It is hard to pinpoint when exactly religion, as a concept, came about. Perhaps organized religion is more a recent phenomenon – within the last few thousand years or so – but some form of belief, or at least a primitive code of ethics, likely existed before then as a way to keep humans in check. When an omniscient and omnipotent being mandates a certain set of actions, we are more likely to follow these actions than the mandated actions of any mortal, provided that we truly believe in this being.
How else could we have convinced humans to act cooperatively, to think about others and not only themselves? We could not have survived as we do today if we simply stole when we needed things and murdered when we were upset.
We can even suppose that religion guided us towards healthier and sustainable habits; in Hinduism, the eating of cows may have been banned by its founders not because cows are inherently holy, but because red meat is unhealthy and because a cow’s milk can provide sustenance for much longer than its meat can.
We can guess that similar practices occurred in Islamic and Jewish faiths with regard to the health horror of pork, and even in Leviticus where high-cholesterol shellfish is forbidden.
Whatever purpose religion may have served in the past – and even serves today – it would appear that religion now hurts more than it helps.
With the religious wars that have plagued human history and still cause tension in the Middle East, the special interest groups that complicate our democratic process and force politicians to further play politics rather than act as public servants and the barriers to progress in areas such as gay marriage and women’s rights, it seems that religion, once our uniting principle and strength in hard times, has now become a principal reason for why we have hard times in the first place.
It goes without saying that religion is not wholly evil and most observers – even the most devout – do not cause any harm; in fact, many are charitable and offer solace to the lost and beleaguered.
Faith is something to be admired and often religion can make us kinder and more responsible citizens in a sometimes indifferent world. The problem arises from a small minority of passionate individuals, extremists and misinterpreters who act in the name of God.
In some cases, we end up with nominees, like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, who advocate against evolution as a scientific “fallacy” and claim that the only medicine for the United States is a return to the original Christian values on which the nation was founded – despite a distinct separation of Church and State in our laws – and a turn away from further progress, scientific, intellectual or otherwise.
We fearfully look to the Middle East, knowing that instability around Jerusalem could erupt at any second. We get a nation that, despite having the acumen, financial resources, and technological advancement to send an engineering marvel to Mars, must debate whether rape is “legitimate” in deciding if a woman should be allowed an abortion instead of discussing how best we can help victims of these crimes.
We even prevent couples from getting married on the sole basis that they are of the same gender.
Religion was definitely necessary at some point in history to keep early civilizations in line but in today’s times, where we understand that actions like stealing and murdering are wrong and have an appropriate judiciary system meant to deal with these issues, religion has weighed us down, slowed our progress, and harmed our society.
While we cannot erase religion from our past, our present, or even our future, we can urge our clergymen to not focus so much on the nuances of the scripture and the literal interpretation of the text, but to adapt the teachings into a modern context.
Modern discourses should focus on core values such as compassion and duty rather than attemtping to impose details of what we must and must not do in our daily lives and, for some faiths, in our thoughts. We have the judicial and legislative system to mandate our boundaries.
We must petition our governments to isolate religious advice from non-negotiable rules.
If religion could adapt to run parallel with law and show us how we could become better citizens instead of forcing us into daily rituals, outdated practices and backwards viewpoints, we would be better served. However, if religion in modern times cannot adapt or restrict itself to that complementary role, we are certainly doomed to never reach humankind’s potential.
Sid Raju is a freshman on Oxford campus from Princeton, New Jersey.