One of the things which featured in the recent debate on this post is the idea that “religion should be about improving oneself”. This has got me thinking; ‘religion’ of course takes many forms, but in the vast majority of cases I disagree with this.
To paraphrase MarkC, religion is certainly something which as a by-product might help with “improving oneself”, but however you measure self-improvement it is not the sole point, certainly not in the Judeo-Christian case.
In fact, if your sole aim is to “improve yourself”, why waste your time playing around with the trappings of religion? Most religions are based around the idea of faith in God, and that, surely, is the point.
Considering Christianity specifically, Jesus said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” and so ‘religion’ should not be in danger of becoming all about worshipping God; rather, the worship of God has (in theory at least) been at the centre since the outset.
Of course, as has been said here before, faith has to be put on to action, and I believe that “loving God with all your heart, soul and mind” should have positive practical consequences in the way in which you live your life, especially if you then follow the second commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. Maybe some of you would place this under the category of “self-improvement”.
On this note, I’m intrigued by the anonymous comment that “[worship is used] in often destructive ways that can cause problems of intolerance, hatred and even division within a family.” Demonstrating hatred, for example, does not fit with loving God and your neighbour as yourself and should not, therefore, be a direct consequence of worship.
But then I wonder if this is where making religion about improving oneself is actually a cause of the problem. Religion is often said to be responsible for many a conflict, but I think that in the vast majority of cases it’s not the religion itself, but the way in which the practise of it has become self-centred. The moment that you start thinking about what you personally can gain from something, loving God and loving your neighbour begin to get left at the wayside, and often that is when problems arise.
I also think that it is the cause of problems in another more subtle way. If you believe that religion should be about improving oneself, does this mean that you place expectations on others? Do you, perhaps unfairly, expect those who are “religious”* to behave in a certain way, and adhere to certain standards? I wonder if this, as much as anything, is a cause of the aforementioned family divisions.
Incidentally, I've been thinking about this post for a few days, and I went to a conference on 'Worship'. That too has got me thinking, and if I can find time I shall distill some of my thoughts here. But for now, I shall leave it here.
*I don't like that word especially, as it has all sorts of misconceptions associated with it, but it will do here.