Although degrees of devotion vary widely between worshippers, from the monk or nun who dedicates their entire life to meditation and prayer, to the casual worshipper who attends services maybe once a week —or perhaps only on the most important holidays— religion is a major aspect of many lives. For many religious people, there is no difference between religion and life; every aspect of their life is guided by their faith.
It is sometimes easy to think of religion as something confined to certain times and places: the church, the mosque, the synagogue, Sunday services or morning prayers. Many people, however, attempt to apply the principles of their religion to their every action, using it as the cornerstone of their own morality. This can have all kinds of implications. Some Catholics, for example, will refuse to work for organizations that promote or sanction abortion. Because of the prohibition on usury in the Qur’an, many Muslims prefer to bank only with Muslim-owned banks that don’t charge interest on loans, or to set up small community banks that have the same purpose. Private and public charity is a major concern for many religious people because the values of almost all religions include a concern for the poor and stress the virtue of almsgiving. Schooling is perhaps the most obvious example of this: many religious parents prefer to send their children to a school that promotes their faith, rather than a secular one which may teach them ‘unacceptable’ values.
RELIGION AND SCIENCE
The West has become increasingly used to thinking of religion and science as essentially opposed forces. This has not been helped either by the extremism of American creationists, or by the tendency of some scientists to make overly grandiose claims about ‘knowing the mind of God’. For many, however, there is no distinction between religion and science; many famous scientists have been religious and have seen the discovery of the laws of nature as a sacred charge from God.
Science has seemed to answer some questions about the origins of life and the nature of the mind better, perhaps, than religion, and some people believe that the sphere of influence of religion will shrink as our knowledge of science grows. Many, however, believe that there are certain questions, particularly concerning the meaning and purpose of existence – if there is one – that science simply cannot answer, and that religion provides far more powerful answers to such questions.
RELIGION AND POLITICS
As with science, there is little distinction between religion and politics for many people. Indeed, the separation of Church and State is essentially a product of the eighteenth century, following terrible European religious wars between Catholic and Protestant. Before that, the State was strongly associated with a particular religion, and followers of other religions were frequently persecuted, such as Cathars and Jews in medieval France, or Christians in Shinto- dominated Japan. Wars were often religiously motivated, from the Crusades to the Hindu extermination of Buddhism during the ninth to the twelfth centuries in India.
A religious world-view, however, also often leads to a powerful motivation for social change. The socialist movement in England, for example,
had strong associations with the nonconformist churches, and the support of religious leaders is often essential in elections. Two-thirds of American Jews consistently vote Democrat, reflecting the Jewish commitment to social justice and a concern for minority rights.
Even now, some states are entirely committed to one religion. This is particularly common in Islamic countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where Islamic religious law is used as the basis for the justice system, and the rights of members of other religions are circumscribed; for instance, non-Muslims can only worship in private in Saudi Arabia and cannot attempt to convert others. Communist states, dominated by an atheist ideology, often carried out terrible religious persecution, such as
Stalin’s purges of the Jews, and the Cultural Revolution in China. The situation in China eased after 1977, though the government retains a cautious attitude to religious activity.
In recent years, faiths have found themselves being brought more strongly into partnership with secular structures that formerly thought religion obsolete. The environment movement now has a strong involvement with all the major religions, while the World Bank is working with faiths to try and find new economic and developmental models.
Alongside this runs the quest for deeper spiritual meaning. It is not without significance that, worldwide, the practice of spiritual retreats is growing. While patterns of religious observance are changing, the quest goes on.