What Is Religion?
Angus MacDonald published this editorial in April, 2002. Angus died in December, 2011.
No society ever existed without a religion, but we are not sure what religion is. There are at least nine major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism, and the ones we know chiefly — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; but there have been scores of others that arose because of fear, fear of death, and the unknown. People avoided the unknown and secured good fortune by prayers to spirits in the winds, which blew good and bad luck. Everything had a soul because everything teemed with life — mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, sun, moon, and stars. (Our modern environmentalists and our romantic poets would be comfortable with ancient animists.) People dreamed, and the dreams were so real they believed the objects of their dreams existed as ghosts, or their fathers and mothers and other loved ones lived in another world and watched over them. They prayed to their ancestors and left food for them. This is how religion began.
How did people outgrow primitivism? They became agriculturists and then they gathered in cities. They had to live together without fighting; traditions of civility became necessary. One clan had to protect itself from another clan; cooperation between clans made people think of war and peace. Marriage and sex and parental concern demanded rules of behavior. How could one keep what he earned, or protect home, land, and possessions and pass them on to others? Some were aggressive and refused to obey rules and traditions. Punishment, law, police, armies arose to insist on rules.
As people gathered in cities they founded little industries that brought comfort, protection, and some luxuries. Traders met traders from distant lands, so that intelligence was sharpened. Because of wealth, or choice if they had no wealth, some gave up making a living by trade or commerce and discussed life; producing in time science, philosophy, art, and literature. This led to a religion without superstition that would tame passions and lead to peace and prosperity. Religion came into being to protect morals and create necessary rules and regulations. The function of religion was not to invent morals and traditions but to present them to the public so there would be peace and good order. The function of religion was and is to preserve good morals.
In the sixth century before Christ, Confucius observed the moral chaos of his time where people did not know the difference between right and wrong. He said that the remedy was a moral regeneration based on family life and this would be achieved more quickly if leaders set a good example. Proper conduct would pour down on the people. Confucius was made a magistrate of a small town, and under his leadership dishonesty was ashamed to raise its head, good faith was common, and women were chaste.
About the same time as Confucius, Buddha taught that people must govern themselves with decent principles. The good man did not kill any living thing, never stole what belonged to another, never spoke falsely, never drank intoxicants, and was chaste. Repressing desire, and becoming lost in the mystery of life, the faithful Buddhist would die in peace and quietly disappear into nirvana.
The Christian tradition was odd; growing from a tradition of one who was gentle, wrote nothing, and did little of consequence in his lifetime. His influence was so great that Rome fell before it. The greatest power in the world collapsed under the gentle Jesus. His disciples built an organization greater than that of the Roman Empire, or any other empire, and lives in our day. In the history of the Christian church, the strands of gentleness and intolerance have been interwoven so that evil has been mixed with good, yet even in times of un-Christian behavior, the person of Jesus rose above the church.
Religion is how we behave, but we talk more than we do. We cannot help but make theories; but when we elevate theory to a level that we forget why we have theories, religion is replaced by theology; or practice is replaced by theory. We can easily criticize the church for its faults with its liturgy and unfathomable dogmas; but we are not to forget that the church led its faithful during dreadful days of poverty and war; holding them together, giving them something to believe, solace, a world of beauty and hope that was in stark contrast with the world about them. In the midst of barbarism and a cruel hardness, when the institution of the church was far from perfect, the influence of the gentle Jesus tempered cruelty and brought traditions of chivalry. It elevated women to more than chattel property. In the late medieval age, Will Durant said:
“Europe achieved for a century that international morality for which it prays and struggles today — a law that shall raise states out of their jungle code, and free the energies of men for the battles and victories of peace” —The Story of Civilization, IV, 844.
What, then, is religion? Religion is the sum total of our behavior, good or bad. Religion is the attitude that we bring to the world. Religion is our ultimate concern, the grasp on us of what is holy, absolute, gives direction, meaning, and depth to what we do. Religion is the reaction of conscience to what we face. Religion is our reaction to a sense of right and wrong so that, aroused by evil, we do something about it. Religion becomes alive when we act. That religion is universal is proved by the fact that everyone has a conscience and recognizes a difference between good and bad, right and wrong.
Obviously, not all religions are reputable. Islam in our day, as it is expressed before the world, is barbaric because it is cruel and hateful. It teaches hate. That is the end of the matter. Notwithstanding Muslims say their religion is of peace, it includes cruelty. The Koran is the word of God. Nonsense. The Koran was written by a man who was imperfect, by his own confession, and must be modified by improved conscience. There was a time when the Bible was held to be the literal word of God. That, also, is not true. The Bible was written by men who were children of their time. Much of what they said was and is of worth, but not all they said is of worth. Read the Psalms. We must make distinctions. Today in Afghanistan the rulers in Kabul continue to amputate the hands of those who steal, and kill adulterers, because that is what the Koran demands. If that is what the Koran demands, it must not be followed.
