You may have met University City’s newest celebrity on your walk to class. Conversation and controversy have surrounded the now infamous preacher who parades both the Drexel and University of Pennsylvania campuses with his megaphone and bright white signs screaming, “Jesus saves!” While sights like this are nothing new to campus and certainly nothing new to Philadelphia, they are still difficult to ignore — especially when the perpetrators demand so much attention from their surroundings.
While personal religious or moral belief is acceptable, zealotry is far from a tolerable practice. With the world becoming more focused on secular means, major religions have started to feel the pressure of becoming irrelevant. As a response, tensions between secular communities and the religious community have risen, creating a caustic culture for both parties to express their dogma in extravagancy. University City’s newest character is no exception to this rule. So what place can religion have in an increasingly secular society, if any? The truth is that religion can serve a purpose if adapted to promote a sense of humility, sustainability and respect for the individual.
The first step to adapting religion to a secular society is to strip it to its core principles. The essence of all religion is a constructed code for conduct, a set of morals, and a fundamental appreciation of the natural world. The commonalities that have been established as the core principles are apparent in all religion. The divide and conflict among religious groups is not the message but the messenger. Sacred texts should not be interpreted as biographies of prophets, gods or goddesses but rather taken for these core values. Herein lies the cardinal mistake that religion today is making: promoting the messenger rather than the message. Sound guidance can come from any hand, but by placing religious figures on pedestals, idolization takes precedence over humility. Most organized religions recognized the tendency toward idolization and created powerful and oppressive systems for control. Religion should not follow this pattern, as it distracts from the message. Rather, religion should be a personal ideology, holding sanctity within the individual rather than within a large community. Being content with a custom-fit interpretation of these core ideas while expressing a sense of humble thought is how religion functions, not by forming organizations of collaboration and control.
With the rapid industrialization of developing countries, the continuing consumption of fossil fuels and other natural resources by both developing and developed nations, and the lack of appreciation for the natural world among a greater part of the population, it hardly comes as a shock that the world is suffering under the gluttonous weight of the human species. While evolutionary trends suggest that this consumption is natural, as species tend to exploit available resources, the beauty of human nature is the will to counteract these urges. As a species that exhibits the strength to go against brute nature, why is it that we continue to damage our only home in such a way? This is where a new religious outlook should come into play. Early storytellers and poets were immersed in the natural world and awestruck with the diversity and beauty that they encountered. They recognized the importance and brilliance in what they saw before them. Many creation stories outline these magnificent organisms and ecosystems as being a product of the divine. Although science has now offered alternatives to the theory of creationism, this appreciation should not be lost. It is important, just as religion tells us to respect the individual and to respect the community. With this trend of increasing rates of consumption, we now respect manufacturers who can deliver goods rather than the environment. And again, it follows that we idolize the commercial and corporate rather than respect the root of all that has made these leisurely products available.
The final issue created by religion and other ideologies is the blatant exclusion of specific groups based on their personal beliefs or cultural backgrounds. This again follows the false idolization of figures rather than an adherence to the core beliefs that all religions share. A beautiful thing would be to appreciate the diversity among individuals rather than select several and shun others. There is this underlying awe to the natural world that is forgotten for the sake of inclusion and the mass organization of these ideologies. Thus, exclusion is born, and from that stems intolerance and hatred, the exact opposite of what religion aims to support. From this we see all of the prime social problems that exist today: the remnants of caste systems, religious wars, political opposition and the hatred of individuals who only seek the love and compassion of another human.
The antithesis of religion is community. What should be a private matter rather than a public one has evolved into some of the most powerful groups in the world — all driven not by the essence of what it means to be exceptionally human but by a rudimentary gravitation toward extravagance. These primal urges manifest themselves in the structure that is most organized religion, reducing what was once a good thing into nothing more than a power-hungry behemoth derived from the preacher rather than the message.
The University City preachers and ideologues may claim to be patrons of the messages of their respective theologies, but in reality they practice much of what religion has warned against. Humility in practice is both a spiritually and socially beneficial practice. Admire the beauty in the natural world; appreciate the history of religion and the diversity of human thought and character. These are the things that unite us as a people.
Vaughn Shirey is a sophomore environmental sciences major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].