11 April 2019, The Tablet

Does religion do more harm than good?


Does religion do more harm than good?

The Great Miseries of War, by Jacques Callot (detail)
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Political violence fuelled by religious zealotry increasingly threatens the world’s peace and sanity. Is religion inherently toxic? Or could it simply be that there is good religion and there is bad religion, and we just need to learn to tell the difference?

The meaning of “religion” is hard to encapsulate. It would include rites in the ancient world, such as animal and human sacrifice, employed as forms of scapegoating. But I am here concerned with global faiths that have produced major bodies of critical thought, and with definitions given by the sociology of religion, which sees its subject as involving an apprehension and symbolic representation of sacred or non-ordinary reality.
Human beings do not merely investigate the natural world at a scientific level. We also seek to make sense of our lives via all sorts of evolutionary adaptations – agriculture, dance, literature – that have emerged from animal play, animal empathy, ritual and myth during a long history of tribal societies without much sense of the beyond, through supernatural king-god monarchies, to more recent societies with their religions of value transcending the brute givens of existence.

With this trajectory in mind, we might point up developments during the first millennium BCE. Whether or not one accepts the term “Axial Age” to encompass this period, it can nevertheless be described as transformational. The ideal was contrasted with the real; visionary horizons of hope were set against the frustrations of the everyday world. Though expressed in different idioms across the world, the quest for transcendence – a higher dimension of reality embodying more exalted values – arose in China, through reflection on the way of nature; in India, through worldly renunciation; in Israel, through prophetic denunciation; and in Greece, through theoretical reflection and the quest for wisdom.

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