Religion is Like Music… Or is it Like a Cow?

Religion is Like Music… Or is it Like a Cow? January 4, 2018

Religion is Like Music or a Cow

Religion has a spotty track record. I’ll be the first to admit that. It has been—and in many cases still is—used as an excuse to brainwash, exclude, shame or condemn people—sometimes all at once—and there is no denying that atrocities have been committed in the name of religion.

All true.

But… religion has also shown itself to be valuable, both personally and culturally. It has produced a number of outstanding people, been a guiding light for peace and unity, given purpose and meaning, and encouraged people to tend to their spiritual side.

Religion is Like Music

Comparative religion author, Huston Smith, once said that religion was like music. He said that despite the fact that the world had, on average, produced more bad music than good music, music appreciation classes spent very little time on listening to bad music, that most music appreciation was about listening to, or, in some cases, learning to appreciate, good music.

Of course, deciding what is good or bad music is largely subjective, but the cream typically rises to the top.

Does that mean we should only focus on the beneficial aspects of religion and ignore the detrimental?

The short answer is, NO.

Yet, on balance, we should probably skew towards the positive. We can be aware of the negative aspects of exclusion, shaming, aggression, and more—which, more often than not, go against the core teachings of said religion—but at the same time, we can cultivate the religious aspects that lead to goodness and peace of mind.

Criticism is Often One-Sided

Religion is not above being criticized. However, if that is all we do, if we willfully ignore the positive aspects and focus solely on the negative, then we have become a music appreciation class that only listens to bad music and can no longer see any point in torturing itself with such dismal sound vibrations. It would be easy to convince oneself that all music was bad by only listening to substandard melodies.

It Kicks, but It Also Gives Milk

Ramakrishna, who was a mystic that claimed all religions as his own, once compared religion to a cow. “It kicks,” he said, “but it also gives milk.”

Using his metaphor, we could decide to work together to lessen the kicking and improve the quality of the milk.

Having said that, I know from my own experience how easy it is to get caught up in a critical state of mind towards religion.

As with other news, religion usually only gets media attention when something rotten happens. We don’t hear about the comfort and care that people experience, the countless food drives, the homeless shelters, the peak states of enlightenment, the experiences of light… not in the news anyway.

And we all get influenced, whether we want to or not.

What if…?

In my studies to become an Interfaith Minister, I had to face many misconceptions of my own. I had falsely labeled ‘religion’ as mostly bad and chosen to brand myself as spiritual instead (I will write more about the spiritual-but-nonreligious category in the coming weeks). As I peered into each of the world’s religions, I saw that many of my preconceptions had been wrong. I realized that there was more to religion than I had previously understood and that without a religious foundation, no one would be able to call him- or herself spiritual.

And so I ask you: What would happen if you began treating religion as a music appreciation class? How would your relationship with it change?

If your mind is already made up and you consider religion to be a negative force in the world, then nothing can change that. As the old saying goes: “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.”

On the other hand, if you are willing to reconsider your assumptions, I recommend reading The World’s Religions by Huston Smith as a first step. It is a beautifully written book of religious appreciation.

Both the Good and the Bad

Even if religion were perfect, man is imperfect. Therefore, we will never cease to see both the good and bad aspects of religion. All we can do is decide which aspect we want to focus on more. If we focus only on the bad, then that is all we will see. However, if we focus mostly on the good, the positive aspects will enrich us while the negative aspects will periodically reveal themselves by comparison.

Personally, in my role as an Interfaith Minister, I choose to focus mostly on the good. That doesn’t mean I won’t say anything when the detrimental aspects of religion scream at me like a splotch of mud on a white satin dress. All it means is that I am not scouring the news for bad religious stories, rather looking around in appreciation whenever possible.

Gudjon Bergmann
Author & Interfaith Minister

Pictures: CC0 License

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