As someone who hasn’t attended a weekly mass since early childhood, it seemed for a long time as though the only time religion affected my life was during the long Catholic wedding ceremonies my very large family frequently held. It’s hard to look around and see the ways in which religion dictates many aspects of society; only when religion inspires conflict do we notice for a time that religion is equally as important today as it was one hundred years ago.
For a long time, I lived under the assumption that if one didn’t participate in religious institutions, they were free from religious influence, and presumed also that this was a good thing. My experiences in traditional, conservative Catholic settings had revealed biases that I was uncomfortable with, and I assumed these biases applied to all types of religion. But, in analyzing political conflicts and those deeply ingrained beliefs that precipitate them, I realized that religion permeates aspects of society and personal moral beliefs, so much so that its influence is quite inescapable, and not always biased or negative.
Religious influence is not always bad; religion can create communities and provide a moral compass. But religion has unexpected consequences outside the spiritual community, and those can be seen all around us. Max Weber believed Protestant ideology contributed to the rise of capitalism; Puritan ideology greatly influenced the economic success of new communities in the United States, and influenced the language in the Declaration of Independence. Religion has historically contributed to political and societal structure, and because of this it is ingrained in our culture, whether we are aware of it or not.
For the same reason, I believe, there is still a lot of religious tension, even though in the United States we profess our freedom to practice religion. Because our way of life is greatly influenced by those religious institutions that are familiar to us and our culture, any other type of religious practice seems foreign and threatening. I think people are unaware of this effect on their own mentality, mainly because most of us don’t know in what ways religion has actually influenced the world outside of our own spiritual lives. For this reason, I think religious literacy is one of the keys to resolving the prejudices that plague our nation.
In understanding the way religion affects other institutions, we can uncover biases in the way we think of spirituality and realize the ways in which religion can be perverted to reach a goal that is unintended by religion itself. Political leaders have used religion to gain power— Henry VIII is one obvious example; religious affiliation as well as religious persecution are two of the main ways in which politicians and leaders sway the masses. Modern day leaders have used religion to justify things as absurd as persecuting immigrants. Without understanding how religion affects us, it is easy to go along with these perversions of faith.
In exploring how religion affects society, I could not ignore the importance of creating a dialogue between faiths about these effects. I believe that religious literacy will not only allow for more cooperation among the world’s faiths, but it will ensure that religious followers and atheists alike can understand how spirituality affects their daily lives.