Religion gets a bad rap nowadays, and not without good reason. Human sacrifice, circumcision, oppression of women, the caste system, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, honour killings, stoning, gunning down abortionists, opposing condom use in Africa, blaming homosexuals for wars and natural disasters, scaring children with the idea of Hell: yes, religion has a bad historical track record. And let’s not forget the televangelists.
Unfortunately, the attack on religion in the last decade or so might be strengthening “religion”, in the pejorative sense of the word. Writers like Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have mounted a spectacular intellectual and moral(izing) campaign against religious irrationalism. But perhaps they miss the point of religion, or what religion could be today.
Apologists for religion range from the reactionary (“Don’t talk about my Saviour that way!”) to the more mild, I’m-not-religious-but-I’m-spiritual claptrap (thank you, Oprah and Eckhart Tolle). The attack on, and the resurgence of, religion has a chicken-egg quality to it: who knows which came first? Or maybe it’s a symbiotic relationship: they strengthen each other.
One downside of the attack is that it lends a rebel, underdog prestige to religion’s apologists, who can now say, “Now we're
the ones being attacked, so we must be right.” But Dennett and co. (sometimes called The Four Horsemen) are often too clever by half, alienating religious moderates who might otherwise help fix religion from the inside. Instead, religion has dug in its heels against the outsiders and become more fundamentalist.
Oddly, defenders of religious metaphysics sometimes refer to science as also being “faith based”, or call science “just another religion”. Strange that a defender of religion would use the term “religion” to denigrate someone’s adherence to a heretical doctrine. But no matter what side you take – religion or science – the opposition, the presented choice, is a false one: science is not (or should
not be taken on) faith, and religious mythology is not (or should
not be considered) just a ridiculous attempt at science.
The more interesting dimension of modern religion is politico-moral, not metaphysical. Of course, say the rationalists, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead (if he ever existed). Of course God didn’t create the world as it is today 6000 years ago and in six days with a break on the seventh day. Of course angels, demons, spirits don’t exist any more than hobbits, elves, fairies or leprechauns. Less clear, but more important, is whether we should oppose or support capital punishment, a woman’s right to choose, or mutilating babies’ genitals.
The same religious texts have been used to both justify and condemn the same social practices, such as slavery, the oppression of women, and colonialism. But if we can use the same religion to alternately support or condemn the same thing, who is right? Well, that depends who you ask. Scripture is malleable enough to support or oppose just about anything. So the question is not “Who’s right?”, it’s “What kind of world would you rather live in?”
Barring fundamentalists, we can mostly agree that there is no obvious one way to interpret any religious scripture. There is no core text, no “the way God really meant it”. There are too many contradictions in scripture, so we have to settle for interpretations of it. If we can agree on this much then we can get over the “Who is right?’ question and move on to the “What world would you rather live in?” one.
If we ask that
question, the science-religion debate becomes the obsolete stuff of non-fiction bestseller lists and televangelical doomsday rants. Neither side of that debate is interested in getting to the better, second question, since their only answers to it are “A world where religion is nothing” and “A world where religion is everything” respectively, because they get stuck on the bad, “Who’s right?” question.
Given all the baggage and lack of sympathy on either side of the religion-science debate, it might seem impossible to reconcile the secular “progressives” with any of the “religious types”. But maybe there’s hope, at least for the moderates on each side.
Imagine, if you will, people who profess to be religious or “spiritual” (whatever that
means) joining hardcore atheists in a movement towards social justice. To do this, we’d need them to focus on the question “What world would you rather live in?” Then we’d move on to more specific questions, such as, “What about pro-choice, capital punishment, gay rights, public housing, supervised injection?” etc.
After all, there’s plenty in every religion to support such a movement, just as there is plenty to resist it. So we’d need to boldly emphasize all that is geared toward social justice in religion, and dismiss the rest. This would mean, primarily, that religious people become the harshest critics of their own religious communities wherever possible.
It’s too easy to attack religion from the outside, riding in like one of the Four Horsemen, and it seems only to embolden the enemy. A real transformational movement would mean, to paraphrase Jesus, dividing the religious house against itself so that it cannot stand. Fight Bible with Bible, I say.
So where’s all the socially progressive stuff in religion? I assure you, it’s there. It’s most obvious in Christianity, which accounts for the well-known truism that the Christian Church is the least “Christian” entity known to mankind. Jesus preached love, compassion, forgiveness, to help the poor, to not judge, to not be greedy, to not succumb to anger by resisting violence with violence of one’s own. And the Church is, well, the Church. As Barney Gumble put it, “Jesus must be spinning in his grave.”
And what more could a political radical ask for than Old Testament stories of the injustices done to the Jewish people by brutal power structures and the overcoming of enslavement and persecution? The prophetic tradition in the Jewish bible, too, contains a radical form of social (self)criticism that could be harnessed for a broad social justice movement. And, unlike the mostly preachy New Testament, Judaism deals with whatever “God” means in a psychologically complex and often highly sardonic way.
Islam, the poster/whipping boy of bad religions, can be made socially progressive, too. Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, is a system of social welfare that makes sure the wealth of the community goes to the needy. Imagine the anti-poverty movement joining with Muslims to emphasize the social ideals implied in Zakat.
Outside the monotheistic traditions there is even more ammunition for social justice. Buddhism teaches critical self-awareness and a deep concern for others. Confucianism (which, like some other Eastern religions, is often parodied as overly superstitious, what with all the shrines and praying to dead relatives for luck) emphasizes the importance of social cohesion and the duty of those in power to provide for the proper welfare of their people. Hinduism reminds us that there is more to life than selfish, worldly desires. And indigenous religions and cultures, of course, can teach us immeasurably about environmental practices and societal ethics.
So why do we not harness all of this religious potential? Religion isn’t going anywhere. The only reasonable option is to get as many religiously-minded people as possible on “our” side, appealing to their respective religions while getting them to contribute to a wider social justice movement. It’s been done before. Thomas Paine, the American revolutionary and pamphleteer, used Biblical references to back up his argument against the arbitrary authoritarianism of the monarchy. Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous letter from Birmingham jail, refuted the church’s own apologists for segregation with a socially radical reading of the Bible. Gandhi’s vision of social justice and his struggle against British imperialism, surprisingly, was inspired by the otherwise war-driven Hindu epic, the Bhagavad-Gita.
I’ve been thinking about this for some time now: how to start a genuine, uncompromisingly Leftist interfaith movement that stresses the socially progressive aspects of all religions. I think this would be necessary for building broadly based social justice movement. The problem is one of organization. The fascists, after all, were able to seize power partly through their keen, large-scale organizational skills. This is the one thing the Left could learn from fascism.
Interfaith groups, as they now exist, seem to me to be based on necessarily divisive grounds. That is, they are based on everyone’s personal “faith” or “cultural identity”, which are not really good starting points for solidarity at all. The only thing that interfaith group members have in common is a shared resentment of an overly secular society in which their religious beliefs put them on the defensive.
But what about an interfaith group that united around a shared social vision, to which each member’s religion would be directed? A group that used religion to oppose religion’s own intolerance, oppression, and irresponsible withdrawal from public debate.
According to its etymology the word “religion” means to bind together. In this strictly literal sense, what could be better than to bind “spiritual” and “secular” people together with a common concern for social justice? That would be a religion I’d adhere to fully. Hey, maybe I should become a televangelist.
You can also see this article in the zine Junkyard, issue 2, July 2011. The zine is available at many fine books stores in Vancouver, excluding Spartacus Books, which decided not to stock it, likely because of my article in it about rape fantasies.