The premise of a new non-fiction work, The End of Faith, is that religion is the downfall of civilization.
Some might write this theory off as radical, but this book is a New York Times best seller.
The author, Sam Harris, argues that Constantinople’s deathbed conversion to Christianity was the beginning of the end of reason.
In Harris’ book I recognized a recurring theme. The belief is growing that religion is the root of all the world’s problems. Even in linguistics the growing animosity toward religion in progressive circles shows. To describe oneself as “religious” is now taboo; the term has been phased out and replaced with “spiritual.”
People should not be afraid to label themselves as religious. It is true that negative events have occurred as a result of religious beliefs. The Spanish Inquisition (which no one suspected) and terrorism are among them, but that is not all that religion is about.
Any institutions that are comprised of humans are going to have flaws, because, as humans, we are fallible. But humans are also good, and so is religion. In fact, I would argue that the world would be a much worse place without it.
Religious organizations have been the springboards for many needed political and social changes. The civil rights movement in the United States would never have gained the momentum it did without the organizing abilities of Southern black churches. One of the movement’s main leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a minister.
In the East, Ghandi’s Hindu faith heavily influenced his non-violent philosophy, the method he used to lead India to independence. Even in early American history, the abolitionist movement was based in certain sects of Christianity.
Religion is important in our society today because it leads believers to question societal norms. Any person who has love and compassion may see a homeless person on the street and think to themselves that it is wrong for another human being to be in that position.
But a religious person, who believes that God is behind them in thinking it a social injustice, may have the extra encouragement to do something about it. The Supreme Other in whom the religious believe calls them to do what is right, not what is customary.
Many of the greatest charitable organizations have religious affiliations. To date, Catholic Charities has given more than $69 million in relief to Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims, and its immediate monetary response was greater even than the U.S. government’s initial response.
Religious communities throughout the world encourage their members to donate to charities and volunteer. With many religions, duty does not end simply with charity but also includes political activism. The Quakers, for instance, tout activism as an important part of faith practice, and they have been active in anti-war movements since the founding of their religion.
Many naysayers argue that the religious do not practice what they preach, that they sit on their moral high horse on holy days and do what they like the rest of the time.
Over spring break, I saw different. I went on a service project sponsored by the Cardinal Newman Center to Belle Glade, a low-income community in Florida.
I signed up mainly for the service, so I was surprised at the religious aspect of the trip. The other students who went emanated love for each other and the members of the community.
It was not a missionary-style trip. There were no mentions of conversions; the goal of the trip was simply to alleviate suffering.
No one could see the compassion these students showed to people they did not even know and say that religion does not improve our existence.
Religion has gotten a bad rap lately, but a number of extremists and negative events cannot erase all of the good that religion has brought about. Religion gives people the strength to better themselves and the world we inhabit.
Karl Marx said that religion is the great opiate of the masses, but I disagree. Rather, religion is the hope of the people.
Emilie Haertsch can be reached at email@example.com.