Monday, August 06, 2018

Dialectical View of the Social Role of Religion
By Zhang Yuan
Global Times
2018/8/6 20:23:39
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The question "Is religion good or bad?" has confronted human civilization since the birth of religion. The controversy over religion is mainly the result of people's doubts about the existence of an unknown power.

Religion is supernatural, but religious practice is secular since it's closely related to the social life in both public and private spheres. There are various interactions, such as communication, conflict and confrontation, between the believing and non-believing worlds due to the external manifestation of religion.

A mature religion is a complete system of beliefs. It is generally believed that the so-called religion mainly covers ideology, doctrine, sacred objects, ceremonies, organizations and so on. If we only discuss or criticize the concept of religion in a general way, but do not distinguish the various developments and changes in the social units such as thoughts, organizations, and people behind the social institution, it is easy to fall into a misunderstanding. In addition, judging the nature of religion and status is inevitably influenced by the observer's insight, knowledge, and age.

In the heyday of history, religion was closely embedded in almost all public and private spaces. However, with the generalization of the principle of separation of church and state, religion was confined to private life and lost its power and authority over public affairs such as politics.

However, the social nature of religion makes it hard to be jettisoned out of the public sphere. The discussion on whether religion is good or bad has today expanded to the internet, just proving how tenacious the concept is.

Those who believe that religion is good often think it provides spiritual comfort, group solidarity, ethics and morality. Positive attitude toward religion can help react calmly to emergent situations, fulfill the yearning for sensual beauty and the need to be inspired by awe.

Those against religion are often more concerned with and dislike its exclusivity, which they believe sparks conflicts. They also worry that enshrined conservatism might go against social progress.

Religion helps social integration, but this is subject to limitations lest it should turn vicious. Religion is conducive to the formation and maintenance of group ethics by providing behavioral guidance, but if the guidance is wrong, it leads to public fear of religious control. We should have a dialectical attitude toward religion, and not use it to incite discrimination and hatred.

Turmoil in the name of religion cannot be simply equated with the need to hold religion accountable. Religious identity is only one of the many identities of individuals and organizations. Whether to adopt peace or violence is ultimately decided by the actors, not the religion.

China's constitution guarantees religious freedom, and there is a huge population of believers in the country. Religious people can play an important role in China's political and social life. In recent years, to resist the infiltration of extremism from abroad, China has launched an anti-extremism drive in the frontier areas to deal with terrorism and separatism in Xinjiang and other regions.

Anti-extremism initiatives are not anti-religion, nor a denial of a particular faith. For example, Islamic groups in China advocate the "middle way" thinking, guide Muslims to pursue a philosophy of harmony, tolerance and justice, and take the right way to avoid extremes.

The secularization theory that predicts the decline and death of religion cannot represent the reality of religious development. Religion never died out due to social change such as industrialization, marketization, and globalization.

The spiritual world of mankind needs religion. Statistics show that the population of believers continues to grow, and religion spreads more quickly as the people communicate more frequently, conveniently, and economically.

The development of religion is actually a road to modernization. The internal re-adjustment of classical interpretations, rituals, organizational forms conform to the current social and political systems. They cannot be simply interpreted as bringing the death of religion with secularization.

In short, to answer the question whether religion is good or bad, we need a dialectical view of religion's social role. Policies against extremism are not anti-religion. The development of religion needs modernization.

The author is an associate professor of The Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University and director of the Middle East Religions Studies Program in the university.

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