by Robert Hamilton
It is, today, a very pertinent question, I think, whether religion is considered primarily, as a social phenomenon or merely a personal relationship with one’s god? For several millennia religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and later Christianity and Islam have influenced the direction of humanities evolvement and, dare I say, progress. Around the globe the socialising force of various religions have shaped the cultural and economic realities of numerous regions and countries. But, at the same time, individuals and their priests, or ministers of religion, have professed that the true meaning of religion lies with one’s own relationship to god. Can then these large entities, established church groups, who often wield enormous power, even today, claim a socially benign status based on this individual right to worship one’s god, without prejudice?
In the West we have moved away from the openly fused church and state roles controlling our institutions, I qualify this with the word openly because our ‘so called’ secular states are still culturally influenced by the historical powers of the church within our governing bodies. In countries like Australia and the United States, a predominantly Christian population founded these nations and continues to be in the majority, and so we see the shadow of theism hanging over our judicial courts, parliaments and in many of the essential rituals of governance. Secularism has given us the choice in some of these ‘swearing in’ rituals in countries like Australia, but the gravitas of “So help me God,” remains within the cultural psyche. Even as regular attendance numbers for church services continue to decline and remain low, less than one in sixteen Australians in 2012 according to research, the social influence remains. It is, after all, only one or, possibly two, generations ago that the church was front and centre as the major community activity and driver of public opinion in most Western countries.
Outside of the West, religions and their various churches are still often the dominant forces within communities in Africa, South America, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. Billions of people, believers in some particular god or gods, are compelled to worship and attend services in churches and shrines within their communities. Priests and ministers of religion are standing up before their congregations and telling them what god thinks they should be doing, according to his, or very occasionally her, interpretation of the scriptures. Rabbis, Imams, Pandits, and Buddhist Monks are performing rituals and thus consolidating traditional religious observances and practices to maintain the socialising force of their religions within their communities. Christianity is, in all probability, far more popular and actively influential in places like Africa and South America (around 50% of Christians reside on these two continents), and with the advent of Pope Francis there is, today, more recognition of this.