What are the responsibilities of Christians today? The responsibilities of Christians today are to preach the traditional moral values of that faith in the context of a society that restricts that teaching on the public level. Christian teaching is forbidden in schools or public places because of the separation of Church and State. That doctrine is no part of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution says:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
A religion is established by the state when the state regulates the structure and doctrine of the church, and the state pays the expenses of the church. That is what establishment of religion has always meant. To argue that cadets at the Virginia Military Academy cannot say grace before a meal because it presumes the establishment of a church is nonsense and contrary to several hundred years of tradition. So is it nonsense for the State of Ohio to refuse to use the word “God” in its constitution because that is an infringement on the meaning of the first amendment. So is it nonsense to forbid having a nativity scene on church property. And so on with many restrictions of the Christian tradition. We are not supposed to say in public “In God We Trust,” though that is minted on our coins.
The reason for such decisions is that those proposing these changes do not believe in the Christian faith, or in any faith, but insist on the dominance of what they believe, whatever that is. They will not permit freedom of belief to those different from themselves. To say others can believe in private what they believe but not confess their faith in public places is contrary to secularist practice: Secularists insist on domination in public for their point of view.
The point of view of the dominant culture is illustrated by permission to sell or give condoms to children of primary school age. It is permissible to teach God is dead, that St. Paul was a homosexual, have a Christian symbol in a vase of urine, all in public places, in the name of freedom of speech and religion; but it is not permissible for Christians to gather for prayer after school, not in school, but after school. Not only are Christians forbidden to express their faith, but the movement is advancing to forbid the teaching of American history in public schools. New Jersey is rewriting textbooks that do not speak of Washington, Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. Political correctness is defaming the country and repudiating both Christian and American beliefs.
The function of the church and of religion is to preach the faith. Rather than submit to the demands for silence in public places, rather than absorb the political correctness of society, it must preach the sacred message. Vulgarity is now common in humor and casual conversation, not by the so-called lower classes, but by those who think themselves elite. There is something wrong with a society when a six-year-old shoots another six-year-old, when high schools harbor murderers and have police patrol the corridors. It seems as though we are a culture of violence and corruption. We are not of course, and these dreadful actions are by the sick minority. Television gives the wrong impression. We must not allow television to create evil or permit television to be our only preachers. The church must create an environment where evil is confronted and righteousness proclaimed. President Bush makes a distinction between good and evil, right and wrong. So must the church preach the distinction between right and wrong, good and evil. Is the church silent because it is afraid of being demonized by the secularists? In more than twenty-five years in the same church, I recall a preacher referring in passing to “these filthy programs on television,” but this expression of moral outrage was given only once in my recollection.
Perhaps we are too hard on the church. I grew up in a congregation of unlettered faithful and our preachers were not much better educated, but there was a sense of right and wrong that was known to each member of the church. Whatever the personal lives of the people might have been, they knew the meaning of proper behavior. They absorbed a culture formed by those who went before. We must do the same for our children, not only in our personal lives but in the institutions we create.
At the moment, the church is absorbed in piety; that is not enough. There is beauty and moral instruction in the liturgy of the church, but piety alone can be an escape from our obligation to state clearly the moral principles we must observe in daily practice. We can raise liturgy and traditional practice to such an elevation that we become cowards, letting tradition replace courage. When St. Paul was converted, he became a new man, a doer. The new law by which he lived was appropriate action. Meister Eckhart, a famous mystic of the 14th century, was as distinguished for his practical work as much as his persuasive preaching. In contemplation, he said, one serves himself, but in deeds he serves others. Goethe said that knowledge that does not lead to action is vain and poisonous. St. Francis taught that a man has only so much knowledge as he puts to work.
The church must speak of the family, character, freedom, honesty, responsibility, marriage, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, and the sacredness of life. We talk of justice because that is politically correct, but it is not justice we speak of most of the time but a fathering of racism that lowers blacks in their self-esteem. Marriage between a man and a woman, we are told by those who are politically correct, is only one alternative with homosexuality and lesbianism. This is taught in our schools, undermining the sacredness of the family. Homosexuality and lesbianism are not the norm. We should say so. There is room in society for some to live with differently, but we are not to agree with them that their choice is of equal with the traditional family. Man and Woman God Made Them, and They Shall Be One Flesh.
“The ancient Stoics were in the same ignorance as seekers today who are no longer Christian. They had no authoritarian revelation, no word of God to teach them the nature of the world in which they found themselves, no divine code of laws to tell them what to do. They looked about and beheld sorrow, disease, old age, maladjustments of all sorts, wars between states, civil strife, contentions among neighbors, earthquakes, and tempests. Such was the world then; it is not very different now” —Things that Count, H. D. Sedgwick, p. 29. *