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Perspectives on Religion


Perspectives on Religion              Gerry OShea

Who are your gods? was a common opening question when educated Greeks met their counterparts from other Mediterranean regions during what is called the golden era of their culture in the 4th century BC. It was widely accepted that all tribes had gods with stories that explained how the human race started and what rules the deities expected people to obey.

Brian Friel touched on a similar theme in his wonderful play Dancing at Lughnasa. Fr. Jack is sent home from his ministry in a leper colony in Uganda, heroic work that should guarantee an abundance of prestige and admiration in his birth place in County Donegal where his five sisters live.

However, it emerges that Jack talks admiringly about the tribal customs and beliefs that he experienced and celebrated as a missionary for many years. He never criticizes Catholicism but he identifies more with the gods he experienced and the way of life and culture he was part of in the imaginary village of Ryanga in Uganda.

Friel depicts him as going native and creating consternation in the Donegal community where he was now viewed as a kind of renegade, rejecting the core beliefs of his childhood and seminary training. The oldest sister, Kate, works as a teacher locally but she is advised by the parish priest that, supposedly because of declining numbers, her services are no longer needed.

The play develops as a moving and tragic tale of culture shock when a priest abandons the stories and beliefs of the community where he was raised in favor of what the Catholic Church dismisses as paganism.

Lughnasa in the play’s title heightens the sense of mystery and foreboding. Its roots as a wild harvest festival go away back in Celtic antiquity, a celebration started by the god Lugh, honoring his mother Tailtiu who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture.

Nobody has seen any of these gods but the magnificence of the universe, the mysteries of the mountains and the oceans, the regularity of the sun rising and setting, cry out for an explanation rooted outside of the world of humans.  

Max Weber, the leading 19th century German sociologist, examined the importance of religion in various cultures, without considering the truth of any denomination’s supernatural claims. For him, the existence of God and related extra-terrestrial questions were the province of the theologian; he stressed that his research focused solely on the role that religion plays in the culture and priorities of any community.

He highlighted the importance of churches and the impact of their basic teachings on political decisions, including the historic prevalence for going to war to settle grievances. The Religious Wars in Europe throughout the 16th and 17th centuries provided ample material for Weber’s studies. He had no interest in the differences in dogma that agitated Catholics and Protestants so much in those times that tens of thousands of men were killed partly for asserting their tribe’s interpretation of biblical verses.

Exclusivism is still part of what most religions offer. Adherents of the various belief systems say that their dogmas and religious practices reflect truth and define the optimum path to a meaningful relationship with what is sometimes colloquially referred to as “the man above.”

The American Revolution in the late 18th century proposed a major shift from the dominant European cultures where leaders identified with a particular religion and expected their people to follow the same line. It is not by accident that Catholics are still excluded from the English throne.

 George Washington and company pledged that in their new country people could practice any religion without interference from the government. That was a central tenet of their revolution.

 The Catholic Church, with its historic devotion to Latin, a dead tongue, still uses that ancient language to highlight the unchangeable meaning of some of its basic beliefs. For instance, Rome proclaims as a core principle: Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus – outside the Church there is no salvation.

 Prior to Vatican 11 in the 1960s, this arrogant assertion was mostly understood literally. Today, preachers explain that we misunderstood Christ’s message and, in fact, there is room in heaven for Protestants and even unbaptized Muslims and Hindus! In our time, consigning people to hell because of their beliefs about god no longer has a following.

Back to Weber. He concludes that as countries get more affluent and people benefit from a better education the need for religious affiliation diminishes. This prediction was validated by the dramatic decline in religious practice in most Western countries in the second half of the 20th century.

However, in data collected in 2007 many participants, especially from countries that were part of the old Soviet Union, welcomed the liberation that followed the collapse of communism, a political system that banned all forms of religious experience. Respondents were asked in the survey to indicate how important God was in their lives by choosing a value based on a score of one conveying “Not at all Important” to ten which indicated “Very Important.”

Compared to earlier data Bulgaria moved from 3.6 to 5.7 and Russia from 4.0 to 6.0. These and other results revealed clearly that the communist experiment failed to diminish the need for religion.

Some sociologists questioned the validity of Weber’s contention that increased affluence triggers a decline in church practices. They pointed to America where the 2007 survey showed a continuing vibrant place for religion in the population.

Amazingly, the most recent 2017 survey shows that religiosity in the United States has declined dramatically in the last decade. In 2007 Americans scored at 8.2 on the 1 to 10 measurement scale, but that score dropped to a measly 4.6 in the course of just ten years.

This enormous decline left the experts shaking their heads in disbelief. What, they asked, could possibly explain this massive cultural change in just ten years?

Certainly, the sexual abuse of children by priests and religious brothers has rocked the Catholic Church which claims the allegiance of about 22% of the population in the United States. We are talking not only about the horrible damage done to young boys and girls but the corrupt cover-up of this predatory behavior that reached the highest echelons of the hierarchy.

Declarations from the Vatican promising full accountability are not given much credence by ordinary church members. In a recent study by PEW Research Center, a highly-regarded non-partisan group, 80% of Catholics stated that these sexual depredations are “ongoing problems that are still happening.”

Protestant churches – with close to twice more adherents  than Catholicism - are increasingly tied to the Republican Party which supports traditional church teaching in the area of abortion and shows little tolerance for the gay lifestyle. Many young people disagree strongly with their elders on these issues, and they blame their parents’ generation for hypocrisy in turning a blind eye to President Trump’s wild philandering as well as his unholy declaration that he has never even asked God for forgiveness.

It may well be predictive of future trends that more than two thirds of millennials declare their allegiance to the Democratic Party, which many evangelicals view as being close to a modern antichrist.

Overall, the evidence clearly indicates that as countries all over the world move from agrarian to industrial and knowledge-based economies, they are far more likely to focus on security, education, and suitable employment rather than traditional religious practices.

Ironically, countries with low levels of church attendance like the Nordic countries where less than 10% show up for Sunday services, are also the places where the scourge of poverty, condemned repeatedly in the New Testament, is dealt with by compassionate public policies. By comparison, in America, the richest and most avowedly Christian country, twenty-seven million people don’t even have basic health insurance and, according to statistics provided by the Annie Casey Foundation 21% of children in Texas live in severe poverty.

 There will always be wonderment which leads to the main bewildering question asked by all the great religious thinkers: Where do we come from and how do we explain the mysteries of the universe? In Shakespeare’s famous play Hamlet, the leading character of the title, rebuked his friend Horatio, a proud rationalist in the best renaissance tradition: “There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Gerry OShea blogs at


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