Does Religion Matter Any More?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 4, 2001
Do you remember Monica (Lewinsky, that is)—and when everything she did, or had to say, like, mattered? That seems a long time ago now, doesn’t it?
Do you remember the much-ballyhooed television interview she gave to Barbara Walters? It was quite the media event in its day-- and of course, like most media events, it was “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It moved our human journey upon this Earth forward not a single iota.
I only remember one of Monica’s quotes in the interview, really. It was her answer when Barbara Walters asked her if she thought that she, too, had sinned in her illicit affair with President Clinton (after all, he had admitted that much, over and over again). “Did you sin, too, Monica?” Barbara asked. Monica, heavyweight intellectual that she is, seemed kind of confused by the very question. She hesitated; she shifted in her chair; and finally, she responded (something like): ‘Well, you see, I’m not very religious. I’m more spiritual.”
Leave it to one of the Great Figures of Our Time, like Monica Lewinsky, to put down religion (at least implicitly). It is as though a cloud has descended over the very word, the very concept of “religion”; it is as though “religion” has become an eight-lettered “four letter word”—something that “polite people” don’t discuss in public; something that modern, intelligent, “with it” men and women don’t admit to having much to do with.
This disparagement of religion is nothing new, of course. In his Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined religion as “A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.”
Marx called religion the “opiate of the people”, of course. Freud called it an illusion. Thomas Edison said that “religion is all bunk”.
Voltaire said that religion began “when the first knave met the first fool.” Even John Adams, our great Unitarian and South Shore forebear, a man known for his rock-solid bearing (if not his piety), once declared that “this would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it.” And in his lyrical description of the ideal world of the future, John Lennon imagined no place for religion, either:
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too…
Where does this putting down of religion come from? Why does it have such a bad name
Well, a big part of the reason, of course, is history: Total up all of the dead, from humanity’s various wars, killed in the name of this-or-that religion, and you’ve got some death toll. Think of the Crusades—the Inquisition—the “Burning Times” in Europe with tens of thousands of accused “witches” in Europe (almost all of them women) hounded, tortured, burned at the stake, all in the name of God, all in the name of the Christian religion.
Think of our own time, and all of the ethnic conflict that so often has a religious underpinning: Hindus versus Muslims in India; Jews versus Arabs in the Middle East; Tamils against Hindus in Sri Lanka; Protestants against Catholics in Nothern Ireland; Orthodox Serbs against Catholic Croatians, then against Muslim Bosnians and Albanians in the former Yugoslavia.
And in recent weeks, of course, we’ve seen the most heinous spectacle of all: the mad specter of Islamic extremists, killing thousands in their mad frenzy of terrorism.
Indeed, we look out at the slaughter, the mayhem, and we can feel forgiven in raising the questions: Why bother with religion? Who needs it? Does religion matter any more? Or, really, more particularly: Does religion matter as a force for good in our world any more? Does religion have a positive role to play in our modern world? Or is mere spirituality—just “being spiritual”, as Monica would put it— more than enough?
The attack on religion comes from at least two different directions, it seems to me:
One front of the attack is from science. Many ask if we even need religion in an age of science. All our mysteries are explained away; science can tell us what makes things tick; why thing are the way they are; where we’ve come from; where we’re heading.
That’s the query raised by the noted historian of world religions, Huston Smith, in his new book, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief.
Smith relates how things started to go badly between religion and science in the 16th and 17th centuries when a Polish astronomer named Copernicus suggested that the sun, and not the Earth, was the center of the solar system. (Copernicus knew that his ideas were controversial stuff, so he never said anything while he was alive, but arranged for his writing to be published after he died.) That was when all hell broke loose, so to speak. The scientific community throughout Europe found his ideas terribly exciting; the religious community, on the other hand, found them terribly threatening—and Copernicus was roundly condemned not only by the Pope in Rome, but also by leading Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, as well. (These guys didn’t agree on much else, but they did all agree that Copernicus was a threat, that he was bad news, as far as the religious status quo was concerned.)
In 1616, the Catholic Church banned the “heretical” notion that the Earth moved at all. But in 1632, a brilliant Italian astronomer named Galileo Galilei claimed that—Yes, the Earth did move around the Sun, as Copernicus had claimed—and that he had seen it with this own eyes, through his own observation, with the precise (and huge) new telescope he had perfected. Galileo was quickly summoned to Rome, where he was forced, in the name of faith, the name of religion, to recant all that his own eyes had seen.
As one writer has put it, this “wedge of suspicion and hostility between science and religion [created by Galileo’s persecution]… stayed firmly in place for centuries.”
As the scientific worldview came into ascendancy, many scientists did all they could to drive the wedge in even deeper. Science became the only show in town for thinking, rational, intelligent people; religion became identified with superstition, narrow-mindedness, and rigidity. “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be,” Carl Sagan intoned at the start of his television series, Cosmos. “Scientism”, Smith claims—the idea that science alone can provide all of life’s answers—replaced religion as the guiding light of the modern age.
But then, you know, a funny thing happened: Religion refused to die. It didn’t go away. It’s still here (maybe today more than ever, for better or for worse).
