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?