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Answering Whether or Not Religion is a Good Thing

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Is religion a good thing? How would you respond to that question?

Perhaps some of you would quickly answer in the affirmative, and a few of you would likely answer in the negative.

However, maybe many of you, like me, would want to respond, “It depends.” Or, in keeping with my July 15 column, perhaps we would want to say, “Yes and no.”

Most religious people, no doubt, are convinced that their religion is a good thing. Obviously, people would not choose to identify with a religion if they thought that, overall, it was not a good thing. But other religions have often been seen as definitely not so good.

Thus, in the past there have been plenty of people who basically thought, “My religion is good, but other religions are bad” – and that idea has been particularly strong in Christianity, and more particularly in conservative Protestantism.

In the name of religious tolerance, though, many people now emphasize that all religions are basically the same – and that they are all basically good, for they all teach things like the Golden Rule, for example.

For many “progressive” people, little is more intolerable than intolerance, so exclusive views of religion have largely been rejected and replaced with the universal acceptance (for the most part) of all religions as true (at least for the adherents of those religions) and good.

But tolerance should never become a barrier to critical thinking.

A growing number of people, especially in the Western world, think that religion is, definitely, not good. However, that has been a common idea in some places in the world – like Japan, for example – for quite some time.

My first realization about religion perhaps not being good came from listening to my students in Japan, where I began teaching at Seinan Gakuin University (SGU) in 1968.

Most of my students had a negative attitude toward religion partly because in high school history classes they had learned undesirable things about Christianity, such as the Crusades.

Moreover, most of them had been brought up by parents who remembered how the Shinto religion was used by Japanese militarists to spur the nation toward aggressive military action in China and then later at Pearl Harbor.

Warlike activity was done in the name of Emperor Hirohito, who was considered by most Japanese in the 1930s and early 1940s as the earthly manifestation of the Shinto gods.

The vast majority of my students in the required Christian Studies classes I taught were not just negative toward Christianity, they were negative to all religions.

After a year or so at SGU, “Is Religion a Good Thing?” was the title (in Japanese) of the first article I wrote for a faculty and staff publication.

My conclusion was, “Not necessarily.”

This is why I suggest taking a “both/and” position when engaging this topic.

In one of his numerous potent statements in Pensées, Pascal declared, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

That certainly seems to be true when thinking of the 12th and 13th century Crusaders, the Japanese militarist leaders of the 1930s and ’40s or the radical Islamists of the 21st century.

But isn’t the opposite also true? People never do good so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

Just the Christian examples here are legion: Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Kagawa Toyohiko, Martin Luther King Jr., to name a few.

These latter individuals, though, perhaps could be more correctly described as spiritual rather than religious.

In the end, it is faith rather than religion, spirituality more than religiosity, that is good.

Thus, it is faith and spirituality, rather than religion, that needs to be accentuated.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Seat’s blog, A View from this Seat. It is used with permission.

Leroy Seat

Leroy Seat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church.