From the time I was old enough to sit through my first religion class, nearly every teacher thereafter opened up the first day of class by posing perhaps one of the most debated questions in the world:
“What is religion?”
While it is hard to put a finger on an exact definition, many view it as a system of beliefs and tradition that provide rich cultural layers and a foundation upon which to live one’s life.
The most common associations with religion are of course supernatural beings and symbols such as God, scripture, and prayer. However, religion goes deeper than just being some connection between the holy and the mundane. It is a framework for ethics, law, and morality, all of which work towards making us better people. While this may seem naive, especially given the contention that erupts from the mixing of politics and religion, religion is an unavoidable and an inevitable power that has touched the lives of nearly everyone.
As a Christian Episcopalian child, I grew up in a religious background that was fueled by weekly church attendance and rigorous Sunday schooling. My parents believed that it was important to have a religious foundation, an idea that was shared throughout my family. However, I loathed the idea of going to church and I would make up any excuse to get out of our family commitment. This budding disdain for religion was only catalyzed by my matriculation into high school and then college, where weekly church attendance became annual church attendance and my religious roots ceased to exist.
Furthermore, my ignorance towards my religion was fueled by an overwhelming wave of atheism that seemed to be shared by the majority of my friends, as if it was some cool new trend. However, looking back on my religious pastime, I have come to appreciate all that religion has done for me. It taught powerful values, such as love, respect, and kindness. And while I may not be the most avid church attendee, I recognize that my religious heritage has made me a better person. It has taught me not to outright hate things that do not make sense and to accept and show compassion towards other people, regardless of differing views.
While there are certainly some people who use religious influence to overpower and often suffocate non-believers, I view religion as a shaping factor for behavioral norms. It teaches the power of loving thy neighbor, and encourages people to act peacefully and rationally, as exemplified in the 10 Commandments. Religion is about social connection and making people feel united under a common bond. It encourages forgiveness and for humans to be true and faithful. This has a massive effect on surrounding culture, as religion often lays the basis for what is right and what is wrong.
Yet while I am a Christian, I often find it interesting to examine other religions. Coincidentally, last week my CRS 400 class traveled to the London Central Mosque to explore Islam and their prayer services. Having been to a small mosque in North Carolina only once before, I was shocked at how large the main prayer room was. Moreover, the mosque was incredibly humble compared to the stained-glass cathedral architecture characteristic of Christian churches. I remember thinking at the time that perhaps this was related to Muslims being typically humble people.
However, this visit to the mosque clarified my understanding of the relationship between religion and culture. Islam’s five pillars clearly depict how religion should be used to better the lives of its followers. For example, one of the pillars is “Zahak,” which embodies the idea of giving back to the poor and needy through a small redistribution of wealth among all Islamic people. After learning about this, it became clear to me that religion is more than just social cohesion—it is a system in which values are formed and people can look out for each other. While Islam and Christianity may be viewed as completed different religions, they, along with other religions, all serve to better peoples’ lives. Moreover, they empower people to treat each other with respect and decency.