Another drear dawn ascends damply into day.
There was just a hint of paler illumination in the sky across the river as we made the crossing through and beyond twilight.
Some of you may have noticed that I photograph the church across the Penobscot River quite often. It is not because I am avidly Christian, or even avidly religious in any institutional way. But I do find inspiration in beauty, and I find church steeples to be very beautiful. This little New England church in the woods across the way provides a destination view for me. Whoever came up with the idea that inspirational architecture can facilitate a religious experience had it right.
Inspiration to lift ourselves higher, to aspire (see the word spire in there?) to greater things in life -- that is largely the goal of religion. But a lot of religion is also meant to urge people to do the right thing, live a moral life, and help other people in need.
Sometimes I have heard people wonder what could possibly inspire (there it is again!) human beings to give charitably, to make sacrifices for others, to work towards a greater good, without the dictates of a religious doctrine that requires it. In some religions it is a more negative impulse, particularly during some earlier European iterations of Christianity. The threat of eternal damnation is a powerful drive to deter people from screwing up while we're here in this earthly life.
I have put stock in the role of religion as a moral guide, but over time I have come to a new understanding of humanity. Conversations with my biologist and atheist cousin defined it most distinctly for me. My cousin makes a strong case in favor of humans making some sacrifices to help others in need, including paying taxes and supporting programs like welfare, based strictly on science. Human beings are social animals, she argues. It is in our nature, and in our best interests as a species, to take care of each other as a group. Even though you may find the occasional hermit living in seclusion, humans are not designed to be a solitary species. We depend upon each other for survival, so helping each other out is both natural and beneficial for our entire species. A solitary ant won't live long or ensure its species' continued existence. A busy colony is a thriving force of insistent life.
Religion has a strong place in feeding our spirits, in facilitating our coming together in congregations of mutually supportive people, but religion's role goes too far when it gets into power plays. It has been the bane of our co-existence time and time again.
In his book, The End of Faith, Sam Harris makes an argument that religion should go away if we want to survive. But I think that's throwing away the baby with the bathwater, as they say. Religious institutions elevate us, lift our hearts, bring us together, fill us with love of each other and the world we're in. That needn't go away. But as far as providing a system of rules or regulations about how we should live, religion should back off. The unyielding attachment to written scripture of some ancient past is a terrible, destructive mistake. If we were to follow the more globally instinctive call of our species' nature to survive on this little planet, we would listen and do the right thing towards each other, all religion aside.