The opening sequence of the film (and the play) Fiddler on the Roof features Tevye joyously and unforgettably celebrating his culture’s traditions.
On the surface, Fiddler on the Roof is about a Jewish community in early 20th Century Czarist Russia. More essentially, however, it is about the conflict between tradition and change. Which traditions are simply outmoded and which are essential to our sense of history and balance as a community? How do you allow for positive change without losing the value that comes with tradition?
One of the vital roles that religion plays in society is tradition keeper. In the church and other religious institutions people record and remember the every day lives of their members. The history that is kept in church is different from that taught in schools. It is not the history of monarchs, kings, politicians and powerful political and economic interests. It is the history of our seasons, our harvests, our births and deaths. This is where our sacred ordinary lives are recorded, if not in name, in rituals that tie generations together.
The other side of this, however, is that in its role as tradition keeper, the religious institution tends to be the segment of society most resistant to social change.
As Mark Twain wrote: “Who discovered that there was no such thing as a witch — the priest, the parson? No, these never discover anything. At Salem, the parson clung pathetically to his witch text after the laity had abandoned it in remorse and tears for the crimes and cruelties it has persuaded them to do.”
Does this tendency towards inflexibility mean that religion is inherently outmoded or bad? I do not think so.
The problem I see with the idealistic atheist argument, most poetically rendered in John Lennon’s Imagine, is the assumption that if you eliminated religion all of the world’s people would live together in peace. If you eliminated religion you would change human nature.
If there were no religion we would still have all of the conflicts that arise when people try to come together in community. There would still be tension between the needs and desires of the individual vs. the demands of society. How much should a person compromise to get along? When is conformity positive courtesy that allows a community to have a cohesive sense of being “us,” and when is the demand to conform simply wrong?
If there were no religion, you might not have Catholics fighting Protestants or Muslims fighting Jews, but you would still have cultures and communities with traditions and ideologies that would inevitably come into conflict with those of the neighbors. You might be able to eliminate the use of sacred texts that would allow each group to claim “God is on our side,” but you would not eliminate certainty, inflexibility, and passionate belief in conflicting ideologies. (Think Republican vs. Democrat. They do quite well at vilifying each other without a Republican or Democratic Bible.)
This is not an argument for God or religion, nor against them. What I am saying is that the question of whether “religion” is “good” or “bad” is overly simplistic and will not yield much in the long run. It is more likely to serve as a distraction from the real underlying question of the role of the individual in society.