When Religion Is Malignant
Throughout history, nothing has been more destructive than the misapplication of mankind’s highest aspirations. Indeed, religion can be toxic, dangerous, and virulent. Religion can be malignant.
The fact that the modern witches brew of secular ideologues, revolutionaries, Marxist, communists, Fascists, terrorists, Mercantilists, and nationalists have slaughtered more innocent people during the last century than all the religious conflicts of all time combined, hardly gets religion off the hook. The sometimes horrific record of the pious and the ill effect of their piety on those around them is inexcusable--even in the face of the even more frequent horrific record of the impious and the ill effect of their impiety.
We expect more of the religious. And well we should. This is one case where a double standard may well be warranted.
According to Edwin Arlington Robinson, “The world is a kind of spiritual kindergarten where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks. Indeed, all too often it seems that our spiritual aspirations--what was intended to be the demonstration of all that is good and right and trued in us--lead us to absurd prejudice, hatred, and cruelty.
How can we explain the specter of the Ku Klux Klan preaching enmity in the name of Christ, opponents of Civil Rights bombing black churches in the name of white churches? How can we explain the ethic violence of the Islamic Hutu against the Christian Tutsi? How can we explain Neo-Nazis stirring up prejudice and fear in the name of Christian civilization? How can we explain the Thirty Years War, the Hundred Years War, or the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre? How can we explain the purge of Bloody Mary or the Inquisition of Queen Isabella? How can we explain the violence in Northern Ireland? Or the ongoing bitterness along the Rhineland? How can you explain it when something so right as faith in God suddenly becomes something so wrong as terrorism?
Tens of thousands of Americans watched on television with a sense of surreal horror, the two towers of the World Trade Center collapsed into flaming steel, rubble, and dust, and vanished from the skyline of lower Manhattan. Again and again we asked the question, “how is it possible that someone could do such a horrible thing in the name of religion, in the name of faith, in the name of God?”
Likewise, we were shocked by scenes of spontaneous celebrations erupting on the streets of Riyadh, Beirut, Cairo, Tripoli, Baghdad, Islamabad, Jakarta, Tehran, Ankara, Jericho, Khartoum, and East Jerusalem as news of the terrorist attacks reached around the globe. Commentators, experts, clerics, and statesmen went out of their way to assure us that Islam was peaceful, that the terrorists did not represent the faith of Muhammad, and that all true Muslims were as horrified as everyone else at the attack. But it was hard to ignore the fact that we were seeing taxi drivers, shop owners, students, soldiers, teachers, clerics, professionals, and laborers dance in the streets, hand out candy to passersby, shout gleefully, fire weapons in the air, and sing jubilant songs of victory.
How is it possible that people would rejoice is such a murderous attack? How is it possible that people would celebrate such a terrible tragedy? How is it that they would take glee in such an awful calamity? And how is it that they would justify their feelings with their religion?
Suicide bombers in Baghdad, Jerusalem, Kabul, Tel Aviv, and Java remind us on an almost daily basis that something terrible and horrific can and does come from that which is supposed to be most noble, most admirable in men and nations: their faith. It is indeed, a bizarre paradox.
Some would suggest that the solution to this enigma is the eradication of all religion. Indeed, some ardent atheists make a religion out of hating religion. Thomas L. Friedman, for instance, writing in the New York Times, asserted that “the real war” we face today is against religion, which believes it must be applied in life. “We have to understand what this war is about. We're not fighting to eradicate terrorism. Terrorism is just a tool. We're fighting to defeat an ideology: religious totalitarianism.”
And just what is this “religious totalitarianism” Friedman is so concerned about? It is “a view of the world that my faith must reign supreme and can be affirmed and held passionately only if all others are negated.” In other words, religious totalitarians are those who believe that their religion is true. And according to Friedman, such notions are inherently dangerous. True religious freedom then is being able to worship the God of our choice so long as we don’t really believe that our faith actually means anything in an absolute and objective sense.
Comparing any and all belief in revealed truth to Nazism, Friedman went on to argue that every social institution, not just the military, must be enlisted to eradicate the belief that anyone's religion is actually true: “But unlike Nazism, religious totalitarianism can't be fought by armies alone. It has to be fought in schools, mosques, churches and synagogues, and can be defeated only with the help of imams, rabbis and priests.”
Thus, according to this renowned commentator writing in the world's most influential newspaper, religion must be relegated to the level of preference. It must never be allowed to rise to the level of principle. If religion behaves itself by being essentially irrelevant then it will not have to be banned. But in order to so tame and train religious passion all religious people must join the state, the schools, and the courts in seeking to destroy the notion that their religion is actually true.
Such secularist fundamentalism is becoming more and more prominent. Recently a number of web sites have debuted targeting prominent conservative Christian leaders and their organizations as examples of “hate.” One site anarchist site lists such organizations as Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition, Promise Keepers, the Family Research Council, and Coral Ridge Ministries. The groups are compared to Afghanistan's fundamentalist Taliban movement and readers are offered “practical advice for the free person who wants to stop religious hate groups from running your life.” The site also invites interested parties to “join us as we kick some dirt into their graves, burying their hideous fascism once and for all.” A homosexual activist site has created a “die soon” list that includes such leaders as James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, and Don Wildmon. It promises to transfer each name to the “good riddance” list as soon as the men “kick the bucket.” Yet another site asserts that any organizations that uphold traditional Christian sexual ethics are guilty of being “extremists and hate-mongers” that are “intent on stoning gays” and “reinstituting slavery.”
According to sociologist James Blanchard, “The fervor of Atheism is no less religious than the piety of Evangelical Christianity. The real danger of religion is not the belief in ultimate things; it is the impulse to power. It is the determination to exert force. It is the imposition of values against the will of others. Any religion can be guilty of such dangerous behavior--but no religion is as frequently guilty as that religion which pretends not to be religious.” Indeed, as John Koster demonstrated in The Atheist Syndrome and Paul Johnson showed in The Intellectuals, religion is at its most dangerous stage when it either fails to live up to its won high ideals or it attempts to force those ideals upon the unwilling masses through coercion.
In this poor fallen world, that which is best about us, in us, and for us quickly becomes that which is worst about us, in us, and for us. That is precisely why religion can be dangerous. That is precisely why the religious people of the world so desperately need the Gospel--which is the message Jesus brought to the fiercely religious Pharisees (and all of the rest of us fiercely religious Pharisee-wanna-bes).