RELIGION’S OWN WORST ENEMY

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I have argued previously and maintain that secularism has had a negative impact on religion. I believe secularism has both limited the number of willing participants for religious activity and made these participants Others in wider society. The negative effects have come to be because secularism does not simply create an environment where different religions can practice freely, but instead it creates an environment where no religious participation or membership is the norm. And those who belong to and practice a religion become regarded as Other.

But in recent decades there has been a far more prominent factor in the deteriorating reputation of religion: religion itself. Religious fundamentalism and extremism have found their place in the world and have seriously damaged attitudes on religion. Though these elements are far from the norm and represent the extremes of the religious spectrum, these elements are at the forefront of minds when the topic of religion comes up. I believe primarily because they are the most vocal elements of the spectrum. They are also the most highly visible in the media.

Perhaps fundamentalism and extremism are not to blame alone. The media gives these elements a voice. The media plays a large part in painting the picture of religion society sees and comes to believe. The media reports sensational news to improve rating, get more viewers, sell more papers etc. If this is the case, why would they report on moderate and accepting religious groups? Secularism ‘Otherizes’ religion. But fundamentalists, extremists and the media that puts the spotlight on their actions and ideals are huge, direct factors in how religion is regarded in our society.

The subtleties of secularism are hard to combat, but limiting the effect of religious fundamentalism and extremism can have a real impact on correcting the skewed view of religion in Western, secular society today. This may include a higher awareness of where we get our news from, and what motivates these media sources. It may also mean regarding ‘good news’ as important and as news worthy as ‘bad news’. To reprogram the media and media consumers to give equal weight to the inspirational and the sensational. This way a more balanced view of religion can permeate society, and the extremism that makes religion its own worst enemy can be put into perspective and its influence diminished.

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CATEGORIZATION: THE ‘RELIGIOUS’ AND THE ‘SECULAR’

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In secular societies like America, many religions and religious people exist within a secular structure and live along-side secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, etc. The ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ have designated ways to both celebrate successes and cope with difficulties. This is not to say there is no overlap in these activities, that religious people may not take part in secular activities or visa versa. But in our categorized society, there are activities regarded often as one or the other. They are placed in neat little boxes of meaning, though people do not hesitate to help themselves to the contents of multiple boxes. I will juxtapose the activities of these two categories, religious and secular, to illustrate similarities and points of differentiation that may affect people’s decisions when navigating these categories.

If one is going through difficult times, the religious person may pray or ask others to keep them in their thoughts and prayers. They may seek council or support from a leader in their religious community. They may give money to a religious organization to have a worship service held on their behalf. Religious people may cope in different ways, keeping to solitary thought and prayer or seek support from wider community.

When the secular person goes through difficult times they may lean on family and friends for support. If it is a serious upheaval or the person is having an especially difficult time coping they may hire a professional therapist. They may engage in ‘retail therapy’, buying things in an attempt to ease emotional pain or at least providing a temporary distraction. The secular person may try to feel better emotionally and mentally by purchasing services at a salon or spa to feel physical pleasure. They may just take some down-time alone sleeping, watching TV or reading. Again, both solitude and community may be utilized when coping.

When religious people succeed or have something in their life worth celebrating, one of the first things they typically do is thank God, or thank the divine for providing the means and / or opportunity to succeed. Such thanks may include a donation to a religious organization. Celebrating could involve a party with special food, music or dancing to mark the event. Gifts may be given as congratulations or in commemoration of the event.

The secular equivalent is very much the same, except thanks would not be offered to a higher power. Nor would a higher power be acknowledged. Any thanks would go out to people that helped or provided moral support to the celebrated person. Parties and gift giving would occur in much the same way. But it would not be uncommon for the person succeeding or being celebrated to purchase something for themselves as a type of reward for reaching the achievement or milestone.

These categories are not absolute as ‘secular’ people often take part in ‘religious’ activities, like giving thanks to a higher power or praying for help. ‘Religious’ people undoubtedly take part in ‘secular’ activities as they live their faith out in a secular society. Despite the significant overlap and sharing beyond boundaries, these labels exist and play a part in what activities people choose to engage in and how people are regarded based on what activities they choose to engage in.

A theme that runs through coping and celebrating in both religious and secular realms is money. It seems more natural and expected in secular life. Perhaps because the exchange of money is more visible and straight forward in secular activities. In the secular world goods and services are marked with a cost, a sum of money is paid in exchange. It is easy to see and evaluate the fairness of the exchange. In the religious world money is kept more private. The cost for goods and services is more ambiguous as often only donations are requested. Though money finds its place in both religious and secular worlds there are very different customs and expectations surrounding it. These differences help sort activities across the secular-religious boundary.

