What Religion Is For

Some time ago I was in a pub in Australia when two cheerful men stopped by my table. They were older, friendly, both professors, and both, it turned out, professional philosophers. We got to talking, a wild conversation about how thoughts are actually electrical explosions in the brain, how genetics is a form of mathematics, and how religions are biological constructs, formed by the human need to gather into tribes, and informed by the human urge for awe, respect, and prayer.

But there our opinions diverged like the Yarra, the Don, and the Dee. They believed that religions were only evolutionary urges at heart, whereas I believe religions are hints and intimations, lodestars and compass points, possibilities and verbs hurrying us home to the sea of mercy.

The philosophers were brilliant men, and with words like Inquisition, Shoah, and Troubles, they flopped dark history on the table between us like an ugly shark. And yet, gentlemen, I said, are there not also stunning prophets and visionaries: Maimonides and Merton, the Dalai Lama and Teresa of Calcutta? Did not Gandhi forgive his assassin, and a pope recently kneel and apologize? Are there not more than two hundred references to the holiness of forgiveness in the Qur’an? Is not the point of all religion to push us past our easy violence into some new country?

They smiled, they demurred; for them, religions were merely corrals, gathering points...

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About the Author

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland.