Religion: For Better or For Worse

And it seems such a waste of time
If that’s what it’s all about
Mama, if that’s movin’ up then I’m movin’ out

And if that’s what you have in mind
Yeah, if that’s what you’re all about
Good luck, moving up, ‘cause I’m movin’ out

—Billy Joel

Photo by Master Wen
Photo by Master Wen

In psychology, there is a body of work that suggests that confrontation may at times be necessary for change, but it is never sufficient. Similarly, one might suggest that religion may at times be an acceptable and understandable pathway for spiritual growth and social change, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient. This post will explore that proposition and explain why “I’m movin’ out.”

Let’s start by scaling the range of purposes that religions either espouse or act upon:

5.0: Religion is used to mobilize commitment, build community, and develop sustainable actions for peace and the greater good
4.0: Religion is used to guide moral behavior, virtuous actions, and a deeper sense of meaning and purpose for individuals
3.0: Religion is used for comfort and security
2.0: Religion is used for power and control
1.0: Religion is used for violence and abuse

I will start at the bottom of the scale and work my way up.

Level 1.0: Violence and Abuse

Religious violence is motivated by or in reaction to religious precepts, texts, or doctrines. This includes violence against religious institutions, people, or objects. In the West, we typically think of ISIS or radical Islam as a religion that is marked by violence or abuse – a 1.0 on our scale. In a recent article in the New York Times (August 13, 2015), a reporter exposed the tactics and rational of ISIS for engaging in sexual slavery and abuse. In this case, thousands of Yazidi women were captured and sold into slavery because they didn’t subscribe to Muslim teaching. The most horrifying example was the self-justification of a young ISIS soldier who prayed to his God before raping a 12 year old Yazidi girl. He firmly believed that his religion condoned that behavior and many other reprehensive behaviors as well, for example, beheading an 83 year old scholar for protecting an archaeological site.

But Islam is not the only religion that has used violence to advance its goals. Christianity’s history is also littered with the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, and antisemitism. One might also add to the list: justification of slavery, world-wide colonialism under the guise of conversion to Christianity, and subjugation of women.

Even Hinduism, which places non-violence at the forefront of all, recognizes the imperative of violence in human life. The world in which we live is ruled by Death (Kala) a manifestation of Brahma, who is the most violent of all. And if you have read the Bhagavagita, you will recall that Arjuna witnesses the most violent and terrifying form of existence one could ever imagine.

In her new book, Fields of Blood, Karen Armstrong traces the history of religious violence over the past 9 millennia.

My point, however, is not to cast all religions as violence factories, but to challenge the inclination to paint all people in all religions with a broad brush whether that’s at 1.0 or 5.0 on my scale. There is wide variation within religions as well as between religions. There are as many examples of religions serving as forces for good as there are examples of religions serving as forces for evil.

The problem is that most of the world subscribes to one religion or another and we are faced with competing narratives and ideologies that sometimes erupt into violence and abuse (level 1) or engage in manipulation and control (level 2).

Photo by Master Wen

To be specific, there are approximately 7 billion people on earth and about 6 billion would describe themselves as following one religion or another. Current estimates put the distribution as follows:

Christians: 2.2 billion
Muslims: 1.6 billion
Hindus: 1.0 billion
Buddhists: .6 billion
Jews: 14 million (yes, that an M for million, not a B for billion)
Other religions: .6 billion
Non-religious 1.0 billion (secular, agnostic, or atheist)

While the percentage of post-religious people continues to grow (i.e. more and more people define themselves as secular, agnostic, or atheist), about 83% of the world population still identifies with a particular faith. This identification, particularly when it morphs into over-identification, is a big problem. When people shift down to level 1.0, violence and abuse occur. On the other hand, when they move up to 3.0, 4.0, or 5.0 (or move out to post-religious), good things can happen. In short, while religion is neither necessary or sufficient for spiritual growth, it can be a constructive vehicle for individuals and society. Pope Francis is a refreshing example of being a constructive force.

Level 2.0: Power and Control

The first step for controlling a person’s mind is to control their environment. By determining which people and what information a person has access to, one can shape a person’s perception of the world. One can also manipulate circumstances to create an impression of supernatural wisdom or divine favor. Other strategies for control and manipulation are the demand for purity and an insistence on confession. Religions have mastered the strategies of control.

Organized religion is one group of humans telling another group in a different religion that they are wrong. Or, as Nietzsche would say, “It’s one group of people using religion to manipulate the masses for purposes of power and control.” Yes, unscrupulous leaders can and do turn religion into a tool by which to manipulate and control people – to keep the oppressed silent and the militant obedient. And sometimes the fear of undermining or questioning authority has led to suppression of scientific data and repression of healthy sexual functioning. Power hungry manipulators can turn religion into a confining cage. Too many people are suffering in that prison.

