June 24, 2009

The Rap on Religion

Religion gets a bad rap. We blame it for every awful event in our history, from the Inquisition to 9-11, with slavery and the holocaust as examples that occurred in between. It’s not difficult to find fault in faith-based devotion, since it appears to be an element of much of the revolution and organized violence that occurs in the world. Yet while religion is certainly a part of the cultural tableau that permeates such sad historical events, can we really say it’s the underlying cause?

Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith and an ardent critic of religion, says we should recognize organized faiths—particularly, Islam, Judaism and Christianity—as institutions that threaten to undermine civilization due to their taboos against any questioning of their beliefs. The upshot of his message is that we should, in turn, question the ideal of religious tolerance. In fact, he encourages what he calls conversational intolerance, which demands that faith be put on the same plane as the study of physics or history in terms of our willingness to question its theories and conclusions. Anyone who has read from my blog knows that I embrace this idea completely. However, Harris goes too far (for my taste) by fostering a degree of intolerance that is as dangerous as the religious fanaticism he opposes. More importantly, he sees religion as the cause of the world’s problems, rather than a tool that corruption employs.

Let me be clear on this topic: I like the idea of conversational intolerance. Spirituality, in my opinion, should advance just like science and there’s no way to do so without changing the norms of the past. The religious codes by which we live, after all, were first proffered thousands of years ago to people living in circumstances little resembling our own. We should be willing, therefore, to measure our religious beliefs in the same way we probe our mathematical assumptions, by asking: Does this have value and how do I know it does? To do so, however, requires our ideal of faithfulness to eschew blind acceptance and be open to the kind of inquiry that may result in an occasional adjustment to core beliefs. If we can grow in this way, we accomplish what Harris wants without undermining the need for faith.

In contrast, a strict intolerance for faith that leads to its knee-jerk rejection (which I sense is what Harris is chomping at the bit to recommend) will only result in the creation of other gods. As I’ve argued before, a leap of faith is inevitable. We can only change the direction of that leap. The reason I believe this has its basis in the following two premises:
  1. Bad people—not bad religions—cause the world’s atrocities
  2. If faith can’t be used as a tool, bad people will create other “gods” to get what they want

I can’t think of any religion that demands its followers to live the law of the jungle. In fact, they all aspire, in some way, to raise people from a primal condition into some state of enlightenment. A religion may condone episodes of bloodshed to accomplish its objective, but in the end it hopes for social order. In this context, a recent article in Time Magazine, entitled Decoding God’s Changing Moods, points out that the God of scripture often vacillates between periods of belligerence and tolerance. The common theme behind the back-and-forth is this: When the scriptural worldview posits a non-zero-sum game, God tends to be more tolerant as a way to encourage a win-win. On the other hand, when a projected outcome sums to zero (such as a gain to the Palestinians is deemed a loss to Israel) watch out.

For that reason people can find scriptural rationale to act out their religious zeal as either angels or assholes. Some choose the former. Some choose the latter before discovering a moderating discipline in faith. Still others start out as assholes and adopt justification for their base desires in tortured interpretations of scripture. It wasn’t, therefore, religion that demanded the Inquisition. It was the same greedy and self-indulgent men who could overlook murder through the sale of indulgences that built the racks and established the tribunals. Their intent was to gain power and control over the masses, conditions for which there is no scriptural imperative. God didn’t want coerced professions of faith. To assume otherwise is to think He’s not very bright. Yet, to those men of the cloth who hungered for authority to the exclusion of Christ’s mercy, faith was simply a tool. If it hadn’t been available, they would have found another one like it.

Eliminating religion, therefore, only causes evil to recruit other gods. There are many from which to choose. Let me suggest a few:

  • Cultural or Ethnic Superiority
  • The Law
  • Economic Systems
  • Military or Technological Prowess
  • Hatred

Let me give you an example of how an alternative god can be held hostage and forced to participate in an atrocity. Some people blame the Catholic Church for turning a blind eye to the holocaust, but there was far more going on than Christianity taking a dim view of the descendants of those who were said to have crucified its Savior. As Hannah Arendt is quick to point out in her treatise, Eichmann in Jerusalem, the holocaust was authorized by a carefully crafted mountain of secular laws and legal interpretations. One such law permitted euthanasia for the physically and mentally handicapped. It apparently didn’t take much consideration to put Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals in that category. Yet, we don’t say the German legal system caused the holocaust. We understand that people determine and enforce laws.

In short, let’s not blame religion for the world’s ills. We might as easily say the devil made us do it. In the end, we have only ourselves to blame.

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