Attempting to keep this blog focused on religion, has, of course, relegated it to the hopelessly outmoded pile for many people. I run into this all the time, professional, sophisticated individuals who have moved beyond the need for religion don’t see why we should waste our time with it. It’s about as useful as a room full of year-old newspapers. Like most people who end up studying religion, for me it began as an outgrowth of a religious upbringing. When you get to college they ask what you’re interested in. When your response is “Not going to Hell,” they’re likely to send you over to the Religion Department (if there happens to be one). One of the early lessons you learn as a religion major is (or at least should be) tolerance. Sure, the beliefs of other religions, when encountered for the first time, may seem weird. If you step outside your own tradition, however, chances are a great deal of what you believe could be considered odd as well. In such circumstances tolerance is perhaps the only way to avoid violence.
The few readers who leave comments on my posts give me pause to think. I largely study religion in isolation now, without the give-and-take of academic colleagues. It is not unusual for someone to point out the bizarre, or even unethical behavior of someone else’s religion (New Atheists do this all the time). When trying to understand religion, however, we have to be honest about the fact that all religions, and non-religions share instances of bad behavior. As my grade-school teachers said, “one bad one ruins it for everyone.” Religions are just as subject to human perversions as any other activity. People do bad things occasionally. Sometimes in the name of religion (or non-religion). Rationally it is obvious that we shouldn’t blame the religion for the poor behavior of some adherents. Yet we often do.
Religion-bashing is a popular sport. Those who engage in it, however, frequently fail to take into account just how widespread religion is. By far the vast majority of people in the world, educated or not, believe in a religion. This is complicated by the fact that an agreed definition of religion is still lacking. We don’t know what religion is, but we know it when we see it. Our universities and public intellectuals often ridicule it as unsophisticated and naive. As someone who has spent a lifetime thinking about religion, I suppose I’m obligated to say it, but there is a deep truth here: religions do motivate for good as well as for evil. Both non-religious and very religious people can be bad or good. What we require to get along in such a world is tolerance. And a willingness to listen to others. Otherwise both religion and non may not survive to criticize each other.