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What Good is Religion? A Contemplative Perspective

What Good is Religion? A Contemplative Perspective by Carl McColman.

Bloggers on Patheos have been asked to reflect on the question “What Good is Religion?” this month. I figured it might be worth pondering from a contemplative perspective.

When I was a young man I was fond of saying that religion brought out the best in people and it brought out the worst in people. For the best, I’d cite Mother Teresa of Calcutta or Dorothy Day as exemplars. Nowadays I might add Desmond Tutu and Pope Francis to the list. For the worst, I’d mention Jim Jones (of the People’s Temple Cult) or the Crusades. Nowadays I could add sexual predators among the clergy and Westboro Baptist Church.

So, whether we’re holding this conversation in 1980 or 2015, the fact remains: religion can be used as a powerful force for good… or evil. So what good is it?

I suppose you could say the same thing about money, or technology, or mass communication. Hitler used the radio to promote his hateful ideology, while the Arab spring relied on social media to spread its message of hope and liberation. Perhaps religion is like money or technology or mass communication: it is a tool, that can be used for good or evil purposes, depending on the heart and intent of those who apply it in their lives.

And religion, like money, technology, or communication, is a powerful tool. Its enemies (Richard Dawkins et al.) keep calling for its eradication not because it is powerless (then they wouldn’t care) but precisely because it is so powerful. But the problem with Dawkins and his peers is that they insist on minimizing or discounting the great good done in the name of religion, insisting that only its “bad side” matters. That’s simply unfair.

Nobody thinks we should get rid of money or technology or mass communication because sometimes these tools get abused. Okay, well some people think we should get rid of those things! But most people recognize that as tools, the benefits of their use outweighs the problems associated with their abuse.

You can’t legislate or argue or wish religion away. Like it or not, here it is, and it seems to be as much a part of the human condition as dating rituals or devotion to mother. So here’s the real question facing us: how can religion be understood, and used, in such a way that maximizes its good and minimizes its bad?

I think to answer this question we should reflect on those who have made the most of religion: who have become powerful forces for positive change or reform in society, motivated at least in part by their spiritual or religious ideals. Martin Luther King, Jr. John Newton. The Dalai Lama. And, of course, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and Pope Francis. And I should mention that for every Desmond Tutu or Dorothy Day, there are countless people who enjoy no fame but whose religious beliefs inspire them to do truly good if not great things in their own neighborhoods.

What do these figures have in common? I think we can draw some basic conclusions.

First, these people are committed to the noblest ideals of their faith. For them, religious is not about separating the sheep and the goats, but about bringing the human family together in the name of compassion, love and forgiveness. They are committed to justice and mercy not because they are afraid of an angry God, but because they are inspired by a loving God (or, in the Dalai Lama’s case, the principle of love). They understand that religion has a shadow side not because religion is bad, but because human nature is flawed or wounded (or, to use traditional Christian language, sinful). So part of relating to religion is carefully discerning what is best about religion, and applying those elements/values to our lives.

Second — and here’s where the “contemplative” element comes in — the exemplars are committed to the practice of their faith. Now, I know we could say that the abusers of religion are also committed to their religious practice, but they have not embraced the noblest ideas of their faith, so they are using religion the wrong way, so to speak. For that matter, if someone has an abstract notion of the good ideas of religion, but makes no effort to put them into practice, the ideals remain nothing more than theories. But for those who both embrace the highest values, and then make an effort to live a life in accordance with those ideals, religion can be a powerful force for good.

And the highest way to “make an effort to live a life in accordance with those ideals” is to engage in a contemplative practice of prayer or meditation. Contemplative practice is a way to foster greater fearlessness, compassion, and kindness — a practice that literally rewires the brain, reducing the influence of the brain’s “fear center” (amygdala) and increasing its capacity for empathy. Now, one might argue that the positive benefits of meditation can be enjoyed without any religious context, and this is true. In fact, mindfulness-based stress reduction relies in part on a kind of secularized meditation practice. But secular meditation is used primarily to foster personal wellness, whereas religious meditation is embedded in a value system that stresses not only love of self, but love of neighbor and love of God. So a contemplative or meditative practice in the context of positive religious observance is essentially an enhanced form of meditation: it does everything that mindfulness does, and more.

So what good is religion? It’s a tool, a powerful tool, for bringing meaning, purpose, and positive ideals into our lives. Like all tools, it requires proper training and careful discernment to use well, and it can certainly be abused. The more powerful a tool is, the more dangerous it is. But when it is “used properly” — that is to say, when religious adherents actually apply the best and healthiest values of religion to their lives, especially through the engaged discipline of contemplative practice — it is truly a force for kindness and compassion and positive change in the world. May more and more people discover this, and use this tool wisely.