National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: In the Name Of Religion

Admittedly, mortality is scary. Life as we like to experience it seems closed in by everything it isn’t and sometimes that’s felt more acutely than others. Accidents, disasters, illness, aging, dying, death, the haunting mystery of not-life, is there any wonder why people tend to look beyond the day-to-day to seek some enduring, transcendent meaning and comfort? Indeed, religion grows out of the gritty reality of the limitations on life. Some among us, no doubt, are more attuned than others to sense elements of this universe that most of us are wont but to experience through the narrow filters of our given five senses.

With the benefit of limited powers of communication, human beings on this planet have attempted to both divine and convey meaningful insights and perceptions on these matters. Given the species’ early organization into tribal units or packs, one form of making coherent sense out of it all has naturally tended to become hegemonic for one group, and another for another and so on. Hence, the crazy-quilt we find of world religions.

It is in the nature of things that human beings are vulnerable under these conditions on at least two counts. First, they can tend to fall sway to those who claim control of a given religious system, being exploited in a myriad of ways. Second, the claims of one religion, and those under its influence, can be pitched against those of another to advance the self-interests of one group over another. Scholars and pundits have argued endlessly throughout history about the relative objective merits of one religion over another, often based on how they’ve been used in these ways.

The invention of the printing press, of moveable type, began a profound and irreversible change in the way human beings interact, because the condition for direct access to knowledge and ideas were created. It took a mere 300 years, more or less, for this to unfold and translate into the formation and organization of what we know as modern secular society, with the United States as the most astounding case. With this development, a state, or a tribe, no longer defines itself according to the particularities of its religion, but in accordance with principles that respect the inherent capacity and right of every individual human being to ascertain knowledge and form ideas for him or herself.

While this has seemed a painfully slow and uneven process when measured in terms of individual lifetimes, in the bigger picture of the universe’s and planet’s timeline it is unfolding in a veritable twinkling of the eye. Now comes the Internet, and its global reach. With a click of a mouse, boundless knowledge is accessible to every creature not only in the more advanced civil societies of our day, but in every crevice of our orb.

With knowledge, ideas and the benefits of an equal justice-based civil society for all its participants, religion will not disappear from the species, for the reasons of the boundaries on how each of us experience life in the very personal ways we do. But it will tend to be more inclusive and respectful of the prior evolution of its many forms, and in greater coherence with discoveries of the actual processes that make the universe tick.

Now, when some seek to abort this, to rip certain religions away from this process and to insist they remain fixed in their older forms, we see not the continued enhancement the human condition as the motive, but the assertion of the age-old ways in which religion was used to exploit human vulnerability and send special interests to war.

Fist-pounding, so-called fundamentalism and insistence on the special divine nature of ancient texts or traditions involves, behind its demagoguery, little more than manipulation and coercion. Under this sway, some people, seeking religion’s comforts, are convinced to willfully close off their minds’ access to knowledge, ideas and the benefits of civil society in favor of the fantastic claims and demands of moral bullies.

But it is the task of civil society in light of this to cause such tendencies, and the dangers they bring, to wither away by intensifying the universally-positive benefits of knowledge, new ideas and solutions to many grievances of the human condition through production, nutrition, medical cures and an enhanced distribution of abundance.

Humanity cannot sit on its hands and allow retrogressive forces to rally vulnerable minions to do the bidding of the petty self-interests of a few in the name of religion. It must aggressively challenge them by articulating a better way, not in contrast to the spirit of religion and the answers it seeks, but by better combining the benefits of its progress with those strivings for a better appreciation of ultimate things.