By Matias Uusisilta
If an antitheist views religions in general as something that harms the society, a protheist view would be one that sees religion as beneficial to society. Though people with such views may not get as much media attention as some well-known antitheists, such as Richard Dawkins, there are many scholars who hold somewhat protheist views. One of them is a PhD in religious studies and a Buddhist monk, Haemin Sunim. Sunim argues that all major religions teach discipline, love and tolerance. In this article, I will introduce some cases where this assumption seems to be true and religion has in fact brought up the good in people.
Some of the most well-known of such cases are Martin Luther King Jr’s fight for racial equality in the United States and Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence from British colonial rule. They both employed religious language and ideas to their speeches and used religion as a tool to motivate the masses for civil resistance. Both men became living legends of their time and were viewed as individuals of high morality, who till this day inspire civil activists around the globe. Would they have managed in their efforts if they had no religious motivations behind their actions or if they had not employed religious ideas in their speeches? Their impact would have been very different, to say the least.
For Europeans, the times of crisis in Europe in the 20th century are a painful reminder of the failures of human morality. When genocides were committed in the Eastern and Western Europe, many churches and religious institutions stood silent, but some individuals rose to fight. One of the most famous religious persons of the Second World War, Margit Slachta, was a Hungarian social activist who founded the Sisters of Social Service; a Roman Catholic Women’s Movement that provided social services for the needy. When the hunt down of Jews spread to Hungary, the movement saved several Jewish families between the years 1939-45, by transporting them out of the grasp of the Nazi regime and hiding them. According to Slachta, the faith of the Sisters demanded them that they protect the Jews, even if it lead to their own deaths.
During the Vietnam War, the Buddhist world of South-East Asia was affected by violence by many parties and Buddhist peace movement was thriving. In this turmoil, The Engaged Buddhist movement was born in the lead of Thich Nath Hahn. As Buddhism is traditionally focused on inner transformation of the individual, the movement seeks to apply insights from meditation practices to social, political and environmental engagement. In Sri Lanka, the merging of Buddhist philosophies and sociopolitical movements went even further in the late 1950s and created a concept of Sarvodaya Shramadana; an alternative low technology self-governance movement with equal distribution of wealth and a concern for the environment. This type of self-governance has been adapted by over 13 000 villages and 4 million Sri Lankans. In a day and age where global warming seems to be leading humankind to an inevitable ecocatastrophe, such communities, which live in a harmony with nature, would be much welcomed in the West as well.
Lastly, there is one religion that has been in the news maybe more than others during the last decades, and not very often in a positive light. Islam is often portrayed by the media in the West as a violent religion that oppresses women. Yet ironically it seems often to be Muslim women and girls who have made their names known as Muslim civil rights activists. Yassmin Abdel-Magied is an Australian activist who has ferociously advocated for the rights of the marginalized in society and tries to break the stereotypes that people have about Muslims. Unfortunately, she had to move out of the country after receiving several rape and death threats from the far-right. The most famous of the Muslim activists is probably Malala Yousafzai, a Muslim girl and a Nobel peace prize winner, who despite being the victim of an assassination attempt, continues to advocate for and girl’s education and peace.
As I stated in the first part of my article, religion is around us and affects our society whether we want it or not. The individuals that I have introduced in this article, are examples of persons who have – as Haemin Sumin argued – embraced the values of discipline, tolerance and love in their own religious traditions. As history has shown, religion can lead to division or union, hence it is very hard to conclude whether it is a beneficial or a harmful phenomenon per se. Antitheist voices might get more media attention and it does seem that religion is not commonly portrayed in a very positive light in mainstream media. Still, for many, religion provides a sense of belonging and takes care of a person’s spiritual needs. In a best-case scenario, spirituality gives one the strength to go on in hard times and encourages them to improve their communities and fight against injustice. In the worst cases, it serves as a motive for those with bad intentions.
Matias Uusisilta is a student of Religion in Peace and Conflict at Uppsala University. He spends a significant amount of his time participating in various forms of social activism in an effort to make the world a bit of a better place for everyone. Despite sometimes falling into cynicism, he has a firm belief that humankind will eventually find a way to live together in harmony.
Image: Patrick Fore