Is Religion Evil? Secularism's Pride and Irrational Prejudice | Carl E. Olson | December 5, 2005
The common wisdom in many circles (most located in certain cities on the East and Left Coasts) is that religion, in general, is a bad thing, and that in the hands of "fundamentalists," the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and ultra-super-radical-Islamic terrorists, it is inevitably evil. Eliminating religion, it is then suggested or even openly argued, is a sure way to rid the world of evil. The term "religion," it should be noted, almost always refers to Christianity (or a form of pseudo-Christianity) and then, in some cases, to Islam.
An example of such thinking is the recent news story of a new film that documents the abuse of religion and the deadly bigotry that can flow from racists who twist the Bible for evil purposes. The Detroit Free Press reports on a showing of the documentary at Rochester College in Michigan and the reaction to it:
He said the film made him wonder about everything from the abuse of Christianity by white-supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan to the twisting of Islam by suicide bombers. "For me, the insight from this film is that religion can become downright evil," he said.
Among the most infamous was Gerhard Kittel, at the time a world-famous Protestant expert on the ancient history of the Bible. Far from a marginal figure or thug, like many of Hitler's early followers, Kittel taught at the centuries-old Tubingen University, the same school that later would have Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, on its faculty.
Reading this, a couple of questions come to mind.
First, was Gerhard Kittel some sort of knuckle-dragging, half-witted "fundamentalist"?
No, he wasnt. On the contrary, he was a highly regarded and well-educated
New Testament scholar who produced work the ten-volume Theological
Dictionary of the New Testament that is still used today (as
is the case with other
Protestant scholars who supported Hitler).
Admittedly, it is often difficult to see where religious teaching ends and adherence to that teaching begins. It becomes even more difficult when the teaching appears to be ambivalent or open to different interpretations. But to say, for instance, that a priest who molests a boy does so because of his religion (or, as it is sometimes argued, the unrealistic or "unnatural" disciplines of his religion) is to ignore that Catholicism condemns such an act. In the case of Kittel, I dont know all of the influences either theological or political that shaped his thinking. But I know that nearly a million Jews were saved by the actions of Pope Pius XII, who acted in accord with the religious belief that all men are created in the image of God and that murder is evil. (And yet, when many people think of Christianity and Nazism, they also think of "Hitlers Pope," a sad testament to the reality of evil attacks on truth.)
We can see the effects of this skewed thinking when confronted with the "solution" so often promoted by educators such as Professor Shelly, which is a "stricter separation of church and state." If that is the answer, look no further than the former Soviet Union to see what happens when the ultimate separation of church and state takes place that is, when the state essentially destroys the church (and I use "church" here to mean an authentic body of Christians who don't give lip service the state to save their skins). The result is not just the eradication of traditional religion but also the establishment of a grotesque and bloody new religion or anti-religious religion.
In the words of Simone Weil: "Marxism is undoubtedly a religion, in the lowest sense of the word. Like every inferior form of the religious life it has been continually used, to borrow the apt phrase of Marx himself, as an opiate for the people." Weil's remark is quoted in Raymond Aron's The Opium of the Intellectuals, a classic work of political reflection on radical politics, especially Marxism and Communism. In another work, The Dawn of Universal History, Aron (1905-1983) a French intellectual who was once classmates with Sartre but chose a far different path from the famed existentialist has a lengthy analysis of "The Secular Religions," which include Fascism, Nazism, Marxism, and Stalinism.
Aron writes that these secular religions "related everything men and things, thoughts and deeds to that ultimate end [the totalitarian goals of each respective political movement], and utility in terms of that end is the measure of all values, even spiritual ones. Partisans of such religions will without any qualms of conscience make use of any means, however horrible, because nothing can prevents the means from being sanctified by the end. In other words, if the job of religion is to set out the lofty values that give human existence its direction, how can we deny that the political doctrines of our own day are essentially religious in character?" He then points out how these secular religions provide an interpretation of the world, the meaning or source of suffering, salvation and the hope of a future utopia, and the demand of sacrifice by commitment to the "movement."
Oddly enough, Harris also recognizes the religious character of certain totalitarian ideologies, although his comments suggest that his reasoning is self-serving: "Consider the millions of people who were killed by Stalin and Mao: although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion. Even though their beliefs did not reach beyond this world, they were both cultic and irrational" (79; emphasis added). Readers are apparently expected to take on good faith that Harris is not just paying lip service to rationality, but hates religion for perfectly rational, scientific reasons.
The point is that every "ism" even atheism, materialism, and the "pragmatism" endorsed by Harris plays riffs based on the same tunes since man moves to a religious beat; to further the metaphor, man has music within him and longs to know the composer. He is, in other words, a religious animal who thinks religious thoughts and has religious impulses. In the words of Chesterton:
But Chesterton is also correct in observing that there "are two things, and two things only, for the human mind, a dogma and a prejudice" (Whats Wrong With the World [Ignatius, 1987], p. 48), and that doctrine "is a definite point," while prejudice is "a direction." Religion especially orthodox Christianity is despised because it is a definite and specific faith. Instead of vague platitudes about love, the Christian Faith speaks of specific suffering and a definite Cross. Instead of hazy affirmations of the goodness of man, Catholicism teaches a specific doctrine of sin and makes definite moral demands.
And instead of a general appeal to "just get along," the Church insists on specific sacrifices and definite choices between good and evil and bluntly says that all of us are capable of evil, regardless of how non-religious our religion might pretend to be.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers.
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California. Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com .
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