There are today divided opinions about whether religion is a force for good or not. It is apt and timely that the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the German Government invited over one hundred Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious representatives from fifty three countries of the world to Berlin to discuss the topic, “Responsibility of Religion for Peace”. The three- day event (21st to 23rd May, 2017) is a clear recognition that religion has a lot to contribute to the spiritual transformation and social progress of our world and also has eschatological significance or relevance.
Recently, I participated in Fatima, Portugal, in the centenary celebrations of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1917 to three shepherd children: Francisco, Lucia and Jacinta. The ceremony was presided over by Pope Francis during which he canonized Jacinta and Francesco. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all races, nationalities and cultures were in attendance. Fatima offered me once again, a true definition of the positive nature and value of religion by the way it brought diverse people together in love, peace and harmony. Even though we could not easily understand ourselves due to the cacophony of languages, there was one undeniable fact – we felt like brothers and sisters. An Archbishop and I participated in a Holy Mass with a polish pilgrim group. We followed the gestures but did not understand the words. The Pope’s presence elicited an ecstatic reaction of the faithful – young and old, who acknowledged and celebrated him as a world leader inspiring love and unity without borders and a prophet of our time announcing the imperative for a peaceful world. In the Vatican he brings in Muslim refugees, he advocates for the rights of others including atheists. In his pastoral visits he reaches out with love to those considered reprehensible or unreachable. He encourages that we build bridges rather than walls and to provide work and home for all. He has visited so far countries that are enduring conflicts in the South of the world or “zones peripheral to the international political chessboard” (Antonio Marujo, “Professional Traveller” in the Paths of Fatima, May 2017, pp 104 – 109, www.upmagazine-tap.com
Religion, where it is allowed to be what it is – religion, has a therapeutic effect. Most cultures of the West were shaped by Christian religious values. Religion provided the early migrants to America a sanctuary of hope, a rallying point in the midst of many uncertainties and unpredictable realities, which is perhaps why the United States of America adopted its official motto as “In God we trust.” But today in the West some prefer secularism to religion. They thirst for a kind of freedom that liberates them from what they believe is the regulatory and restricting nature of religion. Freedom is seen as freedom from religion, to be able to do what one wants.
Some even go on to say that there is no God! Those who believe God exists practice what Pope Benedict XVI referred to as moral relativism or a supermarket type of religion where one picks and chooses or determines what is right or wrong. Others talk about living in a post religious society which means that for them religion is inconsequential. We know however that this is simply acting the ostrich. When governments or policy makers ignore religion then they should be prepared to face the unpalatable consequences, as many are bound to manipulate, politicize, commercialize or militarize it and/or use it to brainwash people with psychological ticks; making gullible followers into lackeys and robbing them of the ability to reason rationally. This is often the root cause of fanaticism which leads to monstrous terrorist organizations such as ISIS, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, etc. When ignorance and superficiality take over any religion, such a religion is at risk, and it can only emit poisonous vapor and will certainly contradict the very values which true religion should build or promote.
The word Religion is derived from the Latin word “religare”, to bind fast. It is about respect for what are sacred and building genuine relationships with God and with fellow human beings. Authentic religion should be so peaceful that it can metaphorically make the wolf dwell with the lamb and the lion to eat straw together with the ox, not hurting nor destroying (cf. Is 11:6-9). When we deviate from the true essence of religion it becomes a weapon of destruction, just as when we use politics, economics, military weapons, etc. irresponsibly, they destroy rather than edify. Pure and undefiled religion according to St. James is care for the orphan, widows and to keep oneself unspotted from the world (cf. James 1:27). We learn from our catechism that the corporal works of mercy, the hallmarks of a true religious person are: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned and bury the dead.
Pope Francis’s has observed that the Third World War is being fought piecemeal. This is happening in a world that religion has become ubiquitous! Religion does not appear to make the desired impact because in some instances practitioners cave into the temptation of negative indoctrination at home and school, distorted reading of scripture, hostility towards other faiths, blind religious guides who wish to lead at all costs, the phenomenon of forceful conversion, greedy territorial expansion and control, etc. which all cast dark shadows on religion.
There is the growing tendency among principal religions for prophets or visionaries to emerge and develop a personality cult by promoting weird religious doctrines and practices. Religion is seen unfortunately by some as a business. Commercial and material interests override the attributes of what true religion should be. Once religion is reduced to the level of an NGO then anything goes. Eschatological concerns are subordinated to materialistic concerns.
We should learn lessons from famous scientists whose religious faith stood them well. People forget that some of history’s very brilliant scientists were Catholic Christians whose scientific and critical minds did not stop them from practicing their religion with commendable admiration: Louis Pasteur – inventor of pasteurization, Gregor Mendel – father of genetics, St. Giuseppe Moscati – pioneer in treating diabetes with insulin, Louis de Broglie – Nobel Prize winner in Quantum Mechanics, Fr. Georges Lemaître – father of the Big Bang Theory, Jerome Lejeune – discovered cause of Down Syndrome, Galileo Galilei – father of modern Astronomy.
When I hear some people say that religion is dividing people or it promotes violence and so should be done away with, I simply respond that should we do away with politics, economics, water, fire, etc. because good as they are, they can cause unquantifiable harm? Without religion I would not have gone to school, reached the spiritual, psychological and moral maturity or consciousness I have reached today. Religion gave me dignity and opportunities and like many others out there, without the moulding and transforming capacity of religion my present life would have been a colossal tragedy and my future in monumental jeopardy.