Friday, April 10, 2009

Harmful Religion

In today's New York Times, Judith Warner writes a very honest, interesting article about the reality of modern belief (among some). She touches on why she doesn't feel comfortable in any one religion/system, but also is honest enough to wonder about the limitations of ad hoc spirituality. It's worth reading the whole (short) thing.

I want to take issue, though, with one side-note which she makes (actually, a friend of her's makes it). When asked if she wants to attend a (Unitarian) service, she replies:

“I think that enough harm has been done in the name of religion,” said Julia, who had not long before studied the conquest of the Incas and had moved on to the colonization of Africa. “I don’t want to be a part of it.”

This has got to be one of my biggest pet-peeves in the ongoing religious vs. non-religious debates. The "I will avoid all religion because religion has done so much bad in the world" meme.

Let me be clear - I agree with the starting assertion: a huge amount of evil has been done in the name of religion. That is manifest and undeniable. Most religious people counter with how much good has been done in the name of religion. The problem is that, now, we've turned religion into a math problem - let's add up all of the good that religion has done, and all of the bad. If there is more good than bad, then I'll be religious. If not, then I won't.

There are lots of problems with this approach, not the least of which is the impossibility of quantifying, and then comparing, all of the good and evil done by religion over the centuries. But, there is a more fundamental problem with this line of reasoning. Whether or not religion has done more harm than good is an (important) academic question. But, when it comes to my own, personal religious life, there is a much more important question: will religion make me better or worse.

Let's pretend that we can all agree that religion has, throughout history, caused 3-times more pain than it has cured. On whole, religion has been a net-negative to society. But, let's also imagine that religion will make me a better person - a kinder, more thoughtful person. One who is more likely to help others, and try to improve the world. What benefit is there, to me or to the world, in my not being religious? Why should I lessen my own life, and (in a very, very, very tiny way) the goodness of the world simply because so many others have misused religion? It doesn't make any sense!

In fact, by responding to their evil by not being religious, what I have really done is ceded religion to the evil people. When, what I really want to be doing is, in my own small way, working to redeem religion - to help it be the force for good, for uplift, for redemption, that it is meant to be.

I love a music metaphor here. Most music is, let's admit it, garbage. If you turn on the radio, most of what you hear isn't very good. Imagine if Mozart was alive today, listened to the state of music and said, "well, if that's what music is, then I want no part of it." How much less would our world be for that? What would he have accomplished by bowing out, simply because so many get it wrong? Music isn't bad. Bad music is bad. And, talented artists do us no favors by reacting to bad music by becoming non-musicians.

There are lots of reasons not to be religious, and lots of good people who decide to follow that road. That's fine - that's their right. But let's stop pretending that evil acts, ancient or modern, near or far, have any real bearing on what we do with our own religious lives. If you love religion, live it, and don't let the crackpots and miscreants take that away from you.

Chag Sameach - A happy, and redemptive, Passover to all.

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