When Religion Turns Toxic
When religion turns toxic it can become one of the most destructive forces on the planet. Whether we are talking about the Crusades, Mayan human sacrifice, the Inquisition, the genocidal conquest of the New World, the KKK, the Salem Witch Hunt, Islamic terrorism, or the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, we are talking about hatred justified by religious fanaticism.
Of course not all religion is toxic. There are beautiful expressions of faith that can have world changing effects upon both believers and those whose lives they touch. There are religious beliefs and practices that transcend our ordinary existence, and make us one with the divine, the cosmos, the world in which we live, and our fellow travelers on this journey through life.
Think of Jimmy Carter building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Think of the gentle spirituality of the Dali Lama. Think of Albert Schweitzer, or Saint (Mother) Teresa of Kolcata giving their lives to serve the poor. Think of the divine transcendence of taize worship, wherein Christians and even non-Christians of diverse tribes come together to focus on the God of all. Think of the Baha’i faith, with its nine doorways of enlightenment.
What is necessary then is to understand the signs of toxic religion and to prevent it from developing.
Humanity throughout its history, even its prehistory, has been organized into tribes. Tribes can represent bonds of kinship, race, ethnicity, nationality, lifestyle, religious sects, or other demographic groupings that give us our primary identity. As we are social creatures, tribes are essential to our existence. Our culture and language are of tribal origin. Our tribal membership is an overwhelming factor in how we live, act, think, and believe.
Our tribal memberships give us a place in our community, and this is essential to human life. But the downside of tribal membership is that it can separate us from those who are not of our tribe.
If your tribal religion causes you to hate another tribe then it is toxic. If your tribe is the standard by which all other tribes are to be judged then it is toxic. If your tribe proclaims superiority over all other tribes, then it is toxic.
True spirituality rejects superiority and embraces inclusiveness. It embraces curiosity and the desire to learn about the ways of other tribes. It seeks to understand all science, human behavior, and wisdom gleamed from diverse sources. A mountain may be climbed by many different paths, and yet it is the same mountain with the same summit. The path that we chose may be the favorite path of our tribe, well known by our tribe’s long history. We know each step and handhold from those who have climbed the path before us. But to really understand the mountain we need to know the paths others have climbed.
Absolutist religion is highly toxic. When a tribe believes that it possesses the truth, and that all other tribes are misguided infidels, then there is no room for compromise or even dialogue. The absolutist tribe is ready to punish or even exterminate those who follow a different path. Their opponents are demonized as godless, heathens, infidels. Even related tribes which share most of their beliefs with the absolutist tribe believe are still singled out for contempt that may lead to persecution. Intra-religious warfare between Protestant and Catholic Christians, or Sunni or Shia Muslims can be even fiercer than inter-religious rivalries. Sometimes it is hard to tell the Christians from the lions without a program.
Toxic religion seeks to control others. Freedom of religion begins with freedom from the religion of others. The fanatic believes that they alone speak for God, that they alone can interpret their tribe’s sacred scriptures, and that they have the right to rule over others even by force of law. Those who most demand obedience to the sacred scriptures seem not to have even read them!
The fundamentalist always begins by expounding on the authority of the scriptures. And after doing that, then begin to spout off about their own personal beliefs and prejudices. “Yoga pants are a sin!” That one is a comic example, but others are utterly toxic. “God helps those who help themselves!” says no scripture ever. “Life begins at conception.” The ancients had no notion of conception whatsoever. They knew that a man could plant a seed in a fertile woman that would occasionally lead to new life. But reproductive biology was well beyond their ability to understand.
A serious read of the Christian gospels reveals that Jesus spent a lot of time and energy disputing with the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were part of the religious right of his day. These people were hyper religious, self-righteous, fanatical control freaks that somehow believed that they alone could interpret the scriptures or to speak for God. Jesus preferred the company of Roman tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners.
Living in Fantasy
If you fail to understand the world through scientific eyes, you will wallow in superstition and expend your energies trying to appease an angry god. We laugh at stories of primitive tribes throwing virgins into volcanoes to prevent eruptions. In truth the volcano is indifferent to human life, and the sacrifice of the virgin is both tragic and wasteful. Volcanism is the result of plate tectonics and not divine displeasure. Throughout our history, and even our prehistory, tribes have made sacrifices, even human sacrifices, to appease their angry gods. We need rain at the right times and in the right amount. We need fertile fields and abundant crops. Our ancestors needed seasonal animal migrations at their appointed times in order to survive. We feel powerless over the forces of nature that can bring storms or fair weather, abundance or starvation.
