The Problems, the Potential and the Power of Religious Belief

I once heard a lecture given by Professor Steven Goldman at Lehigh University, and he defined “belief” as something that influences our actions — whether or not it is objectively true. For example, he says, let’s say you believe it is going to rain tomorrow. What will that mean? Well, most likely, it will mean that you are going to bring an umbrella. If you believe it’s going to be a downpour, you may even bring galoshes.

Now, it will either rain or it won’t — the important thing is that your belief about the rain directly affected how you acted here and now.

Our beliefs are truly what guide us. As Dr. Andrew Newberg writes in his book Why We Believe What We Believe, “[b]eliefs govern nearly every aspect of our lives. They tell us how to pray and how to vote, whom to trust and whom to avoid; and they shape our personal behaviors and spiritual ethics throughout life.” (Newberg, 5)

So because our beliefs are so powerful, and so strongly influence our actions, a major question is how religious belief affects us.

There are some who think that religious belief is inherently a force for evil because they see all the harm done to this world in its name. They see people who believe that blowing yourself up will allow you to enter into paradise with 70 virgins, or that if you do not accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior you will rot in hell, or that the entire biblical land of Israel is a God-given right, and so they understandably and naturally reject religion entirely.

But in fact, beliefs (even religious beliefs) themselves are neither good nor bad — it’s how those beliefs manifest themselves in our actions that we need to examine.

After all, there are many who believe that the Koran teaches us that we should “know and honor each other,” (Chapter 49, Verse 13), or that Christ’s love impels us take care of the weakest members of our society, or that we are partners with God in repairing the world. And those beliefs have power, as well.

One of the most incredible experiences I have had recently was being part of the launch for “Westchester United,” a new community organization bringing together churches, synagogues, mosques and other institutions to explore the question, “What kind of good do we want to create in this world?”

We are aiming to have over 50 congregations from across Westchester, and at the launch a few weeks ago, African-American Baptists sat next to Hispanic Catholics, who sat next to Reform Jews, who sat next to Muslims. And there, we heard three stories of the ways religious communities made an impact:

  • East Brooklyn Congregations has built almost 3000 Nehemiah homes for low-income families — and according to Kathryn S. Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, “We continue to see an almost nonexistent default rate.”
  • South Bronx Churches has helped build the Mott Haven Campus, a $160 million school campus for 2300 students in the Bronx which, as the The New York City Department of Education says, “includes multiple gymnasiums and science labs, an outdoor football field, and auditorium and cafeteria space that all schools will share. “
  • New Jersey Together has spearheaded a $1 billion dollar environmental cleanup, forcing several of the worst polluters in northern New Jersey to take responsibility and clean up the messes they had created.

Combating homelessness. Improving education. Cleaning up the environment. All these victories were a direct result of people believing that their work mattered, and that they had a sacred responsibility to act.

Now, were there religious communities that felt that “social justice” was a dirty word, and so elected not to be a part of these initiatives? Almost certainly, and that was their choice. But that fact doesn’t negate the fact that hundreds of faith communities strove to improve this world because they believed they were commanded to do so.

So today, progressive religious communities have both an opportunity and a responsibility to advocate for a belief system that inspires people to improve themselves, their society and their world. Because in my experience, the strongest congregations are the ones that create a strong sense of community, and lead people to rally around a shared sense of mission together.

Religious belief has undeniable power — so the question is how we can use it most effectively to make the greatest positive impact on this world. Religious communities can and need to ask, “What do we believe about what God demands of us? What do we believe about human nature and the way the world works? And what do we believe about our potential to make a difference in people’s lives?”

Because ultimately, religion is a tool, like fire. And while some people are using it to destroy this world, there are so, so many who are using it to take a world that is far too often cold and dark, and bring just a little more light and warmth into it.


Filed under General

3 responses to “The Problems, the Potential and the Power of Religious Belief

  1. I read this piece on a Sunday morning, just before leaving home for Holy Mass (I’m a Flemish Roman Catholic). Just to say that this piece really is inspiring to me for 2 reasons: (a) “So today, progressive religious communities have both an opportunity and a responsibility to advocate for a belief system that inspires people to improve themselves, their society and their world.”: Roman Catholic Christianity in Belgium is in crisis, so we do need to step up and do as you suggest. Not (only) for the sake of “our” religion (as if we have possession of our faith), but ultimately for our society’s sake.(b) “ultimately, religion is a tool, like fire”: Against many recent criticisms of religion, this statement points back to where responsibility really lies: the fallible human beings who are called to follow God’s call.

    • Tom — thank you so much for your note. I’m curious — what is the situation within Flemish Catholicism? What would you think would need to happen in order for the Church reach its highest goals?

  2. I believe there are two things happening.
    (a) We are in the general context in Western society of all religions: a cultural background marked by secularity and plurality, with all the questions and challenges that this background brings along with it. Not necessarily a bad or negative thing: it gives religions opportunities to step up and find ways to contribute to society, in answering the three questions you raised in your text: “What do we believe about what God demands of us? What do we believe about human nature and the way the world works? And what do we believe about our potential to make a difference in people’s lives?” I think we should do this more explicitly, because what we also see in Flanders (Europe in general) is a tendency of rising ethnocentrism, which is in clear opposition to what we believe.
    (b) In Flanders the Roman-Catholic Church has the specific problem of sexual abuse within the Church, with one of our most respected bishops (mgr. Vangheluwe) admitting that he has abused his cousin for years. Not only did this spur a lot of criticism from the general public on Church authorities, it also and more importantly raised important questions within the Catholic community itself. We are now in a process of mourning about what has happened in our midst. There is a lot of hurt and violated trust when I talk to people – I do feel this myself – but at the same time people are looking for ways to reconnect with their faith, to reaffirm their trust in God, to take the risk again of following His loving call (until a year ago I couldn’t imagine biblical metaphors about God’s love being so vulnerable for sleazy jokes among my students: talk about a change of social atmosphere).

    So what needs to happen? Well, I guess what needs to happen is that we need to realize that believing in God is in part “letting go”: we don’t own God, we do not have a grand master plan about building the Kingdom of God, we do not have any contract with God that says He has to make it right (in the way we think it’s right). What we do have, is His graceful call, His invitation to enter into His covenant. What we can do, is doing little things in daily life, based on and inspired by our faith. This can sometimes mean going against the social current, and we are reminded in our context of today that we cannot do that while staying in our comfort zone… The danger of our situation is that we spiritualise it all, and retreat as it where from society – or that we go full throttle for contributing to society without nourishing ourselves on our faith. We need something in between. In a nutshell: we need to do what you already said 😉

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