Although we may gather for worship believing that what we do is the best way to honour God, I want to suggest that disentangling background from our actions in the worship is no easy matter. Deciding on the value of a religion may mean first identifying which components are to do with culture and social function.
Some components may turn out to have more value than others. It should not surprise us that the word “religion” evokes clearly different feelings for many people. In order to make sense of the world and our place in it, we call on acquired knowledge, some of which comes to us via our cultural setting, where a mix of family and community sources of knowledge is inextricably intertwined with formal education and a range of feelings and emotional responses. There is a modern assumption that religions are often slow to adapt to new knowledge and therefore it is best to set aside religion and turn instead to the growing knowledge available from science. Although science based understandings can suggest a clear relationship between evidence and understanding of the physical world, science is much more limited in what it can tell us about what we might mean by the supernatural and in particular, religion as a means of inspiring us in the area of values.
Stephen Jay Gould suggested the divide between science and religion as one which might be best described by “non-overlapping magisteria” in which science gets to attend to the realm of physical fact whereas religion largely attends to the area of values. Not everyone would of course agree with Gould’s statement yet it may explain why sometimes science and religion appear in dispute – particularly when the specialists in one of these magisteria insist on attempting to establish limitations in the other.
Thus the creationists might try to obstruct those who promulgate scientific findings about evolution and the age of the earth, and Christian conservatives might seek to prevent stem cell research and genetic engineering. Where religious conservatism is substantial this can and does influence research and in the US scientists have often expressed frustration that they are unable to lead the way in stem cell therapy, nor to take full advantage of the possibilities of genetic engineering in developing improved plant strains with a legal system developed to serve the interests of those who are in a position to influence decisions.
At the same time scientists might seek to undermine cherished beliefs about sin (eg the nature of homosexuality), life after death, and the effectiveness of intercessory prayer in faith healing. Part of the problem here is that the knowledge in both magesteria is still largely at a formative stage, with the additional problem that both science and religion are not in fact free from one another’s influence. Science can for example inform religion about the nature of ancient sacred texts, about biological causes of behaviour and about physical phenomena previously assigned to supernatural interactions. Science in its turn can learn from religion about values which help discriminate about the desirability of conducting various forms of research. Bioethics is one area of agreed potential partnership – particularly when it comes to the conduct of research affecting people or animals.
Because Religion in its many forms is grounded in a collection of cultural settings, varying belief systems and noticeably different world views which emerge from a mixture of radically different backgrounds of varying sophistication, the produced beliefs and attitudes of different groups of religious believers may result different views on morality, ethics, an understanding of the significance of life and opinions about ultimate meaning.
The problems which result when one group from one tradition seeks to impose values on another group are exacerbated when strongly held religious views of disparate religious groups are forced into close proximity to one another.
The use of alcohol, sex outside marriage, and women wearing what might be thought to be promiscuous clothing might enrage some groups of conservative Muslims, while Sharia law, veiled women and honour killings might equally enrage some groups of Christians. Eating beef can horrify Hindus and eating any meat can horrify Buddhists and Jains who treat all animal life as sacred.
Religion serves a variety of social purposes which are not necessarily dependent on the precise truth of the religion’s propositions. For example familiarity with a common mythology and religious history helps us establish our identity within a group. In such cases outcomes may be more important than the likely-hood of the religious stories having correspondence with actual events. For Christians and Jews, Old Testament stories such as Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, Moses parting the sea, Jonah and the big fish, the walls of Jericho falling in response to the blast of trumpets etc help establish a set of accepted narratives.
These are vastly different from the traditions of the Buddha, or the stories of the beginning of Hinduism. In themselves the stories may appear fanciful in the extreme but if they are part of a way of thinking that leads to a stable and mutually caring society it would be foolish to reject them as having no value. In many religions the membership of the group may be indicated to strangers by forms of dress and group behaviour particularly in regions like the Middle East where appearance helps signal recognition of likely fellow believers in a setting where a stranger might have no empathy with someone of a different religion.
When we meet with those with similar views to our own there is a sense that this not only identifies those who belong – but also those who do not belong. This in turn gives access to social support and even a form of group social insurance. Where religions have a degree of common heritage there is typically some commonality in terms of understood sources of spirituality, similar perceptions of transcendence, the same claimed appreciation of love, and often place for charity and the expectation of good works (although not always evidence of tolerance for those who come through different traditions!)
Many religions have unique symbols, stories and traditions which appear to associate with their preferred lifestyle and accepted morality in which laws and customs are often found to have religious associations. Strangely, widely different views on God and right living often arrive at similar accepted morality, which is perhaps why Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion has relatively good buy-in across the religious spectrum. Some religions place an emphasis on belief and formalized observance, while others emphasize practice.
Some religions focus on the subjective experience of the religious individual, while others consider the activities of the religious community to be most important. At times it may also seem that the religious observance eg massed choir singing and use liturgical symbols have little to do with life. Some religions claim to be universal, believing their cosmology and laws to be binding for everyone, while others are intended to be practiced only by a closely defined or localized group. This can cause difficulties in that those brought up in the Abrahamic faiths assume that their world view is the common desirable one and hence act as if there is a need to treat minor local religions which have developed in isolated settings as aberrations of no intrinsic worth. The challenge for those who wish to supplant others’ beliefs is to ensure that there is objective evidence that this would leave the targeted community better off.