, Salem, MA

July 4, 2013

Watson: It's time to rethink our religions

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — Last week’s column presented the hypothesis that formal religions today are doing more harm than good. That is a startling thought to consider and one that is extremely difficult to discuss.

Because our faiths are often very private, personal matters, and because the very nature of “faith” gives it a certain privileged immunity from questions — from either ourselves or others — we aren’t as practiced or comfortable discussing our closest religious beliefs as we may be in discussing other subjects.

Furthermore, I think that good people of any faith — or of no formal religious faith — who can see the immense good that religion does at both the individual and larger scales, are reluctant to upset or introduce doubt to people and actions and results that are positive and effective in the most practical and tangible ways.

After all, faith itself — in anything — is hard enough to come by, and who wants to be the one to tell another that his favorite faith — his motivating fuel, his comfort and his orienting perspective — may be flawed or unworthy of his allegiance?

It is probably true that most of us seek meaning in our lives, and it is also probably true that most of us rely partly on religious faith to assist in that search. So, if we were to decide that gods, religions, the heavens and the holy texts were essentially elaborate entities and stories just fabricated by man, it is quite likely that we would need something to replace them.

Is it possible that we invented religion because we couldn’t bear to be here without a reason? Is it simply too disorienting for us to just exist, an accident or product of 14 billion years of cosmic chemistry and physics?

I think that there is a large possibility that the answer to those questions is yes. I also think that — despite the absolutely enormous good that religions do — we have reached a point in history where we’d be wise to dramatically revise the narratives of religions and change the ways we think about faith, worship, existence and meaning.

Here is the point that is most pivotal. I don’t suggest these changes because of the religious practices of “good” people; I suggest these changes because perhaps only the modeling and educational value of a more rational (as opposed to faith-based) posture toward religion will enable us to slowly reduce the occasions where religion is used (and abused) to justify antisocial, destructive or violent practices.

How so? First, if, voluntarily, we rely less on faith and the idea of an afterlife to comfort and motivate ourselves, and rely more on the myriad and earthly benefits (to everyone) of doing good, we model an unambiguous emphasis on improving this world — for the practical, measurable, meaningful rewards that yields.

Simultaneously, released from an imprisonment and an allegiance to ancient, outdated and trouble-making holy texts, we could publicly and healthily promote the recognition that religions — like all large, sweeping doctrines — are fallible and need to be submitted to the same periodic scrutiny that we give all other belief systems.

By doing these things, we could remove the ways that bigots, terrorists, despots and fundamentalists use religion as a shield for their damaging actions. By editing religion’s holy texts to remove the passages that have been and are being used over and over to justify violence and intolerance, religion will no longer sanctify the horrible behavior of fanatics.

If priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, pujaris and the leaders of all religions no longer had nasty or ambiguous holy passages to “interpret” and could only instruct their followers in the best and nonexclusionary ways of religion, the world’s people could take bigger steps toward peaceful coexistence.

Mostly, people aren’t born bad. Mostly, they have to be taught — or learn themselves — their prejudices, intolerance and rigidity. Think about what religions advocate when they are at their best; they teach compassion, empathy, love, selflessness, humility and gratitude. Why should we require our religious doctrines to remain saddled with ancient resentments?

If there is a god, and if all the varying holy texts are indeed his word, why would he object to us using our highest intellectual and spiritual faculties to take steps to improve our chances that we could actually live together on the planet in a way that would embody his central message?

If there is a god, why would he ever want any of the features of religious faith to induce any degree of passivity or fatalism while we live our earthly lives?

If we amend and update religion, there would still be people who do good or bad. We could still be atheists or worshipers. We could still learn the best ethics, values and morals through either religious practice or secular humanism, or both.

The choice of what to believe would always be ours. But if we can learn that hope and faith within each of us can partner comfortably with tolerance, reason and questioning, then we’ll make it much harder for anybody to disrespect or harm others.

Across the planet, intolerance would have no religious, intellectual, or theoretical foundation whatsoever, and slowly — over generations — perhaps we could make fundamentalism itself simply unthinkable.


Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at