Q: It seems to me that over the millennia, religion has been a major cause of harm in this world. We need only look in the papers to see the ongoing bloodshed. And no religion seems to be immune. From ancient Roman times through the Middle Ages to the 20th century to now, more atrocities have been committed in the name of religion than anything else. Maybe on a very local level religious establishments can play a positive role in terms of youth clubs, comfort in times of sorrow, helping those in need, providing a place for community of the faithful, etc. But on a more universal level, religion has been nothing but a cause for hatred, fear, anger, envy, mistrust and killing. Everyone thinks that his or her religion is the true one, and it seems to be getting worse. Religion is supposed to be synonymous with love of one’s neighbor. But in truth, on a global level, it has mostly been a scourge. In the face of all of this, how can we still praise religion as a force for good?
— P, via email, Hauppauge
A: I receive many versions of your question, but I have chosen yours because at least you concede at the outset that religion is a healing force on the local level. You are right that most every soup kitchen is sponsored and staffed by a religious institution and religious people. You are right that in times of sorrow and loss, clergy and members of religious communities rally around the mourners and allow them to find hope and love again. You are right that religious institutions create youth groups for kids so that they can occupy their time with activities and friends who will help them build character and faith. And you are right that religion gives people a reason for hope that we are not alone in the cosmos and that death is not the end of us. These and many more good deeds all come from religion, and I am happy you see that.
The question that you must grapple with is obvious, “How could a force for such good become a force for evil in the world at the same time?” Let me try to help you. One possible answer to your question is that you are wrong in your harsh judgment about the role of religion in the larger world. Perhaps the cause of most wars and violence is economic. States invade other states to capture their resources or control their governments, but then often use religion as a cover for what is in truth just imperialism and naked greed. Hitler and Stalin were mass murderers and they were anti-religious. Catholics and Protestants in Ireland live in harmony, but when there was a possibility of dominating the government of Northern Ireland, violence broke out. Jews and Arabs have lived in harmony in the past (the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides was the physician to Saladin), but today when there is a battle over the same land, violence appears. So what seems like religious violence is often greed using religion to cover its venality.
However, like you, I want to be fair and balanced. I do agree that the rise of radical Islamic terrorism is a terrifying indictment of religion, specifically Islam. I have often written that the jihadists have hijacked and perverted true Islam. I believe that even after each bloody attack. They are rooted in an extremist interpretation of Islam, and that interpretation is supported by ayatollahs and so-called theologians. Though it is not accurate or fair to indict Islam as a whole because of the bloody perversions of this great faith by a few fanatics; it is also unfair to exculpate Islam for this reign of terror.
Islam, in my view, is where Medieval Christianity was at the time of the Crusades. It must choose between the pursuit of a new world-dominating Caliphate or, as Christianity decided after the Reformation and the Enlightenment, a non-political place in civil society whose aim is the salvation of its adherents, not the conquest of the world. I believe that Muslims and Muslim teachers will eventually reject Imperial Islam in favor of Real Islam. At this bloody moment in history, however, the final outcome of their choice is still unclear, and this is indeed a problem of religion in the world.
The Bible knew of the problem of religion in the world — its temptations and perversions — and that is why God sent prophets to the people. Their message was that God wants compassion, love, and peace and any other message taught in the name of God is a lie. We need such a prophet now. In the meantime, give religion a chance. Religion is not always as good as I want, but it is not always as bad as you fear.