This is because, Huston Smith would argue (and I would agree), there is something intrinsically religious in our very natures as human beings. Religion struggles with the fundamental questions of our human be-ing in this universe. A century ago, the French artist Paul Gaugin said these questions were: “Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?” Smith phrases them just slightly differently:
“What is the meaning of existence?”
“ Why are there pain and death?”
“Why, in the end, is life worth living?”
“What does reality consist of, and what is its object?”
These are the fundamental questions carved deep inside of us, Huston Smith says. They are, moreover, questions which science, by its very nature, is unable to answer.
This is because science, by its very definition, deals only with the seen world—with that which can be weighed and measured; observed and verified objectively. The questions of why life is operates in an entirely different realm. Smith uses the image of science as a flashlight shining inside a hot air balloon. It can cast great light within this shell. It can illumine the surface so that it may be clearly seen and so that we can know its description, its dimensions, its appearance very, very clearly, indeed. We might think that we know everything, then; that we have seen all there is to see. But what we don’t know—if we rely on the flashlight of science alone to illumine our way through life-- is all that exists beyond the shell of the balloon: the vastness of the sky and the stars and planets—a far wider existence and reality than our human senses can apprehend.
It reminds me of a little bit of a poem by Walt Whitman (a modern man who knew the intrinsic limits of modernity):
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams
To add, divide and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer where he lectured
with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself.
In the mystical, moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
“Narcotics cannot still the tooth that nibbles at the soul,” wrote Emily Dickinson. And neither can the limited, this-world, this-dimension answers of science (brilliant as they are sometimes) answer the deepest questions of our existence. That’s just not what science is for.
So now, in this postmodern age, with religion discredited and science humbled, enter “spirituality” onto the playing field—as the comfort, inspiration, and consciousness we need—but without all the “baggage” that religion brings along with it. This is the second front in the war against religion, I think: “I’m not really religious. I’m more spiritual.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that (or something like it)—and from much more incisive and deeper minds that Ms. Lewinsky.
Indeed, our personal sense of spirituality is a powerful force, truly. I couldn’t imagine being able to go through life without this sense that all things are connected—that there is an unseen realm that upholds and inspires this everyday world in which we live and work and play and laugh and cry. The great 20th century humanist Julian Huxley wrote about our need for “the apprehension of the sacred in all existence”. Einstein called it the “sense of the mystical” and said that it was fundamental to life itself. Buddhism talks about the “Buddha nature” in all things; Christianity, the “indwelling Christ”; Hinduism speaks of the Atman—the soul—one and inseparable from all Brahman, from all that is. “That is Reality. That is the Self. That art Thou,” the vedas teach. That is spirituality: It is a deep and abiding—and powerful—force.
But in and of itself, in my opinion, it’s just not enough. We children of Mother Earth—children of history-- need religion, too. Religion is organized—institutionalized—spirituality. It is a particular group of spiritual searchers choosing to come together in a particular time and place to share their journey together.
Institutionalizing spirituality can be dangerous, certainly. Can institutionalizing kill our sense of the sacred—Can it overburden it, neglect it, oppress it, restrict it, overpower it, distort it, exploit it, pervert it? You bet it can—and it has, throughout history. “The sins of religion are very real, and our times know them by heart,” writes Huston Smith. “We all ought to face up to them.” And admit to them.
As human beings—historical beings—fallible men and women—we will never create a “perfect” institution—a “perfect” religion—free of all the imperfections and flaws and shadows of our human nature. Religion can bring out the best, or the worst in people. Lately, I’m afraid, we’ve seen a lot of the worst. But we’re blind if we don’t admit the good that religion produces, too: the willingness to reach out; to share; to help one another.
As burdensome as organized religion can be at times, there is, quite frankly, no other way that spiritual ideas get transmitted through history in the long run.
Our individual spiritualities die with us (or, get carried with us into our next lives—take your pick). But they don’t change the world unless we join our journeys—and pool our insights—and share our burdens and our joys—with others. Without the discipline of religion (and it should be a gentle discipline, and not an authoritarian one, I would maintain), there is very little to stop spirituality from becoming too self-centered and narcissistic. When we worship at the altar of our own spirituality alone, we are worshipping at a very altar. When we put ourselves at the center of the universe, what a tiny and fragile universe we are creating.
We are not meant to be alone. And we are not meant to worship alone, either. “I want to be of people who submerge in the task, Who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along. Who stand in the line and haul in their places. Who are not parlor generals or field deserters but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out.” [Marge Piercy]
Who work together when there are jobs to do. And laugh together when there is joy to share. And weep together when sorrow touches our lives.
We’ve made houses for hatred, it’s time we made a place
Where people’s souls may be seen and made safe.
Be gentle with each other, these fragile flames,
Innocence can be lost, it needs to be maintained.
Can we build a faith like that—a church like that? One that honors our spirits—honors our individual journeys—yet celebrates the common spirit of life which connects us all? A religion that still matters in a world that has grown so difficult and complicated?
I think that we can—although nothing, of course, is preordained. It depends on us. On us. Not on you, or on me, as individuals—but on us—as brothers and sisters in faith, joined in a common journey of the Spirit.
You might say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one—
I hope some day you’ll join us(and join with the children of all religions)
And the world will (finally!) live as one.
Blessed be. Amen.