Thinking About Religion

religionYou hear it from both atheists and some believers. Religion does more harm than good. And what’s often pointed to as the rationale for this belief is all the death and misery caused by differences between religions.

They point to the Crusades, to Ireland, to India, and of course to the Middle East as proof that all too much killing has occurred “in the name of God.”

Since religious identities are apparent in all these situations, it’s an easy argument to make and is not often dissected. In other words, the conclusion that religion is at fault is usually not questioned by anyone. It becomes the backdrop to an argument, a given, while debaters continue on to argue whether other religious functions do or do not make up for the bloodshed.

A couple of articles I’ve read lately suggest that I and others who have taken this “truth” for granted, may be fairly off the mark. Benjamin Wiker tackles this problem in The Myth of Religious Violence. I think he makes some excellent points. Relying on William Cavanaugh’s book of the same name, he argues most so-called religious wars are really political in nature and have much less to do with religion as the subject. According to Cavanaugh, religious differences are easily abandoned when some greater issue unites the otherwise religious opposites.

This is confirmed in John Wilkins, Undefining Religion. Wilkins, who is in my estimation, a thoughtful and deep thinker, argues that religions get blamed for many (but not all) wars based on a thing called the reference class problem, i.e., the tendency to ascribe fault based on an easily identifiable “class” rather than on actual facts, or the fallacy of composition. An example would be, I’m for Obama and I’m Catholic, you’re against Obama and Protestant, thus Catholics are for Obama and Protestants against him.

Wilkins argues:

Even the so-called religious wars, such as The Troubles in Ireland or the Crusades, were the outcome of social, economic and political processes, for which religion stood, not as a cause, but as a proxy for the opposing sides. This is not to say that religion never causes problems of this kind – of course it does. But often enough it is not the cause so much as the banner under which other issues are being resolved. The Irish Catholics and the imported Protestants were representative of ethnic groups with different social status and power, and so being Catholic was not so much the root of the Troubles as the honest signal of group identity.

This is all fine so far as it goes, and I’m happy to see some clarity brought to an issue that has always been troubling in discussions about the value of religion. But unfortunately, Wiker takes it a step further, and enters into what I think is simply a sea of illogical conclusion.

Wiker contends that this false premise, that religion causes wars and strife, death and misery, is the reason why our country rejected a religious-state connection. He argues as Cavanaugh’s beard, that this belief is necessary to those who wish to create secular states. Notice the innuendo here. Secularists (bad) conspire to make religion the cause of bad things in the minds of the people which allows them to strip religion from the state apparatus, and thus make a secularist state (truly bad).

Wiker goes on to carry Cavanaugh’s argument that the case of Everson v Board of Education, is seminal in this regard, wherein Hugo Black borrowed Jefferson’s words from a letter of 1802, interpreting the 1st Amendment, non-establishment clause, as “thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” Wiker argues that forever after “secular-minded” justices have used the violence excuse as the basis for their secularization of government.

Somehow I fail to see the connection, and nowhere does Wiker point me to any other verbiage in the opinion or other opinions for that matter from which I may logically deduce such a conclusion. Wiker claims that but not for this dastardly act, we would still be the Judeo-Christian country that he, no doubt, feels was intended.

Funny, but throughout my investigation of religion and the 1st Amendment, I’ve never come across the “violence” argument before. Actually what we find is a constant reverberating chant of argument that relates to the sanctity of religious freedom being maintained through its separation from government. Enlightenment founders were aware no doubt of the sordid an often ugly connection between religion and government in Europe. Indeed Wiker makes his own argument for this, in explaining to us that religion is merely the vehicle used by governments to effect results having little to do with faith. The argument actually becomes circular.

While we can be safe, I think, in our historical conclusions that the Clause was erected and maintained to protect religious minorities their freedom to exist and practice as they wished, Wiker has unknowingly it seems, add the very argument of religious violence to the pot. Religion and government together too often makes religion the tool of government. And that tool is a powerful one indeed, giving rise to passions that can be far greater than any other argument as a call to arms.

Just what I have been thinking about this week.


Religion vs Spirituality

A friend of mine posted this a few days ago on Facebook. religionspirituality

I commented that “I could agree with that.”

And I can.

But like all memes it suffers from simplicity.

Often memes are just plain wrong upon further reflection. Sometimes they are right “most” of the time. Maybe they are mostly wrong except in a few circumstances.

