I want to start off by saying that I feel (and, as a result, perhaps you as a reader feel) that this whole series on religion has dragged on a little. There are a few things left which I would like to say on the subject after this entry, but I will leave those for sometime (possibly far) in the future. Still, I promised a series so I will finish it up and, with that in mind, today I'll be talking about the main problem which I see with religion.
I want to try and direct this entry specifically towards the religious reader, but with the assumption that as well as your affiliations you are also a thinking reasonable member of society (something which I feel is sometimes lacking from modern polemics against faith). There are lots of things wrong with religions which I think could stand some debate within their various religious communities. For instance, taking Christianity (as I have a tendency to do), there always seemed to me to be an unnatural dichotomy between the message, of the importance of the meek, and the reality of the church, with it's leaders often going so far as to be dressed in gold and sat upon gold thrones. The problem which I have however is one which I think is more universal. Specifically that I, and indeed even people of a faith, often can't criticise aspects of that faith without being seen to be completely against it. I think there is a tendency to build up modern churches around issues in a way which, while possibly popular, also prevents them from delivering their most important gift.
So what do I think this gift is? There are many sides to it, but I think the main part is a sense of completeness and understanding of the universe and its workings which, for many people, they cant get anywhere else. Honestly, I think this is quite a limited description of what religion offers (there is also, for instance, a sense of wondrous awe), but I am slowly coming to see it as the most important aspect.
Sadly, religions too often seem to focus on their moral contribution and on pushing opinions on the various evils of the day. I hope that this makes as little sense to most people as it does to me. It may seem important to argue against contraception or abortion or homosexuality now, but there were arguments on just such strong terms by religions against interracial marriage and left handedness not so long ago. This isn't by way of saying that they are wrong about any of these things, that is a different matter, I'm just trying to point out that these matters of morality seem to move with the times, they are, generally, quite fluid.
The real importance of the church should be placed on its position as a guide. It has a great place in helping people when they are lost, guiding them and giving reassurance about how the world make sense even when it seems, to them, not to (there have been many low points in my life when I've wished I had such a useful force on my side). It seems to move away from this though, in the interests of pushing forward frankly pointless arguments which don't seem to serve any purpose except to create a sense of us vs them. I realise that I am generalising here, in a local way priests, rabbis and imams do provide guidance, naturally they do, but religions in the larger, more organised sense, more and more seem to spend their efforts on these less useful terms. As an example, which I think few Christians would be able to justify, see the pope recently pretty much claiming that condoms cause aids.
Again, I might not agree with them on many of their beliefs, but I don't deny that a religion should be able to lobby people and governments for the things it believes are wrong. Too often though it seems as though they do so in such a way that these things are become synonymous with their faith, that any person who disagrees is simply not a 'true believer'. This seems wholly wrong to me. I ought to be able to tell someone that I disagree with some aspect of their religion without that being taken as a slight upon every part of it. Equally, and much more importantly, someone within the faith ought to also be able to disagree, even on fairly central issues, without feeling like an outcast.
What I'm trying to get at is that I think the way each person communes with or feels God is so different, that God is such an overwhelmingly large idea, that to imagine all believers must agree on every detail of a dogma which keeps changing from year to year makes no sense to me. Yet religions generally don't allow people (or at the very least disapprove strongly of) this sense of autonomy within the structures of the faith they lay out. This rigidity not only prevents a sense of freedom within the walls of each religion, but beyond. It ought to be possible (in fact it makes perfect sense) for Christians and Muslims, or Mormons and Jews, or any two faiths, to say 'this is just two sides of the same coin', clearly god is far beyond our judgement and understanding, that he might reveal himself in a multitude of ways isn't beyond the bounds of reason. However, it isn't possible to take this leap, because faith is seen as an institutional thing, not a personal one. This stops the church from being that useful guiding presence much of the time, because instead of focussing on helping people overcome their own issues, it is putting focus on telling them to hate their neighbours in various forms.
So why do religions do this? Well fear sells, it gives a bigger congregation if people feel that sense of righteousness where they are in the right and everyone else is wrong (and damned as well). It saddens me that the religious institutions of the world ought, by their own doctrine, to be great movers in the world for peace and harmony, but instead they seem to bicker and fight. And again, this isn't to the benefit of their members, in fact, I think it is possible to see that it is to their direct detriment. These are bad old habits and they will die hard, but I think most religious people can see them for what they are. That's why I think the most important point I make when I speak to religious people is that they should, above all, have more autonomy from the institution of their faith, to be more prepared and able to disagree with it when they feel it is justified. The man at the top may say that it is the word of God, but he is just that, he is the “man” at the top, not the deity itself and it ought to be up to the individual to decide what they feel their God believes.
Finally, I want to point out that, as normal, I have strayed into directing my argument towards the extremes. There are plenty of sub-sects of religions which, to greater and lesser extents, do what I'm asking for. In fact I wanted to take a moment to point that there is one in particular which more or less exactly conforms to what I've been arguing for in the past four entries, Quakers. Here, depending a little upon the Church, people are accepted regardless of their personal beliefs into an environment of worship. Honestly I feel that this is the model which 21st century religions ought to be looking to, though the sad fact is that, because they tend not to resort to the methods of other religions, they spread quite slowly. Still, more and more I feel that, if I were to feel the need to go to church, this is where I would go.