By far, I would argue that organized religion has posted the biggest problems for God. Paradoxically, the very institutions that have grown to recognize God have done the most harm. A quick look through history will highlight many problems that the Christian Church has perpetrated in the name of our Holy Father:
- The Crusades
- The repeated persecution of the Jews throughout history
- The European Conquest of North America
- The Inquisition
- The 17th Century Wars of Religion
- The extreme prejudice that has faced scientific advancement: Galileo’s persecution comes to mind, as do numerous other barriers to scientific inquiry during the Enlightenment
- Silence by some in the church (many criticize the Catholic Church for not speaking out during WW II) in the face of such evils as slavery and the Nazi “final solution”
- Several types of abuse (sexual, physical) by Catholic Priests & the subsequent cover-ups to protect the priests
- Assassination of abortion doctors by fundamentalist Christians
- George W Bush’s “crusade” in the war on terror
I could go on, but you get the point. And this is only some of the problems that the Christian Church has contributed. Islam introduces a whole host of additional problems, most notably questionable human rights practices like intolerant laws (Sharia Law), inequality of women and children and the quite visible violent fundamentalist actions of Muslim extremists.
For the record, I do not in any way support any of these actions in any way. In fact, I have subscribed to a Christian denomination (Mennonite) that is pacifist. Mennonites strongly identify with the peace teachings of Christ, and Mennonites hold that Jesus’ pacifist message requires that we turn the other cheek and that we avoid violence at all costs. For a more complete overview of my views on this subject, check out my four part series entitled, “What Are We Fighting For?”
So yeah… where does this leave us then? Organized religion has, and continues to, contribute to many of the problems facing the world today. And, it’s easy to argue that almost every war has been at least indirectly caused by religious belief. Does this mean we should get rid of organized religion then? Well… that would be like saying that politics has led to plenty of civil strife so we should get rid of politicians. Or use economics: economics has led to the financial persecution of some poorer countries, most notably in Africa. Does that mean we should do away with economic ideas as well? I’d argue no. Look around us. Organized religion can do a lot of good as well. Numerous religious organizations provide a great deal of good throughout the world. Organizations like Mennonite Central Committee, The Salvation Army, World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse all contribute a great deal to those in need. These and many others work toward peace and healing to people that nobody else feels the need to reach.
This isn’t to diminish the hard and effective work of the numerous secular charities that exist. My point here is to show that religious charities do contribute a great deal to helping those in need. This strongly contrasts the numerous problems that I mentioned in my opening paragraphs.
And further, the Christian Church has been, throughout most of recorded history, the main protector of much of the rich cultural heritage that we in the west have enjoyed. The artwork of Michelangelo, the writing of The Bible (arguably the greatest literary achievement ever) and the storage and preservation of almost two thousand years of history has been done by the Church. The Church financed the exploration and discovery of the New World (North America – for good and for bad). The Church supported the abolition of slavery. And the Church has stood up vigorously for human rights throughout the world.
But my point here isn’t to keep score on both sides of the organized religion debate. The pros and cons could go on and on all day. Instead, let’s talk about the “sociology” of religion.
I want to tell you about a really interesting undergrad course that I took called “Sociology of Religion.” This course highlighted numerous theories that explained where religion comes from. To Sociologists, religion is a man made apparatus used to provide mankind with a need that we cannot find elsewhere: the human need for a purpose and higher meaning. Sociologists suggest that religion is a lie that is told to placate the masses. Remember Karl Marx: “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Marx, Weber, Freud and Feuerbach have provided some of the more famous social commentary on religion. They’re unanimous that organized religion is simply a tool used to keep the public in line and on target with the key goal of the aristocracy. We need look no further than the current US Administration to see the effectiveness of religious imagery to motivate the American public to get behind the war in Iraq. Unfortunately for Bush and his team in the White House, they could only fool the public so long. Their long abuse of power doesn’t seem to be going well anymore.
Dawkins subscribes to the same school of thought as Marx, Weber and the gang, but Dawkins pulls in some other examples to make his point. Regardless of the sources, the point is the same: that religion has no basis in reality and it is the creation of faith out of myth for the purpose of population control at the expense of reason. And, Dawkins has some buddies that like to argue this same line of thought. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Michel Onfray are among the current crop that push the same agenda.
In response, I have three responses to the suggestion that organized religion, specifically Christianity, is a made up religion:
- The original Christian martyrs wouldn’t have died for the cause: – Imagine you’re part of a new group that claims that they have the ultimate truth. Would you go to the grave to defend it? Without proof, I doubt it. And, what sort of proof would you want? You’d need to be pretty convinced before you’d sacrifice yourself. Enduring stoning, being fed to the lions or worse would require the utmost conviction.These first martyrs include Peter. Remember that Peter denied Jesus three times to avoid persecution. What changed for Peter? Well… Jesus did come back to visit after he rose again. That would be pretty convincing to some.Or consider Paul. Paul could have gone on living the good life, persecuting others, including early Christian martyrs (like Stephen, as seen in Acts 7:578:3 – Paul is referred to here as Saul.) But after meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), Paul changes course, blindly following Jesus in the pursuit of the Christian Kingdom.
- Does a “social theory” discount the original claim? – So what if people can put together a great sounding explanation for the birth of a religious movement. Sociologists are quite adept at showing how religion works. Does that make Christianity, or the existence of God, any less real? I can explain how I get to work in social terms (groups of like-minded communities have built an infrastructure that allows for shared transportation and civil obedience) or technical jargon (my automobile runs on a combustion engine, which pushes me down the road to my destination). Do either of these explanations give the whole picture? No, they don’t.Sociology does allow us to better understand our relationships among one another. But that doesn’t necessarily discount religious communities.
- Should the abuses of a religious community mean that the religion itself is false? – This one’s like asking if banks should be banished because some of their employees commit fraud or other financial crimes.
So where does this leave us? Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater? I argue no. Religious belief has a legitimate place in our lives for those that wish to participate. I am conscious of the abuses made by organized religion and I am in favour of punishing those responsible for those abuses. But I don’t think that those abuses should be representative of the Church as a whole. Christianity has published its book of rules. It’s called The Bible. As Bruxy Cavey, the Teaching Pastor of the Meeting House, tells us, “What Jesus came to establish was a subversive spirituality outside the boundary markers of traditional religion, and in the process he made religion itself obsolete.”
Thus, Jesus himself tells us not to be religious, but instead to be spiritual in the way we live our lives. We should live in community with other Christians in order to live out our lives as Christians, but Jesus’ message is quite simple: he tells us to live in peace and to love God and one another. Why overcomplicate it? I don’t see the point.
So… where does this leave us? How does this apply to Dawkins? Well… Dawkins argues that religion is dangerous and should be abolished. In cases where religion becomes abusive, I’d have to agree. But that doesn’t mean removing faith. That simply means removing the organization that is misrepresenting the message. And the message that I hear loud and clear is a good one:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I hope that this post puts to rest a lot of the comments on organized religion. I’m with you. I agree that organized religion can be problematic. But let’s not let that prevent us from having a relationship with God.
Next up: “The objective roots of morality”