otherwise? A more liberal form of religion will be able to maintain itself in the advancing world as long as humanity still claims existence. And I sincerely hope it does.