Why Religion?

Last Sunday, December 11, I read an article in the New York Times that caused me to ask a fundamental question: Why Religion? Hence, this blog posting.

Forest Church in A Chosen Faith says that ‘religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die…” Life itself raises questions that have no clear answers. Where do we come from? Who or what are we? Where are we going? Why am I alive? How do I fit into this world? Where do I belong? What can I do? Why do I have to die? What does life mean? What does death mean?

Is religion just a response to life’s fundamental questions? Yes and no. I would say that religion relates to spiritual things and the cause and effect of things deemed outside of our human understanding. Some Unitarian Universalists believe in God; others do not, but all admit to having questions whose answers are not included in science or reason. To me religion is a response to life itself – the wonder, the marvels, the relationships – all of life. Since humans have existed there have been communities of religious intent. We don’t necessarily know whether it is because we humans have an innate sense of religiosity or if it is a reasonable human response to the unknown that we have religions and religious communities.

Religion is often called ‘a faith.’ In the book Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat faith is defined as the ability to recognize and accept that there is another dimension to life than what is obvious to us. It means living with obstacles, doubt, and paradox knowing that God (Mystery) is always present in the world.

Sam Harris in the book The End of Faith , a book that received considerable press, suggests that Faith with a capital F should be considered incompatible with reason and that a belief in God while having some benign characteristics has done far more harm than good. This may be hard to disagree with as one can look at all of the major religions and know that a zealous belief in the ONE right way to believe has led to incredible wars and intolerance of those who believe differently. Harris says “we have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man’s inhumanity to man….that any concordance between faith and reason is delusional.” But then he says: “There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life.”

What differentiates the sacred dimension from faith is that in Harris’ definition faith must assume a belief in God which excludes different beliefs about God, that faith assumes a ‘knowledge’ based in ignorance.

I specifically want to counter Harris’ definition particularly for Unitarian Universalists. Unitarian Universalism is a faith based upon experience, reason, human capacity, hope, risk, questions, inquiry and a perspective that faith does not mean unequivocal knowledge of the one right way. Our faith accepts that each of us has the capacity to deal with life and we each do so through our experiential perspectives.

Religious communities are chosen. Religious communities, be they ashrams, sangas, churches, monasteries, congregations, societies, mosques, or covens offer a container in which we can deal with the realities of existence – of living and dying. When I say church it is beyond the place or location of a building or physical community, it is a way of being, a way of relating to each other, a way of belonging to something beyond ourselves, yet reflective of ourselves.

After thinking a great deal about the question of why there are religious communities I have drawn the conclusion that organized religion exists because we are communal — that when push comes to shove we may want to be individuals, yet we also want community – we want to belong.

It goes back to the reason humans have religions. It is because we have questions and in searching for the answers we find a community that resonates with our questions. At least that is what I think about Unitarian Universalists. Our central premise is that questions are good, that they are a part of the search for one’s personal truth, one which resonates. It follows then, that our churches or our congregations should also resonate. I am saying that because we believe that our questions are fundamental, and because our questions are based on that which we can not KNOW, our church has to feel right – the tenor must find that inner core and strike a chord – a resonating chord.

Why church? Because we need that community where we can be accepted as ourselves knowing that we all could be better, but are loved for who we are. It is an environment where we can trust that we will be allowed to search for the answers to life’s questions and where we can openly discuss those questions. Unitarian Universalism offers more than a building, more than a Sunday service each week – it offers a beloved community of caring hearts and open minds. Why church – because we need each other. Why church? Because of our common humanity and our universal questions.