Sunday 22 May 2016

Faith, religion and community

Faith, religion and community are probably the three most misused words in the English language. Often people use them interchangeably. In fact they are completely three different things. Religion indicates a preference to belong to an organised group that follows a particular spiritual path. To subscribe to a religion you need to subscribe to a particular set of rules and practices. Faith is an internal commitment that you believe something, without evidence that it contains a truth. It can be about religious or non religious matters. Many people would say things like "I have great belief in Manchester Citys team". Community refers to a group of people. Religious groups often talk about their community, but so do users of software products and people who like going to naturist resorts.

Another two words are needed whenever the words faith, religion and community are used together. These are tolerance and openmindness. There is a school of thought that blames religions for all of the worlds ills. From my perspective this is an extraordinarily bad misreading of the situation, because as far as I am concerned, the problems stem from greed, lust for power and lack of empathy for our fellow man. These issues afflict the faithful and non believers in equal measure. A common failure of religious groups is to be insular and to seek to "look after our own". Another is to seek to assist people purely as a means of proseletysing them. Sadly such people are often poor adverts for their creed and do more harm to the causes they are seeking to promote than any good they may intend.

I think that perhaps the biggest misconception that people of no religion make is to fail to recognise the enormous benefit many committed believers derive from their faith. There is a sometimes slightly arrogant assumption made that anyone who is a member of a religion is simply a deluded idiot who is being taken for a ride by a malignant organisation, simply intent on maintaining its own wealth and power. It is also assumed that the main driver for this is simply fear. For some this may be the case, but my experience of dealing with people of faith in the UK is that they belong to the faith community of their choice, not out of fear or ignorance, but as a positive decision to belong to a group that enhances their existence. For many, gathering for religious worship brings friendship, companionship and a sense of belonging. People enjoy the time set aside for meditation and listening to readings and discussions of religious texts. There is quite a lot of ambiguity in all religious texts and so if you subscribe to a faith, reconciling these is a key part of the journey.

There is a world of difference in the way fundamentalists view the world and the rest of the various religious communities. Fundamentalists view the key religious texts as literal truth. They believe that there is absolutely no scope for any discussion as to whether a text written hundreds or thousands of years ago can be interpreted literally in the modern word, often when scientific enlightenment has effectively debunked the story as a statement of fact.

Perhaps the prime example of this is the book of Genesis, where fundamentalists believe that the world was created in seven days aa mere few thousand years ago. They believe that all of the evidence to the contrary is simply artefacts left by the devil (although strangely the bible doesn't say "watch out for fake dinosaur bones left by the devil"). Most of the worlds religious community would take the view that the story was simply and illustration that things evolved in a certain way and that a process was involved. The wording was simply the best way that the authors of the early writings could get their arguments over. They didn't have the math or science to understand the physics of  "the big bang", so I'd say "let there be light" is a pretty good stab. Is it important whether God put the oceans there, or whether they simply coalesced as rocks and gases cooled down? It clearly is to some, but it won't change my life.

What has changed my life is the fact that as a member of church, I spend an hour a week in a contemplative mood. I listen to things which encourage me to be a better person. I get the opportunity to help with events for charities and for our community. There is a movement amongst humanists and atheists to develop a "church without God" movement. To me this is an eminently sensible plan. Many humanist ministers do a good job helping  people deal with bereavement. My view is that any minister of any faith who is helping people cope with life is a good thing. I fully respect the right of humanists and atheists to make their case and post their arguments. If people want a humanist minister to preside at their funeral that is fine. In Mill Hill we have a fine scheme which provides and overnight shelter for homeless people in winter months. This is run by the Mill Hill Churches group. I volunteer for this scheme and I am proud of the work it does. If the scheme was run by a non religious group I would be equally keen to help, because it is the right thing to do.

A mistake some churchgoers make is to think that they are in some way superior to the rest of the populace because they attend a building once a week and listen to some fine words. This is a real misreading of what religion and faith should be about. For me, it is a toolset, which is there to use to enable us to become better people and build a better world for our brothers and sisters and to help us deal with difficulties and crises. There may be other toolsets that do the job as well. To believe otherwise would be arrogant, but you really need to believe that a new toolkit is better.

Belonging to an organisation that is committed to making the world a better place can only be a good thing. Sadly many are put off by the actions of very unrepresentative people or groups. I tend to think of religions and churches as the doormen for a really fantastic club. Many of us have had the experience of trying to go to a club and finding a rude and aggressive doorman has either turned us away or made such a bad impression that we've chosen not to enter. We forever believe that club to be a terrible place. What we may not understand is that the unpleasant doorman wasn't carrying out the owner of the clubs instructions, but simply enjoying the power and prestige that their role gave them. For all we know the following week a new doorman may be there, one who would welcome us? It may even be that although the club is great, it is not for you. I've got friends who love genres of music and clubs I can't stand. That is just the way we are. I am quite happy for my friends to like their music and their clubs and I'll stick with mine. We still get on great and the things we share in common we enjoy and the things we don't share, we don't let divide us. To me faith, religion and community should be like that. Once we can all agree to differ, the world will be a much better place.

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