So here is my attempt to explain religion (as I see it and understand it and value it), and my hope is that others will join me in rescuing religion (or at least refrain from demonizing religion).
To me, religion at its crux (as represented by its holy texts) is unconcerned with culture; it is concerned with the more universal questions of connection, peace and joy. For instance, it is unconcerned about whether, in a particular age, it is considered appropriate to stone a woman to death for adultery, or whether, in another age, it is considered wholly appropriate to color-code your children in pink and blue. Those are matters for humans in each age to figure out. Religion doesn’t really care either way.
Or actually, I take that back.
It is not that religion doesn’t care either way about such questions or has nothing to say about such questions; it is just these issues are not the main purpose, the main concerns driving religion. These issues are the background context, and provide the setting for the larger and more universal questions about what drives our lives and why we must take the trouble to get up each morning. So in the Bible, for instance, there are stories of killings and women-taken-as-slaves-by-the victors in wars that were ordered by God. Oh horror!! But one has to read the whole book and not stop with these instances, because when we read the whole book and not just the stories of one particular age, then it becomes clear that killing-rape-victors was not the point-of-the-story – that was the unavoidable background context for the real story – the one about maintaining faith and trust and peace and joy when all is uncertain and everything is on the line.
And these stories that populate this holy book are complex and sophisticated multi-generational stories and there are layers of meaning, and if one just stops at the surface level without considering that every age has different ideas about what is okay and what is not, and that the specifics of these choices are largely irrelevant to questions about why we exist, then it is like going to the theater to watch a critically acclaimed play and then dismissing the play because we got distracted by what the actors were wearing.
And if it was a play and we dismissed it without bothering to peel back the layers and understand it, then it matters little. But if we do the same with a holy text like the Bible, then that decision, to choose ignorance, is consequential, because it hands over that entire area of life to the patriarchs; to be used as a bludgeon to beat other women down.
And it is amazing-horrifying how easy it seems to be do this – to use the complexity of religion’s stories (which is what makes them so real and true), and twist and stretch and shade and use to justify all sorts of cultural mishaps. And it makes me mad that something so true and perfect is twisted out of all recognition to justify some twisted ideology. And no one objects!!