Can a Religion Be Bad?

By Swami Tyagananda, Hindu Chaplain at Harvard

People can be good or bad, but not religion. It’s people who make enemies, who fight and who kill—and it’s people who make friends, who love and who enrich life. Should religion be held responsible for what its people do?

This raises a set of thorny questions:  what is meant by “its people” in the preceding sentence?  Who amongst us can claim to be completely authentic representatives of our respective religious traditions? What does it mean to “belong” to a religion—or to have a specific religious identity? Even more basic: what is religion? I am aware that there are no definitive answers to these questions, so let me briefly spell out my own responses.

Questions about life, existence, meaning and purpose have always cropped up in the human heart. Various answers emerged over time in different parts of the world and led to different religious traditions. These timeless answers were not the result of intellectual activity or group discussions: they are believed to have had a divine, transcendent origin. The authenticity of these religious traditions is confirmed and validated in every generation by people who take the teachings to heart and live according to them. Such people have experienced deep inner fulfillment, peace, freedom and joy.

When the teaching of a religious tradition resonates with the head and heart of someone, that person identifies with it and acquires a sense of “belonging” to that religion. To him or her, it becomes “my religion.” The process usually begins when we are born in a family that already belongs to a religious tradition. Such inherited identification may last through life or may change if, for some reason or other, some eventually begin to identify with another tradition or with no tradition at all.

Religious identity comes in various hues. Some people don’t really “do” anything to affirm their religious identity. They identify with a religion merely to be able to identify with something rather than with nothing. Most among the religious inherit their identity and, even when they are indifferent to it, many are too lazy or uninterested in actively dis-identifying from it. The religious identity of some others is limited to socializing, for religion offers a community which fosters friendships and encourages networking. A few in every tradition take their religion very seriously: some among these may focus their attention on scripture and theology, some others on ritual and sacraments, and yet others on contemplation or serving the community. The identification-spectrum thus runs the gamut between the casual-superficial to the serious-profound practitioner. Even the most serious practitioner may find it challenging to practice his or her own tradition in its every aspect.

Along this spectrum of people identifying themselves as “religious” are found other competing interests and agendas (often fed by fear and greed for power and control) that also demand attention and claim allegiance. It is these interests and compulsions—which could be political, economic, cultural, among other things—that sometimes manipulate and mobilize people by misusing religious language and symbols, providing a quasi-religious justification, and masking the whole enterprise as a religious endeavor. When this kind of packaging leads to unwholesome activities and results, religion gets a bad name.

In my opinion, a religion can never be bad. If it’s bad, it’s not religion. Let’s not dignify what is bad by calling it religion and let’s not vilify religion by identifying it with what is bad.