Is Religion Good or Bad?
by John Stahl
Let me start this essay off right at the beginning by telling you my conclusion – religion is a primary source of evil in the world! It shouldn’t be this way. In fact, I should clarify that by saying that what I mean is that religion, as it is understood and practiced by most of the people of the world, is a primary source of evil.
In some of my other writings (see, e.g., Patterns of Illusion and Change, or How to Measure Spiritual Growth), I have explained what any study of religion should do – it should lead the student closer to God, closer to that Center of Convergence at which all Good Things come together. It really shouldn’t matter in the slightest what outward form your religious beliefs or practices take. As soon as you make any progress along the path of spiritual growth, you should find yourself converging towards that point at the center where “It Is All Good” – a realm of Peace and Love.
But this isn’t what we find happening! On the contrary, Religion seems to function as a fulcrum by which people are torn apart into Us and Them. It is a very pernicious and aggravating process that only serves to ratchet up the levels of tension in the world, not make anything better. Wherever Religion takes hold of a people, they usually will use it to wrap their adherents into a close in-group, while “excommunicating” everyone else as an “infidel.”
The world is a big and scary place, and out of the diversity of peoples, languages, cultures, and historical backgrounds, it is not surprising that people want to find smaller groups that they can more closely associate themselves with, while excluding everyone else. In this way, a Religion seems to serve the same function for its communicants as an inner city gang provides for groups of impoverished and ignorant adolescent boys. And, in perfect conformity with the analogy, the consequences are continual warfare.
Some religions are worse offenders than others on this point, and I am going to speak my mind, no matter how offensive some people may find it. I think most of the religions of the world represent an “adolescent” stage of spiritual growth, and should be supplanted by more evolutionary theological concepts.
Specifically, there are two aspects of religion that I find offensive – one is Exclusivity, a religion that is only available to a particular group of people, and the other is Radical Missionary Zeal, in which the adherents are driven to convert the heathen, at the point of a sword, figuratively or literally.
It is no coincidence that the worst offenders for both of these unacceptable aspects of religious belief have been at each other’s throats for thousands of years in the Middle East. Yes, I am talking about Judaism and Islam.
I remember an email correspondence I carried on for years with a Moslem gentleman from Egypt. We discussed many things, rarely touching upon religion, but the topic was not excluded from our attention, and at one time my correspondent attempted to propound the virtues of his faith to me.
“In the first place,” he began, “I am sure you will agree that God will love us more if we truly understand Him, and worship Him with the True Religion.” That was an axiom that he assumed I would accept, like any rational person, without any further argument or question. But I immediately rejected his premises —
“No,” I replied, “I think God would love us more if we live in harmony with our neighbors, regardless of what we may believe.” That was the crux of the whole argument. Why should God worry about what we may believe? Theology is not an easy subject for most people to understand. Many people do not even attempt to understand it, considering that it belongs to a category of unknowable information. If there is any qualitative difference in the amount of love God might have for his errant children (a dubious proposition at best – it seems to me that the notion of a Loving God who enjoys a limitless Love for all of His Creation is a more evolved concept than the “Jealous God” of the Old Testament, who needs to be propitiated with incense and sacrifice before he will allow any Blessings to fall from His hands), then I would expect God to be more pleased with those of His children who were able to live in harmony with their neighbors than with those who were engaged in constant warfare.
There are thousands of different religions, and I do not propose to discuss all of them here. What I have to say can be adequately expounded by reference to Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. In general, these comprise the “major” religions of the world, and will serve as good examples for the messages I want to make. I am sure there are many other religions of the world which avoid the errors of these four, but I am not attempting a complete survey of the history of religion here – I just want to make some points in an evolutionary context.
It may seem like a commendable, or at least a politic, solution to treat all religions with equal respect, making no judgments upon them, but I am unable to take that approach. I have made inquiries into the mysteries of theology, and I have formed some ideas of my own. If these meditations have led me to consider that most of the world’s major religions represent primitive stages of spiritual growth, I will not stifle those conclusions under some egalitarian concept that all religions are equally deserving of respect, or some such formulation. No, I have problems with most of the world’s religions, and I want to discuss those problems here.
