On the success of religions

I was once asked: “In your opinion, theoretically for a religion to be most successful, what should be the right balance between standard versus innovation, as a religion evolves through out time?>
My answer: “Much depends on what one means by <successful>.
If success in this context is measured in terms of:
(i) Retaining current adherents, then the religion should continue to be meaningful, inspiring, and least demanding.
(ii) Getting new converts, the religion must offer what competing religions don’t.
Both these depend on the intellectual/educational sophistication of the people whom the religion addresses. The less sophisticated/educated a populace it, for a religion’s <success>, the theology should be very straight-forward: one God,
take him and you’ll go to heaven, reject him and you’ll go to hell, one Holy Book: all else is wrong and false and dangerous, etc.; its ethical framework should be blunt and simplistic: (categorizing everything in terms of good & bad, right & wrong, and without any shades in between, no questions asked). Under these conditions, a religion can more easily retain and get more members.
On the other hand, when the population gets more educated, sophisticated, science-literate, and questioning, religions (theologies, ethical principles) should also become more sophisticated. This is why Christianity is facing a crisis in the Western world, and why Christian theologians are trying to approach issues  in a modern scientific framework. It is only in such contexts that what one  calls innovation (actually enlightened interpretations) become  important. In  static stagnant cultures, where the leaders, religious and secular,  are untouched and uninformed about newer ways of understanding and evaluating things, there is no need for any change to function successfully. Such cultures can become dangerous if they spill into others and try to impose their narrow visions on reluctant outsiders.

The right balance for any enlightened religion will be to preserve the aesthetic, poetic, joyous, societal, spiritual aspects of a religion in its worship modes, to be aware of and encourage its faith community to think and act in responsible and caring ways in the complex world in which we live, and to refer its adherents to science for all explanatory aspects of the world-experience. If, where, and when this is done, most traditional religions can be successful: i.e. worthwhile and meaningful to its (sophisticated) adherents.

August 23, 2002


About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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