Is Religion More the Problem than the Answer?

I think a case can be made that religion gets a free ride in this country.

"Never discuss religion or politics with your customers" is a standard business maxim. The reason is obvious. People's religious and political belief systems are apt to be untouchable by logic. Or evidence. Or anything else approaching intelligent discourse. And a businessperson cannot risk alienating potential customers by challenging deeply-held notions and expect to stay in business.

Fair enough. Business success is tough enough to achieve under the best of circumstances; no sense deliberately making it harder.

But what about the larger public arena? Politics certainly gets its share of public discussion, with supporters and detractors on almost every subject vigorously arguing their positions.

But have you noticed, the same cannot be said for religion? It's almost automatically assumed as a good thing, the foundation of our country. Even when some bizarre event involving religion comes along, like the Heaven's Gate cult mass suicide, it is presented as an anomaly, not as an extreme case of what may be troublesome about religion in general.

What, pray tell, could possibly be troublesome about religion in general, you ask. Plenty. But first, permit me a brief diversion to give you some perspective on where I'm coming from. Honest debate requires it.

I have up-close and personal knowledge about religion from the inside. I was born into and raised in an extremely religious tradition. My father was a Southern Baptist minister. He was the fourth generation minister in his family, with his great-grandfather having come to America as a missionary to Native Americans. My mother's family is also deeply steeped in religious vocation, with ministers and missionaries all over the place.

It was and is genuine and benign, like Mother Teresa, not charlatanesque like the TV evangelist type.

So having been baptized a Christian at age eight, with a tearful profession of faith in Jesus as is customary in such churches, I "surrendered" to the ministry at age 13 or so. I preached my first sermon when I was 15, began leading "youth-led revivals" shortly thereafter, served two stints as a student summer missionary in Alaska, and was ordained a full-fledged minister at age 18, serving as pastor of two rural churches throughout my college days. I was the featured speaker at many functions of the college ministerial society, since platform skills came somewhat naturally to me because of my background.

I loved what I was doing and couldn't have been more sincere. Except for one thing. I began to think for myself. Serious questions about the religious indoctrination I had imbibed began in college, even though I attended a conservative religious institution. They continued in seminary. When I sought answers, I was told, "Kick the rock. When you've finished kicking it, you'll know it's a rock." And other no-think pap of that genre. Well, it wasn't so. The more I investigated the basic tenets of the faith, the more certain I became that Christianity was no more valid than any of the religions I had been taught were false.

Nonetheless, I loved being a minister and wanted to serve people. I decided to try to ignore my inability to believe such basic doctrines as biblical inspiration, the divinity of Jesus, the necessity of religious salvation, and plunge into living a devout life of service in a simple setting. Although I had been something of a star during seminary days, often preaching at the campus church to my fellow students and professors, upon graduation I refused to play politics and accepted a simple country church.

I served this and then a similar one in the poor part of the city for seven years. It became increasingly harder to do with integrity. At age 32 I faced a choice: either get out of religion or risk becoming publicly phony and privately cynical, as I saw happening to many of my minister friends. I chose to get out. Five more years of graduate school gave me a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and my subsequent career.

Now, let's return to my opening contention that religion is being given a free ride. What I mean is the automatic assumption that religion is a good thing, that it makes people better, that America was founded on religious principles, that without religion immorality would completely take over. Horsefeathers!

John Lennon's signature song "Imagine" was, unfortunately, ahead of its time. What if there were no religion? Well, let's see.

1. Most of the world's wars would not have been fought. Start with the wars the bible glorifies against the "enemies of God" and come all the way through the Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades, the cruel colonization of less developed countries by Christian countries who were sure God was on their side, to the modern-day conflict in the Middle East between warring factions who are all convinced they have religious sanction for their battles.

2. Many of the worst atrocities would not have been committed. I'll mention just a few. The Inquisition in which believers (people of religious faith all) were tortured and killed because their brand of orthodoxy was not acceptable, burning at the stake of religious reformers who dared deviate from the party line, witch trials and drownings of innocent, simple people (most of them women) who found disfavor with religious (most of them male) leaders, slavery of Africans by staunch religious people who justified it on biblical grounds, and the shameful treatment of Native Americans who were considered savages in spite of their deep respect for the land and for the sanctity of their word (in stark contrast with their Christian plunderers).

3. Insidious prejudice could not hide behind religious shields. Without question one of the most powerful appeals of religion is the desire to be a part of the in-group. Religion promises that in spades, all the while claiming (and perhaps intending) to be egalitarian. When you've gone through the initiation ceremony, sort of like the plebes at a military institute, it's just real easy to feel superior to those who haven't. Such prejudice, sometimes masquerading as evangelistic concern, is pandemic with religions.

4. All the money spent in support of organized religion would be available for more direct, more useful humanitarian effort. Think of the multiplied billions of dollars that have been poured into organized religion through the centuries. The temples, the cathedrals, the mosques, the churches. Edifices that glorify some god? Not unless the god is an idiot. It's easy to see that the religious gurus of primitive cultures, however sincere they were, however revered, were a drain on the system. Somebody else had to do the work they were not doing, to say nothing of their demands for sacrificial giving to the god they represented. Today's professional religionists, again however sincere, are no different. They have to be paid, and their churches have to be supported.

5. It would be clearer that, although all people are created with equal rights to the pursuit of happiness, not all people are equally likely to live responsibly, no matter what. The church (as a symbol of organized religion) has some very good, generous, unselfish people in it. It also has some very bad, stingy, selfish people in it. If religion really, in and of itself, had the power to change people, all religious people would be benificent and kind. I don't mean "without sin," to use the common religious phrase; I just mean basically good. Anybody with half a smidgen of intellectual honesty knows that's not the case. It isn't clear whether there is a higher percentage of responsible people within religion than without, but I suspect that if there is, it isn't statistically significant.

We operate on the assumption that the overwhelming majority of people believe religion is important and good. I challenge that assumption. We know that at least half the population of this country seldom or never attends a religious function. If we think about it, we also know that a hefty percentage of those who are active religiously do so for something other than religious reasons. Community approval, social contacts, business and political expectations. I don't know how large the percentage of people who are genuinely faithful is, but I suspect it's much smaller than the noise it makes.

People have every right, of course, to be as religious as they choose, so long as the practice of their religion doesn't infringe on the rights of others. Many, many good, honest, sincere people are totally convinced that their religious views are not only right, but are what make them good, honest, and sincere. My parents are among them. I respect them, all the sincere believers. I also think they are, unfortunately, deluded. Even so, their very goodness has seen religion do many humane and wonderful things--education, hunger relief, care for the homeless. These things often need some sort of organization to occur effectively. It just doesn't have to be a religious organization, based on superstitious notions about salvation and eternal life.

I would like to see a world in which, instead of pouring our resources of time, money and energy into religious coffers, we tried building a more humane society among those who are so inclined. And that we quit assuming that religion is sacred.

Oops! If religion isn't sacred, is anything? Perhaps not.

Or perhaps everything is.

John S. Compere, Ph.D., is a retired clinical psychologist and professional speaker, who was an ordained Baptist minister until age 32. He is a new Foundation member from Oregon.


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