Let me clarify my present intention. I am not trying to explain and convince anyone of my own religious convictions – not at all. My comparisons and criticisms of religions are solely derived from practical consequences of the religious beliefs. To put it simply, my argument runs that if a religion leads to an unacceptable conclusion, then that religion is flawed. This argument completely circumvents any need to enquire into the foundations of the religious beliefs. I look at the religions of the world and I ask how do those religions affect the spiritual lives of their adherents, and if I don’t like the answer, then I take that as grounds for rejecting that religious belief.
Let me start with the oldest of the major religions. Antiquity has always been a very powerful argument in favor of any belief, and Judaism claims to be one of the first religions that posited a single God. In a world of a multitude of gods of every description, gods of every tribe and place, the God of the Hebrews was the One God of all. But I have some reservations about this claim to be the original source of Monotheism. It seems to me that the God of the Hebrews was, at best, a transitional figure, not really a universal God at all. The problem is that the Hebrews tried to have it both ways. They proclaimed that their god was the One and Only God, but, out of the other side of their mouths, they insisted that this God was specifically the god of the Hebrew People, the “Chosen People.” This really looks to me to be a hold-over from the tribal god of a particular group of people, not a truly universal God of all Creation. Any concept of God that holds a special relationship to any tribe of people is not a fully mature monotheistic God, but only a kind of adolescent godling that isn’t quite able to give up his parochial attachment to the tribe from which he came. I’m sorry, but I just call them as I see them.
Next, Islam seems to overcome this limitation. Islam truly seems to believe in One God. The singleness of the One God is really the defining feature of Islam. On the other hand, they take it to the extreme at which it violates my second objection – the Radical Missionary Zeal. Not content to worship their God in peace, they are unable to rest until everyone on earth accepts this God (along with his Prophet Mohammed, of course; peace be upon him).
Is it any wonder that the adherents of these two religions are at each other’s throats constantly? My purpose in writing this article is to propose a solution to the constant warfare in the Middle East. My solution is quite simple – both Jews and Moslems should evolve their religious beliefs in ways that resolve these shortcomings. For example, the Jews might form a new sect of Judaism which specifically repudiates the “chosen people” story, and affirms that God is One for all people, not just the tribe of Judah. And on the other hand, a new sect of Moslems could discover that all spiritual roads should lead to the same place in the end, if the path be uncluttered with distractions. That is to say, yes, there is only One God, but Mohammed is not His only prophet! There have been many avatars and prophets of God, and any one of them might provide a path that will lead to the same Peace and Joy and Love at the Center as any other. Suddenly, the basis for the hostility between Jews and Moslems will melt away, and they can welcome each other in their mosques and temples, and realize that any worship of God will achieve the same goals. The advanced practitioner of either Judaism or Islam will be one who recognizes that there is no fundamental difference between the beliefs of Jews, Moslems, or anyone else.
When I say “fundamental difference” what I mean has nothing to do with counting the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin! Religious and Spiritual growth derived from any practice should lead the practitioner towards that same convergence of Peace, Joy, and Love, and none of the outward differences in costume, style, language, or cultural heritage have any real bearing on what really matters. Any religion that focuses upon matters that distinguish and separate one from another is primitive – an evolutionarily advanced religion will understand and focus upon the essential aspects which all spiritual practices and beliefs have at the core. It really doesn’t matter whether it is your shoes or your hat that you take off (or put on) when you go to commune with God.
In contrast with the foregoing two religions, Buddhism is serene and pacific. Buddhism is a way of life and a philosophy which is available to any who find its messages appealing to them, but there has never been (to my knowledge) any history of “radical missionary zeal.” In terms of the functional consequences of the religion, Buddhism scores very high marks. My image of the Buddhist is one who certainly “lives in harmony with his neighbor.” I do have objections to Buddhist philosophy, but they are not based upon my observations of the consequences. In other writings I have stressed the importance of both directions of energy, both going in and going out, and Buddhism seems to me to be all about the passive and inward directing of attention, to the neglect of the outward directions.