We may laugh at such primitive views of religion, but in fact we still practice them today. How many times have you heard that God is punishing us due to abortion or gay marriage? Such theories are the modern equivalent of throwing virgins into volcanoes. My standard reply to such absurdities is that if God did not smite the United States over chattel slavery or genocidal warfare against the Native Americans, we can be assured that God is not losing any sleep over gay marriage.
Others believe that God will protect us from all harm. Global climate change cannot happen because God will protect us! Nuclear war? God will prevent that from happening. Destruction of the ecosystem from the variety of poisons that we use to grow our food? God will feed us manna from heaven.
Those who are locked into an anti-scientific world view deny reality. They refuse to accept facts or logic or even common sense. They are sure that the religious mythology that they have been taught is the only way to view the world. Religious mythology becomes a closed loop system that proves itself true and everything outside its narrow bounds as false. It denies the very real and present dangers that threaten to destroy our civilization.
We can survive and even thrive as a species and a civilization but only if we learn to manage the Earth as trustees. We need to lessen the effects of global climate change, nuclear proliferation, pollution, poverty and hunger. We need to work at a sustainable economic system that provided food, shelter, potable water, energy, education, and health care for all of the Earth’s people.
June 26, 2015 is a date that will go down in history. On this date the Supreme Court of the United States legalized same-sex marriage across the whole country. This is a great victory for the LGBT community. But even more, it is a watershed moment in the campaign for religious liberty. This decision represents a severe blow to the religious right who would seek to impose its religious beliefs and morality upon the rest of us by force of law.
In 2008 the right to same-sex marriage in California was affirmed by the courts. In response to this development, the Catholics and the Mormons teamed up in an odd and unholy alliance to create and promote Proposition 8. Such politicking by tax-exempt religious groups was done in defiance of federal laws, and in violation of the their 501(c)3 status. The Proposition 8 campaign was successful, resulting in the elimination of same-sex marriage in California once again. But in the larger picture this campaign became a lightning rod for gay rights across the country. Proposition 8 energized the movement for gay rights and eventually lead to this watershed moment in our history.
Today’s Supreme Court’s decision is a smack down of biblical fundamentalist, and of self-appointed right-wing religious organizations that claim to speak for God in all matters of public morality. It is a total smack down of the Catholic Church and its self-appointed role of society’s moral guardian and rule maker for all forms of gender roles, sexual expression, and reproductive rights.
The Supreme Court’s rejection of the tyranny of the religious right will have ripple effects far beyond the LGBT community. It will hinder the fundamentalists attempt to replace science in our schools with their own religious mythology.
It will eventually cause us to remove the Ten Commandments and other religious documents from our court houses and public chambers. As a pastor I can tell you that the Ten Commandments is a totally cultic expression of faith that has no place in American civil government. The First Commandment, “You shall have no other Gods before me,” is in direct opposition to the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”
America is not a Christian nation. Christianity came to America as a colonizing force, destroying native cultures and religious traditions. Those Christians coming from Europe were religious dissidents, seeking freedom to live and worship in America as they chose after having endured centuries of religious warfare and persecution in Europe. Christians do not own the country. We are a pluralistic society representing many walks of faith journeys, and people with no spiritual journey at all. The Judeo-Christian Bible does not speak to the breadth of all of our religious traditions. And even within the Christian tradition there are many interpretations. I resent it deeply when anyone tries to impose their understanding of the scriptures upon me as if they speak for God. And, as a Christian I refuse to accept that Christianity has as its core values ignorance, bigotry, hatred and fanaticism as many vocal so-called “Christians” would have us believe.
America belongs to all of us. We are Christians, Jews, Wiccans, Buddhists, Muslims, and Sikhs. We are the religious, irreligious, atheist and agnostic. We are blacks and whites and browns. We are the athletic, the able-bodied, and those with special needs. We are young and old, healthy, sick and injured, and those facing death. We are straight and gay. We are stupid and smart, ignorant and educated, wise and foolish. We are rich and poor. We are all a part of this great nation. The Fourteenth Amendment gave equal rights to all. And no preacher or politician can ever change that basic truth.
THE ROMAN CHURCH AND MARITAL INTIMACY
If the Roman Catholic Church really wanted to strengthen marriage, as it says is does, the first step would be to allow married couples to make love freely and as often as they so desire. There should be no rules constraining that joyous intimacy and no fear of unwanted pregnancies.
A celibate priesthood cannot begin to understand the bonds of love that are created by the powerful and joyous encounter of marital intimacy.
