This was a feature article for a magazine I wrote over the summer which touched briefly on a few of the reasons why I consider religion to be important in our contemporary society. It has now officially been published (yay!) and so I am not only at liberty, but I am excited to finally share it with you… I hope to go into each point I make in more detail in the future, so you can consider this as an amuse-bouche to tickle your fancy!
Therefore thus saith the Lord God: Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a treid stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste. Isiah 28:16 (KJV)
It is said that the only constant in life is change. Yet there seems to be one other constant throughout history: the presence of religion in society. Despite empires being conquered and relinquished, emigration of people across continents spreading new influence, war, advances in scientific knowledge and centuries upon centuries going by, there has never been a recorded culture which does not practice some kind of religion.
Undeniably, the nature of that religion has changed, from the spirituality, worship and wonder of nature possessed by cavemen long before organised religion, through to the beginning of polytheistic beliefs in early Mesopotamia and Egyptian dynasties and during the early Greek and Roman periods. Polytheism evolved into organised religions that we know today, such as Hinduism (arguably this is henotheistic derived from polytheism – but that’s a different story). Polytheism then progressed to pantheism in the later Egyptian and Persian empires, a concept still found in traditional African religion and Buddhism. Around 2000 BC, the origins of paganism and later monotheism are found which have culminated in religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam. All these different types of religion are still present in the world today, and although they have different customs, holy books, and Gods, they all share the power of belief and the strength of faith.
However, despite the changes in the type of religion, religion itself and its shared concepts have always survived the world’s turmoil. It seems only natural then to ask the following questions. Why is religion so integral to societal life and culture? And therefore, why is religion still so important to us today, millennia since its first primitive existence?
One of arguably the most important reasons why religion remains so important is the fact that it has shaped the world we know physically and politically. It suffices to take America as a clear example of this, which received 100 Puritan emigrants known as the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ from Britain in 1620 aboard the Mayflower, unsatisfied with the religious state of England, and many more in the years following. They landed in New Plymouth and established Boston as a major city and port by 1630, which it still remains today. These Puritan colonies evolved into the 13 colonies represented as the stripes on the American flag, from which ‘Founding Fathers’ went to establish the US Constitution, following their gained independence from Britain in 1776. The Constitution itself was not founded on religion, although it was influenced strongly by the Founding Fathers’ religious beliefs, having a clause which states ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.’ However, the colonies which led the revolution and the Constitution’s formation would not have existed without the Puritans’ need to seek a ‘New World’ away from Britain in 1620, making religion a key factor in creating the world superpower we know today.
Our own country is continually shaped by religion too, not just for the fact that all our holidays are centred around religious festivals..! After Henry VIII disassociated himself with the papacy in 1533 in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, he ordered the dissolution of over 800 monasteries, leaving many of them in the derelict state we find them today. Henry VIII went on to form the established Church of England, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The bond between Church and State in England has never been broken, and the monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, is still the Supreme Governor of the Church. For example, the Queen’s Speech, watched by more than half of the UK population on Christmas Day, consistently finds the message of Christ within the season of Christmas, and reinforces the omnipresence of the Church within the State we have come to build.
Furthermore, religious ideals and morals form the basis of our human conscience and therefore our legal system. The ideal and moral commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai are now what our English law seeks to enforce, such as the importance of social welfare and cohesion. Every religion has rules for believers to follow. In Christianity these are primarily the ten commandments, although there are others too such as Jesus’ two additional commandments in the New Testament. In Judaism, law takes the form of Halakhah which incorporates the 613 mitzvot; in Islam, the Sharia, and so forth. It is a concept acknowledged by those of faith that the religious laws we follow nourish our conscience, they form boundaries within the concept of freewill that we have been granted. Religion not only gives us individual moral guidelines, but the principle that a society cannot function without such guidelines, a truth acknowledged and acted upon by every legal system in the world.
Yet, religion not only shapes history, conscience and legislation, but gives us the ability to question and be curious. Questioning what we see around us and what we experience in our everyday lives is a part of who we are as humans. To question life is to progress in knowledge, philosophy and spirituality. To question life is to progress as a race altogether. As humans we are known as ‘homo sapiens.’ Sapiens is the present participle of the Latin verb sapere (to know, to be wise). Therefore, as humans, able to question and seek answers, we are each labelled as a ‘knowing man, a man being wise.’ Every child, teenager, adult and even those on their death beds seek the answer to life’s big questions, the seemingly unanswerables. What is life? What was the origin of the universe? Why do I wake up each morning feeling exactly the same inside although my body ages day on day, year on year? Why am I here? Is there a being omnipresent and omniscient that directs every one of our lives? Who and where are they? These are the questions that religion seeks to find an answer to (that we can inevitably still question and debate for hours on end). Religion gives us a set of answers to life, in which we find the ability to be, each of us, our own ‘homo sapiens,’ our own ‘wise man.’
Finally, religion is a binding force, bringing together not only people from across the world, but uniting people with a shared identity across centuries. To share a belief in religion is to share a part of someone’s identity. I know that I share a powerful belief with my ancestors and with those who have gone before me. I can fashion my own life with the knowledge that I carry on a part of them. To be part of a religion is to belong and be cherished in a community. As humans we all have a need to belong and to be part of something bigger. Religion means that no matter where you are in the world, you know that there are people in those places who believe the same thing as you, and consequently you can feel their pain or joy. It gives us the opportunity to meet and be inspired by people from across the world and to debate, to learn, to worship, to grieve, to rejoice together. Religion is a language that breaks every barrier and crosses every continent. This becomes all the more evident in times of hardship and grief. After tragic attacks such as 9/11, 7/7, those in Paris, Orlando, Turkey, Nice and endless more, we see social solidarity and cohesion of people joining together in prayer and reflection, in determination and strength, all part of one community no longer arguing over trivial disagreements, but united by the stronger omnipotent force of faith.
So, although sometimes we grumble about it, there are so many reasons why we should feel privileged to be part of a religious community, which has a history and origination larger than imagination. And this religious community is integral to societal life as a whole. Throughout history religion has been the source of controversy and debate in culture, politics, war, literature, art, film, music, theatre, poetry – the list goes on. But we cannot deny that throughout history religion has been a constant through so much change, and that despite its perceived misgivings, it has been an important factor in how the world has been shaped historically, politically, morally, legally and for many, personally. Whilst this only goes someway to prove why religion is still so important throughout changing millennia, I hope you are touched by something I have written here. I hope you take a moment to stop and think about religion and its importance in your life, in the lives of your friends and family, in the life of your community, your country, your continent. Take a moment to think of the importance of religion in the world. Because whether we are proud of it or whether we hide from it, religion is the beating heart of our society, whatever our calling, whatever our belief. Christ is our societal cornerstone, in whichever microcosm of the world we are living.