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The New Atheism
Good Religion, and the Good It Can Do
by Fr. Jeffrey Kirby
Not every conversation about religion has to begin with an attack on the rules, structure, teachings, offenses, history, limitations, and otherwise undesirable aspects of religion. Nor must it begin with every imaginable tragedy or horror that finds a misplaced root in religion. Not only are such conversations heavy and presumptuous, but they can also become very boring in a short span of time. They lack something.
Certainly, such aspects and debates must occur, but they are perhaps not the best starting point for a conversation on the goodness of religion. There is a broader and more essential reality to religion. The human person that should be addressed and discussed first. There is a foundation and a beauty which religion expresses and to which it seeks to give order, and that is our best starting point.
What does religion seek to do? What is its foundation and starting point?
A Foundation and Starting Point
Good religion always seeks to edify both the person and society. And so we turn to the human person, and to our own experiences of life. It is shocking in our world today that neither materialism nor positivist utilitarianism has yet to win the day. The arguments given by these worldviews are strong and convincing to many, yet still people hold on to something else (even while perhaps giving a large part of life or policy to these other worldviews). In life, we each know that there is something more than what we can simply sense with our empirical faculties or manipulate and calculate with human skill. But, what is that something else?
The American Southern writer, Dr. Walker Percy, makes several helpful points about this “something else” in a self-interview entitled Questions They Never Asked Me:
I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative [to religious belief]?
This life is much too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then be asked what you make of it and have to answer, “scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact, I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and wouldn’t let go until God identified himself and blessed him.
The “something else” that we all sense is the human person’s spiritual soul, and, even if only shadowy, it is the perception of our own transcendence. Each of us wants to love, hope, believe, give thanks, even sacrifice a part of ourselves for another. More intimately, we each want to be loved, hoped in, believed in, given thanks, and be sacrificed for by another. None of this can be explained by prevailing and exclusively temporally-minded worldviews. There is something more because we as human persons are more than simply the things of this earth.
Within each of us, there is this capacity and desire for transcendence. At the core of this spiritual yearning is our desire for meaning and purpose. This leads us to the inner sanctuary of our hearts that seeks to know and love, and be known and loved by God.
As we explore this inner pining, we come to understand things about God. This is the beginning of religion.
“To Bind Oneself” and the Community of Faith
As each of us deepens in our comprehension of God, we begin to seek out others who know and have a relationship with God. We find a need and a push to share and dialogue about ideas, experiences, and teachings. From this mutual exchange of spiritual goods, a community is formed and a way of life develops and is accepted by the people within this community. Here religion becomes more established.
The word “religion” comes from a Latin word which means “to bind oneself,” and a person freely binds oneself to the way of life given and followed by his community of faith. From within this community, a spiritual leadership is recognized and it formalizes and interprets the shared teachings of the community.
The community is also open to the instructions and exhortations of their religious forbearers, those men and women who lived before them and who have passed on their knowledge and encounters with God. It sees this living tradition, in written and oral form, as a part of its own faith. The person who accepts this way of life values the role and wisdom of this tradition and of the existing spiritual leadership.
Ultimately, the entire task of binding oneself, of good religion, is an attempt to order and deepen the person and the community’s understanding and encounter with God.
A Shared Way of Life and Organized Religion
Some people have often said that they are spiritual but not religious. They see the place of knowing God, but they do not like organized religion.
Given the transcendental and communal nature of the human person, such statements almost border on absurdity. As persons, when we experience transcendence and its radical capacity to change us, we desire to reveal these moments and to perpetuate them or their lessons for ourselves and others. Our spiritual selves drive us to be religious, in order to share and give expression to our transcendence and our encounters with God. We desire this for ourselves, but also for those that we love or those for whom we have care. As our heart is widened, we also seek this consolation and goodness for others, especially the poor and forgotten. This leads us to a community of faith.
Organized religion is not a utopia. It is an attempt to assist a community of faith to see and follow its way of life. Oftentimes, organized religion is more disorganized, and structures are dependent upon the hearts and good intentions of the believers.
More Good Than Harm?
Have there been times when religion has followed a less-than-noble course of action? Yes. Have there been times when the tenets of religion have been used to justify evil and atrocities? Yes. Does that mean that religion can affect no good, and should be removed from society? No.
Good religion accomplishes more edifying and uplifting things in society than bad religion could ever hope to destroy or divide. Most essentially, if we deny a place for religion in our own hearts or in society, then we deny a portion of our own selves and an influence for goodness in our world.
It is the person who assents to good religion that seeks to dialogue, understand, and serve those around him. Religious believers find a communion of love with God, and labor to expand that love and compassion to others. They point to a higher ideal, seek to live by it, and call others to its fullness. They understand that the glory of God is man fully alive.
From this initiative, religion has been the source of abundant human services from hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes, and schools, to advocacy on behalf of those with no voice, to supporting cultural outreaches, and seeking always to find ways in which to protect and promote human life and its authentic flourishing.
This is the task and contribution of good religion. It is not always a perfect contribution because we are not perfect, but it is a contribution more good than not.
© Fr. Jeffrey Kirby 2010
Fr. Jeffrey Kirby is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, SC, USA. He is currently studying moral theology in Rome.