Public debate about religion has succumbed to political correctness. We are so afraid of offending or marginalising or adding fuel to the fire of religious prejudice that we have suffocated real discussion about religion. This war on prejudice, fought in the name of tolerance, forbids us to analyse religious ideas in terms of practical reason and human flourishing and freedom.
There are two things at work here. The first is the insistence on tolerance, as mentioned above, and the second, on which the first rests, is the elevation of human subjectivity above all other considerations.
Thus religious ideas are sacrosanct, no matter how silly or debilitating they are. Criticism of such belief is forbidden because that would entail non-acceptance of the believer in a failure to separate the believer from his or her belief.
This is why discussion about religion has virtually been eliminated in our time. It has become a minefield best left alone. That does not, of course, stop Westerners denigrating Christian belief. Self-criticism is OK, it is criticism of the other that we can't stand.
All religions have a violent past because all religions have been used, often against their best lights, as a way of differentiating believer from unbeliever. That is, all religions have a tendency towards tribalism that gives permission for unspeakable acts against the other.
This does not necessarily reflect the tenants of particular religions. For example, how could the behaviour of Conquistadors in South America be sanctioned by the humble itinerant from Galilee who walked to his own sacrificial death? Examples abound.
There is often a gap between belief and action, between theology and the lives lived. It is therefore not always appropriate to judge religion by the practice of its followers. Islam cannot be judged by the actions of Islamic terrorists just as Christianity cannot be judged by the actions of the German Church that allied itself with Hitler or by the skewed theology used to support apartheid in South Africa .
A proper conversation about the various world religions in our time must begin with the belief systems themselves. Again we must differentiate between popular belief and practice and the academic study of the origin and development of belief. For example, is superstitious practice of Christians really an inherent part of Christian faith? Does the violence of Islamic extremism have its roots in the fact that the Prophet was militaristic?
The study of comparative religion can tease out the differences in theology and draw conclusions about resultant religious practice.
Conceding the above warnings, it is obvious that religious belief does work itself out in how societies function. For example, does the idea of Karma found in many Asian religions produce carelessness about the present? If all is for-ordained why take precautions about anything? Does this limit the development of countries in which this belief in ingrained? Again, if the major force of religious belief is getting out of this life alive with a focus of life after death, how does that condition our care of others and of the planet?
The great tragedy of the embargo on the discussion of religious belief is that these obvious aspects of culture cannot be discussed.
Religious belief, generally, provides individual identity and community cohesiveness. It provides a narrative within which ones life runs. This is why religion will not disappear any time soon.
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