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Is Religion the opium of the masses or an uplifting ideology governing our lives?

Mary Thomas, Associate Editor, ATB, Jan 2019, Edmonton

Religion can be central to one’s identity. The word religion comes from a Latin word meaning “to tie or bind together.” To belong to a religion often means more than sharing its beliefs and participating in its rituals; it also means being part of a community and a culture. All religions include rituals, scriptures, sacred days and gathering places. Each religion gives its followers instructions for how human beings should act toward one another. In addition, three of the world’s religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—share a common origin: all three trace their beginnings to the biblical figure, Abraham.
There is incredible diversity within each religion in terms of how members define their connections to it. For some, a religion’s theological beliefs and rituals are central to their lives. Others are more drawn to a religion’s community and culture than to its beliefs and rituals. Some choose a religion for themselves, or reject religion entirely as a part of their identity. Some governments grant privileges to one religion and not to others, while other governments protect citizens’ freedom to follow any religion without privilege or penalty.
For many civilizations until the early modern era, religion was considered inextricable from other areas of life since the values of one’s religion informed, art, politics, athletics, and intellectual pursuits. Countless wars and conflicts have had an overt or covert religious dimension throughout history right up to the present day. Recently, we’ve seen Islamic extremists waging war in the Middle East, a power struggle between Sunni and Shia across the region, the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, violent clashes between Christians and Muslims in Central African Republic, to name a few. Women are subjugated, LGBT people are persecuted, and “blasphemists” are tortured and murdered in the name of religion.
Then there’s the political impact. Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election with the overwhelming support of white evangelical Christians. Legislators in Argentina recently voted against legalizing abortion under pressure from Catholic bishops and the pope. Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has cited the need to protect his country’s “Christian culture” to justify his anti-immigration policies.
Followers of most major religions report increasing hostility and, in many cases, violence. Christians have been largely driven out of the Middle East, with some calling it a new genocide. Meanwhile antisemitism and Islamophobia are rising in Europe.
But it’s not all bad news. There are millions of people of faith across the world engaging in social action projects to help the poor and marginalized. Look at the involvement of churches, mosques and synagogues in food banks and projects to support refugees, the sanctuary church movement in the US, the extraordinary sums raised by Sikh and Islamic charities for relief work in some of the world’s most desperate places.
Spirituality and humanity underlie the tenets of every faith. As believers and non-believers we need to keep love as the basis of all relationships to survive this growing divide. The fragmentation of society can be curbed only if we remember that we’re all one and pain to one will impact the rest. We cannot hurt without being hurt. How has religion molded your life positively or negatively? Write to us at mary@asiantribune.ca

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