Is Religion a Bad Thing?

Religion is a bad word in certain quarters of our society, and the world at large. Some people say: “Religion causes too much pain and tragedy. I’ll have nothing to do with it. It should be eradicated.” Here’s a response from a religious sister to this very question. I think it proves helpful in forming our own personal response to those that write religion off. How do you respond to those that believe that religion is a bad thing for the world?

The Sufi tell of disciples who, when the death of their master was clearly imminent, became totally bereft. “If you leave us, Master,” they pleaded, “how will we know what to do?” And the master replied, “I am nothing but a finger pointing at the moon. Perhaps when I am gone you will see the moon.” The meaning is clear: It is God that religion must be about, not itself. When religion makes itself God, it ceases to be religion.

But when religion becomes the bridge that leads to God, it stretches us to live to the limits of human possibility. It requires us to be everything we can possibly be: kind, generous, honest, loving, compassionate, just. It defines the standards of the human condition. It sets the parameters within which we direct our institutions. It provides the basis for the ethics that guide our human relationships. It sets out to enable us to be fully human, human beings.

Religion at its best gives substance to life. Most of all, it enables us to find meaning in life. It gives purpose to the human condition. It sets the human compass toward home. It requires us to be more than we ever thought we could become. It raises our sights beyond ourselves. It sets standards for us that are above the lowest level of the self.

Religion, this great treasure-house of the faith, is the history of our family heroes. It presents us with an historic stream of witnesses from every people on earth who chose the holy, in the face of rejection and ridicule, whatever the cost to themselves. They dared courage, rather than cooperation with evil. They chose love, rather than law. They stood for justice, rather than self-interest. They sought the transcendent, rather than the immediate.

We walk in line with those, religion reminds us, who gave themselves for the great things of God. Doubters themselves perhaps, thinkers always, they clung to faith beyond the institution itself, beyond the “answers,” because there is a place, they knew, where answers end. And it is religion that taught them that.

At the same time, no doubt about it, religion is often religion’s own worst enemy. The tension between religion at its best and religion at its worst drives people from church to church, searching for authenticity. It drives them, as well, from the God of the institution to the God of the spirit within. When religion makes itself God, when religion gets between the soul and God, when religion demands what the spirit deplores—a division of peoples, diminishment of the self, and closed-mindedness—religion becomes the problem.

Then spirituality is the only valid answer to the cry of the soul for the kind of life that makes life possible.

– from Called to Question: a spiritual memoir by Joan Chittister (Sheed & Ward)

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