My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This short and sharp essay from Rupert Shortt, the religion editor of The Times Literary Supplement, attempts to answer one of the fundamental questions facing our contemporary society: Does Religion Do More Harm Than Good?
Shortt’s approach is insightful and fearless, naming those things about ‘religion’ that is at the root of the consistent attacks on the place of religion in a secular society that is championed by the atheist flag bearers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Philip Pullman. But neither does Shortt allow the aggressive secularist push prevalent in contemporary dialogue to escape criticism for their own, sometimes unrecognised, flaws.
Shortt doesn’t exclude any religious tradition, looking alternatively at Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and some others. Each is treated respectfully and evenhandedly, yet none is privileged in terms of being above criticism or challenge. In doing so, Shortt addresses, quite convincingly in my opinion, the difficulties facing the various religious traditions when confronted with the secularist tendencies of the Western world.
And where does Shortt fall in answering the question? While recognising that there is both harm and good down by religion (and the discussion of what is meant by ‘religion’ is addressed early in the work), Shortt eventually ultimately concludes thus:
…I think religion does more good than harm because, like science or music, we need it. Tone-deaf people can go through life without delighting in songs or symphonies. But most of us feel enriched by music at some level. You can shun technology by going to live in an Amish-style commune; the majority would avoid such a drastic step. Religion is the most contested element of this triad. But most people in most cultures, present as well as past, would accept my premise. Beyond this stands an important notion – that human understanding is not exhausted by mapping the world of nature. People will always ask larger questions about what the good life consists in. And through seeking answers, they will stumble upon moments, places, relationships and experiences that have a numinous character – ‘as though removed from this world and in some way casting judgement upon it’, in Roger Scruton’s resonant expression.
To which conclusion I say a hearty ‘AMEN’.
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