Wednesday, January 22, 2014


'Religion is a monumental chapter
in the history of human egotism.'
William James.

I’m not sure whether I am religious or not. That’s a strange thing coming from me---a minister of religion … albeit a minister of a very liberal religion [Unitarian Universalism] … assuming for the moment it is a single religion, or even a religion at all, but that’s another matter.

I have come to dislike organized religion immensely. All too often religion---all religions---divide rather than unite. Religion is the cause of so much misery in our world. It’s certainly not the only cause, or even the major cause, but it is right up there nevertheless.

What is ‘religion’? Well, I am supposed to know something about that subject, as I wrote a huge number of words on the subject in my PhD thesis. Regrettably, the derivation of the English word ‘religion’ is by no means as clear as perhaps one would like, but we do know that the current English word ‘religion’ is derived from the Middle English word religioun which comes from the Old French word religion. Then we need to go to the Latin word religio. That word has affinities with three separate Latin verbs:

· religare, to restrain, bind, bind back, bind up, bind fast together, tie back (especially to oneself again), from ligare, to tie, close a deal, cement an alliance, unite in harmony
· relegare, to banish, from legare, to depute, commission, send as an emissary, bequeath, entrust
· relegere, to gather, collect again, review, re-read, re-examine carefully, from legere, to read, recite, or choose.

All very confusing. Actually, it’s even more complicated than the above, but that’s enough for present purposes. When one considers the meanings of the various suggested derivations of the current English word 'religion' there appear to be some common elements or at least similar themes.

First, religion involves, at one or more levels, the notion of ‘binding together’ or ‘binding back’, whether to oneself (in the sense of one’s true or spiritual nature), one’s ultimate ‘source’ or to other people as some sort of response to life, with a sense of awe, reverence, ‘fear’, devotion, veneration and respect, whereby meaning is gained.

Secondly, religion involves, at one or more levels, the notions of ‘return’, ‘recovery’, ‘restoration’ and ‘re-encounter,’ whether to one’s own self, some condition or way of life, or one’s ultimate home or resting place, with the object and purpose of religion being to restore to us the knowledge of what we really are.

Thirdly, religion ordinarily involves the selection and systematization of certain teachings and beliefs and a consequent abiding by that selection with some degree of regulation and control (eg in the form of codes of conduct) as well as conscientiousness and scrupulousness arising from the religion and inherent as well in its practice.

Fourthly, religion involves the notion of ties in the sense of the fulfillment of duties and commitment.

Fifthly, religion involves practices and activities intended to give effect to the foregoing including but not limited to repetitious rites and the reproduction of formulas and expressions.

Finally, religion involves notions of holiness, sacredness and sanctity (including but not limited to sacred places or things and objects of veneration) and often---but not necessarily---involves notions of supernaturalism as well as superstition.

Now, it may seem overly simplistic to divide religion---all religions---into ‘good and ‘bad,’ but I intend to do just that. Here I go.

Good religion unites, that is, it binds together not just the adherents of the particular religion but all persons in the sense that it recognizes the existence of a larger family of persons who, though they may not be followers of the religion in question, are nevertheless worthy of the same respect and love shown to adherents of the religion. Good religion recognizes the interconnectedness of all life and all persons. On May 18, 1966 the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr [pictured left] delivered an important lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly at Hollywood, Florida. Among the important things Dr King said was this:

'All I'm saying is this: that all life is inter-related, and somehow we are all tied together. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of all reality.'

Good religion accepts, embraces, affirms, and seeks to enhance the inter-related structure of all reality. It does not seek to impose its beliefs or practices on those ‘outside’ the religion. That is hard for a religion such as Christianity, which seeks to follow what it understands Jesus meant when he said---assuming he actually spoke these words---‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation’ (Mk 16:15). Now, I could go on for some time giving you my understanding of those words, and what is meant by the ‘gospel,’ but I dare say most of my readers couldn’t care less about the matter. Those who do ‘care’ would reject what I would say in any event. I take comfort in these words of Richard Le Gallienne: 'Organized Christianity has probably done more to retard the ideals that were its founder's than any other agency in the world.' Ditto most if not all other organized religions.

