Sometime back in my twenties, I had a bumper sticker on my car that declared, “Religion was invented to keep the poor from killing the rich.” I was being deliberately provocative (wake up, you Bible belt dupes), but I also believed it. I was a bright young thing, and organized religion was for people who couldn’t or wouldn’t think for themselves. Having grown up around some deeply screwed up religion, I assumed religion itself was screwed up (though I was much less hostile to those that weren’t Christian). “I’m spiritual, not religious,” was my standard disclaimer.
Fast forward through some dark, difficult, humbling years. Through a lot of growing up. Today the back of my car sports a magnet proclaiming my membership in the Episcopal church. A follower of religion. Life is strange.
I’m thinking about my ironic conversion a lot these days because I see glimpses of my former blanket contempt for religion in some reactions to the latest round of atrocities committed in its name. I see it mixed up with the horror, revulsion and despair that I also feel about these unholy wars. And I get it. When terrible deeds are committed in the name of a god, as they are and have been since humans began giving form to belief, the common denominator can seem obvious. If hatred, ignorance, hypocrisy, and corruption are what you constantly see coming from religion, of course you’d conclude that a world without it would be an infinitely better place. Of course you’d imagine no religion.
And of course we’d be in an imaginary world where there is still war, famine, disease, unthinkable cruelty. Because human beings would still be in it. There would just be other excuses for the inexcusable. We are the lowest common denominator.
If I’ve become an apologist for organized religion, it’s even in more trouble than we knew. But there’s another side–many more sides–to religion and religious people that doesn’t often make news. Facets that reflect love and courage and healing–even through humanity’s many flaws and imperfections. People who turn to religion because they meet their best, highest self there. Because they can confront their worst darkness there. Because it helps them discover what they can do to make the world a better place for us all. Because it helps them think more, not less. For me, religion creates tenemous space, finite and familiar, where I can connect with the infinite and unknowable. It enfolds me in a community where I have to work on extending my sense of “we” beyond myself and mine, into community, into humanity. God knows I need the practice.
Not everyone needs a handrail to make it through this valley of the shadow, to stay on the path of love and hope through dark times. But some do.
And I’m glad it’s there.