I have spent much time of late ruminating on the nature of religion and Faith. Not for any reason in particular, save perhaps, a contemplative mood. This is the season of the year that seems best suited to contemplation. It is a time that is both autumn and summer, though the equinox has passed. But I digress.
Religion is a curious conception. It has both elements that are individual, and elements that are Statist, for lack of a more accurate word. In addition to those two conceptual areas, Religion also contains a credo, a set of ideals and standards which are, more-or-less, held by the enture community. But these three things are in constant flux and conflict. The Statist and Individual elements war with the Credo, while the Statist wars with the Individual. These three things form what is, in essence, the Three branches of Religion as an organizing body.
That part of Religion which I called a moment ago the "Credo", is in effect, what the Community of Faith believes. These are those things that are often termed Canon, Dogma, Scripture, or whatever. What is universally true, it seems, is that these are central concepts. They are a core of understanding and a centralize set of signposts to guide the thinking of the community as a whole. What is also true, is that no community is homogeneous in its belief. Some elements of the Credo will take precedence over others. For example, in the argument often raised against Christianity, few believers truly feel that Leviticus is a good base for a legal system, though there are some who feel this way. These differences in belief and priority mean that Credo alone is not sufficient to bind a Religion together. All the Credo contributes to the Religion is the bones and the conceptual structure, which is why so many Religions share a few core ideas: Evangelism, that is the drive to spread the Religion, Salvation, the rescue from the woes of this world, either in this life or in some life hereafter, and the idea of Transcendance, that there is some higher power to which we are inevitably responsible to. The details of these things may differ, but they are present in nearly all cases.
The second part, the Statist, consists of all those elements of a Religion that are intended to guide the construction of a society. Viewed properly, the Ten Commandments are exactly such a creation. The Statist Element is not truly concerned with the Divine, though it draws its power from the link between itself and the Divine. This aspect of Religion is why human societies have, until very recently, really, had religious elements to their governments. In the ancient world, it is true, there was no true separation between the religion and the state. And indeed, our world today is a notable exception to the Old Ways of governance. The Statist element also guides the place of the faithful in a secular society, or a society where they are not the ruling group. "Give to Caesar that which is Caesar" is emblematic of this guiding idea. Not all Statist elements are so generous to a non-believing host state, but there is guidance nevertheless. The Statist provides only that in today's world, but it helps to prop up the centrality of the Credo as the base for its legitimacy.
The final, third part is the most vital portion of any Religion. That element, of course, is the Individual Faith. Practice of Religion can be based purely on the Statist and Credo elements of the Religion, but it will be hollow ritual performed merely for the sake of performing. The element that transforms empty ritual into a powerful and inspiring display is the Individual's faith. The Faith of any individual is just that, individual. It is subject to the conscience of no other, nor is it subject to the rules and limitations that the other two elements have. By it's nature, Faith leaps the gap of reason and rationale. How can we, as finite beings, percieve or comprehend the infinite? How can we prove or disprove the existence of an entity that is at Its essence, empirically unknowable? Faith is that element that solves the Jacob's Ladder of Reason, providing the balance. Faith can exist in isolation, without the Credo and without the Statist elements of formal Religion. And even in this isolation, it need not lose any of its transcendant power.
So what, you ask? Why go through all this? Only because these things seem to me to be the vital essence of what we know as Religion. Because Religion plays a role in our society as it does in all societies. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, even Atheism in its American incarnation are Relgions under this conception. But Atheism, you say, is not a religion. Is it not?
Consider for a moment. Atheism contains a Credo: There is no God unless His Existence can be proved, likewise with the Hereafter. Atheism is also Evangelical, seeking to spread itself through the society and gain adherents. The Statist element postulates that government should be based in pure science and all reference to a deity or Divine entity should be abolished. The Statist and Credo here, as in other Religions, support each other in an unpleasant circle of logic. As for Faith, it is clear to me, that Atheism is a Faith as much as Christianity or Islam. There is no rationally acceptable proof for the existence of the Divine. However, proving the opposite is a mathematical impossibility. Ergo, to believe that there is nothing to this world beyond what we can verify with science, and that there is no God, takes a leap of faith as surely as it takes a leap to believe in the Divine.
And again, we have the question of "why". The answer is because we need to examine ourselves critically and reflect upon what parts of our Religions are really needed. In our time, the Statist element is weakest and most counter to the ideals of American society, with the exception of the Guidance upon how to coexist within a society that does not build itself around your own Credo. The Credo is still a great part of modern Religion, as it provides the individual faithful with a solid, stable community in which to engage with their Faith and their rituals. But again, in our society today, the Individual Faith is the most vital element. This is the element that will guide us in making our decisions, that will give us hope in the dark times. We must, as individuals and as communities of faithful, decide which elements of our Credos, which elements of Faith and Statist, are truly needed for our present existence. We must consider how we interact with our society, and how much a part our Religion really ought to play in that interaction.