What Religion Can and Cannot Do

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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What is the Role of Religion in History?

The role of religion in history is complex. On the one hand we find religious conviction motivating Mother Theresa to work in the slums of Calcutta, Father Damien to serve the lepers on Molokai, Corrie ten Boom to hide Jews from the Nazis, and Martin Luther to launch the Reformation. On the other hand, we also have the Taliban in Afghanistan, the warfare in Northern Ireland, Muslims and Hindus slaughtering each other during the partition of India, and innumerable crusades, jihads, inquisitions, and persecutions. You can focus on one side or the other and come to diametrically opposite conclusions. Either religion is the basis for the noblest events in human history, or a negative force responsible for the worst atrocities in history. Or both.

What role did religion play in:

Some Observations

Individuals vary in commitment and priorities

At one extreme we find people whose religious belief permeates their entire existence, who pattern their conduct closely on their religious beliefs, and who are quite literally prepared to die rather than betray them.

On the other end of the spectrum are people whose beliefs can be described as nominal, who may describe themselves as Catholics, Methodists or Jews but who don't follow the practices of their religion or attend services. Why do nominal believers even bother? In some cases they were raised in the religion and are reluctant to sever their ties completely, or they may fear divine retribution or bad luck if they do. Some view religion as a way of demonstrating social conformity, or as a comforting ritual. Some may participate to the extent of attending services on major holy days, or being married or holding funerals, but not otherwise. (One of my all-time favorite cartoons showed a minister addressing his flock: "And for those of you we won't see until next year's Easter Parade, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.") Some may retain an attachment because of family tradition or pressure. Some view religion as a place of refuge if things get bad.

There's a Difference Between Religion and Magic

Most of the actions just described can be labeled magic, the notion that some intrinsically meaningless action on our part can motivate God or the universe to act on our behalf, or avert misfortune. Isn't it absurd to believe that the ruler of the universe cares beans about someone sitting through an hour or so of church each week, or dropping a quarter in the collection plate, or getting married in a church when neither party has the slightest intention of fulfilling their vows? Isn't it preposterous to believe the ruler of the universe will suspend cause and effect to intervene on someone's behalf just because that person performs some ritual? Atheists think so.

And here's the surprise. So do all theologians. You will not find any significant theologian of any religion stating that going to church, saying rote prayers, making contributions, getting married in church, having a religious funeral, or publicly identifying yourself with a religion are of the slightest value in and of themselves. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are unanimous in agreeing that personal commitment to God is paramount, and without that commitment, observances alone are of no value. The observances are of value in so far as they reinforce and deepen the commitment, motivate others to commitment, and act out the commitment by doing good in the society. Believing they have any power in and of themselves is simple superstition.

We can summarize the difference between religion and magic like this:

Religion can motivate people to high ideals

Mother Theresa spent her life in the slums of Calcutta. Father Maximillian Kolbe took the place of a condemned concentration camp prisoner. Martin Luther risked being burned at the stake, and Martin Luther King was assassinated for leading the Civil Rights movement. Not all the ideals devoutly religious people have served strike us as noble. Early Christian hermits spent years meditating on isolated pillars or in contorted positions, something that strikes us as wasted lives. Say what you will about the terrorists of 9-11, they consciously sacrificed their lives in the name of their religious beliefs.

Religion can serve to rationalize other motives

Question: What is the penalty decreed in the Koran for adultery?
Answer: Death. At least that's what happens to women adulterers in Islamic countries.

Only one problem with that. The Koran says:

The adulterer and the adulteress shall each be given a hundred lashes (24:2)...The adulterer may marry only an adulteress or an idolatress; and the adulteress may marry only an adulterer or an idolater (24:4).

It's a bit hard for adulterers and adulteresses to marry if they're put to death, isn't it? So where does the death penalty come from? It has nothing to do with Islam. It's all about the sexual insecurity of Middle Eastern males.

Christians are just as bad. Ask opponents of evolution how many of them actually tithe or go to church regularly. Opposition to evolution has nothing to do with the Bible and everything in the world to do with lashing out at authority.

Religion can serve as a symbol of group identity

In the Serbian sector of Bosnia, I saw religious icons on the office walls of people who, from all other appearances, didn't have a shred of religious belief. The icons had simply become a nationalistic symbol and a way to show group solidarity.

A lot of opposition to evolution in the U.S. is less concerned with science than with group identity. Anti-evolutionists have succeeded in equating evolution with academic arrogance and Big Government, and opposition to it with patriotism and family values.

