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And What if There Was No Religion

Everybody knows that religion is the cause of all suffering, and most, if not all wars.  Everybody knows that, right?  It’s clearly a fact to the “experts” and “enlightened” who seem to be the first to comment with authority to every news article and blog post (including mine) where religion is presented in a positive light.  It’s one of those claims repeated so often that when we hear it during some social conversation by the resident know-it-all, we just let it pass, because we don’t know any better.  Well, lets go to school.

According to the Encyclopedia of Wars (Phillips and Axelrod), of the 1,763 major conflicts in recorded history, only 123 of them can be classified as having been fought over religious differences. That’s less than 7 percent.  Further, the number killed in these conflicts amounts to only two percent. This means that even when wars have been fought over religious disputes, they tend to be less bloody than when they are fought for other reasons.

Lets dig into our own American memories.  The American Revolution, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Korea; none of these wars was fought for religious reasons. In fact, the bloodiest and most deadly wars of recent history were demonstrably motivated by something other than religion: out of whack nationalism (WWI), antireligious fascism (WWII), and atheistic Communism (Korea, Vietnam, the atrocities of Stalin and Mao).

Even the atrocities in the name of Islam:  We’re constantly reminded that Islam is a peaceful religion, and that all the current atrocities in her name are a “few” zealots, who do not represent the teachings of Mohammed (and therefore, supposedly, of Allah).  Let’s go with that, because it makes us all feel so much more comfortable.  I’ve heard something similar about Hitler, who was raised Catholic, and seemed to focus most of his vitriol on the Jews.  (Even though hundreds of thousands of Catholics also lost their lives, including over 16,000 priests and nuns).  Just because someone claims to be a faithful member of a religion while “acting out” most certainly does not mean they represent the religion, or that it is the position of their claimed religion.  (Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s strong pro-abortion positions certainly don’t mean the Church sanctions such atrocities).

And, of course what about the Inquisition and the Crusades?

To non-Catholics the Inquisition is a scandal; to Catholics, an embarrassment; to both, a confusion. It is a handy stick for Catholic-bashing, simply because most Catholics seem at a loss for a sensible reply.  Defense of atrocities of another time and culture is not the intent here.  A comparatively objective Inquisition discourse can be found here.

What must be grasped is that the Church contains within herself all sorts of sinners and jerks, and some of them do obtain positions of responsibility. Paul and Christ himself warned us that there would be a few ravenous wolves among Church leaders (Acts 20:29; Matt. 7:15).

Some fundamentalists suffer from the mistaken notion Church “membership” includes only the “elect.” For them, sinners are outside the doors. Locate sinners, and you locate another place where the Church is not.

The crusades are like much of our best intentions as human beings -A noble idea, but when humans are involved, lots of mistakes will be made.  This is also well beyond the scope of this post, but Weidenkopf attempts to make some sense of it all in his new book, summarized in these posts.  Each Crusade was different, some were glorious in intent and outcome, some much less so.

With apologies to John Lennon, who wrote lots of catchy love longs and changed music in our culture forever, the “living for today” in Imagine, translates in our world as “can’t we all just get along?”  But he was no philosopher, and clearly no intellectual giant.  “Imagine all the people, living life in peace” is about as naive as the COEXIST bumper sticker.  Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a lofty ideal, I’m not here to shove my beliefs down anyone’s throat, but I’ll gladly explain why I know mine are the truth for me.  (I may think they’re true for you too, but souls were never saved by winning an argument).  Anyway, back to Imagine (no heven, hell, or religion) and COEXIST – Just remember how wrong the other Lenin and Mao-Tze-Tung proved to be (weren’t these their goals also?)

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Again, this whole lofty ideal thing has proven absurd, because too many people are “in it to win it,” and think it’s “all about me.”  The human condition, freedom to make the wrong choice, and concupiscence from the fall.  Whatever you call it, whenever we live with this as the ideal, it translates as “survival of the fittest,” and “the one who dies with the most toys – wins.”

This sounds like such a cool way to live, until you actually think about it, and what’s important.  And what’s not.

You see, most of us pretty much do live in our “imagined” life – for today, where there’s no heaven or hell or religion.

But for discussion’s sake, let’s imagine no religion.

Lets forget a millennium of science, where the Church was directly responsible for optic lenses, the calendar, (believe it or not) the big-bang theory, and (contrary to Church-hating legend) scientific mapping discussing a round earth.   Sophomoric focus on Galileo having been under “house arrest” misses the point that the Church was simply maintaining that helicocentric theory (actually initiated by neither Galileo nor Copernicus, but rather Aristarchus in the 3rd century) had simply not been “proven” (nor was it for over a hundred years after his natural death), and prohibited his teaching it as fact.  Surprisingly, it was Lamarck, (later read by Darwin) who first theorized species mutation and natural selection, and the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel who founded the science of genetics.

Perhaps the greatest single contribution to education to emerge from Catholic civilization was the development of the university system. Early Catholic universities include Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Salerno, Vicenza, Cambridge, Padua, Naples, and Vercelli. By the middle of the 15th-century (more than 70 years before the Reformation), there were over 50 universities in Europe.

Starting from the sixth-century, the Church in Europe also developed what were later called grammar schools and, in the 15th century, produced the movable type printing press system, with incalculable benefits for education. Today, it has been estimated that Church schools educate more than 50 million students worldwide.

