The Problems of Religion

August 4, 2006

My best friend in the whole world is an atheist.

When we were younger, she described herself more as an agnostic.  But as time has gone by, she really believes firmly that there is no God.

Her reasons are really pretty convincing:  looking back through history, at least on the surface religion has caused more problems than it has solved.  The wars of religion are many.  Look around even in the world today– we have conflict in Lebanon and Israel over religion between the Jews and the Muslims, conflict in Kashmir over religion between Hindus and the Muslims, conflict in Iraq between the Muslims themselves and the Christians who started the instability in the first place (although not explicity for religious purposes- there were definite religious undertones to our invasion of Iraq).

And looking back through history it is clear that religion is the cause of a lot of problems.  Burning people at the stake for witchcraft, the inquisition, the bloody crusades, the extortion of the parionshioners through pardons and indulgences, the exclusion of minorities and oppressed peoples from inclusion in the church, and so on.

It is clear to see that given this look at the church one could certainly take the view that religion does no good.

I have pointed out before the good work that the church has done.  The role of the church in the downfall of apartheid, the church’s mission to the poor and to developing countries, the church’s ability to be a stable force of community and center of life – to give people hope- for people through good times and bad, the role of the church in the fall of Communism, and so on.  What I believe that we find is that the evil deeds of the church tend to be large, big deeds, and well-documented by history.  The good deeds of the church tend to be relational, based on strengthening of relationships in general, and, as with most “positive” news stories, poorly publicized or documented.  (Perhaps if any historians read this they can add to this list.)

My friend’s response to this positive list is, “Why do these positive works have to be performed in a religious environment?”  She thinks that we’d be better off without the risk of the good-acts turning to fanaticism and leading to the destructive acts that history has proven religion leads to from time to time.

Well, there is this thing called the resurrection…  Oh yeah, that’s not exactly why I’m a Christian (see my previous post).

But I do believe in mysticism.  I do believe in spirituality.  I do believe that there is something deeper than logic and pragmatism.

Can I explain it?  I’m not sure that I can.

I often cite on here a book, The God Gene, which claims that belief in a transcendent God is based on genetic predisposition.  I have to admit that I haven’t actually read the book, but I think it is a fascinating idea.  Just as our personalities tend to the creative, or the intellectual, or to the insightful, so might our personalities incline to the spiritual.  And perhaps God chooses who is most connected to him through our genetics.  Why?  Dunno.  But I like it.  I believe we are all created for some purpose no matter how hidden that purpose is from us.

And, I believe that the evils of the church- all of the past and current bloodshed, trials, and tribulations it has inflicted on the world, are not because religion is bad.  After all, God doesn’t run religion, people do.  And, as we know from our current trials and tribulations in the Episcopal Church, people don’t always put their best foot forward even when they are deeply religious.  No, people aren’t perfect, and religious people are no exception.

It is my belief that many people in religion, both now and historically, do not have the “God Gene” or whatever you want to call it.  I believe in that book, the author’s studies show that about half of the population that attends church have a real spiritual life, and about half of the non-churchgoing population have a real spiritual life.  That means that about half of the churchgoing folks don’t really have a spiritual focus, but are there (at church) for some other reason.  I’m not faulting them- church isn’t only about God, after all.  It’s also about community, about neighbors, about loving each other, and learning how to take care of yourself.

But sometimes, maybe, let’s just suppose the religious leaders in power might just happen to either be without the “God Gene” or forget about God for a little while due to power struggles or whatever.  And let’s just suppose that something– maybe a struggle for who gets to define what God looks like, or what God thinks is right, or how to interpret scripture, becomes a really big issue so that those leaders start to try and inflate their image in the eyes of others.  I can see how the leadership position could easily get away from oneself– get out of control.  I can see how, in one’s own self-abosorbtion and sin, one could be consumed with power and greed- insistence that one was right and that there was no room for any other way.

And then we might end up with a really big fight.  Maybe a war, even- a Crusade.  Or a schism.

How sad, really.  What has changed in the 2000 year history of the church?  I suppose in this schism that at least we don’t (yet anyway) have bloodshed.  But isn’t it just the same-old insistence that “I’m right and you’re wrong?”

I really just don’t apply the Gospel in this way.  The message of Jesus to the pharisees was to stop taking the law so literally.  Isn’t that what we do when we take such drastic action, either in our own lives personally or in the life of the church?