Religion has little power to erase deeply-ingrained cultural traits

Thought experiment: suppose the Pope were to order all Irish Catholics to go to the authorities and reveal everything they knew about terrorist activities, under pain of mortal sin and excommunication. Would they do it? Suppose Muslims were to re-establish the Caliphate, and the Caliph were to command all Muslims to cease support of terrorist movements. Would they do it?

Religion has little power to displace other entrenched religions

The religious map of Europe and Asia is almost identical to what it was a thousand years ago. As noted above, religion has little power to erase deeply-ingrained cultural traits, including religions that are already established in the culture. Religions can nibble away at the borders of rival religions, can recruit the disaffected, but have little effect on committed members of other religions.

Religion has no power over biology

Puritanical religious codes can be very effective at making people feel guilty about sex. They just can't stop people from having sex.

Religion can provide a template for organizing thought

Many historians believe there's an inescapable link between science and Western monotheism.

Religion can be a convenient target

Despite the Vatican's opposition to birth control, Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. In fact, the fastest growing countries are not Catholic at all. Most are in the Muslim world or Africa, and Christians are in the minority in those countries. What's driving global overpopulation is not religion, but status; the fastest growing countries are places where a man's virility and a woman's worth are measured by how many children they can crank out.

So why do we still hear about the Vatican and birth control, even though the Vatican's stance is a dead issue to most Catholics and religion of any kind is utterly irrelevant to global population growth? Because it's a convenient target, like the drunk who drops his key in a dark alley but looks under the streetlight because the light is better there. Also, the Vatican just will not stop raining on the sexual-liberation, abortion, and gay rights parade. Besides, dealing with the real overpopulation issue will mean criticizing the values of other cultures, something Western intellectuals are loath to do.

The Billy Joel song "Only the Good Die Young" is a celebration of the notion that religious belief deadens and inhibits people. We Interrupt This Web Page For An Important Public Service Message. Religion is not responsible for your lousy sex life. There are a lot more people that want to date 10's than there are 10's to go around. It's that simple. Whatever attractive personal qualities you may have, you can be sure there's someone smarter, richer, and sexier out there who has those same qualities. Studies have also shown that while women tend to assess their attractiveness fairly accurately, men consistently overrate themselves. The middle-aged comb-over is testimony to how bad it can get. Check your personal hygiene and social skills before complaining that religion makes society so puritanical.

God's Grandchildren

There's a saying that "God has many children but no grandchildren."

So what happens if you're born into a culture where some religious belief system is deeply entrenched and generally accepted? Your options include:

But suppose you want to claim membership in the religion, but it runs counter to what you personally want to do? Or it requires you to take a stand against something widespread in the society, and you don't want to become an outcast? Maybe you even support the forbidden practice, or you stand to gain from it? For people in these predicaments, there are other options, like:

Inevitably, second-hand religion degenerates into magic. Since second-hand believers have no true personal commitment to the belief system, they transform it into a system of rationalizations for their own desires. The "God's Grandchildren" phenomenon is why religions rarely, if ever, transform societies. Christianity's admonitions to forgive others, turn the other cheek, and leave justice to God have utterly failed to eradicate blood feuds in many parts of the Mediterranean world. Its prohibitions against adultery don't prevent men in those cultures from having mistresses. Christianity may have played a critical role in shaping the Western scientific world view, but despite the fact that Western thought began in Greece and Greece was one of the first bastions of Christianity, the Renaissance did not begin in Greece. By that time Greece had become a typical Balkan society, vastly different in intellectual and spiritual climate from Western Europe. Christianity's Golden Rule did not stop Western Europeans and Americans from holding slaves, nor did it prevent the petty backlash of Jim Crow legislation after slavery was abolished. In all these cases, inherited Christianity was effectively neutered by people who simply chose to ignore inconvenient tenets, or resorted to ritual for forgiveness, or who co-opted Christianity into a vehicle for justifying their own prejudices.

The problem with the Middle East today is not Islam. The Koran has passages that urge forgiveness and mercy just as forcefully as the Bible. It also has passages that justify vengeance and cruelty as much as the Old Testament. The problem is that Islam took root in societies that almost exclusively are driven by a manic obsession with personal status. Hypersensitivity to personal and group insults, inability to accept defeat, and paranoia, often bordering on clinical, regarding female sexual infidelity. And despite its virtues, Islam failed to transform those societies. Not only did Islam fail to transform its cultures, but the surrounding cultures co-opted Islam into a vehicle for justifying petty revenge and sexual paranoia.

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Created 21 January, 2003,  Last Update 24 May, 2020

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