PSNK Discusses The Role Of Religion In Society

By Kelly Haugh

UPPER BURRELL, Pa. – Penn State New Kensington’s Group Investing God hosted a seminar and engaging discussion on the role of religion in today’s society on March 21 in the Theatre.

“We’re not here to tell you how to think, we’re here to find out what you think,” GiG advisor Dave McGeary said in his opening remarks, stressing that this non-denominational discussion was meant to be an open forum for people of all beliefs.

Joined by Monsignor James Gaston from St. Margaret Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, who is also a member of PSNK’s Advisory Board, and Dr. Ian Murphy, Adjunct Professor of World Religions at PSNK, McGeary led a diverse group of students in discussing two pertinent questions following the results of GiG’s campus-wide religion survey.

The survey found that a 38% majority believe that the influence of religion upon our society is neutral, with 31% of respondents believing the impact is positive and12% saying it was negative with 19% answering they were “not sure.”  However, an overwhelming 45% said our world would be “worse off” if there were no religion, with another 29% answering they weren’t sure.  Only 11% of respondents said the world would be “better off” without religion.

These results impacted the first question put forth for discussion which asked, “Many are saying that they are not seeing an influence but still sense that we need religion.  Why is this?”

The audience was given three minutes to discuss the questions in small groups before tackling the questions as a larger body, and the students seemed eager to dialogue with both their friends and total strangers.

Once the floor was open, students not only shared their own ideas but also what they’d learned from those few minutes of smaller group discussions.

“We don’t think that people are judging you based on your religion anymore, but at the same time we think that people do need to have religion,” one student surmised.  “I don’t think it’s affecting how people connect with other people and how they deal with people on a daily basis, but I do think that religion is important for your moral code.”

Another student responded to that statement by pointing out that, especially elsewhere in the world, “People are still dying every day for what they believe in.”  The student went on to say, “I think that people are still definitely judged on a daily basis.  In fact, one of the major criticisms of Christians is that they are hypocritical.  Well, that’s a judgment.  And if you’re viewing a person as a hypocritical Christian, well then that’s affecting your judgments of that person.  That may affect your interactions with them.”

Yet another student focused on where we’d be without religion.  “Our basic consensus was that if we didn’t have religion, it would be hard for people to cope with a lot of things that happen in your life,” he surmised on behalf of his small group.  “Say you have a relative that passes away or something tragic happens, who are you going to go to or what are you going to pray about if you don’t have religion?”

The survey also found that 70% of respondents believed in God but only 35% said that religion regularly plays a role in their lives.  Considering these results, the following questions were proposed for discussion: “What value is our belief in God if it does not affect our daily lives?  Is ‘religion’ that link to our daily lives?  If so, is it failing?”

Much of this discussion revolved around people’s different definition for concepts like “belief” and “God,” as well as what that belief may mean to different people.  Students also recognized that different religions have different beliefs about God and the role of religion in practitioners’ lives.

One student also brought up the well-known quote, “I would rather live my life as if there is a god and die to find out there isn’t, than live my life as if there isn’t and die to find out there is,” as a way to account for the discrepancy.

Several students who are currently enrolled in Dr. Murphy’s Comparative Religions class also incorporated what they’d learned from the course materials into the discussion and were at times able to back up individuals’ thoughts with the corresponding scholarly information, something Dr. Murphy was pleasantly surprised by.

Monsignor James Gaston (left) and Dr. Ian Murphy (right) add their own insights following the audience’s discussion during GiG’s seminar on “The Role of Religion in Society” March 21. (Photo by Kelly Haugh)

Pressed for time, the discussion was closed with final remarks from guests Monsignor Gaston and Dr. Murphy.

“In every person, there is a hole in the human heart,” Monsignor Gaston began.  “We have a hunger for something more.  I think that’s universal.  I don’t think you can extract that from any human being on the face of the earth.”

That is where religion comes in. “Religion comes down to the three C’s: creed, code and cult,” he explained.  “Creed is what do I believe…Code would be your value system, your morality…Cult is the expression of faith and spirituality through ritual.”

“We’re all seeking that question of what is true, and you can’t get around it,” Dr. Murphy explained.  But in today’s culture of awareness about other religions and beliefs, our society has become “allergic” to “the idea of somebody saying ‘I believe that my religion is true.’”

“And yet everybody at some point takes a leap of faith in some truth claim, whatever it be,” he added.  “Somebody believes something, and it matters what you believe. You’ll never hear me say it doesn’t matter what you believe.  No, it does matter because you will revolve your life around it. If you believe there is no God, that will change how you live your life.  If you believe you give an account, that will change the way you live your life.”

These final remarks served to underscore some of the many reasons why the topic of religion is so pivotal and important in societies around the world.  Combined with the preceding thoughtful discussion, both Monsignor Gaston and Dr. Murphy provided the audience with a slightly different perspective as well as more insightful comments and information to think about.

The majority of students who attended the seminar actively participated in the discussion, with the open and respectful atmosphere allowing many to freely share their ideas and views with their peers.  The discussions of both questions could have gone on much longer if the students hadn’t needed to return to class after common hour.

Students were so engaged that GiG immediately began talking about hosting another event this semester that would allow even more students to get involved in the discussion.

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