Editor’s Note: This article, which I didn’t write (obviously), was published in The Stamford Advocate about a week after I had written an op-ed piece attacking religion. Although I agree with almost none of it, it’s well-reasoned, clearly thought out and not at all the illogical nonsense I’ve come to expect from defenders of the faith. Mr. Smith’s clever use of the straw man technique indicates to me a familiarity with the writings of C.S. Lewis, a fantasy writer turned Christian philosopher, whose tracts (e.g., “Mere Christianity”) are revered in born-again circles. Whether you agree with someone or not, it’s always pleasant when they take the time to respond to something you’ve written — it beats the hell out of having pieces you've spent a lot of time working on end up being ignored.
— By Kelvin Smith
In the horror after Sept. 11, and the recognition that those who carried out the deeds did so in the name of a religion, some have wondered whether the concept of religion itself is to blame. Does religion inherently generate war and hatred?
With its attempts to answer the fundamental questions of human existence (Who am I? Why am I here? Is there anything more than physical existence?), religion encourages commitment at a deeper level. Being willing to die for what one believes is a part of the history of most religions. Being willing to kill for what one believes, unfortunately, also has a long history.
Probably any instinct, emotion or commitment can be perverted. Self-preservation can lead to cowardice; patriotism can degenerate into xenophobia; love for everyone, if not tempered with justice, can result in unwillingness to restrain evil.
The questions we face when considering alternative ways of living, including religions, are: Does this agree with what I know of human nature and the world around us? Does it restrain evil and encourage good?
To suggest that all religion is inherently a blot on human civilization presupposes that all religion is fundamentally wrong — that is, there is no supernatural power greater than ourselves that has set out rules for living and to whom we owe a duty; there is no life after death which is affected by how we live this life. If, however, those central religious assertions are correct, then eliminating religion can only be disastrous for the eternal futures of all humans, even supposing it might lessen some current suffering.
But the claim that religion increases rather than reduces suffering in this life is demonstrably false. A review of history not skewed by preconceptions will show that religiously inspired wars are only a tiny fraction of all wars.
The majority of wars have been fought for reasons of tribe, power, land and wealth. To be sure, often a group’s gods were called upon for assistance, but that no more makes a war religious than putting a flag on a water fountain makes drinking water patriotic.
Certainly, some wars have been driven by religion. The Crusades are an example, as well as the earlier war that led to the Crusades, the conquest of Palestine by Muslim armies in the seventh century.
In our time, conflicts in Sudan, Northern Ireland and elsewhere have had a strong religious identity component, though the condemnation of killing by the clergy on both sides in Northern Ireland supports the view that that conflict is “between Protestant atheists and Catholic atheists.”
But by number and size, nonreligious wars and conflicts are incomparably larger. Neither world war had any substantial religious motivation (German hatred of Jews was ethnic rather than religious, as Jewish converts to Christianity discovered). Past seemingly endless fights between England and France, and China and Japan had little or no religious source.
For sheer body count, atheistic communism overwhelms religion. The Black Book of Communism documents more than 100 million killed by communists in such events as Stalin’s starvation of the Ukraine, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot’s Killing Fields. No religiously inspired massacre can compare.
But to consider accurately the impact of religion, we should look at more than wars and mass killings, and pay attention to everyday activity. Here religion’s beneficial impact is clearer.
The majority of social improvement movements have been based on religion. Infanticide was a common practice in the ancient world until Christians stopped it by caring for and adopting the unwanted children. Christians founded the first hospitals, risking their lives to care for plague victims while everyone else fled. Even today, many hospitals and nursing homes in this country are run by religious institutions. In large parts of the Third World, medical care would be virtually unavailable if not for mission hospitals and clinics.
The antislavery movement in both the United States and Britain was led almost exclusively by Christians with specifically religious motivations, overwhelming the church-state separatist views of slavery advocates such as Lord Melbourne, who huffed, “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.”
When it comes to the outcasts of society, religious organizations are often the only ones willing to bring relief and hope. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all teach followers to care for the weak and the poor. Religious programs also help turn outcasts into productive citizens.
For example, Prison Fellowship runs intensive programs, called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, in three state prisons for prisoners at the ends of their sentences. Whereas recidivism rates for ex-prisoners typically run 60% to 75%, the IFI programs have rates under 10%. Even for prisoners in less intensive programs, such as weekly Bible studies and/or after-release religious care, the recidivism rate drops by one-half to two-thirds, according to independent studies.
The same beneficial impact of religious commitment holds in other areas of life. Religious commitment and activity are among the strongest factors discouraging teenage delinquency such as crime, drugs, early sexual activity and gangs. Spiritually based drug rehabilitation programs are much more likely to result in long-term success. Religiously committed adults are more likely to volunteer and contribute to community service activities. Married couples that pray together daily are far less likely to divorce.
Do the scriptures of religions encourage killing for their faith? Not in the way that some claim. To say that Jesus’ statement, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34), is a call to fight for the faith is a serious twisting of the text. Jesus was warning his followers that not all those around them would accept their choice to follow him; even today, converting to Christianity can mean banishment or death in some societies. At his own arrest, Jesus told his disciples, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
More generally, Jesus taught, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). Jesus promoted giving life for the sake of others.
The history of the early Christian church shows that Jesus’ followers maintained this attitude. While countless thousands were being thrown to the lions and otherwise tortured and executed, Christians did not defend themselves by force, much less attempt to force their faith on others. Only after Christianity became the state religion was the state used to support the church — to the detriment of both. But to call the history of Christianity “20 centuries of uninterrupted barbarism,” as one commentator did (Advocate Viewpoint, Nov. 19), is to gravely distort the historical record.
Similarly, the Jewish Talmud teaches, “He who saves one life, it is as if he saves the world entire,” a statement repeated almost word for word in the Muslim Quran. All three religions recognize the right of the state to use force to protect the society from enemies foreign and domestic, but teach that this must be based on justice, not a lust for power.
I am not saying that all religions are equally meritorious, or that for every religion the good always outweighs the bad in this life, to say nothing of the life beyond. It is hard to conclude that the astronomical genius of the Incas, for instance, made up for the practice of human sacrifice.
Since many religions offer contradictory views on the afterlife and how to properly prepare for it, they cannot all be true, and therefore some may encourage a mode of preparation that will not help the believer.
I am a Christian, by conviction rather than family tradition. I believe that Christianity most accurately reflects the truth of human nature and the world around us, that it is best way to restrain vice and encourage virtue, and that it offers the best hope for eternal life in the joyful presence of God. I think other religions fail to achieve the same.
Yet I recognize the religious impulses they all share is a God-given one. I respect the different beliefs of others, and I appreciate the great good many other religions encourage. I will speak against unfair accusations against those religions as well as my own.
Humans would be worse off, spiritually, physically, emotionally and eternally, without religion, and anyone who says differently has failed to accurately consider the facts.
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