Religion, in its purest form, is an individual quest for the answers to life’s most elusive questions: How did we get here? What happens when we die? What is the purpose of life? Is there a higher being or greater power than ourselves? To what do we owe our existence? What do we owe each other? Man is a thinking creature, and it is in his nature to seek answers to all that he can know. But for those things that he cannot find conclusive proof, man ascribes the answer to a force bigger than himself, often called God. Over the course of humanity, different groups of people have found different answers to these questions, and through their interpretation of their world, have created their own version of God. The result is a smorgasbord of religious thought and theory, passed down through the millennia, ingrained in the culture and societies of our world. And as the cultures of the world began to engage each other, either through trade or through war or through serendipitous encounters, the constructs of religion were put to the test.

Because religion provides an answer to things that can’t be proven with tangible evidence, and because mankind has an insatiable appetite to understand why things are, once a culture has embraced its religious theories it is hesitant to accept the religious thoughts of other people as valid. And because the gods are assigned with such power and reverence, it is considered unwise to go against the common practices. Still, over time, religious concepts have changed as man himself has changed, and what was once the prevailing religion of the day is now relegated to mythology status or, even lower, superstition.

It is undeniable that religion has played a major role in the development of our cultures, and that it still does today. The desire to ascribe the miracle that is life to a higher power is as much a part of humanity as our need for oxygen or water or food. Our eagerness to please the gods helped shape behavioral actions into what we now know as morality. Religions seek to bestow favors on their gods in reverence for the gift of life and nature that the gods surely provide. Such rituals reinforce religious thought and become part of the standard practices of daily life. But religion is also used as a tool for controlling the people and for creating enemies where none need be. Religion is used to divide people from each other, in spite of their otherwise common ground. On one hand, religion offers peace and purpose. On the other, it invites only misery and disdain. How this dichotomy is even possible would be a mystery were it not for one thing: the ideals of religion are simple; it is man who screws it all up.

The simple fact that there are so many variations of religious thought should lead a rational mind to conclude that either all of them are completely wrong, or all of them are at least partially right. Indeed, a quick review of varying religions’ basic tenets offers a surprisingly common premise, that the purpose of life is to attain happiness and appreciation of the world and all that it has to offer, and that to live a purposeful life one should treat others well and strive to do more good than harm. If, in fact, all religious teaching focused on these basic ideas, there would be much less strife in the world today. If the end result is the same, at least in terms of the way people relate to each other, does it really matter the manner in which these ends are met? The reality should be that the method of belief is secondary to the desired goal, which is peace with oneself, one’s world, and one’s neighbors. Whether you get there by praying to a single god, through offerings to multiple, minor deities, through meditation and introspection, or by secular means should be irrelevant, provided that you cause no harm to others in the practice of your chosen religion.

Of the existing major religions in the world today, you could probably divide them into two major sub-groups: the one’s that believe in an actual God, and the one’s that ascribe supernatural traits to the natural world itself. (Interestingly enough, to an objective mind, even these distinctions are not really that different. Whether you believe in a single “God” or a natural “force,” the omniscience ascribed to it often yields the same consequences. The real difference is in the description.) Those that believe in a single God are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In fact, the “God” of all three is the same god, and all three groups trace their ancestry to a single man, Abraham, and his sons. Judaism is the oldest of the three, going back some 4,000 years. Christianity could be describes as Judaism 2.0 and Islam as Judaism 3.0 (or Christianity 2.0), both chronologically and ideologically. Those religions that take a more naturalistic view towards religion include Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Daoism, and Confucianism. Hinduism, the oldest of these, some 6,000 years old, confers multiple minor deities with various traits and powers that taken together become a kind of natural pantheon of completeness. Buddhism branches from Hinduism. Daoism and Shinto view connection with all things and nature as essential to reaching a state of perfection.

Each religion believes it has found answers to the questions that have no answers, at least none that can be proven. Each religion knows the way to eternal paradise. But just as there are many different doors to an opera house, so too may there be many different ways to human completeness. For some of society, no religion is necessary at all.

The promise of religion to the individual is one of knowledge and peace. Unfortunately, religion is not taught to us with that in mind. Rather, religion is ingrained into us from an early age, and whatever our particular religion may be, we are taught it to the exclusion of all others. And to a point, I suppose that’s fine. But eventually, it becomes important for us to learn a little bit about other people’s religions and ideas, if only to reaffirm our own teachings for ourselves. To learn another’s point of view does not have to jeopardize your own beliefs, nor does it need to lead to prejudice or hate. What difference does it make what I believe, so long as I am not harming you or anyone else? How is my choice of religion any more offensive than the color of my hair or the kind of car I drive? Why should someone’s religion cause them to be my enemy when I’ve never even met them?

Of all the things that can divide mankind, religion should be the last. It is not a limited resource like water or oil or food. It is not an environmental or biological concern, like pollution or disease. It does not concern itself with territory or power or fortune. Religion, at the individual level, seeks none of those things. Even at a local, congregational level the purpose of religion is for a community to share their similar religious beliefs and rejoice in their common bonds. Religion, at its heart, is about peace and purpose. To use it in any other way is to negate any good it has and to spit on the very gods it worships.

Religion fascinates me. As a child of the western world, my practical exposure to religion has been of various Christian denominations with a smattering of Judaism mixed in here and there. All I know of the other main religions (and some minor ones as well) has been learned through reading, or talking with practitioners of other faiths. I have never visited a mosque or shrine, and while I’ve been to many, I do not attend church. I often feel that organized religion tends to indulge the worst facets of humanity while only professing to strive for the best. But whether I follow a specific brand of religion, or none at all, is irrelevant to the bigger topic at hand. What’s more important is to understand why religion has become such a divisive force in our world and what we can do to change that. I hope you stay tuned, because this conversation isn’t over yet.