A lot of folks are talking about religion right now. There is a lot being said about the toxic effects that can arise from trying to live a centuries-old code of ethics that actively resists updating. Fundamentalism can be blamed for a lot of the problems in the world and even main-line conservatism still teaches fear and marginalization of minority groups. If we accept that religion is to blame for so many social ills, though, then I propose that religion is also the solution. Liberal Religion.
Religion is toxic!
Some religion is, and that has been true for a long time. People seeking power have abused religion. I want to admit that up front. Some of them had good intentions and bad theology; some had bad intentions from the start, whether they recognized it or not. But we should examine what makes religion so powerful in the first place. Most branches of Buddhism have no gods as Christians would recognize them, while Hindus have many and treat them unequally. Religion, then, must be about more than deities. The Ancient Greeks wanted the focus to be on the material world, and so their gods were gods of things and phenomena. Their afterlife for the common person was dull and uninspiring. Christianity certainly wasn’t formed from a position of power; and, while it has been a tool of control for some, that only works because its core message speaks to common people. Many religions have existed (or so their myths tell us), without a central authority or seat of power. Some Continue to exist as such today. So it cannot be that religion is created only as a tool of the powerful. Religions arise when people create stories to pass on their beliefs and their ethics and culture, and from there it becomes institutionalized. Religion, I believe, is inherent in humanity, though not all people experience it in the same way. Like music, it is part invention, part discovery of something within us.
People have an innate need for social rituals and responses that build a sense of belonging.
People naturally create social mores and norms for their community. This is true of sports fans, theater goers, musicians (which varies by genre), and spreads to the wider culture. They even make up superstitions to support their norms, like not talking about a no-hitter in baseball or not wishing an actor “good luck”. In the wider community these are things like fashion and what words are formal and what slang is in style. Like a spoken accent, many of these things are incorporated into our thinking without ever being consciously taught to us. In time, some of these things become religious as religion is dependent on culture more so than the other way around. (Did you know that the Catholic Church ruled that rodents are fish so that South Americans could continue to eat them during Lent? Even the Vatican bows to cultural necessity.)
Religion creates institutions that have the power to sway groups and mold cultures because religion, at its most base, is just the collective ethos and morality that a culture teaches. All groups have shared ideals and norms, that can look a lot like religion. They can become religion when those groups grow large enough or their ideas strong enough, as they try to make those ideas, those norms, part of the identity of their group. Religion is, partly a response to knowing that we will not live forever; knowing that we need to find ways to preserve our most cherished beliefs for future generations.
“Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human.” ~ James Luther Adams
More over, though, many people have a need for the emotional gifts of religion. This part goes beyond culture. People need hope (faith). They need belonging (fellowship). They need to feel like they are part of something bigger (salvation). They have emotional needs that religion fills, and that is where things get dangerous. That is what leaves a community vulnerable. You cannot ask them to give up religion, though, as a source of comfort or direction. They have a need for it, and that need can be so great that it leads good people to do unthinkable things to themselves or others. That is why the world needs liberal religion.
Why Liberal Religion Matters
In his “5 Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion”, James Luther Adams lays out a defense of liberal religion and its practice. In it, he manages to start defining what makes a religion liberal, and that is a good starting point for why liberal religion can be a positive force. For instance, he says that humanity has not discovered “The Truth” yet. We need to admit that there are still things to learn, and that as we learn them, we need to be open to changing our goals and methods, even to the point of abandoning beliefs in favor of truth. He says that all relationships must be both mutually voluntary and built on mutual respect; that liberal religions are not based on assumed authority, but on respect for achievement and one’s contributions. He says that there is a responsibility to make good in the world, rather than wishing and waiting for it to come from on high; that our salvation comes through our efforts and that it can only come collectively by making the whole world a kinder, more just place. These ideas create a call for acceptance of one another and for mutual aid that reaches beyond the congregation or community. These ideas save lives.
I don’t say that last part lightly, either. People have had their lives changed by the radical love and acceptance of a liberal congregation. It helps them fight addiction and depression. It allows them to redevelop social ties and emotional trust. It can even effect physical health to belong to a community that supports you emotionally and mentally.
Liberal religion stands in opposition to fundamentalism, not just theologically and ideologically but as a cultural ward against the teaching of fear and intolerance. It can vaccinate people who are mentally and emotionally inclined toward religion against the kinds of religion that prey on people who are lost, hurt, and lonely. Liberal religious congregations build better neighborhoods through their involvement with education, civics, and social justice. In short, liberal religion, while not for everyone, is a powerful ally to anyone who wants to make the world a nicer place. That, after all, is our kind of heaven.
I finish by asking you to again consider this reading on the UUA’s Worship Web from Rev. Scott Alexander, who expressed the heart of what I just wrote more poetically and with fewer words:
We Need a Religion
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