Religion, ideally, is the bridge to somewhere. In recent decades, the journey across it has slowed down and now is at a crossroads. On one side are its transcendent beliefs, high morals and symbols and, on the other, its deformation or misuse by those pursuing their own narrow interests, not the common good. If the wrong path is chosen, society will be the poorer for it and the destination will be hard to reach.
Society and religion, as a fountain of some of our cherished values, have had a symbiotic relationship for millennia. Human beings — believers or nonbelievers — usually seek guidance to give meaning and order to their lives and to prepare them for what is to follow life.
Since the early 1950s, the United States has experienced a significant decline in religiosity, as expressed by a decrease in the importance of religion in people’s lives, lower attendance at religious services and fewer memberships in religious organizations, just to name a few.
While worrisome to some, this decline is a natural outgrowth of the competition between the secular and the religious, the conflict within the same religion and among or between different religions, the commercialization of religion, and the unholy attitudes and behaviors of some religious adherents.
However, even though much in our postmodern world has been desacralized, the sacred remains alive and well and often assumes greater importance in times of crisis or urgent need. Witness the houses of worship filling to capacity in the days following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Moreover, there is a steady rise in spirituality or of those who are “spiritual but not religious.”
Some feel fine living their lives and doing good in the world without belonging to a particular faith tradition or religious denomination.
Obviously, individual freedom and autonomy must be defended, and creativity and growth must be promoted. Religion, as lived and as institutionally organized, more often than not has brought forth good works, especially when put into positive action. It is in community and in social responsibility that followers of faith traditions and others have been instrumental in educating the youth, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, rehabilitating homes, defending civil rights and advancing social justice. Yes, some abuses exist and have diminished people’s trust but we should not turn a blind eye to the talent, time and treasure of the multitudes in support of alleviating societal and global needs.
In addition, while the religious-secular separation is a key feature of American democracy, that separation is not as wide as we might think. The religious and the secular often nourish each other. God is present in our currency, civic life and public commentary. Politicians are frequently evaluated on their religious views and American officials have occasionally used religion to shape American foreign policy.
Religious people and institutions must become more relevant by emphasizing those aspects of religion that call for compassion, forgiveness, inclusion, moderation and hope for a better future.
Healing the rifts within religions or among and between religions must occur, as must the transformation of relationships in fulfillment of caring service. Otherwise, society will leave religion further behind.
Dr. Saliba Sarsar is professor of political science and associate vice president for global initiatives at Monmouth University.