This one I think is mostly right, but with a few caveats.

First of all, most religions are not “someone else’s experience.” They are a lot of someone elses. Where Christianity is concerned that numbers in the dozens. And that only relates to its scriptural base, the bible. If you add all the other writings not canonized, but still reflective of how people of generally the same time frame came to see the Jesus experience, then it grows substantially.

And of course, that says nothing to all the theologians and biblical scholars that have expanded our knowledge of exactly what that experience was, and how it should be conceived of. They number in the thousands over the years. And of course the mystical writers have their own experiences to relate.

So we actually have a lot to dig through in discerning what that “experience” is. Much the same could be said I suspect of most other religions. The end belief system is the product of hundreds if not thousands of minds. And of course, there is much conflict between minds.

But religions have surely set dogma and told believers that they should adhere to those beliefs. They divide them often into those that “must” be adhered to, those that should be, and perhaps those that are “up to your conscious”. And these change too, moving from one category to another. That is where the trouble begins.

Do we dare question the insights of a St. John of the Cross? Or The little Flower Theresa? Are their visions and spiritual deductions sacrosanct because of their sainthood? Is mine less so because I lack the imprimatur of the Church? That is where one’s spirituality conflicts it seems to me. And it is where the Church, standing for religion errs.

For the Church seeks, based upon its self-defined expertise, to tell the parishioner  what she must believe to remain within the good graces of said institution. An institution made by humans I might add, whatever your current theology might be about what Jesus intended when he laid the mantle upon Peter’s shoulders. This is error as I see it.

The Church has a serious and important role. That role is to nurture, care for, and raise up the individual who comes seeking. It can and should not judge, but only facilitate  with love and forgiveness, warmth and understanding, that relationship between God and creature. It should in no way be a barrier, EVER. When it does so, well as Jesus said, better tie a millstone around its neck and drown it.

And of course many would do just that. In the name of God.

And they are just as wrong as those who see the Church as God, speaking for, judging for, and forgiving for God.

For that purpose of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, tending to the sick, and ministering to all who are suffering, is the primary goal and purpose of religion, or Church. And if, I would argue, it limited itself to that purpose, it might well effectively reduce suffering in the world in a degree that would stupefy modern governments.

That is not it’s only purpose however. It serves to be the gathering forum for believers, and that is of no small importance. For the scriptures make clear to us, throughout them, that the gathering of the people in “church” is valuable and necessary. In some sense the Trinity teaches us that–one God in three forms operating in perfect community. We are communal creatures, and Church can and should mirror that perfect community. We are called to act selflessly, and no better place to learn it SHOULD be the Church.

Instead of course, we find nothing but judgment and rejection for so many. As if God needs humans to prevent other humans from approaching the altar. As if somehow the Church sanctifies and not God.

Spirituality is not a substitute for church in this sense. All too many people are walking around proclaiming their spirituality and their self-interpretation of scripture. The trouble is, scripture is not something that one can “just understand with an IQ of 100” as a self-proclaimed atheist recently told me. Although not a believer, he insisted that our “debate” be limited to the four corners of the bible, and using the common sense meaning of the words themselves. Of course such a notion is absurd.

Millions of unchurched Christianists proclaim what God wants, needs,  and hates. They then insist that we conform to their beliefs. Church can and should be the counterpoint to this sort of self-serving Christianity. If it is wrong for a church to speak for God, how much more so when an individual seeks to tell another what God wills or punishes? Here faith is simply used as a defense to calls of bigotry. We hear, “I personally don’t care about _______, but God is against it in the bible, and it’s my Christian duty to speak up.”

This is what comes from unfettered “spirituality” absent the restraints religion heterodoxy. But heterodoxy is in the end a human endeavor, and should never be confused with God, now with eternal truth. It is the best of what we understand now, and not what we may realize tomorrow.

Smart churches do this. All churches should do this.

Churches should be spending more time helping its members explore and think. As in all things, critical thinking skills apply. The dogma of the present church should but serve to start the discussion, and the exploration. God gave us these marvelous thinking instruments and they are meant to be used. Only by the deepest and broadest searching will we be rewarded with the most meaningful experience of God.

So, it’s not all one, or all the other. Each goes wrong by itself. It is the blending of both, and the value of both that enriches the individual.


%d bloggers like this: