Karl Marx once said that religion is the opium of the people—it puts them to sleep so they don't do anything to lessen their pain.
A colleague of mine at QU, Mobray Allen, said once that, no, religion isn't a depressant, it’s a stimulant. It puts people on steroids. They get hyped up and do wild and crazy things.
The Roman Catholic Church, my home all my life, says that its hierarchy needs to control people so they don't do wild and crazy things. That's a noble thought, but reality says that too many of its hierarchy want to control people because controlling people is fun. And control can have economic advantages.
But we need not focus on the extremes. Religion, in less lethal doses, can alleviate pain and can add zest to life. Religion is like music.
Music can alleviate pain and it can add zest to life. This is so true that music is found in all kinds of cultures and is performed in all kinds of ways.
Music and religion are not the only things in life with such properties. Visual art, poetry, cooking, can produce such good things. Even science can have that effect.
Recently I came across the idea that beauty may be the best argument for the existence of God. That means that music, art, and poetry can all be ways to experience God. Religion doesn't have a monopoly on God.
There is much grieving among religious professionals these days that people are deserting religious affiliations in droves. This is especially true of our young people—at least young people in "western" cultures. Are these young people lost?
Look at it this way. We church people have seen ourselves as responsible for saving the world. I think we have misinterpreted our calling. Jesus called us to "make disciples of all nations." He didn't tell us to enroll everyone in the Roman Catholic Church. He told us to help everyone become learners in what God is like—the word "disciple" means "learner."
There are many ways to learn what God is like. Surely someone whose life becomes centered on music is learning what God is like. So is someone who mindfully speaks words from the Q'uran each day.
Of course, not everyone who speaks religious words is learning God. Religion has its pathologies just as music does. But the real danger for so many of our fellow humans these days is that they are not learning about God at all. Older generations might say they are worshipping idols. Someone whose life is focused on profit—on numbers displayed on spreadsheets—is traveling down the wrong track. So are all the people who seek enlightenment alone, all by themselves.
Which brings me to a crucial point. All of these ways of learning God—religion, music, art, poetry—create relationships with other human beings. We do all these things with and for other people, at least most of the time.
To be "with someone and for someone" is a fairly decent definition of love. In other words, those things which help us be with others and for others are manifestations of love.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. These two rules sum up the Law and the Prophets.
Ivan Illich once said that the Catholic Church lets mushrooms grow. I think of a lattice of broken machinery within which soil settles and life emerges. The Church takes itself too seriously. Its leaders need to get out of the way and let God work. Let life and beauty happen. That's what salvation is.
Ever so often I am privileged to preside at weekend Masses in parish churches. The churches are well attended. I know that some people are there for what I consider the wrong reasons. Maybe they're running for office and want to be seen as pious. The number of young people there is not statistically promising. But these people are there. And I am with them. They carry me along a little closer to God. I am blessed. We are blessed. Mushrooms are growing.
Who am I to say that a similar thing isn’t happening in the Lutheran church down the street or in the mosque across town? Who appointed me God's gatekeeper?
The people we need to care for, who we fear are missing out on salvation, are the ones who are not captivated by beauty in their lives. The ones who are traveling alone down some path. They are the ones who need to become disciples—learners of God.
Scientists warn us that there are increasingly grim times ahead. We will need each other. We will need God. Religions have always helped people get through bad times. That can delude us into thinking that religion is only good in bad times. No. Religion, and its siblings, music and a whole host of other beauty-creating behaviors—can bring life to the good times too.
They can all help us learn God.