Sunday, 2 November 2014

Vicar's Study - Is Religion Dangerous? by Keith Ward

I first spotted this book at the book stall at my local church. It seemed like a funny thing for a church to be selling and reading it around theological college has certainly raised a few eyebrows this week. But the title immediately grabbed me because it is such a common view that religion is dangerous and the root of many of the problems in world. Even as a religious person I partly believed it. How can you not in the face of current world events? I only need to delve a mere fraction into the history of my own faith to be full of horror and dismay at what people have used the Christian faith to justify. Every religious person ought to take this seriously.

The book tackles its question in four sections, Religion and violence, Are religious beliefs irrational? Are religious believe immoral? and Does religion do more harm than good? Ward, a philosopher and former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, challenges as inaccurate the notion that most violent conflicts in history have religion as their cause. Indeed many of the conflicts of the 20th century had no direct relationship to religion but rather emerged from tribal or political issues. Ward suggests that the problem, at root, is humanity rather than religion and religion itself attests to this brokenness in the human state. Just as no one would suggest doing away with democracy because it lead to Hitler, likewise doing away with religion because of the corruption of its values by some individuals is unreasonable. Likewise religion has been a powerful force for reconciliation as seen so powerfully in the work of Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Council in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.

Still, the content of religious values is rightly questioned by many when such views are used to excuse the killing of innocent people or hatred and intolerance in our society. How can anything which generates these kind of views be beneficial to society? Here Ward highlights the danger in judging a whole system of thought and practice on the basis of extremes or perversions of that system. Islamic State need to be held in contrast with the work of Islamic relief organizations around the world and the peaceful and humane practice of the vast majority of Muslims. Conflict between religious groups needs to be held in contrast with the many communities working in peace, harmony and respect with each other.

I have been struck in the last few years, as I have got more involved in inter-faith work in the UK, how little the remarkable friendship and co-operation between faith groups here goes completely uncommented on in society and media. One of my most touching experiences in my faith of recent months was discussing my experience of God with a Muslim woman while attending Muslim Friday prayers. Neither of us expected the other to reject our own beliefs or abandon our differences. I believe that Jesus is the saviour of the world, Muslims don't. It is pretty hard to get around that. As Ward notes, describing the major world faiths as 'a search for supreme goodness', both our faiths teach respect for the other, a love of humanity and a valuing of human life. This, to me, has a huge amount to say to a society where difference is often managed poorly and where the individual is often valued for their status or usefulness rather than on the basis of their human dignity.

Ward also tackles a huge range of issues around the nature of religious belief and how this affects human behaviour. Is faith damagingly irrational? Does a belief in life after death lead to a devaluing of human life in the here and now? Are religions with holy books always susceptible to the dangers of taking old outdated laws literally? Is faith a delusional behaviour? Is faith damaging or enriching to our physical and mental wellbeing? You'll have to grab a copy to explore these questions more. I found it hugely enriching and, for what its worth, would definitively recommend it. Perhaps it is best, though, to end on some of Keith Ward's own words.

'So is religion dangerous? Sometimes it is. But it is also one of the most powerful forces in the world for good...At best religion, the search for supreme goodness, a life lived for the sake of good alone, will help promote the welfare of all sentient beings. Some danger is unavoidable in any human enterprise. But religion is a main driving force for wisdom and compassion in a world that would be bleak and cruel without it.'

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