Jesus Vs. Barthes: Investigating the Importance of Religion in a Post-Modern Society.

Allow me to ask you an uncomfortable question: do you believe in God? If you do, then why and to what purpose does faith have in your life? It could be something that gives you daily strength, something that gives you hope, or even something that you were simply brought up with, and you never thought to question. Obviously there are no wrong answers here, I only ask because the idea of faith and religion is very curious to me and no one likes to talk about it.

Religion and politics are often awkward dinner conversations that people tend to enthusiastically avoid; however, a few weeks ago I had such a dinner with some old and some new friends. Amongst the clatter of knives and scraping of forks, everyone was buzzing around the table talking of trivial issues, until someone mentioned climate change. Knives and forks rested, and the buzzing ceased. Climate change imminently deviated into politics, then gay-marriage, then abortion, and then –the dreaded – religion. The perspective from my old friends was typical, however, my new friends had views that I still find difficult to comprehend – and choose not to relate here.

I was brought up in a non-religious household, and the idea of God wasn’t presented to me until I started going to school. I went to a public school up until year five, and the only religious implications it had was the Lord’s Prayer at every assembly. I can still remember saying each word with care, along with the choir of skinny children, not knowing what any of it was all about.

In year five I moved to a private Anglican school where we had chapel every week and religious studies. At the brink of puberty I was starting to feel a little rebellious, and in my finite grasp to make friends, I liked to stir up the teachers: “But how do you KNOW he rose from the dead? Where you there?” was a common contentious question along with various others. These questions were not taken lightly and I was often scolded for questioning God.

Now into my twenties – entering the alarmingly scary adult world – I can no longer justify the existence of a God, or anything supernatural for that matter. But that’s my own opinion that I derived from continuous questioning and research, into a scientific and a spiritual realm. For that matter, I have utmost respect for other people’s faith; I just don’t believe that the implications of religion are necessary in order to have personal faith and spirituality.

The role of religion in our society has certainly changed since, for example in the 1950s, when the expansion of religion was prolific after the hardship of World War Two. Families would attend church and pray regularly, media sales and religious literature sky-rocketed, and the sense of community around the church became increasingly important. By the 1960s in the US, nearly two thirds of the population was said to be part of a religious church, compared to a report conducted by Trinity College of Connecticut in 2008, who found that 76 per cent of Americans considered themselves Christian. In the peachy 1950s, religion started to inch closer to politics in the US, with “In God We Trust” becoming the national motto that featured on its currency, and The Advertising Council campaigning the slogan: “The family that prays together stays together.”

This would seem to be a stark difference compared to today’s standards, but when, for example, the issue of gay marriage is indeed still an issue, you have to ask yourself, why? With a mass of people all insisting that their views are the truth, we are divided into a system of us verses them, where it becomes increasingly difficult to keep everyone happy. The role of religion in modern society becomes an issue when it exceeds the boundaries of personal faith, and seeps its way into hindering a functioning society. For example, after the 2009 Global Economic Crisis, the downturn of the economy had a greater effect on poorer countries that had higher proportions of a religion. This lead to a rejection of old women and children who were hunted down as “witches” or “devil-possessed”, and were murdered with such deaths said to be running into the millions. Such reports as these are terrifyingly real and more importantly, how could we allow this to happen?

In that vein, I set out on a spiritual exploration of sorts trying to discover why people hold such faith dear to them. In my logic, I thought that if there were such a hearty amount of evidential, factual information available to the masses, then how could people still believe? I was slightly baffled to say the least, until I had coffee with 24 year old Adriana Badita. Adriana has been married for 9 months and calls herself a proud Pentecostal Christian. She wasn’t always religious, when she started university she “backslid” away from God for a bit; she was stuck in a bad relationship and she felt that she was wasting her life, “I realised that life has a different meaning when you know something is real, but you continue to deny it. It makes you down.”

A couple of years ago she started praying again and started to notice changes around her: her brother calmed down and was rid of his ADHD, her aunty was prayed for her breast cancer and was miraculously cured the following day, and a deaf usher at her church could all of a sudden hear. These signs were unexplainable to her, and more than anything she felt the presence of God again.

