Religion A Reflection Of Our Values

Why is it that the most biased, prejudiced and intolerant people are often the most religious? After all, it’s only those with religious faith who condemn others to hell. They hate in the name of love.

This has led some to take the position that religion is a detriment to society. It harms us, demeans us and is an insult to human dignity. As Nobel Prize in Physics winner Steven Weinberg said regarding religion, “With or without it, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

Such views have led an increasing number of people to eschew religion altogether and inspired atheists to decry, “Religion poisons everything.”

I disagree.

The views of atheists are inherently contradictory. Atheists reject the existence of God, but accept the reality of religion. Atheists claim that humans made God in their own image, not the other way around. It follows then that religion, too, must be human-created. Yet atheists treat religion as if it is an independent, powerful entity all its own that enslaves and degrades humanity, and one that, atheists argue, we’d be better off without.

There are two things wrong with this position. One, religion also enriches and uplifts our lives. There are countless examples of this. Watch any awards show or sporting event. God helps celebrities win awards and athletes win games.

Two, if religion is human- made, it follows that it is not religion that kills, demeans and enslaves. It is people who do such things to others and themselves. Religions are simply expressions of and provide satisfaction for the wonders and shortcomings of humanity. In short, the worst kinds of religions are the offspring of the worst kinds of people. Better people have better religion.

Those who hold intolerant or bigoted religious views were likely this way before they found their faith. As proof, religious extremists often recruit those with little or no background in religion, but who are full of dissatisfaction and frustration with society instead. If religion were indeed the cause of hate and prejudice, extremists would focus their recruiting efforts entirely on the religious. They don’t. They use religion to cultivate the discontent and anger already simmering within a person. It is rarely the case that an openminded, compassionate person suddenly becomes narrow-minded and hateful after religious conversion. Not even Jesus, the Buddha or Allah can do that.

A classic example is the apostle Paul. Paul was, by his own account, zealous for his Jewish faith before his conversion to Christianity. After his conversion experience, Paul was zealous for Christ. Before and after his conversion he was zealous; the focus of his zeal had simply changed. Likewise, a few years ago, a student on the first day of the semester in one of my religion courses declared to the entire class that he was no longer addicted to drugs, but to Christ instead. Addiction was still the issue.

This is why I do not blame Islam for the killing of newspaper satirists. I blame the Muslims who did it. So too, I do not blame Buddhism for the violent acts and murders in Burma. I blame the Buddhists who commit such atrocities. Yes, there are violent, shameful passages in the scriptures of the world religions that justify disgraceful deeds, but who put them there? In short, I do not fault religion for the failings of humanity.

I fault the individuals. Had they been songwriters, their lyrics would have probably been angry and hate-filled. Had they been artists, their works would have been disturbing and angst-ridden. They would have drawn offensive cartoons for no other reason than to simply to mock a religion. Had they been athletes, they would have abused their loved ones and deflated footballs.

We wouldn’t blame music, art or sports as the source or cause of their actions or world view. We should not blame religion, either.

Religion does not cause hate or prejudice, nor does it make a person kinder or love more. Religion satisfies the psychological need of people who harbor such feelings and offers a means to express such attitudes. It is a reflection of our values, a compost heap of our ideas.

Yes, bigotry and ignorance fester in religion; but compassion and wisdom plant roots in its fertile soil to bloom there, too. The same holds true for music and politics, and other expressions of human values. This explains the overlap and interplay among religion, politics and the arts.

There are numerous avenues we create to express, inspire and satisfy the gamut of human emotions. Religion is just one of them. Without it, something else would take its place.

Thus atheists are misguided in their attack on religion. The world would not be better without religion. Nor would it be any worse. Similarly, atheists are not better or worse than those who are religious (and vice versa). Atheists simply have a functional equivalent to religion in their lives instead. Indeed, for some, atheism is a form of religion.

In short, what French philosopher Voltaire said about God, we can say about religion: If it did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

Jay Sakashita teaches religion courses at Leeward Community College and UH-Manoa.