Religion: what is it?

July 21, 2014

A few words on a favorite topic of mine, to see if I can get back into the writing habit.

A few weeks ago I noticed a brief theater review in the New York Times. In the play, “The Religion Thing,” a young couple with successful high-powered careers find that a visiting college friend has joined an evangelical megachurch, married a fellow she met there, and is giving up her partnership in a law firm to prepare for motherhood. This naturally leads the couple to reappraise their own plans and the role in them of their own conflicting but largely ignored religious traditions. The review is generally positive regarding the staging and performances, but ends with this paragraph, which is what really held my attention:

Crucially, though, for a play called “The Religion Thing,” there is surprisingly little real discussion of theology. Patti and Jeff briefly describe the crises that brought them to their church, while Mo and Brian mention the rituals they have set aside. But virtually absent is any true talk of spirituality, of what role it plays in their lives. Without that, religion is just another weapon for people to wield against one another.

You see, I have increasingly come to believe over the years that for most adherents, both now and through history, this is just what religion is like. Something that can provide a useful social/cultural framework for life, a set of rituals to follow or not, a sense of belonging to a community, help from time to time with severe emotional needs, and yes, all too often a weapon. Theology has never been the concern of more than a handful of experts; very few of the loyal church members I have known over the years have known or cared much about the details of it. Nor have I known many to profess any really profound distinctively spiritual experience. And I doubt that this is just a function of my having lived my whole life in an urban secularizing environment. I doubt very much that many of the Catholics and Protestants who only recently stopped killing one another in Ulster could have given an articulate explanation of why they endorsed one faith over the other, beyond the fact that they were born to it; likewise the Sunnis and Shi’ites who are still very much engaged in killing one another in the Middle East. Religious wars, no less than political ones, are conducted by organized social groups most of whose members support with more or less fervor the side they happen to find themselves on, with no real say in the matter.

Not that theology and spirituality are not interesting topics worthy of study; I just think their role within the vast complex of phenomena we label “religion” tends to be overrated.

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