Perhaps it’s worth highlighting before beginning, I am that most dreaded of believers: an agnostic. It’s not that I have anything against religion nor that I’m a diehard fan girl of scientific supremacy, it’s simply that I would far rather live my life by my own rules, not by the doctrines you hear shouted about by fanatics. It’s a sentiment which – more so than ever this year – has begun to crawl across Europe. Day after day, we are fed with growing media hostility as reports of Catholic child abuse, anti-Semitic conflicts and Islamic extremism are rife. With the Christian tones of the Queen’s Christmas address this year, it almost makes you sigh.
‘Why bother?’ You want to ask. With such mounting resentment, surely it’s better to leave religion well alone?
It seems however, that such antipathy is part of a well-constructed, contemporary myth that religious institutions are a direct manifestation of the texts they represent. Arguments against islamophobia have concentrated on the fact that extremists reflect only a tiny, mistaken minority of all Muslims. Likewise, anti-Semitism appears to stem from, not necessarily opposition to Judaist beliefs, but an antiquated tradition of the Jewish people as scapegoats. Indeed, rifts within Christianity have always centred on this very idea; where Catholicism was too extravagant a biblical interpreter, Lutheranism was not literal enough. Objects of attack are rarely the fundamental, founding principles of religion so much as the interpretations, given by modern institutions.
Ultimately – whether we like it or not – religion is one of the core influences in modern society’s construction. If we are to take any examples from Medieval English history, (aside from the obvious don’t let the royals inbreed), it should perhaps be to keep the affairs of the Church and the state drastically separate – a message which explicitly permeates the United States Constitution. Yet, although the conflict between religious institutions and law is a murky one, the fundamental principles of religion often manifest themselves in legal constitutions. The Ten Commandments has famously been immortalised as the framework for most Western constitutions.
the fundamental principles of religion often manifest themselves in legal constitutions
Likewise, in many Muslim states, (although not necessarily fully adhered to,) Sharia law has had a significant influence on legal proceedings. Many critics have condemned the observance of such ancient teachings, particularly Sharia law; especially to Western societies, such customs as stoning for adultery and flogging homosexuals are viewed as barbaric. Yet, for many cultures, religion’s influence on politics acts only as a foundation, leaving space for human rights legislations and international interventions to create further enhancements. Rather than a definitive guideline, religion acts as a stepping stone in modern development, paving the way for further legal and political constitutions.
However, more so than this, religion advocates a state which focuses not on the masses but on the individual. The associations between piety and selflessness have almost become caricatured due the promotion of goodwill by many religions. Within the Qur’an, it is advocated: ‘God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you in the religion or driven you from your homes, or from being just towards them. God loves those who are just.’ (Surat al-Mumtahana, 8) Likewise, the New Testament has given rise to the famous proverb: ‘Do to others what you want them to do to you.’ (Matthew 7:12)
the associations between piety and selflessness have almost become caricatured due the promotion of goodwill by many religions.
Although it is often controversial as to how rigorously these particular teachings are upheld, such doctrines appear to prioritise individual power over that of the state. Acts of charity and forgiveness are not exemplified as grandiose gestures of international aid, they are very much directed at the every-day people. In contrast with the imposing institutions and organisations which dominate religions today, the fundamental principles are very much geared towards the individual, not towards societal establishments.
In spite of the hostile climate which pervades contemporary struggles, religion offers an essential sense of identity which is too often stripped by the mechanics of technology and the media. In a society dominated by social media and surveillance, it seems all too easy to lose that individuality upon which humans pride themselves. Religious doctrines, however, create an integral sense of self-worth and security aimed – not at the state – but at the sole individual.
Although recent criticisms argue that religion is an antiquated phenomenon, utilised solely as a weapon of war and terror in this day and age, such attacks centre not upon religion itself, but upon its usage. As a political and, indeed, personal tool, religion has demonstrated itself to be an essential foundation. Even if we find the idea of an omnipotent being and the somewhat fantastical creation myths more relevant to a Narnia chronicle than a realistic belief, its power in shaping modern society cannot be underestimated.