I have been involved in religion all my life. As a senior now and with a formal education in religious studies my perspective on religion has wandered through everything from skepticism bordering on atheism to pastoring a local congregation. I’m left with these few observations.
Religions are temporary, manmade organizations brought and held together by their particular set of doctrines. These doctrines are derived from four sources of authority: a collection of holy books, cultural pressures, teachings by prophets, and traditions endorsed by the particular group. The diversity of these doctrines has resulted in conflict, prejudice and even violence through the centuries. Sadly, this diversity and conflict has led to skepticism and rejection of religion by most of the modern world. Rather than uniting under the banner of godly living and compassion, the religions have built walls between them, resulting in a feudal turf war for exclusive access to God. Followers of a sect are held to a near fanatical loyalty to their teachings and practices. It is a form of intellectual and cultural bondage.
There is another choice regarding religion, a personal value which is deeper than the more visible religious tapestry. Individual faith in God and corporate religion are not the same. Most religions teach that God is about love and challenges believers to live lives that reflect compassion for all humanity and temperance in our lifestyle. Also, we learn that there is a life after death, an eternal reality beyond this short span of our mortality. It is important that we participate in a local community of believers. There we will find friendship, support, and guidance in our spiritual growth. However, going to church, synagogue, or a mosque will not make you a person of faith any more than going in a garage will make you a car. Faith is personal and an intimate connection to the eternal which cannot be replaced by religious activity. To find God and faith we must look for and find it ourselves. Religion can provide resources to help in that search, but religion is not the God we search. It is important not to confuse them.
To counter my own critique, I would offer the following praise of religion. When we study the origins of nearly all disciplines, we find that it was driven by devout believers. Music, literature, art, architecture, government, education, medicine, science and so many more have provided the foundations of our modern world. The sacrificial contributions made by these men and women is immeasurable. Also, when we compare the humanitarian service provided by various organizations, we find that it is religious organizations have always responded first, longest, and most generously when crises arise. Those driven by faith have fed and housed the homeless, helped those struggling with addictions, provided infrastructure and medical facilities and staff to developing communities and so much more. Yes, religions have earned their share of criticism, but we must also acknowledge their life saving activity throughout history.
Personally, my faith has given me wisdom, guidance, hope and peace through the years. Believers often refer to each other as “brothers and sisters.” People of faith offer a caring community where individuals and families can learn and thrive together in love. There is no other social system in existence which offers what religious communities have to offer. Faith is the most valuable gift you can give yourself and your family.