9/11 one month on

Thought for the Day - Radio Scotland 12th October 2001

It’s times like this, I suppose, which give religion a bad name. For many, it could have no other type of name, having been a source of conflict between human beings throughout the ages, a divisive and destructive force which belittles and degrades humanity.

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, suggests that before September 11th most people viewed religion as harmless nonsense. Now, he says, it must be viewed as lethally dangerous nonsense. But religion is primarily an ennobling factor. Thousands of years ago, in societies less certain than our own about how the world worked, humans looked beyond their own understanding for a source of power which ordered the world. They treated the unseen force they perceived with an awe and respect which was neither nonsense nor dangerous; believing that danger dwelt in neglecting or ignoring that force, not in acknowledging or embracing it.

Nowadays our knowledge of the world has increased to such an extent that we no longer need to look beyond our own understanding for explanations. We believe that we know everything there is to know, everything our ancestors did not know and which required them to look beyond their own existence for a divine presence.

And so we no longer look beyond our own lives to seek explanations or, rather, to recognise that there is much in our world and our lives which defies explanation, even from such scientific giants as Richard Dawkins.

The purpose of religion is to remind us that there is much in our world which we do not understand. Religion becomes dangerous when it claims certainties in a universe in which there is only uncertainty, when it claims absolute truth in a world which contains many truths. When it makes such claims, it has truly lost its way and has, indeed, become dangerous nonsense.

Religion began as a search to explain that which could not be explained. In our bewildering world, it would seem that we are faced with much which defies and requires explanation. Perhaps now religion can reclaim its true role and enable us to respect our world and recognise our vulnerability in it. And may it also reclaim another of its vital functions, also badly needed in these dangerous days: may it offer us hope and comfort, faith and direction in a world which seems to be losing its way.

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