Recently, the student debating society held a debate that discussed the motion, ‘This house opposes organised religion.’ In what seems to be an increasingly secular society, it’s to be expected to find people questioning why this issue is up for discussion at all. Hasn’t religion lost its relevance in a world where science and secular philosophies have seen extensive development? Or alternatively, isn’t it offensive to propose a motion that challenges something taken so seriously by so many people?
The relevance of organised religion is often dismissed as being outdated and ridiculous, but maybe there is something bigger that we are missing in our understanding of what it means to be religious.
To engage with the question of organised religion in today’s world, it is important to understand what the word ‘religion’ means. For many, this word connotes a world view that provides a set of rules to follow in order to live well, often with a deity or higher power defining what those rules are. For many organised religions, this is the case, but it is worth taking some time to consider an alternative approach.
When Chairman Mao came to power in 1949, there were only 1 million Christians in China. Today, a modest estimate would tell you that there are 67 million Christians, with independent researchers suggesting numbers upwards of 100 million. In January 2018, a church with 50,000 members was demolished by the Chinese Police in the Shangxi province. Why has organised religion seen so much growth in a country where a key feature of its government is atheism? Is the case for organised religion so compelling that people are willing to oppose their government for their faith?
Evidently, religion is more than just a set of ideas. It provides a sense of identity, purpose, and meaning deep-seated enough for people from religions all around the globe to suffer. With this in mind, I shall look at the debating society’s decision to debate the motion ‘This house opposes organised religion.’
Initially, this doesn’t appear to create a welcoming environment for religious students. However, I do not believe that it was offensive. Compared to places like North Korea, where freedom of religion is tolerated de jure, but persecution and censorship is practised de facto, the fact that religion is even up for discussion in an academic institution celebrates freedom of speech. As a Christian, I personally believe that what I put my trust in should have the capacity to defend itself. There is even a whole practice called ‘apologetics’ where Muslims, Christians, and people from other religions think about why they believe what they believe.
While it is important to be sensitive in challenging organised religion, it is vital that a dialogue between religious and non-religious people is maintained. To not allow debates over the relevance of religion could be more offensive to religious people than not debating it at all – it could be seen to assume that there is no reason to be religious. Allowing discussion gives advocates for organised religion the chance to stand up for what they believe in and gives others the chance to hear it too.
It is not easy to be religious. Often religious people hold counter-cultural views, and it can feel hard to be accepted. However, I believe that the way forward is in dialogue, and not taboo.
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