Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Religion Comes Naturally

I had to be in second grade when I started studying religion and religious history.  I can pinpoint the year because we were living in a particular house for only that one year when I recall asking my father a question about Abraham that launched my career.

He didn’t answer it, but gave me the Bible to read.  More questions led to more books, and I was on my way. In many ways, it was inevitable.

Not because of my late father: he did teach Sunday School and was raised an Orthodox Jew, but never had much interest in religion once he left home.  In fact, he was surprised while attending one of my Stetson University programs to discover I knew so much about the topic.  Neither he nor my mother had any idea of the depth of my research.

Actually, my involvement was inevitable because religion permeates our lives.  You don’t have to be a religious historian to know that.  Not only do more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God – “including one in five of those who call themselves atheists. More than half of Americans polled pray at least once a day,” according to a 2008 study published in the Washington Post

A massive 2011 study found the vast majority – 74 percent -- of Americans belongs to some kind of organized faith, although the numbers are falling.

Religion isn’t just a word; it’s ingrained into us.

Some of that is cultural, of course.  Parents teach their children.  Some are so imbued with the ideas of inculcated into them, they have trouble walking away from the childhood beliefs.  I recall one family that came to the Unitarian Universalist program where I was the educational director.  The mother and two young kids stayed for the service, and the mother loved the humanistic approach.  However, the mother said they wouldn’t be back: “not enough fire and brimstone,” she told me.  I agreed wholeheartedly.

On the other hand, some of our religious fervor is built in.  It’s how homo sapiens survived. 

As humans, we really have few weapons.  We are not as strong as many animals; as big as others.  We aren’t faster, lack claws and fangs, and generally can’t stand up to even an angry chicken.  We do have intelligence, stamina and endurance, which helped our ancestors outlast prey. 

Mostly, we work together.  That’s our greatest asset.  We form teams.  Even a giant mammoth could not withstand a pack of humans armed with meager weapons.  Our ability to hunt and live together in small groups, defend and protect ourselves, developed because, as individuals, we would be leopard food in no time.   As a result, early humans with an individualistic bent most likely did not endure long enough in the wild to pass along their genes.

Canuck fans rioting
In fact, society used to severely punish anyone who opposed the majority.  History is replete with the names of such martyrs of all faiths.  Sports, like everything else, gets turned into religion, highlighted by the clashes between the supporters of the Blue and Green chariot teams and the government  in the 6th century that almost destroyed the eastern Roman Empire.  The Nika riot began in 532 and eventually left more than 3,000 ardent fans dead.

No one has to go back that far to find similar – if less sanguine – events.  In 2011, Vancouver hockey fans, fueled by both alcohol and disappointment, rioted when their Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in the National Hockey League championship finals. The brutal beating of a Giants’ fan after the baseball opener at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in April 2011 also offers a tragic picture of what can happen as does the stabbing of a fan after the San Francisco-Atlanta NFL Western Conference championship game last Sunday.

If we had no religion built around an invisible deity, we’d create one centered on a superb athlete or some other individual.  Think of the body painting, altars in offices or homes, and the fervent devotion that characterizes any sport.

I didn’t know that when I first became interested in religion, but, by then, I was already being taken to weekly services and attending religious indoctrination classes.  If that hadn’t happened, I would have probably found something else to believe in.

It’s in our nature.  It’s what humans do.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1

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