When I asked her the standard question of do you ever doubt your beliefs, she confidently said no. “I’m one hundred per cent sure he’s real. There has to be something bigger than…this.” Here I can relate to Adriana, I used to find myself overwhelmed by the beauty of the world, and I was often in awe of what was around me. A lot of people follow that logic; it has been around since the dawn of mankind, hence the intrinsic need for spiritual fulfilment. Let me explain; as the first humans on this earth we were unable to comprehend our own natural wonders i.e. the sun, the wind, thunderstorms etc.- in this light it seemed unthinkable that everything around us didn’t have a creator behind it. The beginning of religion and God was sparked by our own awareness of ourselves, and our incapability to understand where we came from or why we’re here.

This led me to ponder the questions of morals. Were we born good? Do we need God in order to be morally sound? I posed this to Adriana who said that faith isn’t something you necessarily need in order to be moral: “We already know what’s right and what’s wrong. But if there was no God then you would have no reason to do the right things.” This reasoning was reiterated by my interview with Rabbi Freilich of the Perth Synagogue where he has been a Rabbi for 23 years. He says that we were created in God’s image and are inherently kind and compassionate, but that kindness needs to be channelled through the teachings of the Torrah: “If we had not had religion and God, and we were dictated to by fellow human beings as to how to behave rather than a divine source, then God knows what would have happened if we were given that choice.”  He also went on to say that every human has the ability to bring heaven down to earth, but “Religion has been perverted by people and their own want of power and own prestige. That’s a problem, people have perverted religion.”

I couldn’t have put it any better myself.

All religions have the best of intentions: they take God’s word and plan to do good for others and the world around them, however, due to people’s own sense of self-worth and greed, religion has been used to manipulate the masses. On a greater scale it is easy to argue that religion has done no good: there are countless stories of corruption of power and terrorism, as well evangelical figures who fail in a very public light. But I would argue that faith and spirituality should be kept separate from such debates; despite my non-beliefs, I certainly envy those who hold such faith dear to them. Every interview I had reinforced the idea that if you have God in your heart, you are never alone in this world. Faith gives people strength and direction to do good, but it also gives them a strong sense of worth in this ever-changing world.

Because religion and spirituality has lingered since humans first walked this earth, many theists would argue that it then proves the existence of God. Barry Andrews has been a Jehovah Witness for forty-five years, and asserts the logic that we were born good as we were created in God’s image: “We have evolved the same way as animals but the difference is that we have an in-built moral sense.” He says that primitive societies who have had no connection with a church or a God show ethical clarity, which is therefore proof of a God. However, some may argue that this actually disproves the existence of a God or Gods, but such a hearty debate was not my intention for the interviews. He also said that the concept of religion is a product of man, and that religion is aligned with modern science, but the concept of faith is strong, “as we have God’s word through the Bible, which is a beautiful guide to life.” Frequently during our interview he referred to a tattered, well-used bible sitting proudly on the coffee table; he said that any questions he has ever had where answered in the Bible. I don’t think the concept of ever questioning the validity of the Bible has ever occurred to him, however.

Calisha Bennett is a full-time mum to three children and a volunteer worker in the Perth Islamic community. Calisha turned to God and religion at the tender age of eleven when her grandmother died: “I realised that I was gonna die one day, so then what? I remembered from my own common sense that if you’re good, you go to heaven and if you’re bad you’re going to get punished. Everything else in this life doesn’t control me; God is who I submit to.” During the interview when Calisha spoke of death, I felt myself getting caught up in her own passion and fear of her merciful God. My heart-rate grew only slightly rapid, and I asked myself those same questions: what happens when you die?

This question becomes all the more important when someone close to you dies: a couple of years ago a 22 year old girl from my work literally just dropped dead from a genetic heart palpitation. It seemed like the most ridiculous thing in the world; one minute she was there and the next…she vanished as if in a magic trick. Coming to terms with death is a vital part of our existence, but nobody wants to think about it. For me, Rachael’s death made me realize how soft human beings are, and how precious life really is. Death is yet another mystery of the universe, and we can only gather what happens after life through observations of nature, or believing in a spiritual realm – whether you choose to embrace such theories or not, the bleak fact is that death is inevitable.

