Fifth place: Graduate student college essay contest by Peter D. A. Wood

Religions are responsible for their unclear teachings

FFRF awarded Peter $500.

By Peter D. A. Wood

Since adolescence I have been taught that I am held accountable for what I tell others. As a child, if I told my younger siblings that a boogie man was in the basement, my parents held me responsible for dealing with their night terrors or overly aggressive relationship with the basement staircase. Reasonable parents would address a fear-mongering child like me by telling me to verify my claims before they might scare others. As adults we are similarly expected to think before we preach. Ironically, this type of accountability is rarely applied to the self-declared preachers of churches, mosques, synagogues and other houses of worship.

When faced with the problem of violent religious extremism, the institutions that extremists claim to be part of often claim those very groups to be non-representative outliers. In other words, they suggest that because hateful deviants fail to represent belief systems in a marketing-friendly manner, their association with the “peaceful” teachings of mainstream religions must be nullified and rejected. I find at least one viewpoint to be helpful in exploring such a problem: product liability law. This legal framework demonstrates how an undeniable contract, denoted in holy scripture and distributed by clergy as a divine bond between sinner and creator, exists between religious bodies and extremists committing horrific acts based on the doctrines and teachings of those religions. For success, eternal or otherwise, religions must be held responsible for the terrestrial results of any unclear or harmful orders found in those doctrines.

Product liability — the concept that producers of a product are held responsible for direct damages induced by that product — is directly related to how religions function.

Organized religions produce worldviews, often dogmatically, which are essentially “purchased” by members of those faiths. People buy into religious dogma with the understanding that obedience to these instructions will yield terrestrial and heavenly rewards. Whether interpretations of these instructions result in something trivial (such as disinterest in grilled catfish) or something abhorrent (such as genocide), culpability needs to be assessed and asserted.

Within Christianity there are numerous examples of biblical references to self-sacrifice and later reward. Even in the New Testament — the less controversial testament showing a kinder, less megalomaniacal side of God — we see a producer-consumer type of relationship. Here God asks us to offer ourselves by praising him (Hebrews 13:15), and in turn we shall receive eternal salvation (1 Peter 1:5). 1 John 3:23 says that we are to believe in Jesus and love one another to gain entry into heaven. Love, however, takes many forms depending on the context. Love is commonly expressed in nonviolent or peaceful ways, but these options do not form an exhaustive list. Within the bible we are told by Jesus to “harm no man” (Luke 3:14), but this same loving God also reminds us that nonbelievers will face “fire” and “perdition” on judgment day (2 Peter 3:7). When we consider doublespeak like this, it is easier to understand how “fighting the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12) can mean both defending the meek and exploited (such as women and minorities), but also eliminating heretics (such as abortion-performing physicians) in order to purify God’s earth.

Many religious leaders say those guilty of atrocities done in the name of religion are radicals not connected to the institution. But did these radicals generate their ideas and association to, say, Islam or Buddhism, in a vacuum? Is it a coincidence radical Islamists revere the same Allah as nonviolent imams? No, because the religion responsible for the creation of this figure (and the promises he makes as a condition for obeying him) instigated much of the killer-making process. In this sense, religions are responsible for both the peaceful and violent products they inspire.

If radicals are not apt representations of a religion, but instead faulty products of the system of belief they try to uphold, isn’t their producer still liable?

When Barack Obama says extremists are misguided, or Pope Francis says they are religious deviants, we can make a logical connection: These misinterpretations and deviations come from doctrines which are susceptible to being misinterpreted. Events like the Second Vatican Council demonstrate how unclear doctrine is a concern that must be addressed. If similar lack of clarity inspires thousands to kill in the name of God, these doctrines certainly have not been made clear enough.

Religions are producers much like manufacturing companies. The products they distribute can be wondrous or they can be toxic hazards. Imagine if religions were taxed like manufacturers and sold their texts explicitly as instruction manuals for reaching heaven (much like “get rich quick!” or “lose 50 pounds drinking lemon juice!” scams). Ambiguities within these texts would be held as liabilities and not as excused discretions in judgment. Extremists acting as self-appointed representatives of faith are not the only faces of religion, but they are religious ambassadors nonetheless. As atheists, secularists and agnostics, we must hold religions accountable for the messages they disseminate, rather than shamefully agreeing with their leaders that moderate belief is the only form of piety. Religious violence is a polarizing, multifaceted phenomenon.

Solving it must start from within religious institutions by holding them accountable for their products, whether they are effective or dangerous. While asking for a recall of bibles, Qurans, and Bhagavad-Gitas like faulty microwave ovens is a bit ambitious, we should still strive to neutralize their negative influences. This can — and should — be done through firm diplomatic pressure toward countries tolerant of religions evading responsibility for their teachings. Through political accountability perhaps religious leaders will think twice before delivering unverifiable sermons based on misleading doctrines.

Peter is a 27-year-old graduate student from Davenport, Iowa. He’s a fifth-year doctoral candidate in geography at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., and plans to graduate in May 2016. He graduated from Oklahoma State University in 2010 with degrees in geography and political science. He is a member of the Secular Student Alliance at FSU.

Freedom From Religion Foundation