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Commentary —  22 May 2014

Why Religion Matters: The Ground We Walk On

This essay on the footing of faith is the fifth in a five-part series about the value of religion

Salt Lake City — 

“Our morality has religious roots.” — Theo Hobson[1]

What does it mean to take something for granted? Every day we walk on ground we seldom notice. It’s just there, underneath us, supporting our feet as we go about our days learning, working and worshiping. Though often unseen, the ground of our lives is full of religious meaning. Many of life’s compelling questions tend to be spiritual. How do we achieve our deepest longings? What makes something right or wrong? Whom should we love? How do we overcome suffering? The answers we receive shape our reality. But religion is always contested. Some even imagine a world without faith. What, then, do we stand to lose?

forest pathway 

The rigors of science and technology open us to many wonders and truths, but they cannot, as one writer explained, “connect with purpose, intimacy, emotion—the stuff that matters most in people’s everyday lives.”[2] The highest in human accomplishment often traces to religious inspiration. Much of the world’s finest art, architecture, music and literature are clothed in the beauty of spiritual longing. Sacred writings provide ethical frameworks that spark deeds of self-sacrifice, integrity and love. Religion gives societies a shared moral aspiration, instils social commitment without legal compulsion, encourages voluntary compliance of the law and reminds us of our inherent dignity. Belief in deity motivates people to overcome the despair of death and turn suffering into good.

The values of society have roots in the ground of religion. Our modern aspirations toward human rights, altruism and humanitarian aid, for example, have religious pedigrees. Behind efforts to feed the poor, house the homeless and treat the sick, a church ministry is likely to be found.[3] Trust in our civic foundation depends on the spiritual disciplines of honesty, empathy and reciprocity. Everyone benefits when we live up to these ideals. Secular journalist Will Saletan wrote: “Religion is the vehicle through which most folks learn and practice morality. In the long run, it’s our friend.”[4]

And then come all the precious, indefinable things. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that human beings are born with a “taste for the infinite” and a “love for what is immortal.”[5] Individuals across time and culture have pondered and sought these intangibles. Identity, understanding, salvation, belonging — the things of the soul — never stray far from our hearts. Agnostic writer Julian Barnes tapped into something profound when he said, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”[6] A world without religion looks flatter, emptier and simpler, yet still craves the God it once knew.

Today people across the globe find refuge in God and their faith communities. Eighty four percent of the world’s population identifies with a religious group.[7] The world is not sinking into disbelief, but that belief is becoming more rich, pluralistic and complex. We are all stewards of society, and our choices determine who we become. The ground of religion needs constant cultivating and nourishing. A garden cannot take care of itself.

 

[1] Theo Hobson, “The Return of God: Atheism’s Crisis of Faith,” The Spectator, Apr. 19, 2014.

[2] Alasdair Craig, “God Is Dead — What Next?” Prospect, May 1, 2014.

[3] See Robert A. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010).

[4] Will Saletan, “When Churches Do the Right Thing,” Slate, May 8, 2014.

[5] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (2000), 510.

[6] Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2009), 1.

[7] Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, “The Global Religious Landscape,” Dec. 18, 2012.

Style Guide Note: When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online style guide.

 
 
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