Is Religion Dangerous? The Harm and Good of Religion
Nov. 15, 2009
For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For
this light within you produces only what is good and right and true. Carefully determine what pleases
the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful
even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed
when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible . . . So be careful how you live.
Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days.
Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine,
because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and
spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for
everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And further, submit to one another
out of reverence for Christ.
On Tuesday, I was attacked by moths. Moths rule the parsonage, especially the downstairs
bathroom. As I walked into that bathroom, moths attacked me. OK, they fluttered at me.
But I was really surprised. I’ve never known them to attack before. But here they were,
flying around me like I was a new spotlight in an otherwise dreary neighborhood. I had to
defend myself, right? I swatted them away -- all except for one persistent assailant that
would not leave me alone. The more I swiped at it, the more it returned. At that moment, I
had no sense of the strength and power of my left hand, up against a little moth on my right
hand. I swatted away, expecting that the moth would fly away as other bugs had. This time,
though, I swatted too hard. The moth fell to the ground, lifeless, before my feet. No big deal
right? Even thought others in my family are accomplished moth killers, it’s not my thing.
I’m more of a catch and release moth hunter. I saw the moth lying on the floor. ―Maybe it
just landed upside down,‖ I hoped. But no, I had killed it. I hadn’t meant to. I just was
completely inattentive to my own strength and power.
This brief collision between man and beast got me thinking about some other predators, like
predator drones — those pilotless weapons of death our government flies into the mountains
of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Our strength and power, our mastery of the skies, must feel a
lot like my hand on that little moth to the rural family celebrating a wedding in Pakistan or
the laborer in the fields of Afghanistan, hearing that dreaded sound.
I thought about those who have left the church or lost their faith due to significant
wounding in the church. The people who rejected them, marginalized them, judged them,
or ignored them — those who failed to offer compassion in a moment of crisis — did they
know the strength and power of love withheld? Did they have any idea that their actions
could lead someone to leave a community of faith?
I also thought about the saints in my life, those who are still living and those who have gone
before me. They were not intoxicated with their own strength and power. They used their
power for good, for God, for reconciliation, redemption, and release. Our text from
Ephesians describes them well: For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the
Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true.
Religions live within this dual reality. The world’s religions are rich. They have known
power and strength. They have had the authority to give and to take away. It has been said
that religion is one of the most destructive forces in human life. Hatred, violence,
intolerance, and bigotry are sustained and inflamed by religions. The reputation of
Christianity was shattered long ago by crusades and inquisitions. The reputation of Islam
has been shattered by terrorism around the globe. Even Hinduism, once thought to be
universally tolerant, destroys mosques and murders non-Hindus in the name of its own
religious culture. At the same time, religions are filled with various believers who work for
peace. They offer hope of a better world. They strive to radiate the light. Is religion
dangerous? Can religion do more good than harm?
We hear this question more and more. To get to the heart of the matter, let’s consider a
parallel case. It could also be said that one of the most destructive forces in human life is
politics. In Russian and Cambodia, millions of people have been killed in the name of
socialist politics. In Latin America, millions of people disappeared in ruthless campaigns of
violence. Deception, hypocrisy and deceit are common in political life. Would we be better
off in a world without politics?
We might say, ―No, of course, not.‖ We know that humans need some sort of social
organization. We know politics are corruptible, but we reluctantly agree that politics and
governments do more good than harm. We can think about religion in the same way. Some
religious expressions are harmful, just as some political ideologies cause harm. But it seems
pointless to condemn religion just because religion causes hatred and violence. Religion can
be used to arouse hatred, but it can also be used to inspire love, and commitment. The
world would be much poorer without Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Mother Theresa,
without Bach or Michelangelo, without St. Francis, Siddhartha Gautama, or Jesus.
How about all the differences in world religions? Do our differences cause harm? Do
religious differences lead to conflict? We need to remember that religions exist because
humans are imperfect. We live in wicked days. People do evil routinely. Humans are
trapped in cycles of hatred, greed and selfishness. Since religions are invented and practiced
by imperfect people, religious beliefs will become corrupted. We will see intolerance and
repression, irrationality and fear of outsiders. Many of the conflicts between religions are
not caused by religious beliefs, but by imperfect believers.
Honestly, some degree of conflict will always exist between religions. Human beings find it
hard to live with differences. There will be issues that we will not agree on. Our
disagreements will be complicated by the fact that human ignorance, greed, and hatred are
just part of the deal. However, religions also contribute to the common good.
When I walked into our old church building early this morning, the radiators were cooking
— spreading heat into the sanctuary. The radiators provide a good reason to be an usher on
Sunday morning. Pass out bulletins, greet people, and get the prime spot next to the heater
on a cold day. It’s a great place to stand, believe me!
At their best, religions are radiators. They send out warmth, and comfort. They draw people
in. They radiate God’s light. But we can do better. What would it take for religions to
become efficient and beneficial radiators?
1. Religions need to focus on experience over intellect. Religion is not about agreeing to
doctrines. Religions, at their best, transform human thought into compassionate
action. I recently read about a group called The Compassionate Action Network.
They unveiled a charter last Thursday. The Charter has been affirmed by the Dali
Lama and Desmond Tutu, by religious thinkers and leaders from across the religious
and secular spectrum. The Charter for Compassion calls people to work tirelessly to
alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre
of our world and put another there, and to honor the sanctity of every single human
being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and
respect. They call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the center of
morality and religion and to insist that any interpretation of scripture that breeds
violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate. They realize that if part of our human
family suffers, we all suffer, even if it’s our enemy.
2. Another goal of religion should be a commitment to the flourishing of humanity, and
the flourishing of all life. We need to ask our religion: Do you bring more goodness,
compassion, and understanding into the world, or more prejudice, division, discord
and hatred? Genuine respect means realizing that others have the right to make their
own decisions about ultimate reality. Religions need to accept that their teachings
represent one of many individual paths to a fulfilling relationship with God.
Religions should never force people into thinking and behaving in certain ways. If we
learn to value the different ways people see things, as well as the different values they
celebrate, there can be the possibility of cooperation between faiths.
Following our religions should bring joy. The author of Ephesians gives readers a list of
―do’s‖ and ―don’ts.‖ He tells Christians what to radiate, and what not to radiate. But it is all
in the context of living a happy life. Do live in the light and develop a lifestyle befitting of the
light. Do harvest goodness, truth, and justice. Do live in wisdom. Do make the most of your
time and opportunities. Do seek to discover the will of God for your life. Do drink deeply of
the Spirit. Do overflow with songs of praise in your hearts to the Lord.
Can religions take this step? There are some that already have. Those who hold religion
back are those who think that their view is the only right, true, unchanging, unquestionable,
and absolutely certain view, while everybody’s else’s beliefs and experiences are false. It is
that lack of humility – that lack of awareness – that limits our understanding. When our
goal is to be supreme, we are unable to see the good in others.
We cannot eliminate religions. They are here to stay. So, let’s make sure religion is a
positive force for good in human life. Is religion dangerous? Sometimes it is. But it is also
one of the most powerful forces for good in the world. At best, religion — the search for
supreme goodness and a life lived for the sake of good alone — promotes the welfare of all
life on this planet. We are radiators. Religion is the compassionate heart that might warm a
cold and heartless world. If we live on this earth, our lives radiate something—and what we
radiate becomes a teacher to those around us. In a world where anger, despair, and a loss of
significance are all around, religion can give us a sense of hope, and peace, and well-being.
· Is Religion Dangerous? by Keith Ward, pp. 179-200
· Mary Hammond, “The Measure of our Days” at http://pccoberlin.org/blog/