This past week I watched a BBC special called "Around the World in 80 Faiths" about an Anglican priest who travels the world to discover 80 of the world's religions and sects. If you're fascinated by religion and religious phenomenon like me, I highly recommend it. It covered some of the major religions that I'm familiar with, but many that I wasn't and it has actually opened me up to see religion from a new perspective.
Though I'm still firmly an atheist and am still opposed to religious belief, the diversity of ways to believe shown in the program has warmed me towards some religions that are more or less harmless. "Religion" is big umbrella term that contains many diverse beliefs under it. Not all religions are harmful. Not all religions are intolerant. Not all religions are fanatical. Some merely extract the innate goodness within humanity and exemplify them through parables and metaphors, while wrapping them in rituals that attempt to tap into the transcendent or the divine.
I have also come to a new appreciation of secularism after watching the program. In a world where there are nearly as many ways to worship as there are people, secularism is fundamental towards religious tolerance. Without it, one religion will dominate, and it will be inevitable that discrimination based on religious belief will ensue.
The dark side of the history of religion was also on display in the program. Monotheisms like Christianity and Islam have their rigid forms of belief and their spiritual exclusivity that says "I belong to the one true faith, believe like me or go to hell." Now not every Christian or Muslim wears that message on their sleeve, but it is a basic tenant of their scriptures.
The fluidity of religious belief was front and center in the program. One can see how new religions emerged from political and social struggles, and how old religions have merged to create various great mixes of old and new. There are numerous depictions of animal sacrifices done according to different religions in many different ways. I'm not at all a fan of animal sacrifice. Although I'm not a vegetarian, I think it is a horrible thing to kill an animal because you think its blood and its life are going to wash away your sins and give you good fortunes. Animal sacrifice is one thing I'd rid the world of right now if I could.
Also on display are the many reasons why rituals are practiced, and saints and gods are worshiped. I think the Scottish philosopher David Hume said it best on religion's origins. "The primary religion of mankind arises chiefly from an anxious fear of future events...Every image of vengeance, severity, cruelty, and malice must occur, and must augment the ghastliness and horror, which oppresses the amazed religionist." Mankind's fear of the unknown fuels his desire to have power over it. So he invents all kinds of rituals that involve sacrifices, dances, praises and a myriad of spirits and gods who are either good or bad and whose attention and power can be sought by doing the right things or thinking the right thoughts. It's obvious from the program that humans are in some sense hardwired to believe such things.
While I would truly like so see a less religious world, I certainly don't expect to see an irreligious world in my lifetime. Some harmless rituals need not go away. They can be a fun and formative bonding experience.
One thing about the program that annoyed me was that they listed atheism as a faith. It happened while the priest was in Russia. The disbelief in a god is not a faith, just like not playing football is not a sport. If it was, I'd be a pro. In the context of the show, I think what he meant was that state atheism, like the kind seen during the Soviet Union, is a faith. There certainly was a religious element about it, in how dictators were worshiped as gods, and often legendary stories around them were created. However, communism for the most part was religious, but not a religion. (It's North Korean version could be said to be a state religion because King Jong-il was reported to be the reincarnated spirit of his father, Kill Il-sung.)
There were several moments where the host, Peter Owens, reflected on the more peaceful religions like Jainism and said that this was how it should be. I agree in some ways. I'm all for religious tolerance and freedom of religion; it's a founding principle of America. As long as religions cannot force their beliefs onto others, or chastise nonbelievers, and as long as their practices do not unnecessarily harm anyone, and a free flow of information and ideas are allowed to publicly flourish, then I fully support the freedom of religion and the rights of believers.
Regardless of what I want however, religion is here to stay.
Here are some more episodes: