Reflection by Rev. Durrell Watkins
“Test everything! Keep what is good.” St. Paul, 1 Thessalonians 5.21
Last week I saw Bill Maher’s new documentary film, “Religilous.” It was actually a very well done film that intelligently challenges religious people’s inherited assumptions and preconceived ideas. Maher especially shows how dogmatic certainty and intolerance can lead to violence and suffering in our world.
It may seem odd that I, someone who is PROFESSIONALLY religious, would enjoy this of all movies! But my religion isn’t threatened by science, humor, critical thinking, or questions. Maher may be doing religion a very good service by showing us how we have too often allowed religion to become irrelevant or even toxic.
Where Bill Maher and I disagree is that I believe religion has great potential. I love the myth and poetry of religion. I love the people who are in my life because religion brought us together. I love the sacred texts that remind me that our ancestors struggled with many of the same questions that I have. They sometimes came to different conclusions than I might, but they stand with me (in my imagination) as I attempt to face the questions as courageously as they did.
Religion, at its best, reminds me that I have enormous potential and that at the center of my being I may be infinitely better than I’ve ever realized. Religion reminds me that I am part of the Web of Existence, an integral part of the vast Universe, an expression of infinite Life. Philosophy, art, transpersonal psychology, or quantum physics might offer me a very similar message, but religion is the discipline that communicated the message to me first. I tend to dance with the one who brought me!
So, yes, I may be “religilous,” but I think that’s good. Someone needs to offer religion in a way that allows (and even expects) progressive attitudes, new learning, critical thinking, and expanded understanding. I don’t believe the world was created in a week a few thousand years ago! I don’t believe that my religion is God’s favorite and all others are at best wrong and at worst evil. I don’t believe religion should be used as an excuse to justify homophobia. I don’t claim to know anything about the afterlife, and I know that our scriptures are full of human opinion, imagination, prejudice, error, and norms from cultures different from my own. Religion is not, in my mind, the enemy of science, and for me, myths, parables, idioms and symbols can be philosophically or psychologically true without being historically factual or accurate.
I’m not religious to keep me out of afterlife prison, nor am I religious to get wishes granted or to feel superior to the non-religious. I’m religious because I’ve experienced religion as a liberating, encouraging, comforting source of optimism and I want to share that with others who may need it. I especially want to offer a generous, liberating, joyous alternative to those who have been excluded or harmed by the misuse of religion.
As a religious person, I consider myself an ally of people like Bill Maher who use their voices to challenge religion when it becomes superstitious, narrow-minded, or oppressive. So, as a religious person, I encourage people to go see “Religilous.” Laugh when it’s funny. Feel free to disagree with whatever you don’t find persuasive. And allow it to show you where religion needs improvement. As religious people, we may discover that we are the ones to offer the healing religion needs.
Rev. Durrell Watkins