April 2016: Is Religion Inherent to Civilization?

April 2016 Inter-Belief Conversation Café

Is Religion Inherent to Civilization?

Monday, April 18, 2016
7 – 9 p.m.
Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul
1671 Summit Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55105 (View Map)

Would the world be the same without religion? Would it be better, worse, or just a little different? Does faith so permeate our concepts of justice, ethics, morality, language, and how things are done that there can be no genuine separation? Is there some naturalistic blank slate from which to create all this or does belief still control our thinking and lives? Could we do better without the baggage? Is some (hopefully) higher power calling the shots or is this something we make in our own image, not a word from above? Is civilization from God or in spite of God?

Could religion just be a stage of development? The Apostle Paul said that when he became a man he put aside childish things. Is that where modern human civilization is now? Will science answer our “why” questions? Is morality something we can legislate based on best practices of all cultures? Were all religious endeavors so great? Who wants to bring back animal sacrifice — much less that of humans? Hasn’t holy war been fairly unholy? But hasn’t also a religious impulse caused people to do surprisingly good things? Don’t some people really love their neighbors as themselves? Haven’t religious people acted in compassion and spread healing, health care and education throughout the world? Would they have done that, or would they now do that, without faith to inspire them? Even if some do good deeds on their own, don’t many need religion?

How much culture would we have without religion? Ornate houses of worship, paintings and statues extolling leading faith figures, music with a touch of the divine, and texts touching on the great questions of life and creation flow from the religious impulse. Can we ignore them? Has the secular world done better? Would we trade Bach for punk rock? Would we trade the Vatican for Vegas? Or was art religious because the times were religious? Do we now build our cathedrals to business, entertainment, and government? Do cultural works just draw inspiration from the surrounding culture, no matter what it is? The Pyramids, the Parthenon, Chichen Itza, Stonehenge, Ishtar Gate, and other ancient monuments had religious significance, but we don’t look to those gods anymore.

Does religion make us change? Once sacrifice and festivals were enough. Do it right and the gods were appeased. Then in the first chapter of Isaiah, God said he didn’t want sacrifices without ceasing to do evil, learning to do good and seeking justice. We entered an Axial Age of religion bringing individual salvation and enlightenment. But it also brought Greek philosophers who seemed to exalt reason over conventional religious practice. How does the realm of reason deal with global religious movements like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism which spread faiths over continents? Can rationalism actually explain such phenomena? Are there more things out there than our philosophies can handle? When we imagine a world without Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and the others, how much do we like it?

Do some of our secular philosophies seem like religion? Nationalism seems to worship a Fatherland or Motherland. Marxism invokes a perhaps Utopian workers’ paradise. Even followers of science get a little misty eyed when describing the inspiration which guides their enterprise. Can we live without ideals which are beyond ourselves and mere existence? Is this the same impulse which leads to religious belief and/or practice? Is there some inherent need for faith/religion which civilization — and we — cannot do without?

On Monday, April 18 from 7-9 PM at Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul, 1671 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, Inter-belief Conversation Café will explore what really makes us tick. Agreements of acceptance, open-mindedness, curiosity, discovery, sincerity, brevity, and confidentiality will be inherent in our quest. We or may not get to the bottom of this; but we will have treats!