Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Two contributors present brief essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of the traditional Church.

Does religion impede human progress?
f I were to ask Mr or Ms Average, "How would you describe a religious person?" I might well get an answer something like this:

Religious people believe in God and worship in a church or a mosque. For them, prayer and meditation are important activities. They would characterise themselves as spiritual rather than materially minded. The Bible or Qur'an would be a source book and they would try to live good lives based on God's Word.

This description, simplistic as it is, doesn't highlight the unspoken assumption of many religious people - that they have final answers to life's great mysteries. Final answers remove the need for progress. For if even only one answer is final, then all questions must ultimately lead to it. And if you or I know this ultimate truth, then we have no need to advance except in incidentals.

It is in this sense that religion can impede human progress. For it produces people who fall into roughly two categories. The first is those who live as though there are not only right and wrong answers, but also right and wrong questions. They gravitate to the institutional side of religion. And institutions inevitably become more concerned with their own perpetuation than with progress.

The second category is those whose lives are split into two compartments. One consists of the essentially secular, untouched by religious concerns. The other compartment goes to church, prays, looks to divine revelation for guidance - and is not allowed to invade the secular. This dualism is largely unconscious. Most of the time, neither part fertilises or challenges the other. The result is sterility and inertia arising from a separation of "sacred" from "profane".

Religion in this mode tends to be relatively comfortable and cosy. It produces potted answers to life's dilemmas. But above all, its view of the world impels it to resist change. It tends to substitute either formulaic "conversion" or moribund "tradition" for the profound transformations which life offers us all. In its most bleak, judgmental and fossilised form, we know it as fundamentalist.

Yet religion has been an essential part of every culture throughout the ages. It is highly unlikely to disappear. Religion will remain - not because it is the opium of the people, but because in its right form it is a valid way of respecting and exploring the mysteries of life. Interestingly, a few secular people are beginning to wonder if religion is a useful aspect of society.

However, religion should not be equated with the Church. The truly religious person is not one who "goes to church" (though a churchgoer may also be truly religious) but one who enters life and engages it as completely as possible. This religion is common to all cultures and all times because it embodies an intense devotion to whatever is perceived as most meaningful in life. It asks any question and considers any answer.

According to this view, many of those who have never seen the inside of a church or mosque, and are never likely to, are also the most religious. Such people, whether in church or out, pose no threat to progress because new life in its manifold forms moves in and through them.

I preface my remarks with this definition of progress. Progress implies continuous improvement or movement toward betterment and a higher, more advanced stage.

Progress also implies change but it must be noted that change does not necessarily indicate progress.

In evaluating progress it is essential to identify the sphere of human activity to be evaluated. Are we talking about science/technology, political and economic systems, medical care, morality, the arts or other spheres?

I will focus my evaluation on the broad category of civil society. By civil society I mean that arrangement of institutions which maximizes harmony, security and peace within a given community. An ideal civil society gives every person the opportunity to pursue happiness and fulfillment.

In order for a particular community to realize these goals, all spheres of human activity should be optimized. For this to happen, every person in the community ought to have freedom to think and act creatively with the interests of the whole community in mind. This implies equal possibilities for all, regardless of sex, ethnicity, race or any other distinguishing human characteristic.

With this background I will finally confront the original question, does religion impede human progress? Certainly religions have impeded progress as defined. This occurred primarily because personal freedom was constricted. I doubt there is any religion that at one time or other has not violated personal freedom. It happens today.

On the other hand, there can be little question that religion, by promoting human freedom from tyranny as the Catholic Church did in Eastern Europe near the end of the Cold War, can have a salutary effect on human progress. Additionally, many scholars cite the Reformation as a turning point in the political-economic progress of Western society. Liberation of the faithful from oppression of the Church led to a flurry of human creativity resulting in expanded opportunity and economic development.

Jesus famously said, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar�s, and to God the things that are God�s" (Matthew 22.21). To me this indicates Jesus' clear view on the separation of church and state. Where there is hegemony over all areas of human activity there is oppression. Where there is oppression, be it religious or secular, human progress falters.

Thus, my answer to the main question is mixed. Religion can, has, and in some cases will probably continue to impede human progress. It doesn�t necessarily have to be.

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