The impact of lovemaking is vastly larger than its utilitarian function of mere procreation. If a married couple makes love an average of three times per week over forty years, they will make love six thousand two hundred and forty times (assuming that the predominance of those intimate embraces will have occurred in the couple’s younger years.). And from that love-making the couple will have produced an average of 2.1 offspring. This could best be understood as one successful conception for every three thousand joyous encounters.
I think of my current marriage. My wife and I married in our late fifties. We fell in love and wanted to spend the rest of our lives together in intimate partnership. There was no chance of procreation. There was some child rearing involved as I still had a minor child from a previous marriage, but that is a different issue. I cannot understand why the same opportunity should not be available for same-sex couples as well.
If marriage is only about procreation, then couples seeking to be married should be required to prove their fertility. And then, if there are no offspring within a certain time frame, i.e. five years, the marriage should be annulled.
As the church so erroneously believes that sex is to be reserved only for procreative purposes, it also prohibits any sexual expression for the single, the GLBT community.
Sexuality is God’s gift to us all. It is given to young and old, gay and straight, married and unmarried. How strange it is that a church would make the suppression of sexuality to be seemingly its highest aim. Should not the church focus its energies and its efforts elsewhere?
Should not the Church of Rome spend its spiritual capital where it could do more good? Are there not injustices to overcome? Is there not poverty and oppression? Is the world not filled with violence, and particularly violence against women? Are children not dying of preventable diseases, most of them water-borne do to a global lack of clean water and sanitation facilities? Is there not slavery and human trafficking in the modern world? Are we not destroying the planet by plundering its resources as if there were no tomorrow?
Does not the Roman Church have any better place to focus its time, energy and spiritual capital than in its futile attempts to restrain the expression of sexual love? The Roman Church continues to make itself more and more irrelevant as it continues its backwards march into the Fifteenth Century.
Today in Europe, there are more Muslims in the mosques on Friday nights than there are Catholics in mass on Sunday mornings.
Something has to change.
Below is a comment that I posted to a Roman Catholic blogger and legislator, Rebecca Hamilton, who opposes same-sex marriage. Her blog site can be found at PublicCatholic.com.
There are a number of reasons that I will disagree with you profoundly.
1) My wife and I married when we were both in our late fifties. There is no chance of conception or child-birth, and yet we were granted an ecclesiastically and legally sanctioned marriage. Our desire is to spend the rest of our lives loving each other as intimate partners. My question is this: What would be so bad if we were two men or two women seeking the same relationship? Why should government and/or the church oppose such a union?
2) We need to separate church from state. One solution would be for the state to stop talking about marriage altogether. Perhaps the state should only recognize civil unions. If a couple wants to be “married” that could be an ecclesiastical union.
3) Why should the Roman Church be granted any authority over non-Catholics? While I am a Christian and a pastor, I certainly am not under the domination of the Pope or his bishops when it comes to my spiritual life or my personal freedoms.
4) The church should support loving, committed relationships, whether or not that these might be “traditional” marriages. When people talk about the “gay lifestyle,” they are talking about anarchic sexual practices, and not committed intimate relationships. The church should encourage all people to live in committed, loving relationships regardless of any other circumstances.
5) Gay marriage is no threat to anyone not involved. Gay is not a disease that can be caught, not a social trend. Rather, it stems from the profound self-awareness of certain people that they are simply and permanently attracted to members of their same-sex. It will not cause a breakdown of traditional marriage. It will not stop us from reproducing.
6) Gay bashing is neither a Christian virtue nor a family value. The only word for it is persecution. In the past our religious traditions have been used to persecute minorities, women, and the poor. Not too long ago laws against “miscegenation” prevented interracial marriages. Colonialism was based upon the belief that the world of the white man had a religious obligation to “save” the savages. And so we enslaved them for our own economic gain and prided ourselves on our piety for so doing.
7) Our current marriage laws give a host of legal and financial advantages to couples, including everything from tax breaks, social security payments, tax-free employee benefits, immigration rights, and many more. We need to make sure that same-sex couples can enjoy the same legal and financial rights as opposite sex couples.
8) Jesus never mentioned sex in any of the gospels. Think about that. Just because we are obsessed with people’s private lives, there is no justification for such persecution of those who are simply born differently sexed. It is interesting to note that Jesus talked about eating at every opportunity. He talked about clean and unclean foods, clean and unclean people, because eating was considered to be the most intimate thing that people could do together. Jesus was constantly criticized for eating and drinking with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. Perhaps this should tell us of how he would deal with Gays today.