Friday, October 15, 2010


Dangerous Religious Beliefs

I am often tempted to think that some religions are good and others bad. At least, I often think that some are better than others. The three great religions of this planet in terms of adherents are Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.

In the past two or three millennia zealots of these faiths have carried out acts in which the object was to kill members of a different faith. In spite of history, each of these three faiths teaches that it is wrong and immoral to kill another human being, except as a punishment for a heinous crime. All three faiths tolerate a death penalty for convicted murderers.

We Christians have a long history of killing our enemies (and our annoyances) in the name of religion. A thousand years ago we organized crusades to recover the holy land (Jerusalem and environs) from the control of the Muslims. Our guys won many battles and killed many Muslims, but in the end, the Muslims prevailed. More recently we American Christians wiped out more than ninety percent of the population of North America. The occupants (only recently have we conceded that they were and are the true natives) were using farm land that we coveted. We discovered early in our history here that the natives were susceptible to measles and small pox. We now know that they simply had never been exposed to such diseases and had therefore no immunity to them. At the time we knew nothing about viruses, bacteria, and other biological causes of disease. Our religious leaders assured us that the deaths of the occupiers were signs that God wanted us to have the land. We believed and we accepted this presumed gift from God. The slaughter by disease of the native population was the greatest act of genocide in history.

Islam spread rapidly from the faithful surrounding the Prophet Muhammad and his family to a vast area from Central Asia and India to the northern parts of Africa. The spread was rapid and was helped along by some battles and killings of those who didn’t want to convert. Islam penetrated parts of Europe (Southern Spain and Portugal. Later, when the Turks finally overthrew the Eastern Roman Empire, they introduced Islam into Bulgaria, Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia. The church and government of Spain got rid of the Muslims after 1492 by various unpleasant practices of the Spanish Inquisition. Deaths were used to induce conversions from Islam to Catholicism. At the same time, Jews were allowed to leave.

I have not read much about the spread of Buddhism across much of Asia. There is one important difference between the teachings of the Buddha and those of the Christ and the Prophet. The Buddha taught that each person should decide for himself whether to adopt the teachings of Buddhism. There was no promise of heaven or any other reward for a convert and no threat of death or other punishment for the non-convert. I do not advance this difference as an argument that Buddhists have been less lethal in their competition with strangers than Christians and Muslims. I argue only that the Buddhist religion has no justification for forced conversions, no promise of heaven for those who die fighting for defense of the faith, and no story about Armageddon and the Return of Christ. I do not cite any examples of mass murder, forced conversion, or genocide by Buddhists simply because I am not aware of any such examples.

One can not say with any certainty that one religion is better or truer than another. We’re each free to choose our belief and live according to it. We’re also free not to choose any system of belief. Our federal constitution guarantees us this freedom of belief. Another aspect of this uncertainty is that no religion is inherently evil. However, clerics and holy men and women of any religion can and sometimes do incite their followers to do evil things in the name of their beliefs. Some Muslim clerics have for centuries used Islam to justify the murder of perceived enemies. Recent history has shown us the power of the fatwa issued against a specific person. Salman Rushdie was for years the target of a fatwa for a book he had written. A cartoonist in Denmark, a movie producer in the Netherlands, and others, have been the targets of fatwas for insulting the Prophet.

Christian and Buddhist clerics have no weapon like the fatwa with which to intimidate enemies. The worst thing a Christian cleric (e.g., a bishop) can do is to excommunicate a follower. Several American politicians have been punished in this way. They are all still in good health.

The issuance of fatwas and the promise of going straight to heaven to meet and enjoy seventy voluptuous virgins are Islamic religious beliefs that I regard as dangerous. They’re not evil in themselves, but they put dangerous power in the hands of the clergy. Our constitutional guarantees of various individual rights have evolved over centuries as tools to restrict the absolute power of public officials.

Finally, I’m getting to my point. Certain current Christian beliefs are dangerous. A very dangerous belief is the immanence of the Apocalypse and the Second Coming. Many Christians today, especially in the more radical sects, believe that these events will occur very soon, perhaps within the next ten years. If they are to be that soon, then we should do one of two things:

1. Immediately get our religious lives in order. Pray. Confess our sins. Do everything possible to be on the good side of Christ when He returns so that we may live and enjoy his 1000 years of rule.

2. Immediately start enjoying whatever life we still have. Forget about protecting the environment; Christ will tend to that. Make money. Spend money. Cheat. Rob. Steal. Rape. Kill. We will die and nothing will count when the time comes. In the mean time, live well and make merry.

You can see in an instant how destructive this belief can be. The only way to control the crazies among us is to convince them that the Apocalypse isn’t going to occur during our lifetimes. At the earliest, it will happen to our great-great grandchildren in their old age. We haven’t done a very good job of convincing. Many of the crazies see the triumph of Israel over the unfortunate Palestinians as a necessary prelude to the Second Coming and the Armageddon and the Rapture and all that.

Another point is that we have to live in a world with many belief systems. Some of them conflict with others. One belief system is the scientific one. In this system we neglect and ignore the possibility that a great divine power is present and is active in the events that we see and experience. Everything is explained or understood to happen without the interference or action of a creator. This is the world view the physicists, the chemists, the geneticists, the archeologist, the astronomers, and other scientists have put together and described. Another belief system is one of the religions I’ve mentioned or some religion I haven’t mentioned; e.g., Judaism, Hinduism, the Bahai’i Faith. If we are sincere in our religious beliefs, we then must accommodate two or more mutually contradictory ideas before breakfast. One test of civilization is how well we do at such accommodation.


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