Didn’t Jesus use most of his time to build relationships, and not destroy them?  I get so tired of hearing people quote the moneychangers and the temple, or the “gnashing of teeth” or the very few places in the gospel where Jesus talks about division.  Those places are few and far between.  When taken consistently, the message of the Bible- the message particularly of the Gospel– is the grace of God powers love for us to give each other and back to God.  We are not to judge- that is not our responsibility.  How oft we are to forget it.

Why is that such a hard lesson to learn, anyway?

j

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21 Responses to “The Problems of Religion”

  1. Jane Says:

    I think a lot of people confuse religion and spirituality in their rejection of God. Jesus confused people by saying that the only way to truth was through himself when in fact the truth is within all of us — this is spirituality. Through meditation we can all find the God within, which is the highest and loveliest and most enduring part of ourselves. It has nothing to do with whether we are creative, intellectual, right brain, left brain, or genetically endowed in some other way.

    Religion encompasses the ways people on earth have used spirituality to motivate each other do do things. I’m very sad for those who have shut themselves off from God because of the horrible things people do in the name of this beautiful thing we all share which has no gender (I also hate to hear spiritual people using the word ‘him’), no age, no politics, and no religion.

    I like Gore Vidal’s satirical portrayal of the “sky god,” the distant arbiter of our existence for whose attention we have to perform this many-faceted dance. Why can’t we relax and let the God within us flow?

  2. Jeff Says:

    Thanks Jane.

    I too, think we have lost the spiritual focus in our lives too much of the time.

    I’m not so sure though if eveyone can connect to God in the same way. I used to think that was possible, but I’ve talked to more and more people who just don’t seem able to do that, and I’m increasingly of the opinion that we are so diverse that some of us are transendent and some of us aren’t. I’m open to the idea that some of us connect to the Spirit within in ways other than through traditional meditation/spiritual practice because we just don’t operation in that way.

    Ultimately, though, I’d like to see more focus on connectivity with the Spirit highlighted in the church and I hope that would reduce the amount of friction that causes the “bad things” that religion does.

    j

  3. george Says:

    the principle idea for religion is the ticket if you will for heaven,death is the motivator. If we would only look at those that have had contact with the dead the near death experiences of children and others and all the science research that is now being done we could understnad that what religion we are if we follow any or not has no apparent effect on the next life . we are beings who have and will always be growing, expanding our understanding of this life and soon enough will understand what comes next .history has proven we have solved many mysterys, the hidden things like atoms , have been discovered ,we will soon find out more about things like black energy, a force that could be the answer to the next life . Life is a gift , itsalso a mystery one we are at the brink of understanding, leave the church and you can start to learn ,stay there and you will never know what lies ahead

  4. george Says:

    the principle idea for religion is the ticket if you will for heaven,death is the motivator. If we would only look at those that have had contact with the dead the near death experiences of children and others and all the science research that is now being done we could start to understand that what religion we are if we follow any or not has no apparent effect on the next life . we are beings who have and will always be growing, expanding our understanding of this life and soon enough will understand what comes next .history has proven we have solved many mysterys, the hidden things like atoms , have been discovered ,we will soon find out more about things like black energy, a force that could be the answer to the next life . Life is a gift , its also a mystery one we are at the brink of understanding, leave the church and you can start to learn ,stay there and you will never know what lies ahead

  5. Flora Says:

    I strongly believe that it’s not the bible it’s neither self nor what Jesus says that provokes or motivates all these negative result but the people them selves. God only leaves the instruments it’s up to us to follow the instruction to make the instruments and create it into something beautiful. Don’t blame our Lord who has only tried to prevent it. We should start admitting that the real reason why there is so much destruction and pain is because of greed and selfishness. Excuses and denial is what leads people blaming other subject instead of the real reason.

