Atheists used to confidently predict the decline of religious belief until it slowly faded away, but the reports of religion's death are, to use Oscar Wilde's phrase, greatly exaggerated. Religion is still in the secular west capable of attracting quite a lot of attention, and despite problems of church attendance in Europe religion is a powerful force in other parts of the world. So in this article I will give an account of why I think people are and should be religious.
Why Be Religious?
Non-believers are often puzzled by the survival of religious belief , so religious people should be prepared to explain their convictions.
Respect for other beings
"Because it's there!" These famous words uttered by George Mallory explained why he wanted to climb Everest.This is hardly a religious utterance, but underlying Mallory's explanation is the recognition that the mountain was a reality that confronted him and had to be engaged with. He simply could not ignore it. We can see the similarity with religion, as for religious people God is a reality, a powerful being of supreme goodness far greater than mountain, and they are compelled to engage with him. If you read Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis' autobiographical account of his life up to conversion, we see that the seminal moment in his conversion was when sitting in his study he surrendered to the reality of God.God was simply, absolutely there. Not visibly or audibly, but in the words of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, a power-presence.Once you accept the reality of God you have the foundations of religious belief.One who has accepted that there is a power-presence in his/her life, even though the religious experience that constituted it was of brief duration,must consider whether or not he/she can avoid making a religious commitment.
But some atheists might object, "Suppose there is a God. So what? He/she is irrelevant to me. " This reminds me of a young man who once told that his father used to declare "God doesn't help me in my business, so why should I help him with his?" It is at this point that we need to introduce a vital consideration. There are two ways in which you can look at being. You an take the "enlightenment" view that being is essentially meaningless and that meaning is imposed on it by humans, or you can take the view that being possesses intrinsic value. This is fundamentally a religious view, or a view consistent with religion. In this view there is a hierarchy of being. Even a tiny insect possesses intrinsic value, but there are higher levels of being, such as humans and angels. At the apex of the great scale of being is God, who possesses more value than any other being.In this view once you acknowledge that there is a God he is seen to be very relevant indeed. God must be respected.
Each being deserves respect proportional to its position, and this respect is not conditional upon its use to us. As a gardener, I kill pests that threaten my crops, but I never kill an insect without good cause, for its life is to be respected.At the other end of the scale I give absolute respect to God. Whether or not God helps me with my business or career is irrelevant. I owe him respect. This is the basis of the religious obligation. This is allied with gratitude for the help and guidance that believers discern that God has given in their lives.
God in Your Life
There are differing religions in the world, all of which are to some degree vehicles of truth and goodness, but I am in this article working in the Abrahamic tradition, which includes Judaism, Christianity and Islam.Readers belonging to other faiths may take and apply what I say according to their own stance.
Below I will give what advantages accrue to a believer who lives a prayerful life.
Firstly, prayer empowers. When I speak of prayer I am not thinking of a plea like "Dear God let my team win the league." or an earnest entreaty that God will let you win the lottery. God is not a cash dispenser and the cash dispenser is not God. I am thinking of prayer as a conscious act of orientating the mind and heart to God. True prayer is not easy, but to pray sincerely and truly is to tune in to a source of spiritual and moral power. This power, which comes from God, empowers a life lived according to God's will. Prayer is what not only empowers the moral life, but drives and sustains a life of service to others. Essentially, prayer transforms the spirit of the person praying, bringing it more in harmony with God.
Secondly, prayer sensitizes. The more you focus your mind on God, a being of unsullied perfection, the more you become aware of the gap between your flawed, weak and finite condition. While you realize that the difference between you and God is immense the sensitivity drives the prayerful person to improve in virtue.You become conscious of your sins and aware of the sufferings of others, particularly those you have hurt in some way.
Thirdly, the empowerment fostered by prayer gives those who pray the ability to endure difficulties.We can think of missionaries working in slum conditions in some of the most difficult places on Earth. These are people whose sustained dedication is empowered by a prayerful life. Fully living a good moral life involves making sacrifices, often hard ones, and enduring difficulties. Contact with God, the source of strength through prayer helps enormously. It does not make the difficulties go away and pain is still. but prayer can empower us to endure. Carrying the cross, which means accepting the moral responsibilities that befall you, is an essential part of the Christian life. Without prayer to empower us carrying the cross would be well nigh impossible.
Religion and the Basis of Ethics
One major problem faced by all systems of secular ethics is to provide a satisfactory ground for our sense of obligation and the basic tenets of ethical systems. Positivist systems of thought have particular difficulty because they reduce ethical thought to emotions. Suppose that I say that you ought not harm animals for fun. What am I to say to one who argues that he likes trophy hunting and harming animals, and that my feeling is a subjective matter, purely personal? Secular thinkers, to be fair, don't usually harm animals for fun, no doubt about that, but if pressed they take refuge in a theory of rights based on a commitment to rationality.This position provides a coherent, but not waterproof basis of their position, but it is still undermined by a determined opponent who wants to emphasise the subjectivity of ethics.
Nihilism is the shadow looming over all secular ethics. It is rooted in the fact that a purely material world as envisaged by secular thinkers cannot be an adequate foundation for value and obligation. A world in which the person, the most reliable basis of ethical obligation, is an evolutionary accident late in arriving in a heartless world cannot provide a foundation for ethics.
Religion addresses the issue by postulating that the universe is rooted in great mind, a transcendent personal being. The Abrahamic tradition believes that this being is distinct from the world that he created, but still interacts with it, while the Hindu tradition regards God and the universe to be part of the same reality. For the purposes of establishing the grounds of ethics both views of God work.
Religious people believe that moral law is not an arbitrary, subjective invention to stave off anarchy and nihilism, but derives from a great being, a lawgiver whose position at the apex of the hierarchy of being entitles him to absolute respect. This being is also in possession of a level of wisdom that transcends the wisdom possessed by mortals, so we would be wise to take his guidance. Moreover, religious believers are confident that this being, whom we call God, has our interests at heart, and that he loves us. This is yet another reason to trust divine guidance.
For religious believers God gives a direction and purpose in life.Our lives are not brief sparks of candlelight between birth and death, but a journey towards God, onto which every individual in conjunction with the whole human community is a participant.
I have tried to establish a personal view of why we should be religious, but other religious thinkers may take a different path. You may differ, but once you have decided to answer the question as to whether you think there is a God with the reply that "There is something." you are committing yourself to a quest to ascertain what that something is. You cannot be indifferent on such a matter. Agnostics are often good and tolerant people, but agnosticism means not knowing, but it is not the end of a quest for truth, but the beginning.There can be good reasons for not knowing, but no for failing to search for the truth, for truth is too important to be neglected.
And here is another point: we are told that we live in a post-truth society, but religion still stands on its commitment to truth.