Calisha noted that faith and religion is dependent on each individual’s journey and that in the end you answer to God: “You can lie to yourself and say you’re Muslim but not embrace it, but that’s part of Islam, taking the teachings into your life and making it a reality.” She says that a big part of having faith is thinking about God daily through prayer: “For me it’s everything; it gives you that structure and guidance for how to live the best life. I don’t find it hinders me in any way at all, I think it empowers me.”

Like the majority of my spiritual conversations, Calisha agreed that the word religion has been obscured: “It’s in the nature of man to recognise that there is a God. It’s the word religion that has been tainted. It should be everyone’s individual journey with recognizing and appreciating that there’s a creator. You need that, otherwise what are you living for?” It’s very easy for human beings to want to think that they’re special in some way, that all of the bustle and stress and joy of daily life HAS to eventually equate something. “To not have a creator and not be able to recognize that, I would feel really lost and really sad, and I think people ARE really sad and they try to numb that sadness. Something’s missing from the dynamic.”

The last of my interviews was held at my old stomping grounds: my Anglican high-school.  I had a long chat with Scott Rowland, who is now in his fifth year of being the school chaplain; we discussed in-depth about faith and religion, and he gave me differing views from my previous discussions. He believes that the reason why religion has become so corrupt is because we were not indeed born intrinsically good, but instead, intrinsically selfish: “Abuse of power happens because people are people. It then makes sense that any structure – religious or secular – is going to be used appallingly”. He also went on to say that morals are only central when you’re looking after your own people, but they are then channeled externally through God to look after other people: “I think the true indication of whether morals are intrinsic or not comes down to how you treat the “other”. I’ve heard of cultures who take care of their own, but I’ve never heard of cultures who love others.”

He added that there have been times where he doubts his faith, and questions whether God is real or not, and the reason why he feels that God is real is through the person Jesus Christ. He says that modern science is only 300 years old, whereas Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are 3500 years old, and that misunderstanding of the Bible comes through reading the text through our modern framework: “What we need to do is put ourselves into their sandals, you need to be sensitive to the text because our questions were not their questions.” That is what we naughty non-believers would call a cop-out response to an uncomfortable question.

Moving swiftly along, I asked Scott about the concept of separating faith from religion, the central idea of my article. He said that in theory, yes you can believe without being part of any religion, but that there is a central aspect to Christianity which is communal: “We’ve lost this communal aspect in our individualistic society. There has always been an overlap on what it is to be Christian and what it is to be Australian.” It seems then that even with something as supposedly structured and simple as a religion, things aren’t as black and white as they appear. There are loopholes and double standards in a lot of aspects of society, but something as pure and holy as God’s word should be adhered to easily, right? Not exactly, Scott pointed out that we all sin: “We’ve lost the expectation that people conform their lives to God, and whatever that person’s thing is – and we’ve all got them – we have to ask ourselves whether or not we want to bring that thing under the sovereignty of God.” This was in response to a question relating to homosexuality, a tricky one for a person who is told to love others in society.

So how do I feel after weeks of research and interviews and conflicting points and ideas? Completely and utterly exhausted. It seems that religion is being treated almost like a commodity: you have a wide range of flavors to choose from and in order to hold any purpose in your short life, you need to seek out the “truth” and stick to it. I can definitely understand why people have faith and spirituality: it’s a blanket comfort that gives them pure strength and resolve; but I still disagree with the indoctrination of a religion. As an individual you should be given the freedom of choice of your particular faith without having to adhere to strict rules and regulations that act as a pass into paradise or internal hell. God is all-loving and merciful, so then why do we fear him so?

My only wish is that people make an active decision to inform themselves: choosing to adhere to any particular religion is a life-changing decision that absolutely should not be taken lightly. I feel that it’s necessary to research and question your beliefs before you commit yourself to a God or Gods; which means questioning your field of interest and the opposite views.

These past weeks have been exactly that for me; and I found that both sides of the God-debate are as ruthlessly stubborn as each other. The Atheist reasoning is based purely on logical thinking, whereas the believer’s reasoning is based on God’s word. So, in all this back and forth bickering: who is right and who is wrong? That, I’m afraid, is entirely up to you.

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