Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Purpose of Religion

Many of my students cynically think that the purpose of religion is to scare people into oppression. The powerful created this huge myth as a means for social control. While I don't deny that some people have used religion for such a purpose, I do not regard that as the original intention of religion.

Religion is powerful, and so it will be abused, unfortunately.

So, what is the source of the power of religion? What is its real purpose?

Surprisingly, I think I've found answers to these questions.

The purpose of religion is to help us deal with our pain, suffering, and grief in ways that stop it from continuing to damage ourselves or others. The purpose of religion is to help us learn to "end suffering within" (I think that is a quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh).

I have this image of pain and suffering bouncing around the universe like ping pong balls. You see one coming at you, and the temptation is to bat it away. But doing so often makes it hit someone else and hurt them too. So they pick it up and angrily throw it back at you. Or maybe they miss and hit someone else. Etc.

To end suffering within is to catch the ping pong ball and paint it pretty colors and hang it in the window and show it off to your friends.

The power of religion then is redemption.

It really is possible to stop and hold your pain and suffering and grief instead of flinging it back on others. It really is possible to rework it in ways that make you a better person: stronger, more insightful, more compassionate.

We are artists, creators. The material we have to work with is our life experience. Just because we may not like some of the colors we are given does not mean that we cannot mix those colors with others to create beautiful art. The colors that are our experiences of pain can add depth and richness to the paintings we produce. Added artfully to our canvas, they can bring out the brilliance of the colors we do wish to emphasize.

Our world today, in general, does not do a very good job of teaching us how to do this. Our world today does not even do a very good job of reminding us that we should be trying to figure out how to learn this. Instead, when we are hurting, our culture tells us to find someone to blame -- as if blaming or punishing others will ever really prevent future suffering or help us to heal from our wounds.

Looking for blame misses the point. When we are wounded, it is our wound that needs attention. When we are wounded, we need healing.

The point of life is not to escape all suffering. That is naive and impossible.

Once we realize that most suffering does not destroy us, we can establish a new relationship with it. How can we meet life's challenges in ways that make us better people? How can we learn how to transform the pain and suffering that comes our way into strength, courage, compassion, and insight?

How you answer these questions describes your religion.


  1. This was a really fine post that added to my understanding of pain and redemption. Keep up the good work.

  2. Your ideas on handling pain and suffering are useful but I'm not sure "redemption" is an outcome, if by redemption you mean eternal salvation.

    If you mean redemption from self consuming attitudes I can see the point but what about redemption in the eternal sense?

    The ping pong illustration, by the way, is great! :)

    1. By "redemption" I mean "bringing good out of evil."

  3. I think religion should be dead for good! Because it creates more sufferings.

    1. I have heard this point of view before, but I do not understand it. You seem to suggest that if we only got rid of religion, humans would no longer cause each other suffering. I doubt this, because there are lots of reasons people cause each other to suffer: jealousy, pain, fear, hunger, desperation, etc. Sometimes they attribute their bad deeds to religion, but they are simply wrong to do so. Meanwhile, there are other people who do great things in the name of religion as well.

      Attributing causality to something abstract like "religion" is not simple or straightforward. At least we have to start with the original meaning of the term. "Religion" has the same root as "ligament" and originally means "connection," and more specifically, connection to ultimate goodness.

      If we got rid of religion, how would we talk about goodness, and try to inspire each other to goodness? We would invent a new language, but then this language too would probably become abused. Why? Because when people do terrible things, they often try to justify those actions. And justifying something terrible is to try to make it look "good," and so one has to draw on ethical or religious language.

      So, the language of goodness, being powerful, will always be subject to abuse.

      Throwing out religion, or any other languages or communities that form around "goodness" will not suddenly make all people good at last!

      What we need to protest against is not religion itself, but terrible deeds, and the co-opting of religion (or any language of goodness) in an attempt to "justify" those terrible deeds.

    2. I mostly agree with this reply, but I do not think that religion or any sort of belief in the supernatural is a prerequisite for goodness. It is very possible to be moral and good without religion.

      Another issue: some religions encourage ethnocentrism, which is never a great thing in this globalized, interconnected world we live in. Some religious systems encourage violence. We need to critically analyze whether certain religions do more harm than good. Whether they propagate outdated cultural and moral norms that no longer work in today's world.

    3. I take your point that religion may not be a prerequisite for goodness. But any language of goodness becomes vulnerable to abuse, because people who do bad things almost always try to justify their actions (and "justification" requires some appeal to morality).

      I agree that we have to analyze religions carefully. All religions have important teachings about peace. Some religions allow for violence, but only under specified conditions. I would not say that any "encourage violence," but perhaps I am wrong about this. Can you give specific examples?

  4. As a man thinks so is he. Your only go by what you know. What your taught is how it affect the way you act, think, and talk. Follow a man named Jesus teaching and his learning will keep you from pride which prevents one from wrong learning and crashing and burning. What you learn,believe, you will act and follow and achieve. Muse on the words truth way and life and believe and you will be at peace and learn to live with eternal life being free from strife in your life. Learn from Him and escape from Sin. Also, the revelations to a man named Paul will help keep you from a permanent fall.

  5. This is what I think as well, to a certain extent. The superstitions involved in religion make it dangerous because they make the people involved fools, parading around screaming at you to be moral and ethical. These are good things, it is good to be ethical, however it is not good to have such superstition. If we are truly to be good we have to deal with the world the way it is. I try to be good for the sake of goodness and I don't believe in any superstition, however looking at religion objectively, I cannot say that it has bad intentions, and so I cannot dislike it. It is silly and entertaining, but not concrete enough for me to have an interest without being skeptical and looking for its motive. Like any human laws, for God's laws are human laws, they are imperfect in every religion, with sometimes silly rules, sometimes damaging ones. People starve themselves, swear off families, in the name of religion, and this isn't good. However it is just too bad for them. For me, I will continue my life with a curious and inquiring mind that thirsts to know. Remember, people are the cause of all evil, just as people are the cause of all good, for mere people we are, tiny animals that live in hives on this great and powerful earth.