  6. Jeff Says:

    Hi Flora –

    I think I largely agree with you. The quest for power, or fear of loss of power, is largely responsible for the problems of humanity– at least when we look at history through our contemporary lens.

    j

  7. Freiaz Says:

    Here’s a thought. You wanted to talk about the problems of religion, but there is one moral dilemma that I fell hasn’t been covered. Let’s say there is a religion called the Karaz Movement. In that religion they kill thirty two unbelievers. What should we do with that religion. One we could ban that religion. To ban one religion and not ban all religion is pure hypocrisy. Who are we to say which religions are wrong and which aren’t? We ban all religion? Well first that’s more or less impossible and two we’d be no better than the Karaz. Or we could not ban any religion. Through allowing the Karaz to do their terrible deeds we’re as bad as the Karaz. Moral dilemmas are as a result of the conflicting nature of right and wrong. Sometimes it is impossible to be right. It is never impossible to be wrong. Some situations are never black and white? Do we pass the buck to someone who has no qualms about being a hypocrite or do we make a decision that will ignore thousands of years of religious teaching?

  8. Jeff Says:

    Hi Freiaz, thanks for posting.

    I think I have a post on pluralism somewhere, which is the essence of your question.

    It’s hard for me to work with hypotheticals. Let’s use the example of the Aztec Indians, as Spanish Christians encountered them several hundred years ago. They were practicing human sacrifice. Using today’s moral code, what should the Spanish have done? Endorsed the sacrificial practices?

    Of course not. But neither was it right for them to exploit the Aztecs and force their conversion to Christianity, resulting effectively in slavery of the indigenous people to the Conquistadors. Was this more moral than the original human sacrificial practice? There is no answer to that question.

    The better solution, I believe, using today’s moral language, is to witness our story to the other and also to hear the story of the other, allowing ourselves to hear how God is working in the story we hear– understanding that we must hear how our image is reflected in what we hear and learn from that, trusting God to do the work in the story we tell to the other (rather than us being responsible to ‘change’ the other). If your question is whether or not to use force in the prevention of violence, I would say only that we must not be passive but we also must not be violent.

    I hope that responds to what you have raised sufficiently. I worked all night last night at the hospital so I may not be very coherent at the moment.

    j

  9. Max Says:

    Hi,

    I often wonder why religion has had such longevity. When people grow up we stop beleiving in the boogy man. So why is it that people are able to let go of those other non-fictional characters and not of “the all-mighty?” I agree that religion served a purpose once when it gave us answers for things we could not understand until science rolled around. Now religion seems an out dated

  10. Max Says:

    form of beleif that doesnt have a purpose in todays modern society. A church can give hope and unite people during times of distress but why does that have to be part of a religion? Why cant people beleive in some of the fundamental blocks of religion without god? Religion isnt all bad but its opens the door to bad behaviour

  11. Jeff Says:

    Perhaps it has longevity that is derived from an authority higher than that of science.

    j

    PS – Incidentally, this post was written a LONG time ago. So much of what I believed then has changed; I’m not really the same person. But I do understand that it is easy to let science close your mind to those things which are not certain. But I think its the uncertainty in life which can make us most fulfilled– relationships are not certain at all.

  12. Max Says:

    I just find it strange how people can so easily and willingly give up their beleifs in Vampires and the boogy man. Santa claus for crying out loud but then will whole heartedly devote themselves to a god they have no way to prove is real, other than excepting things on blind faith.

    Ok well if your views have changed thats cool.

    liked the article

  13. Jeff Says:

    I’m not saying that my views have changed on this one point; I just don’t think I would have written the article exactly the same way if I wrote it today.

    I’m still committed to the God that created a world in which rational science is possible. I’m also deeply aware that humanity, in the last 300 years or so, has alternated between deep commitment to rationalism and enthusiasm– the head and the heart, so to speak, when those two things are not really opposite poles in our natural being.

    j

    j

  14. Max Says:

    So you would agree that you are a diest?

    As in you beleive a god created the universe and all the laws of nature, but is not there to supervise the day to day happenings ofevry day life?

    Or a pantheist beleiving that god is nature and the universe?

    Or a theist which is pretty much a deist except that god is around to handle the day to day affairs that individuals have.

  15. Jeff Says:

    Nope. I’m an all out Trinitarian Christian, with mystery and all. Reason only takes you so far, and modernity turned reason into an overrated hyper-rationality that devalued experience, feeling, and being (the moral theology of Immanuel Kant, for example, and all of its weaknesses).

    “Faith seeking understanding” as the old phrase from Anselm goes is more my style– so if you are looking for “understanding seeking faith” you probably won’t find much satisfaction in my theology. Faith is, because it is faith and not fact, necessarily uncertain and therefore not reasonable, although we may be able to apply principles of reason to the discipline of theology to understand revelation once we understand that our own finite limitations prevent us from understanding the very infinite subject which we study.

