Tuesday, February 5, 2008

How Faith Contributes to Society

It is clear that religion is, in many ways, the engine which drives history. Many, perhaps even most, significant historical events and trends find their roots in religion. Many pivotal people in history form their thoughts in the framework of spirituality, or, like Hitler or Stalin, react against traditional religion.

What are, then, the net impacts of religion on society? In Western Civilization, or European Culture, we see the rise of civil liberties: during the Middle Ages, the craftsmen who were members of the guild system practiced among themselves a form of democracy which was arguably much more direct and equal than anything found among the Greeks of the Classical era; in the settling of North America, even before we gained our independence from England, the churches began to operate with various forms of direct democracy; the view that we are obliged to respect every human life is part of a larger world-view. Gandhi's desire to dismantle the caste system was formed while he was a student in England.

A truly reflective spirituality, as opposed to astrologers and palm-readers, promotes scientific investigation: the medieval scholastic philosophers emphasized that God is rational, and that the universe is therefore structured on uniform mathematical principles, which paved the way for the development of modern chemistry and physics; European Culture, including America and Australia, have led the way in technical research and development; Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote, "The weapons of a Christian are not physical violence, but prayer and knowledge ... knowledge and learning fortify the mind with salutary precepts ... a sensible reading of the pagan poets and philsophers is a good preparation ... "

Erasmus is not only giving us the classical teaching of Western Civilization that intellectual knowledge is a better way to change the world than violence (Gandhi formulated his principles of non-violence while a he was studying in England), but is also calmly willing to study a diverse array of pagan opinions - and thereby modelling another typically Western trait, the openness to new ideas. One need only note that, in the universities of Western world, philosophies from every culture and country are studied, while in other parts of the world, studying European philosophy is forbidden.

One final religious trait can be seen in society: the willingness to serve in someone else's cause. It was free white people who fought for the liberty of black slaves; it was men who worked to give women the right to vote; it is adults who work to end child labor; it is the rich countries who offer help and hope to developing third-world countries; it is the educated who desire to create schools for those who have none. Varous phrases and words carry the same theme: altrusim, self-sacrifice, noblesse oblige.