Build or burn?

Religion and rituals

I used to play rugby for my school.  Before each game, my friend and I would find the muddiest part of the pitch.  We would kneel down, grab handfuls of mud and cover our bare arms, legs and face.  Praying to the God of Rugby we called it.  In fact, we were giving each other moral support to face the cold and wet of a Saturday morning during the Glasgow winter.  The mud actually helped against the cold.  And if you are already muddy, you don’t mind putting in that first tackle.  It made us play better, or so we believed.

Life is full of little rituals like this.  On the surface they might look strange, even silly, but they are important to our wellbeing.  They might give strength to face a coming challenge, as in my rugby example, or it might be a sense of belonging, or recognition of the importance of an occasion, or just a bit of fun.

We all need help of this kind.  Even the strongest can’t do everything.  Even the most resilient can be visited by tragedy.  Even the most confident can stumble.  And even the friendly can find themselves alone.  Most of the time we draw help from partners, friends, family and colleagues.  Religion can provide it too but with the extra ingredient of belief in something beyond human resources.  Where and how you draw support is up to each individual but everyone, at some point in their lives, needs succour.  If God didn’t exist, we would need to invent Him.

I don’t believe in God but I do believe in religion.  I would keep all aspects of religion except the bit about the existence of a supernatural being.  I used to believe people resorted to religion when confronted with something they couldn’t understand, like death and disease, or when something was beyond their control, like next year’s harvest.  But now I see that even the advance of science has not killed off spirituality, and I witness daily the importance of religion in culture and identity.  I see football stadiums in America full on a Sunday morning where God is being invoked to support an overall message of self-advancement and community help.  I don’t blame religion for wars.  Those people would have fought anyway.

I have always wondered how Christianity spread so widely that it eventually took over the pagan world.  The promise of everlasting life must have helped alleviate the suffering of everyday life, but it must have been more than that.  I’m inclined to think that around the time Jesus lived, the world, which had for thousands of years valued looking out for yourself, began to start caring about the weak.  As a society, it’s the sort of thing you can probably only afford to do once you’ve reached a certain level of material civilisation.  Those tensions between the strong and the weak are still not resolved two thousand years later but something in ancient society must have started to change to be more receptive to the Christian message.

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