    I’m neither deist, pantheist, nor theist (at least theist in the way you are describing it– I am a trinitarian monotheist, so I am a “theist” in that respect), but being Trinitarian does not prevent a belief in the applicability and relevance of science as long as it is subordinate to the infinite God. After all, I have to acknowledge in my theology that when I get sick, the drugs I am given do work, while prayers work less predictably.

    j


  16. But would you really want to live forever? Forever is a long time. Everyone would eventually run out of things to keep them busy. That would lead to boredom. Boredom leads to anger. Anger leads to insanity. Insanity turns your heaven or paradise into hell.

    But that is besides the point. The bible seems to say that God is loving, but is he? A loving person couldn’t watch his children suffer this long. And he wouldn’t try to control every aspect of his childrens life, as religion ALWAYs does.

    And by the way… I’m only 15 and have more understanding of the terrible, restricting thing that is religion.

  17. Jeff Says:

    Hi Shadows–

    Who said anything about living forever? I don’t think I did.

    And you’ve answered your own question on suffering: God doesn’t cause suffering, we do– God doesn’t prevent us from inflicting problems on ourselves because he doesn’t try to control us.

    Religion does fail many times– it is a human institution, after all. But to confuse religion with God is problematic, I think– that is the point of this whole post. To abandon God just because we are imperfect misses the whole point– religion is the quest for God.

    This project isn’t quite done yet, but check out this video which explains religion in terms that may be more suitable to some of the questions I think you are seeking.

  18. Smick Says:

    I can understand your veiwpoint, I still hang on to my Deistic veiw of Jesus even tho I know that most of the story in the bible about him is BS. I read now in the Jefferson bible, it deliniates the resurection and miracles and just concentrates on the philosophy of Christ and his message of peace and self improvement. I do not think you need religion to believe in a higher power, or simply to say I dont know. There is no certainty on this subject. I only know for a fact that religion leads to violence, and I cannot abide with that. You should come read my blog here on wordpress, on just this subject…… smick714.wordpress.com

  19. Julia Says:

    I think so many problems could be solved in governments all around the world without the influence of religion. I am an atheist but I respect all religions. I just think that it doesn’t make any sense. What happened to all the people before Jesus? Did they go to hell for not believing in something? Then how dare we call the Greek religion a myth? It doesn’t add up. If I say I want to become Buddhist, why must a christian person try to convert me? Reasoning that their god told them to or else I’d go to hell… I think religions does more bad than good. I think it nears brainwashing, just based on personal experience. Just out if sheer curiosity, do you think that one day this concept of a deity could be gone forever?

  20. Jeff Says:

    Hi Julia. Wow, I didn’t know anyone was still reading this blog. Thanks for taking the time.

    As I think I mentioned in another comment, my thinking has changed a lot since I wrote this; I’ve been through seminary and been formed in a different way.

    But to answer your questions, from my perspective I don’t really think I believe in an “afterlife” sort of heaven or hell; most of those kind of beliefs came around several centuries after Christ and I’m not sure they are helpful to us anymore.

    I also don’t try to convert Buddhists, so I can’t answer that question for you. As for calling Greek religion “mythology,” I suppose that goes into the semantics of what is myth and what is religion. I don’t use the term myth in a derogatory way when speaking of the Greek civilization, and my hope is that we respect their beliefs as an intact religion whether we see it as myth or otherwise. I say this knowing that many today see Christianity as a mythology too.

    It sounds like to me you feel like Christianity in particular has done a disservice to you and left you with an impression that Christianity is all about “fire insurance” against hell. That, I believe, is unfortunate. But Christianity also began the tradition in the West of caring for the sick, the poor, and the needy, and so on. It is impossible for us to know what our culture would look like without the influence of Christianity– both the good and the bad. That, I think, is something worth considering.

    I don’t think the concept of God and mystery can be lost forever because I believe it is hard-wired into us. As I work in the hospital as a chaplain, I see people in the most difficult circumstances of life grasping for God. Atheists, Christians, and other major religions. That grasping takes many forms and it is not always religious. But there is always a search when crisis strikes, and that, I believe, is because we are hard-wired to be connected to our creator.

    j

  21. Hannah Says:

    ehh, im only junior in my school, i took research about conflict between religious, i want to say that your blog is wonderful one, i added it to my source. so glad for you doing that.


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