I like the quotation from the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, (D.C. Lau translation) -- “Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its Secrets, but always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its Manifestations. These two are the same, but diverge in Name as they issue forth. Being the same, they are called Mysteries. Mystery upon Mystery, the gateway of the manifold secrets.” The outward movement is characteristic of life; a rejection of this outward movement may lead to contentment, but it is a contentment that precludes any of the reaching out which defines what it means to be human. There can be no growth or change without the searching outward for alternatives and novelties. A true harmony of spirit will balance both aspects of life – the inward balance and the outward quest.
Finally I come upon Christianity which rates a very mixed score. On the one hand, the messages of Jesus Christ show a marked advance over the primitive “adolescent” God of the Old Testament. If Christianity were judged solely from the historical records, it would score very highly indeed. It scores highly as a religion for everyone – there is One God of all mankind, and that’s that. There is a bit of a problem with the missionary zeal – the disciples are specifically charged to preach the gospel to all people. But there is a fine line between wanting to share the “good news,” and not taking “no” for an answer! In earlier times this line was not properly observed, but I think, with some exceptions, most Christian churches now recognize the rights of other people to accept or reject Christianity as they see fit.
The problem I have with Christianity is more about the nature of God Himself. In this respect, I think the Hebrew understanding of God was really brilliant. I think the admonition not to make any graven image of God is really an important concept – indispensable, even. The Christians seem to have passed this whole idea right by. The point is that any time you worship some image, you risk the danger of taking the image for the God it represents. In the case of Jesus, the Church has insisted upon the divinity of Jesus to the point where it looks to me like “man worshipping himself.” That is what happens when you insist upon worshipping God in the image of a man. You identify that man with God, and that is exactly what has happened to the Christian Church. The Catholics take it even further afield. I remember one time when I asked my mother about the difference between Protestants and Catholics, she replied, “Protestants pray to God; Catholics pray to the Virgin Mary.” Where does it all end? Mount Olympus? (Not to disparage Paganism – I am Pagan myself, finding God in the Trees. Honoring the living Spirit in all living things, which includes rivers and oceans and forests and planets as well as people, is actually a very sophisticated approach to spiritual understanding.) No, there only seems to be one religion that is adamantly monotheistic, and that is Islam.
But another problem I have with Christianity is that very few people who call themselves “Christians” seem to have the remotest notion of the teachings of Jesus Christ! I suppose the same could be said about any religion. Islam is supposedly a religion with very high ethical ideals – but there are as many Moslems as Christians who do not really understand or follow the teachings of their faith.
So, what are my conclusions about all of this? I think that religions do more harm than good. The different religions serve only to separate people, and give them an excuse to go to war with each other. I think that it would be better if there were some way for spiritual people to avoid the divisive aspects of religion, and focus exclusively upon the central aspects common to all spiritual practice.
I was only going to discuss those four main religions, but I want to make mention of just one more – one religious group has always seemed to me to get it right in just about every way – the Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers. From the very start, I have always thought that it makes far more sense to sit together in silence, listening for the word of God, than to spend a “worship service” praying at God, giving Him his marching orders of what it would suit you for Him to do for you! I like the careful avoidance of divisive issues, and the adherence to what is clear and central. They avoid divisive theological concerns, and rely most heavily upon the “light within” – taking their direction as directly from God as they can. Well, if I wanted to belong to an organized Church, I think I would look for a meeting house of the Society of Friends. All of their historic concerns are important ones – peace, freedom, equality, integrity, and an emphasis upon plain and simple living, instead of a life cluttered with vain and useless luxury. Instead of following any laid down dogma, or any prescribed path towards God, they sit still and quiet, and listen for the “still, small voice” of God to tell them what to do. I like it.
The Evanescent Press