Sunday, February 12, 2012

What Good is Religion?

"God will reveal himself to you in the depths of your soul," says the Abbot of La Grande Chartreuse in the documentary Into Great Silence. He is speaking to two newcomers to the ancient monastery in the French Alps, but he could be speaking to anyone who seeks ultimate meaning with an open mind and heart.

It takes a contemplative experience to find God, not formal theology or the study of doctrine; it is not a matter of the head but of the heart and head. This point is what Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and the recent writers on atheism cannot fathom.

Roger Scruton, in "The Sacred and the Human," a 2007 article in Prospect magazine even goes so far as to say that religion is not really about God but about the human need for the sacred. If the discovery of God is personal and interior, the study of God and the need to have religion is a primeval human need, one that precedes an experience of God.

At least that is what Rene Girard and other anthropolgists of religion have shown. Religion, so often mocked by outsiders, is really about the place of the sacred in human life and the kind of knowledge and understanding that come through experiencing sacred things, such as the rituals that connect the isolated individual with a broader community.
The essence of religion, Scuton shows, is not in myths or theology or doctine, but in moments that stand outside time, "in which the loneliness and anxiety of the human individual is confronted and overcome through immersion in a group...."

Religion, then, is an antidote to alienation and is the solution to violence. Whereas the atheist attacks on religion simplistically argue that religion is the cause of violence, Girard says that the opposite is true: religion is the solution to violence, which comes from another source. There is no society without violence since it comes from the attempt people make to live together.

Out of the conflict at the heart of society, Girard says, violence is born--along with a need for the sacred. Thus the need to experience the sacred comes not from an irrational body of primitive fears, nor is religion a superstition that science will replace. It is a solution to the aggression that lies at the heart of human communities. The solution involves renewal.

Girard, and Scuton, conclude by asserting that religion is not primarily about God but the sacred and that this experience of the holy can be suppressed, ignored or attacked but never destroyed, for there will always be a need for the ongoing renewal that comes from what religious experience offers: communion and awe as we look at the world from the edge. This is the mystical moment outside of time, which can lead the individual to the loving presence of God.

The basic point of all this is that those, like Hitchens, who have written profitable diatribes against religion have never explored the anthropology of religion in thinkers like Girard, and so their arguments are inevitably inadequate. They do not know what religion is.

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