Sundin column: Religion — A blessing, or a curse
As I See It
Religions have been a blessing to mankind in myriad ways. Religions have created standards of behavior and morality, the foundation for an orderly society.
Common to most religions is the promise of an afterlife — which serves a variety of purposes. It promotes a civil society by rewarding good behavior and threatening retribution for bad behavior. By offering a heavenly hereafter, it helps people accept the harsh realities of life that have been the lot of the masses, and appeals to people’s unwillingness to accept mortality.
Religion provides social contact and gives meaning to life. It also promotes empathy for the less fortunate, encouraging acts of kindness and support. Statistics in the U.S. show that religion is the biggest factor inducing people to give time and money to worthy causes.
Religious organizations sponsor hospitals, clinics, and relief efforts for victims of natural catastrophes and wars. What would our world be without them?
Religions have also attempted to explain the mysteries of the universe and the origin of humanity, but archaeological fossil discoveries have now confirmed the evolution of mankind from more primitive ancestors. And, astronomers have tremendously expanded our knowledge of the universe, providing scientific explanations for these mysteries.
There are 16 organized religions, but we will limit our attention to the five with the greatest importance because of their size or political influence — Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Hinduism is based on Vedas (knowledge), sacred writings introduced into India around 1500 BCE by Aryan immigration. Prominent features of Hinduism are belief in reincarnation and the caste system.
Buddhism is an outgrowth of Hinduism introduced about 525 BCE by Gautama, the great Buddha (enlightened one) who was the son of a king, but rejected a life of luxury for a life of austerity, asceticism and meditation. He was about as popular with the Hindu hierarchy as Martin Luther was with the Catholic hierarchy, resulting in violence between Hindus and Buddhists, which has largely subsided.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a common root with Abraham as their patriarch. A major difference between them and Hinduism and Buddhism is belief in a single all-powerful God.
Judaism emerged around 2,000 BCE. After centuries of wandering, the Jewish people conquered and settled in Canaan (now Palestine), the land they claim was promised them by Jehovah.
Christianity, based on the beneficent teachings of Jesus Christ and the New Testament, has the largest number of adherents — nearly 2.5 billion. In 1517, Martin Luther launched the Protestant movement, dividing Christianity.
The last major religion is Islam, with 1.75 billion adherents. In Mecca in the year 610, Muhammad presented the Quran, prescribing both religion and law. He believed the Quran to be the complete word of God as it had been revealed to him. It was not well received in Mecca, and he and his few followers fled for their lives to Medina. There, he attracted a large following and returned in 630 to conquer Mecca.
In the wrong hands, religion can become a curse. A despot can use it as a powerful tool to control people and have them do his bidding, turning religion into a weapon. From its beginnings, Islam has had a violent history, starting with Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca. After his death in 632, Islam was spread by conquest west across North Africa and Spain and east to the Indus River.
Christianity also has a history of religious violence: the Crusades against the Muslim Middle East, which lasted nearly 200 years (1095-1290), and ongoing atrocities between Catholics and Protestants in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, in which millions were killed.
A major difference between Islam and most of Christianity is the concept of separation of church and state. This division has never existed in Islam with the result that nationalist wars are seen as holy wars. Today, many devotees of the Muslim faith are in a holy war with the Christian West, as well as among themselves, between Shiite and Sunni factions.
In my opinion, religion should be a strictly personal matter. Taking it too seriously creates problems. When taken to extremes it becomes overbearing, with disastrous consequences, such as zealots who mandate conversion of others and in many Muslim countries demand death sentences for blasphemy of Allah or Muhammad.
Separation of church and state, as provided in our Constitution, is essential to guaranteeing that one group’s so-called “Freedom of Religion” passions do not impair the freedom of religion for others.
Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. “As I See It” appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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