Level 3.0: Comfort and Security

So what happens if a person or group decides to move up from level 1 or 2 described above, to level 3, 4, or 5. While it is true that religion is often a crutch (used for purposes of comfort and security), it is also true that most people do live difficult lives. A large share of the 7 billion people on earth live in poverty. Many suffer from disease. Others feel aimless and want to be told how to live. Religion can be a solace for the soul. It gives them a firm foundation on which they can build their daily lives. It may stop them from making costly mistakes and motivate them to care for others. Most people need boundaries and rules, so religion can serve a vital function. Using religion as a crutch (level 3) can help insecure and/or disenfranchised people function and heal. As such, it serves a useful purpose. If religion becomes too much of a crutch, however, it can cause great harm: creative thinkers may be restricted by rules and regulations, or a visionary artist may be stifled into a spiritual death. It’s hard to determine when a crutch ceases to help and starts to stunt growth.

In my opinion, comfort and security are the main attractions for people who join a religious community. It’s a reassuring feeling to believe you have found the truth and that salvation comes from putting your faith in the God or Gods of a particular religion. Given the daunting challenges of life and the terrifying reality of death, I get it. And I accept why people would want to join an organization that provides support, affirmation, defined rules for living, and a guarantee for an after-life.

Level 4.0: An individual’s guide for moral behavior, virtuous actions, and a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.

At level 4, many people assert that their religious beliefs serve as a guide for moral behavior and virtuous actions, and give them a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life. Most religions do have value frameworks regarding personal behavior meant to help adherents determine what is right and what is wrong. These include the 10 Commandments, the Triple Jems of Jainism, Judaism’s Halach, Islam’s Sharia, Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, and Zoroastrianism’s “good thoughts, good words, and good deeds” concept. Religion and morality, however, are not synonymous. As Peter Bayle said in 1690, “religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for morality.” While it is true that most adherents derive ideas of right and wrong from the rules and laws set forth in their respective authoritative guides and by their religious leaders, value judgments can vary greatly among religions past and present. Having said that, I believe that most religious people use religion as a constructive guide to moral behavior and virtuous action.

Most of my family is very religious, and I know that their behavior is largely influenced by their faith traditions. As it turns out, they are some of the most decent and helpful people I have ever known. I may disagree with their religious beliefs, but I applaud and admire their actions. For me, the rub comes when people claim to be at level 4, but quickly revert to level 1, 2, or 3 behaviors in times of stress, disagreement, or crisis. You can’t have it both ways.

Level 5.0: Organizational inspiration to mobilize commitment, build community, and develop sustainable actions for peace and the greater good

Finally, at level 5 on our scale, religion is used to mobilize commitment, build community, and develop sustainable actions for peace and the greater good. While we are bombarded with information that portrays religion as a cause of intractable conflict in the world, we rarely hear the positive powers of religion. All of the world’s religions, however, have a significant emphasis on peace, reconciliation, financial assistance, and conflict resolution. Religious leaders and adherents have played major roles in mitigating conflict and reducing the suffering of people in difficult circumstances. Motivated by the desire to help those less fortunate, many religious based organizations are involved in humanitarian assistance. Their desire is to relieve suffering, whether due to natural disaster or man-made calamity and many have proven themselves very effective in this regard. Many religious organizations are also engaged in long-range development projects. At times, however, these projects have the unintended consequences of creating or exacerbating conflict. As a result, there is a growing recognition that peace-building efforts are an essential ingredient for sustainable development. Some religious organizations that stand out as level 5 exemplars in much of the work they do are: the American Jewish World Service, Catholic Relief Services, Mercy Corps, and World Vision. In the best cases, these organizations bring community leaders together across ethnic and religious divisions to promote collaboration and interdependence and to defuse oppositional divisiveness.

So, yes, there are abundant examples of religions being used for better and for worse. The two main points I would like to emphasize in this post are 1) there is greater variability within religions than between them, and 2) religions may serve useful purposes, but they are neither necessary or sufficient for spiritual growth and world peace.

I have no idea how to distribute all of the adherents of the world religions on the five-point scale I have used to organize my thoughts in this article. My suspicion is that the highest percentages of people at level 4 subscribe to the tenants of Buddhism, but some would argue that Buddhism is not a religion. I also have the hunch that, at this point in history, the largest percentage of levels 1 and 2 are self-professed Muslims. I do know from my research that there is significant overlap in the esoteric beliefs of all religions. At their essence, religions are more alike than different. I also know from my readings and observations that there is tremendous variability within each religion among their followers on the five-point scale. I know very devoted, kind, decent helpful Muslims, Jews, Christians, Seiks, Buddhists, etc. And we all know that unimaginable evil is committed by individuals in the name of each of these religions.

So what do we do about this predicament? For me, I will continue to believe that religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for spiritual growth and world peace, but I will continue to honor those individuals and organizations at levels 3, 4, and 5 that do tremendous good in the name of their respective religious beliefs. And I will continue to rail against those individuals and organizations who continue to operate at levels 1 and 2 while professing to be at levels 4 and 5. For example, ISIS pretends to be at level 5, but acts at levels 1 and 2. It is hypocritical incongruence at its worst. In short, religion can be for better or for worse. If you are not going to move out, you might as well move up. But, for me, “it’s not what I’m all about; I’m movin’ out!”

Also published on Medium.

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Ronny Donny
Ronny Donny

Amen, brother! You just keep getting better!! Loved the post, and I love you.


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