Blogger A Cuban in London recently hosted a discussion about the meaning of religion. I was one of the participants. He posed questions about the nature of religion, its role in modern democracies, and the role religion plays in things like individualism, rampant consumerism and unchallenged materialism. In today’s post, I feature my answer to Cuban’s challenge to define religion. The link to the entire discussion is provided at the end of the post.
Religion is, on a personal level, finite humanity’s endeavor to explain itself vis-à-vis the infinite. On a social level, religion establishes codes of morality and behavior. Culturally, it facilitates expression of cultural norms. Politically, it can serve as a tool for creating and defending the political unit. It is paradoxically both unifying and divisive. In other words, religion is a protean concept.
That is my answer through a cognitive filter. But, if religion appealed only to the mind, it would not have achieved its enduring quality. It would also not explain why, despite significant differences, the overwhelming majority of people associate, formally or loosely, with religion in all its variants.
The opening line of my favorite hymn says, “Oh, Lord, My God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works Thy hand hath made.” Am I a churchgoer? No. Do I believe that there is a Creator responsible for bringing our world into existence? Not in the anthropomorphic sense. And yet that hymn moves me every single time I hear it. Is that because it is a relic from my childhood? Perhaps. Or could it be that the hymn appeals to an unknown and unknowable part of me that wants to connect with that dimension of life which, science’s efforts notwithstanding, we fall short of grasping in all its beauty. Of science’s efforts, Max Planck himself said that future progress in understanding liminal conditions “…will never enable us to grasp the real world in its totality any more than human intelligence will ever rise into the sphere of ideal spirit: these will always remain abstractions which by their very definition lie outside actuality.”
Rather than try to understand or judge the human predilection toward embracing religion, I simply accept that it exists. Indeed, I respect that religions seek coherence and order in a world that intrinsically may be incoherent and chaotic. I also embrace religion’s attempt to connect with the numinous, which has little to do with the mind. Of course, my respect and tolerance do not extend to the use of violence and oppression.
I come to this stance having experienced the full spectrum of religious belief. As the daughter of evangelical ministers, I grew up in a theistic environment. I then became an atheist, only to later shift to an embrace of the numinous. In my fiction, I spend a lot of time in churches, with characters who embrace, characters who flee from, but always characters who try to make sense of religion and spirituality in their lives. In this, they reflect my own life's journey. In a larger sense, they may reflect humanity’s journey as well.
The entire discussion can be read here.