This weekend I had an interesting conversation about religion with some friends. It wasn’t a sample of opinion reflecting the US public. There were Muslims, a Unitarian Christian, an atheist, and myself. We had this discussion over wine and even some shots of vodka, so clearly there was a liberal attitude towards religion. Here are the main opinions:
Person A: Religion is good, people get motivated to do good things, and it’s wrong to denigrate religion just because of what a few people do. Also, given the importance of Biblical references in literature and culture, it’s probably good to have kids go to Sunday school and learn about the Bible stories, and maybe even believe in Christianity.
Person B: Religion is bad, it’s used to control and manipulate people. Yes, since people are mostly good, a lot of people will use religion for good in their personal lives. But even good people get seduced into bigotry against gays, intolerance of other religions, and are made to give up their money to the religious organization. It’s brainwashing and manipulation, people can do good without it.
Person C: Unitarianism is the best approach, you can teach the children the stories, teach them about other religions as well, and let them choose. It is a non-dogmatic way to have the values of religion and a spiritual approach to life without the politics and manipulation found in organized religion. Most religions were formed in centuries we would not want to live in, and too many organized religions still hold vestiges from those past dark days, causing homophobia, sexism, and other evils to continue to be embraced in the 21st century when we should be above those things. (This was the view I was closest too, by the way).
Person D: Religion is odd. This person was raised an atheist, and said that it was odd to think that one needed religion to have solid values. You treat others with respect, you look at your responsibility to fellow humans, and live a good life. You can do that and learn that without fancy stories or organized rituals. This person really doesn’t understand how someone could believe a story, especially when there are different stories in different parts of the world, and it would be arrogance to think that the story in the part of the world where someone lives happens to be the one true story that everyone must believe in.
My view was close to person C, though I emphasize spirituality more, bringing up Plotinus, and making the argument I made in this blog in the past: that current religions are remnants of an age where societies were exclusive and had little direct contact between the masses. Religion served a purpose of not only teaching moral values, but helping create social cohesion. In an age of globalization that actually works against stability by risking conflict over whose God-Story is right and also creates tension between tradition (religion relied to preserving tradition) and the pace of change brought by the enlightenment and especially capitalism.
What interests me standing back is the dynamics of the conversation. The most devout Muslim didn’t talk much, but listened respectfully, and there were no devout Christians there. I think of how different the conversation would have been with a different mix of people, and wonder how much our views are shaped by the kinds of conversations one has. It was also interesting to me that we did have one point of near consensus (the atheist remains skeptical): the importance of spirituality to life. Most of us did not want to embrace a purely materialist world view, and we agreed that religion got its power by touching something real. I also made the point that I think it’s helpful to see religion in its context: Jesus in the context of Roman occupied Palestine and Judaism in crisis, and Muhammad as a social reformer trying to improve the lot of women and the poor, and overall bring the Arab world out of “darkness and ignorance.”
We also agreed that the Bible does contribute a lot to our culture and literature, and children should learn about what it contains, even if it’s from a standpoint of “the Bible as literature.” One person said she was going over Greek mythology with her kids from a similar stand point, I noted how I wanted to teach my children to respect all religions and learn about them, even as I’ll tell him, “some people need these stories in order to really believe in the power of love, but we don’t.”
What I conclude from a conversation like this is that the caricature of the “religiously skeptical” as being anti-religion and hostile to Christians (or Muslims) is usually false. One person was close to that, but even the atheist seemed more puzzled by how people could believe than opposed. Those of us skeptical of organized religion generally respect religious faith, and holy books. We also had a strong sense that human liberation was important; religion can be a force for liberation (Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., etc.) and for human oppression and bigotry against those who are different. The latter we all opposed, the former deserved respect.
So nothing is decided. But it was an interesting weekend conversation.