RESISTANCE TO SECULARISM: NEW AGE & FUNDAMENTALISM

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Previously I’ve written on the relationship between organized religion, secularism and the rise of New Age phenomena (see my article “Organized Religion & Secularism: The New Age Result”) and identified New Age largely as a response to secular society. The other response, or retaliation perhaps, is fundamentalism. New Age phenomena and fundamentalism are a world apart, but both identify largely by what they are not: mainstream secular humanism. Neither group hesitates much to point out Western cultures faults, as opposed to their chosen ways. While New Age phenomena has an intricate set of beliefs and practices to fuel its existence independently as a spiritual / religious path, its relationship with the Western secularism it is largely situated in cannot be understated as a factor in shaping New Age. Fundamentalist traditions too have this relationship with the wider, secular world as an integral part of their identities and motivations. While their beliefs and practices strongly oppose one another, New Age and Fundamentalism both promote themselves as better alternatives to Western, secular society. They are two sides of the same coin.

New Age favors holism, rather than the separate, arbitrary spheres of life created and maintained through secularism. This is especially true with regards to religion being quarantined in secular society. New Agers look to integrate their spiritual and daily lives. They often integrate elements of different faith traditions in their own spiritual life. Some even go as far as to promote a universal religion to bring down barriers and bring people together in peaceful understanding. Fundamentalism on the other hand, looks to give religion a more central part in people’s daily lives, but through exclusivist means. While they are opposed to the separation of religion from public life they support the separation of faiths and cultures in an effort to preserve the ‘fundamentals’ of their religion. Both strive to release religion from the neat container secularism has given it, though their views on how to do this are highly contradictory.

Some say that secularism simply provides the space for people to do what they wish in peace. But secularism is more than live and let live. It has a tendency to white-wash culture, to create this overarching normality and implicit pressures to exist within this realm of normality. The secular humanist standard being imposed across the board is what causes Fundamentalists to become violent, and New Agers to push holism and its embrace of diversity. In Western culture today, secular humanism can be seen as the middle path with New Age being one ‘extreme’ and Fundamentalism being the other. While their principles are greatly opposed, they being at opposite ends of the spectrum, they both resist the white-washing of secularism. In their own ways, New Agers and Fundamentalists are trying to keep some flavor and richness in Western culture rather than a contrived, standardized culture. Two very different sides to the same coin.

CHRISTIAN PREDISPOSITIONS: PLURALISM AND HOLISM

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In last week’s article on pluralism, I argued that practitioners of Eastern religions would find it easier to embrace pluralism that their Western counterparts. This is based on the fact that Eastern traditions are not mutually exclusive. It is acceptable and common to simultaneously follow beliefs and practices from more than one tradition. All are viewed as equal and appropriate ways to pursue a good life. Whereas Western religions (including Christianity) often claim to contain ‘ultimate truth’, and are promoted as the only path to reach a good life. In this respect, Easterners have the advantage in living with a pluralist mindset.

But the sermon provided at my church this past Sunday got me thinking about elements of Christianity that may help make the shift from an exclusive to a pluralist point of view. In Christianity the divine takes the form of the trinity. God is both one and three at once. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are divine independently, yet all three are part of a larger whole. If Christians can not only accept but take comfort in the various forms of divinity, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then it is not far to be able to acknowledge and accept other forms of divinity from other religions as equal and valid. Christians have had practice being inclusive concerning different expressions of the divine, within their own faith constructs. With this practice, Christians are predisposed to recognize the various expressions of the divine in other faith traditions and are more than able to take on a pluralist perspective while staying rooted in their own faith.

The sermon touched on another core tenet of Christianity that immediately jumped out as relevant to life today: the divinity and humanity of Jesus. Jesus was believed to be wholly divine and wholly human in his life on earth. Not half divine and half human. But both God and man, fully and simultaneously. My reverend described it this way, “Imagine three identical cups, all the same size. Two are filled to the brim with equal amounts of water, one containing divinity the other containing humanity. The third cup is empty, this is Jesus. Imagine pouring the two full glasses of divinity and humanity into the empty glass, and somehow all of the water fits. Not one drop is lost. This is the mystery and wonder of Jesus.” It is hard for us to imagine. It is a sacred mystery in Christianity. It defies logic. This contradiction is accepted and contemplated with wonder. Considering this, isn’t it strange that America with all of her ‘Christian roots’ has become so secular? So consumed with labels and boundaries. With the simultaneous divinity and humanity of Jesus as a centerpiece of the Christian faith, it seems only natural for Christians to take on a holistic view of the world. The mundane would become divine and the divine would become mundane. Perhaps this new-found holism could help Christians take characteristics of their faith beyond the artificial boundaries of their religion. Embracing holism, perhaps Christians could extend their pluralistic view of God, as the trinity, to other faith traditions to create respect and understanding for how the divine is working in every corner of the globe.