Art, architecture, music, philosophy, jurisprudence, and languages.  Contrary to popular prejudice, extraordinary and influential women have been one of the hallmarks of Catholic civilization. The faith has honored many women, such as St Hilda & Blessed Hildegard von Bingen, abbess and polymath. Pioneering Catholic women in political life include Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the first Queen of England, Mary Tudor.; many of the first women scientists and professors: Trotula of Salerno in the 11th century, Dorotea Bucca, who held a chair in medicine at the University of Bologna, Elena Lucrezia Piscopia, the first woman to receive a Doctor of Philosophy degree and Maria Agnesi, the first woman to become professor of mathematics, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XIV as early as 1750.

Whew! But what about now?  Is the Church/religion really relevant today?  Was she just an altruistic pioneer in the Middle Ages?  Hmmm, I think not.

Catholic Charities in the USA alone provide services to over 9 million people, and are the 4th largest charity, much bigger than the United Way.  Lutheran Services is invaluable as well.  Despite their huge size, these two religious non-profits distribute among the highest percentage of donations, over 85%, with less than 15% going to salaries and distribution networks.

Maybe I try to cover too much in some of these posts; I’ve barely glossed over a few positive impacts religion has and has had on the world, and those were just a few of the secular ones.

A common theme I find myself going back to time after time is the head-scratcher of so many folks who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”  I think that’s a bit like “playing tennis without a net,” resulting in a kind of spiritual narcisicism.

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton critiqued the Quaker notion of the “Inner Light,” but his words just as easily apply here:

Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. That Mr. Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.

Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine shepherd. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.

Spirituality without religion goes hand-in-hand with another modern religious trend: moral therapeutic deism (MTD). Even more popular with today’s youth than “low riding” jeans, MTD eschews revelation, religious commandments, and formal worship in favor of a divine Santa Claus: He’s out there somewhere, he wants us to be nice, but he gives us presents even if we’re naughty. As with unregulated spirituality, the chief moral principle of MTD—be nice to others—relies on the subjective (and thus infinitely and conveniently flexible) interpretations of the “believer.” What’s nice for you isn’t necessarily nice for me.

Small surprise, then, that a recent sociological study published in the journal Criminology found that young people who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” are more likely than their religious peers—whether spiritual or not—to commit crimes.

“Calling oneself ‘spiritual but not religious’ turned out to more of an antisocial characteristic, unlike identifying oneself as religious,” said Baylor researcher Aaron Franzen, a doctoral candidate and study co-author.”

The researchers’ remarks focused on possible sociological reasons why self-identified religious folk commit fewer crimes: shame, fear of divine judgment, greater investment in family and community, and so on. But although there may be merit to such theories (though they turn a blind eye to the most obvious reason: grace), they don’t account for the most shocking finding of this research:  “spiritual but not religious” group was also more likely to commit crime, and to display anti-social characteristics and “negative emotions,” than those who claimed to be neither spiritual nor religious.

Maybe it’s just what happens when Jones worships Jones.

Why do we need religion?  Obviously many people are disillusioned by what they perceive to be corruption and hypocrisy of organized religion, including lots of scandal.  Nothing new – scandal has been with us from the beginning.  Not a reason to leave, but a reason to stay (or return) – how could anything other than the truth have survived so much scandal.  “You don’t leave Peter because of Judas!”

Which brings me, of course, to a theme I return to often – find me a perfect religion and then join it, and I will too. Then it will no longer be perfect, because of the sinners (us).  That’s the point exactly. When Jesus handed the keys to Peter, he gave them to someone who had just denied Him three times, and even cursed Him.  He hand-picked an entire group of twelve misfits for a reason.  We are too, and His actions and lessons, time, and time again, show us that not only is being human OK, it’s how He made us.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to the apostle Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Christians believe that in this verse Jesus is bestowing on Peter a position of authority from which the office of the pope is derived. But even if the “spiritual” Christian has problems with this belief, there is no escaping the fact that Christ intended his Church to be both visible and authoritative.

“But I don’t need to go to church to find God.  I’m much closer to Him when I’m fishing or hiking than I do in any building.”  (Ever heard this from a loved one?)  I’ll grant you the benefit of the doubt and assume you wouldn’t just rather be “away.”  No one disputes that our Lord is everywhere, and a beautiful sunrise and a speckled trout certainly testifies to His presence in the origin of the universe and its progression.  But if you have a hard time finding Him with you when “two or more are gathered in His name,” perhaps the problem isn’t within those walls (just a possibility).

It is evident from Scripture that Jesus intended for community to gather regularly for worship. St. Paul wrote to the early Christians:

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb. 10:25).

This verse indicates that, even in the first century, there were Christians who did not think it was necessary to gather for worship. This runs contrary to the idea that one can be a church unto himself as long as he has accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. The Lord intended his Church to be a community.

It’s clear from the Bible that Jesus did not intend Christians to live out their spiritual lives in a vacuum. He founded a Church, gave it authority in the areas of faith and morals, and guards it from teaching error (Matt. 18:17-18).

There is, in fact, true evil in the world.  And God.   This is precisely the reason I’m glad there is also religion.

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