Sitting here at Penn in our relatively secular ivory tower, it can be easy to associatie religion with polarization.
The recent wars in the Middle East and the attack that the “religious right” has waged on gay rights have only exacerbated this notion.
This negative perception of religion has probably played a major role in what many refer to as the secularization of America. Currently, one in five Americans don’t consider themselves religious. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, the number of religiously unaffiliated folks — which is as high as a third of those under 30 years old — increased by 5 percent in the last five years.
Perhaps some degree of this phenomenon is inevitable — just look at the secularization of Europe. And of course, religion undoubtedly comes with a risk of intolerance. However, this increasingly prevalent view of religion ignores the fact that it has proven to be a socially progressive factor in societies across the space of human history and geography.
Ask the fellaheen of Egypt in the 1940s, the youth of Senegal in the mid-to-late 20th century, or even those active during the civil rights era. Time and time again, religion functions to educate, mobilize and galvanize communities en masse — traits that are crucial to the social progression of societies both internationally and domestically.
Religious organizations are fundamental to the fabric of American life, not because they establish “a moral compass” for the country, as many would attest to, but because they provide the country with a plethora of social services.
Religious organizations such as Catholic Charities and the Jewish Federation have done more to help marginalized communities in the United States than many secular groups have. These groups are so engaged in the services sector that the government gives millions of dollars in grants to faith organizations providing social welfare services.
For example, the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships helped direct $2 billion in federal funds to Catholic Charities. Going forward, the amount of grants may increase as religious lobbying groups are also expanding.
These organizations help members of marginalized communities build skills that are useful in the workforce.They educate prisoners, provide counseling to immigrants on their legal rights and provide access to adoption and pregnancy clinics — not to mention the immense number of hospitals sustained by religious organizations.
Additionally, religious organizations are often the first respondents to natural disasters — think Hurricane Katrina. They also teach kids who are forgotten by our public school system — think the Fishing School in Washington, D.C.
In fact, one can see the socially progressive nature of religious organizations right here on campus. Penn Hillel and the Newman Center address issues that members of our community face every day. Just go down to St. Agatha and James Church at 38th and Chestnut every Monday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. to see Newman volunteers feed the homeless.
Despite the public good these groups provide time and time again, their ideals, resources and foundations come under attack.
For starters, many — Penn students included — are quick to conflate religion with social conservatism. This is partly due to the religious right, which warrants its unyielding stances on issues such as gay marriage and abortion with the Bible.
More generally, the religious right has taken the liberty of defining the religious movement in America in a way that alienates a majority of Americans. This plants the seeds of apprehension that detract from the benefits of social programs such as those provided by the Newman Center.
This is not an issue that is unique to America. To those who argue that religion is dying, I urge you to look at the growth of Christianity and Islam across the developing world. In just over a century, Christianity has grown forty-fold in Africa.
In every corner of the world, religion is more than a spiritual connection. Organized religion provides those in need with the most basic of services when their governments fail.
Truth be told, God is not going anywhere from the public sphere. While religion can be a tool for hate-mongers, let us not forget — and in fact, embrace — its intrinsic nature of helping others.
Aya Saed is a College senior from Washington, D.C. Her email address is email@example.com. “Seeds of Reason” appears every other Friday. Follow her on Twitter” @_AyaS”:https://twitter.com/_AyaS.