Also, there is much to commend in religious belief, particularly the common focus and guidance on ethics, on the ways in which people should live their lives. For instance, the Western religious tradition begins with Judaism, and as a starting point there is great beauty and truth in the idea from the Talmud that a person who saves a life saves the universe. Judaism also encourages charity, and it is recognized as the founder of philanthropy. And, of course, you have to admire the resilience of the faith and its adherents.
Jewish traditions were carried forward by Christianity, and Islam, particularly the support for charity. Christianity was also one of the originators of the idea of equality among all people, and in doing so it attacked the prevailing forms of the time: the existence of inequality to the point of widespread slavery; and the inequality that derived from the existence of markets - the moneychangers on the temple steps. In addition, Christianity introduced the ethic of forgiveness, of not responding in kind to personal injury. Furthermore, Christ's encouragement to love thy neighbor can be viewed as a solution to personal selfishness.
Christian churches have also regularly given sanctuary to people suffering from the effects of war, disease and hunger. And both Christianity and Judaism have had long involvement in volunteering and in supporting activist causes, with the former more in an organized sense and the latter more through the personal efforts of individuals. (However, regarding Christianity, while its legacy of charity is admirable, such good works are ruined when missionaries proselytize and encourage the destruction of holistic groups in their zeal to convert primitive savages and to increase their number of true believers. This is religious imperialism, and it constitutes one of the worst examples of cultural insensitivity.)
As to Islam (and with Moses and Judaism), the Prophet sought to drive idolatry from the temple, which is a direct assault on form. Also, and the Prophets background as a merchant notwithstanding, there is much to commend in Islamic business and financial practices, particularly in comparison to modern corporate policies. Islam does not believe in the concept of interest, much less in today's ideal of charging the highest possible rates. (Originally, all interest was called usury.) Islamic banks share in the profits and losses of the businesses that they fund, and this greatly reduces their tendency to speculate and to make bad loans.
You also do not tip in Islamic countries, which has a dramatic and positive consequence on standards of service. Muslims give good service as a matter of course, as a philosophy of life. They do not require a special payment as an incentive. And then there is the Islamic response to strangers. In Arabic countries travelers traditionally are welcomed openly, and with great hospitality; not with fear and suspicion.
For the Eastern tradition, Buddhism is to be congratulated for its compassion for all forms of life, its principle that you should seek to limit your desire, and its prescription of a Middle Way, a life not overly ascetic or self-indulgent, as a means to accomplish this. Hinduism also has great respect for life, as evidenced by the common practice of vegetarianism on the Subcontinent, and in addition Hindus are highly tolerant of other beliefs. Hindus do not seek to convert non-Hindus. You can only become one through birth. Furthermore, in Hinduism individuals are free to follow different deities and routes to salvation, all of which are consistent with the Hindu view of natural law, which is known as Dharma. Believing in a particular god is the same as believing in what that god represents.) Also, Hinduism clearly recognizes an earlier described ethical complexity. One of the main lessons of the Bhagavad Gita is that the appropriate course of action always depends on the circumstances; that in every circumstance there are actions which are intrinsically right; and that whatever you choose to do, you must always make your decision without consideration of personal interest or sentiment.
Indeed, the Bible, Koran, Upanishads, Buddhist sutras, the Tao, etc., are full of wisdom and excellent advice. However, their advice often is obscure, couched in such things as parables, and therefore open to subjective interpretation. This provides an opportunity for an intermediary, someone to provide a standardized interpretation, or dogma. Personally, I prefer clarity: an approach to spirituality which does not require any such intermediation, which we all can understand.
Religions have also had many other general, positive consequences. First, they have traditionally been great supporters of the family, albeit in defense of their own interests, starting with to increase their number of followers. Secondly, religions have provided an outlet for creative expression, through such things as art and architecture, although this has also had the effect of strengthening their form. And thirdly, and this is uniformly positive, religious messages are a significant balance to the modern icons of youth, beauty and wealth.
Lastly, even pagan beliefs, in their celebration of life itself - what is a fertility god, if not a god of life? - make a positive social contribution.
© Roland O. Watson 2001-3