05 December 2007

Religion, Faith, Belief, And Understanding

I'll start this post by opening a can of worms: What is religion?

There are many, many answers to that question. Some say that religion is a social construct. Others say that it is a system used to control a populace (Marx's "the opiate of the masses"). Others say that it is a mystical union with the Divine. Others say that it is a narrow way, a union only with a specific Divinity. Others say that it is an outdated remnant of our evolution. Others don't care what it is, and others don't know. What is a person to do when confronted by so many different - and often conflicting - viewpoints?

The term "religion" supposedly originates from the Latin term "re-ligare", or "to reconnect, to rebind"; a more free-form translation may be "to re-unite". This brings up the idea that we are somehow separate from something which we should not be, and that religion is a system of practices to reunite us with that thing. Many people interpret the Sanskrit word "yoga" the same way: to reunite, to re-yoke. The biggest and most problematic issues arise when people start trying to define the "thing" from which we are separated.

I've personally been through many states with regard to religion. I was raised in an agnostic household; my parents didn't really care about religion, faith, or God. In my teens, I became an atheist of my own accord, arguing against the existence of any deity. In my late teens, I converted to Christianity and remained there for about 12 years; in this tradition, I was training to be clergy. After a serious tragedy in which I didn't feel that my religion had given me the support I needed, I became an atheist again. A few years later, I realized that I may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and I have since returned to an open mind concerning religious matters. I now believe that there may be a deity or deities, or there may be nothing, or there may be an amorphous, unconscious "greater state" which creates, sustains, and destroys the universe. None of my beliefs are deep-seated at this point, as I'm not yet sure of anything.

I do, though, hold one deep-seated belief: human beings need religion. They need faith, community, belief, ritual, and most of all, understanding. Religion isn't about gods or prophets or enlightenment or salvation; religion is about understanding. Human beings want to understand the universe around them. They want to understand themselves, and their relationships between themselves and their environment and other human beings. This is the basic abstract goal of any religion, belief system, and/or on the planet: understanding.

Why do people get so upset when their religion is attacked or insulted? They become upset because they believe that they will lose understanding, that they will be cast back into the darkness of ignorance. They want to know. It's a very strong drive, almost as strong as pure survival, so they fight back.

Which religion you follow hardly matters (yes, there are a few bad apples; with a little research, they fall by the wayside very easily). What matters is that you desire understanding and that you approach your religion/belief system/faith with an open mind and an open heart. You must also be open-minded with regards to others who may disagree with you. If you believe that the main goal for all of this is "understanding", then you have gone a long way towards getting along with your fellow humans, your environment, and your self.

Understand your religion/belief system/faith. Understand yourself. And understand others. These are the tenets of every religion on the planet. They just all word them differently and drape them with different clothes, languages, texts, and rituals.