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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:
In the often-emotional discussion after the film, Rubel Shelly,
a Rochester College professor who teaches courses on religion, told
the crowd, "This startles me, aggravates me and humbles me. It
scares the life out of me."
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.
Based on these comments, one might conclude that the film is about "white-supremacist
groups like the Ku Klux Klan" or "suicide bombers" or perhaps
a crazed "fundamentalist" Christian who tried to bomb an abortion
clinic. But the film (to be aired on PBS in Michigan) is titled "Theologians
Under Hitler: Could It Happen Again?":
The film focuses on several 1930s-era Protestant theologians in
Germany who encouraged the rise of Nazism, publicly praising it as a
gift from God to resurrect the impoverished German people. These men
also added their moral weight to the attempted destruction of Judaism.
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).
Secondly, if religion is proven bad because Kittel and some other Christians
supported the Nazis, what was proven by the many Protestants and Catholics including
the much-maligned Pope Pius XII who helped save hundreds of
thousands of Jews? What about Hitlers obsessive hatred of orthodox
Christianity? Is religion itself really the problem? Specifically, when
someone states that "religion can become downright evil," is
he saying that religion inevitably leads to evil, or religious people
commit the majority of evil acts, or that the religious impulse must be
severely contained (or even destroyed)?
Sam Harris thinks so. The author of The
End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the End of Reason (New York:
W.W. Norton and Co., 2004) makes a passionate, if not convincing, case
for the elimination of religion, namely (of course) Christianity and Islam.
Lamenting that many people, including some public leaders, still take
seriously Christian doctrine, Harris writes: "As we stride boldly
into the Middle Ages, it does not seem out of place to wonder whether
the myths that now saturate our discourse will wind up killing many of
us, as the myths of others [terrorists] already have." He then boldly
insists that "faith" must go the way of the dodo bird: "We
must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone
who would claim it.
It is imperative that we begin speaking plainly
about the absurdity of most of our religious beliefs" (47, 48). It
comes as no surprise that Harriss polemic is praised by Peter Singer,
professor of bioethics at Princeton, who advocates infanticide and euthanasia
and all else in-between (yet, irrationally, Singer spent much money keeping
alive his mother, who is stricken with Alzheimer's disease).
Without a stricter separation of church and state, Shelly argued,
"we can still allow ourselves as Christians to be played by political
power," just as in Germany in the 1930s. At that point, he turned
to Martin and asked, "So where are the religious leaders who are
strong enough to resist the stroking of political power today?"
Professor Shelly apparently missed Harriss book (which was well-received
among those who read The
New York Times Book Review "This in an important book"
and sleep in on Sunday mornings). Still, when a professor
of religion states, "For me, the insight from this film is that religion
can become downright evil," one can be forgiven for wondering what
they have studied and if they have ever contemplated human nature, both
by considering the actions/thoughts of others and examining their own
actions/thoughts. Sure, there is a sense in which "religion can become
downright evil," which is because people can become downright
evil. As G.K. Chesterton rightly noted (the exact location escapes
me), if you think the world is in bad shape you might be shocked how much
worse it would be if Christianity werent around. And before anyone
argues that its a completely subjective point, do check out The
Black Book of Communism.
The problem many people have today is not that they deny outright the
existence of evil, but that they deny they could have anything
to do with evil. Sure, evil is personal and is committed by persons
but not by me. Yes, Hitler was human but Im different
from Hitler. Some folks arent even comfortable at that distance,
so create more space by conceiving of evil as something done to them or
forced upon them (usually by an institution) rather than a specific attack
on the good and on others that humans can freely choose to commit. Another
comment by Professor Shelly from the Free Press article points
toward this second option:
The implication, it seems clear, is that evil comes in the form of large,
faceless, and frightening institutions usually political that
force themselves on us. Strangely enough, a common (and sometimes warranted)
criticism of some "fundamentalists" is that they have a conspiratorial
mindset and operate out of fear of the Big, Bad Bogeyman (the U.N., the
European Union, Hollywood, etc.). But if one feature of "fundamentalism"
is an irrational, conspiratorial, and highly emotional fear of beliefs and
institutions that we do not understand (nor try to understand), then "fundamentalism"
is hardly limited to the realms of traditional Christianity, conservative
politics, or Middle America. Nor is evil the sole property of a certain
religion, political party, or ideology, even if a particular religion or
ideology carries fuel that feeds the thought and actions of a person bent
on committing acts of evil.
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.
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:
Every man in the street must hold a metaphysical system, and hold
it firmly. The possibility is that he may have held it so firmly and
so long as to have forgotten all about its existence. This latter situation
is certainly possible; in fact, it is the situation of the whole modern
world. The modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly
that they do not even know that they are dogmas. It may be said even
that the modern world, as a corporate body, holds certain dogmas so
strongly that it does not know that they are dogmas. (Heretics,
[Ignatius, 1986], p. 205).
So, one of dogmas (either conscious or otherwise) of avowed secularists
is that religion is unreasonable and almost inevitably produces evil. Another
is that some form of pure secularism (often described using terms such as
"education," "progressive thinking," "enlightenment,"
"sophisticated," "scientific," and so forth) is the
much-needed answer to the problems that plague humanity.
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
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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