Sometimes I think of myself as a Marxist, only that I cannot reconcile myself with his view of religion as “the opium of the masses”.
The German philosopher, political economist, historian, sociologist, humanist, political theorist and revolutionary credited as the founder of communism, further described religion as “…the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world and the soul of the soulless condition.”
Social scientists, depending on their school(s) of thought, have tabled a number of interesting explanations of the social function of religion.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim advanced the view that religion is “society worshipping itself”. Some contend that Durkheim therein suggests that religion goes beyond idolatry and is in essence a form of narcissism also.
And, if you were an Interactionists sociologist, you might argue from the premise that religion helps us to rationalise or make sense of daily experiences.
At funerals, Christians sing hymns and are given hope for a future reunion where there will be no further partings. Or, depending on one’s faith, death is just a portal to life in another form.
Is religion really some sort of drug then? Does it really serve any useful purpose? Would our world be a much better place if everyone were areligious? Should people share their religious beliefs with others? Should they go further and try to convert others to their faith? How should one deal with those who do not share the same religious beliefs?
Why is it then that in this age of “reason”, with all its scientific and technological advancement and focus on empiricism, that religion continues to be a major influence in people’s lives? How should the State deal with religion?
Religion and science, some say, to a large extent, are like oil and water. Science is based on reason, facts and empiricism, while religion is based on faith and belief. Science reaches certain conclusions based on evidence. Religion (or at least Christianity) tells its followers to believe in faith, often without much tangible, empirical evidence.
To borrow the words of Denis MCQuail, I have “a location, a nationality and a cultural background that shape (my) experience, knowledge and outlook”.
Religiously, I consider myself Christian. And Christianity has had a powerful positive impact on my life.
I didn’t grow up in a religious household, though, like almost everyone else in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, my family professed Christianity. (In many instances there is profession but not practise).
I made a decision, at age 12, to “accept Jesus Christ as my personal saviour”and followed through with baptism et al. (my entire household save my oldest brother and nephew, 13, are now baptised).
In a radio diary that I did for my radio production course in the fall of 2008, I spoke of my experience with my religion in the following terms:
“One of the things that I believe has me where I am today is my belief and faith in God. When I was 11 years old, I can remember one night I was coming home from Church and I said to God, I want you to have Your will in my life. I said, “There are times when I would not understand but You just do what You have to do’.
“I don’t know if I fully understood what I was asking of God. But I think that He understood me and He knew what I wanted because He says in the Bible, ‘tell me the desires of your heart and I will grant it unto you’.
“And when I look at my life, I can see the ways in which God was having His will. There are many times when I wanted to do things and they never worked out for me …. But now that I look back I just thank God that I never got many of these things that I wanted.”
God has been good to me. God has helped me to become a better person. He has given me hope when all other sources of hope had failed. For me, the love of God has been one of two constants, the other being change. He has helped me to make sense of many of the otherwise incomprehensible things around me.
That is not to say that there are not things about Christianity and God that I grapple with. (Where did God come from? Why did he allow sin to enter the world in the first place?) However, I have no qualms with my God. I have placed my life into His hands expecting (and receiving) positive outcomes.
Fundamentally, and in keeping with the tenets of Christianity, I believe that man has two components: a mortal body and a soul. On the demise of the former, the life that the individual lived determines whether the latter will live forever in peace in heaven or be eternally tormented in hell.
I believe that sin has separated man from God and Jesus is the only way back to God. I believe that anyone who does not “accept Jesus Christ as his or her saviour” is eternally doomed to hell.
But should I share these beliefs with others?
To answer this question, please allow me to propose a scenario:
I go to the night market here in Taipei and come across some decent basketball shoes at a price that I consider to be a real bargain. I buy a pair of the shoes and realise that they are in fact a good buy. I have a friend who is in need of basketball shoes also. Should I tell him about the good deal I got at the night market?
Need I still answer the question about whether I should share my religious beliefs with others?
But what if, after extolling to my friend the benefits of the shoes in question, he decides that he does not want to buy?
Do I put a gun to his head, literally or metaphorically, and command him to buy it?
This is when sharing religion becomes a problem: When an individual begins to feel that a belief system is being imposed on him or her, then the sharer, not withstanding his or her good intentions, has crossed the line.
True, Jesus Christ has commanded Christian to spread the good news of salvation to the entire world in what is commonly referred to as “The Great Commission”.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIV)
During the last two years of my high school education, I had the pleasure of knowing an American Peace Corp volunteer named Kristin Salisbury.
Kris was not a religious person and this was one of the fundamental differences between us, notwithstanding the fact that she was 10 years my senior.
One of her lessons that will remain with me for the rest of my life is, “You can always choose your actions but not the consequences.”
This is the essence of what Jesus says in the disciple Mark’s account of Jesus giving “The Great Commission”:
“(Jesus) said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.'” (Mark 16:15&16 NIV)
God has given everyone a will, the ability to make informed choices: informed to the extent that He is explicit about the choices and equally categorical about the consequences of each alternative.
Therefore, people should be free to practise their religion — regardless of what that religion might be — or to not practise a religion if they so choose.
Additionally, people should be free to share their religious believes with other, with a view to promoting understanding or conversion if the other party is so disposed.
In fact, if we approach our conversations about religion more with a view to promoting understanding and facilitate exchanges of opinion, there might be a reduction in religion-based conflict and maybe more conversions.
Herein lies my conflict with Marx. My religion is fundamental to my being. Christianity, to a large extent informs who I am.
So, while I can’t agree with Marx that “religion is the impotence of the human mind to deal with occurrences it cannot understand”, I can see his logic in citing religion as a tool use(d) to justify/explain/excuse unnecessary and inhumane socio-economic inequality as the verse of the Victorian hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, he cited suggests: “The rich man in his castle,/The poor man at his gate,/He made them, high or lowly,/And ordered their estate.”