Good religion does not oppose the findings of science nor the use of reason. It eschews superstition and does not ground itself in outdated and silly notions of supernaturalism. It allows its adherents to have perfect freedom in the interpretation of its scriptures and teachings. It erects no barriers around its ‘altars.’ In short, good religion is inclusive whereas bad religon is exclusivistic in nature. Good religion teaches and practises love. Bad religion teaches love ... but withholds it from certain people who think and act differently.

Yes, bad religion divides, judges, bans, and condemns. So, we have the 'saved' and the 'unsaved,' the 'faithful' versus the 'infidels,' and so on. Dreadful stuff. Appalling. Bad religion promulgates the nasty view that it is the one true religion, that its founder or head is the only way to God, heaven, enlightenment, bliss, or whatever. I make no apologies for using the word ‘nasty.’ Bad religion asserts the supremacy of its so-called ‘holy’ book over all others, and may even claim that its holy book is infallible and inerrant. 'The inspiration of the Bible depends on the ignorance of the person who reads it,' wrote Robert G Ingersoll. The same goes for all so-called 'holy' books. All talk of infallibility, inerrancy and unchallengeable authority in matters pertaining to religion is dangerous---and silly---stuff. It is the stuff of martyrs, religious terrorists, and the like. Such stuff has no place in the world of the 21st century, even though we see the evidence and workings of such religion all around us.

Of course, I am showing a certain prejudice or bias in all that I have written, for I have aligned myself with all that I see as ‘good’ religion, and strenuously reject all that I see as ‘bad’ religion, but I must and will say this in self-defence---I have used reason. If ‘truth’ is truth---that is, if the word has any meaning at all---then truth must be universal. It cannot be the exclusive preserve of some people but not others, or of one religion but not others. I like what Oscar Wilde said, 'Truth, in matters of religion, is simply the opinion that has survived.'  That's funny, but Wilde is wrong. Truth, in all matters, is never a matter of opinion. Truth is a matter of what is.

Now, I must be careful here. I am not saying that all religions teach the same thing, although I do hold the view that, at a certain level, there are certain teachings that are more-or-less common to most, if not all, of the world’s major religions. Also, I am not saying that one religion is as good, or as bad, as another, because all of them are flawed in various ways … including the one of which I am a minister. What I do say is this---some religions are more silly, and (even worse) more dangerous, than others, and some religions have few redeeming features. I will leave it at that for the time being.

Religion is not unimportant. Indeed, it is of great importance. However, one does not need to be ‘religious,’ in any formal, organizational sense, to be a decent and responsible human being. Indeed, it may even be easier to be the latter kind of a person if one eschews religion in a formal, organizational sense. However, religion, in the true sense of the word, is inherent in what we are as human beings. I am thinking especially of the notions of ‘binding together’ and ‘binding back,’ as well as the idea of being ‘restored’ to our true nature. Religion is about ‘going home’---and, no, I am talking about some supposed ‘place’ called heaven, paradise or the like. We all need to be more closely bound together, and without some sense of being ‘bound back’ to our source---or to some principle, power of ‘thing’ of supreme, indeed ultimate, importance---life has little meaning. We all need to ‘wake up’ to an understanding of who and what we really are. True religion is about being … fully human. Albert Einstein [pictured below] expressed it well when he said:

'[A] person who is religiously enlightened appears to me to be one who has, to the best of his ability, liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires and is preoccupied with thoughts, feelings and aspirations to which he clings because of their super-personal value.'

A true ‘religious’ response to life---displayed as a sense of awe, reverence, and respect to all persons, indeed all life---is of ultimate importance. 

Only a response to life of that kind can save us---and the planet.


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