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don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

March 13, 2013

With the imminent election of a new pope just around the corner, some wonder why it even matters, especially atheists and those who have a critical view of religion in general. In the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, however, the pope is important as both the executive and supreme spiritual authority of the Church, overseeing the administration of Church doctrine and other, more mundane ecclesiastical affairs (much like a secular head of state).

And for members of the Catholic Church, this means that the pope represents the will of God on earth, carrying authority from Jesus himself via the line of apostolic succession beginning with Peter, who’s considered by Catholics to be the first pope. This might not mean much to someone outside the Church, or even many within it, but the office still carries with it a fair amount of spiritual and administrative authority, particularly for those looking for spiritual guidance.

That said, I can understand that, for critics of religion in general, both religion and religious authorities appear to be archaic and essentially irrelevant in our modern day and age, being relics of a superstitious past. The Catholic Church, in particular, has been opposed to social progress and change, historically as well as presently. However, despite the negatives, I think that religions not only help to give a voice to deep and profoundly moving feelings that are often difficult for us to express, but offer a spiritual and emotional dynamic to our existential suffering. As Marx wrote in his introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Hence religion in some sense is a type of pain-killer that speaks to real and often materially-unanswered needs, and this is one of the reasons that religion shouldn’t be dismissed totally off-hand. To do so is unfair to people who are themselves religious, in my opinion, and it also runs the risk of denying the underlying aspects of religion that touch the very core of our humanity and the miasma of joy, sorrow, and camaraderie that religious beliefs often speak to or find expression in. After all, religion is, among other things, a creative expression of our search for happiness, meaning, and truth in a seemingly infinite universe.

Religion can be a beautiful thing that brings communities together, as well as bring individuals closer to a happiness that transcends much of the suffering and unsatisfactoriness seemingly inherent in this fragile thing we call life. None of this is to say that religion in and of itself is somehow above criticism, of course. As sympathetic towards religion as I am, I’m also quite critical of religion’s proclivity to fall into absolutism and dogmatism, not to mention its historical reliance on things like authority and tradition over evidence and rationality.

All in all, though, I’m a firm believer that a person can be both scientifically minded and spiritual at the same time; but unless such a person also tries to remain open-minded and willing to alter or even throw out their religious beliefs when they seemingly conflict with reality and the evidence presented to them, or if they end up harming and oppressing a section of the population, social progress will always be somewhat at odds with religion and religion will lose.

So while I’ve heard people express their desire to ‘kill religion’ (e.g., Dawkins et al.), and I can understand some of their reasoning for making such statements — especially when you have people using religion to justify suicide bombings and discrimination against gays, women, etc. — I also can’t help but think that doing so would come at a great cost to humanity in that we’d be losing an important part of what makes us, well, human.

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