I watched a thought-provoking priest giving a sermon recently on the television and when he said that the recession had increased the numbers attending special ceremonies at Christmas and Easter it made me think about how we feel about religion and its necessity in our everyday lives. He said we turn to religion when we are in trouble, sad or seeking some favour. He is correct of course, that is what we do. So what is religion? The definition in the dictionary says religion is an organised collection of beliefs, cultural systems and world views that relate to humanity and to an order of existence. The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with faith, belief systems, or a set of duties, the service and worship of God or the supernatural.
A global report in 2012 reports that 59% of the world population is religious, with more women than men having religious beliefs.
We live in a world full of mysteries and unknowns. Fear of the unknown makes people turn to religion and to God. It is this fear of the unknown that makes religion such an attractive alternative and is the root of all religious beliefs. Almost all religions are designed to bring about a packaged peace of mind and give us values and strong beliefs and an attitude to live by. Religion offers comfort and a moral guidance for how to live life and helps us believe in a life after death.
We do not hear much preached about hell in today’s sermons, any more than we hear about grave sins, but it is these fears that a strong belief in God eliminates and gives people hope for the receiving of the Lord’s compassion at the end of life. People do turn to religion in bad times and seek solace and answers to questions that are bigger and more complicated than they can understand, like when people have a terminal illness, but it is our own deep spirituality that sustain us eventually.
Freud saw religion as a way for people to reassure themselves that their difficult lives are worthwhile and tolerable in view of the benefits that may come in the afterlife. According to him, people just go along with the philosophy, morality and instructions that religion or the church dictates in their daily lives. Some think that religion is only a crutch for those who are weak and have no strong opinions.
Well, it may be true that religion is a crutch for many believers who have difficult lives and turn to faith as a solace to the soul. Religion and the rules that govern a religion gives a strong foundation upon which to build daily lives, stops people making serious mistakes and helps them find ways to care for others, puts boundaries and rules into a framework for living, which is of vital importance to our everyday lives. Religion even used as a crutch is a useful tool, beneficial and helpful, but it must not be overused, or abused to a point where instead of helping to heal they cause disruption and damage. When we look at religious extremists and the damage they cause to the lives of others, we must accept that religions can and do harm people in the name of whatever God they support.
Religion is often used to control, manipulate and disempower people and to keep the oppressed silent and the militant obedient. We should ask ourselves have we handed over our direct connection with God and outsourced our spirituality in a blinded way to external powers, who decide the rules that govern religions of all hues?
The promise of life after death has kept many on the straight and narrow, and in recent years the damage done by the abuse of children and those vulnerable by church clergy, has left many questioning what they believed in and held sacred. There are no perfect people in this world so erosion of values and beliefs are a fact of life.
But fundamentally religion encourages positive changes in our lives. We have all experienced divine intervention in our lives in one way or another, even if we think it is coincidence. Our faith teaches us humility, patience, gratitude, to reach out to others in our family, community and to those that need a helping hand. It also encourages us to challenge abuse of power, to stand up for the oppressed and downtrodden, and to fight injustice at every corner. Faith and religious beliefs also allow people to be truthful and loving of others. It also encourages us to fight against greed, corruption, manipulation, deceit and the abuse of power by those in authority and in leadership roles. Every individual must rely on their own spirituality to trust in themselves to loving and making just and compassionate decisions.
If we believe that there is a loving God who created us, cares for us and want what is best for us, then it follows that blessings for a happy life will be showered on us when we practice love, care and sharing, all of which brings us closer to our God. Religion and how we practice it is the right path in life, some people may disagree, but as faith leads to hope which in turn leads to a life of happiness and fulfilment, even those that consider it a crutch for bad times will benefit from faith in every area of life.
Religion has always been part of humanity and has taken a central role in virtually every civilization and culture. Critics are continually telling us that religion is on the way out, but we need only look at the numbers climbing holy mountains, attending sunrise masses, attending novenas, thronging to holy places, to see that people want to be part of religious beliefs. It is a powerful and persistent part of our life and shows no sign of disappearing as the critics suggest.
Indeed that preacher was correct, since the recession we have seen a rise in churchgoers and professions of faith at every level. We are now facing a dwindling clergy and we must face up to the fact that we may have a society in the future that will be short of priests and religious to care for our religious needs. That is when we will have to resort to our own strengths of spirituality. With the absence of clergy to conduct funerals, weddings, sacraments or be at a bedside as someone dies, the awareness of how precious their presence were in our lives may only then be realised.
Our faith, beliefs and inner spirituality encourages us to love God, love our neighbour and live within the commandments of the Lord. But we must also re-examine our dependence on external sources that have tried to take ownership of our individual spiritual development from without, to the detriment of our God-given spiritual power within, and to the escalation of our fears around the unknown. We need to remember that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and asked to trust in His compassion and love and not feel ostracised by the choices we make in life. You can only feel outside the fold if you fail to nurture your own spirituality, which is God’s unique and personal gift to every human being.
Peg Hanafin, MSc 9/7/2014
Sent to Bulletin 11/07/2014