Imagine No Religion

I wasn’t sure whether I should publish this piece. I wrote it because the thoughts in it were kicking around relentlessly in my head, and the only way to free my brain was to get them down in writing. But then I felt nervous about making it public, because it’s not characteristic of my writing: it tackles a controversial topic, it deals more directly with religion than I’m comfortable with, and I felt that old familiar fear that maybe people wouldn’t agree with me. And if they didn’t agree with me, maybe they wouldn’t like me.

Then I took some deep breaths, prayed (for real) and reminded myself that it isn’t my job to make people like me. So here goes. 

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“I am not praying for Paris,” began the Facebook post, which had been written by somebody I don’t know and re-posted by a friend.

“I am not praying for Paris, nor am I praying for any other region of the world that has felt the wrath of the worst kind of religious zealotry.”

Well, at least this is something different, I thought.

In the wake of attacks by Islamic State terrorists that killed 129 people in Paris, it was intriguing to see how social media can dictate our responses: The day after the attacks, my Facebook feed was a stream of images of the French flag and the Eiffel Tower. Many people — including some who ordinarily eschew religious practice — posted that they were “praying for Paris.” Social media confirmed these as socially acceptable responses to the tragedy.

One could argue that these were gestures of solidarity, outpourings of support in the face of crippling grief and horror; one could also argue that these were meaningless gestures, enabling us to feel socially conscious without ever having to leave the comfort of our chairs. I wonder how many of those who posted that they were praying for Paris on Facebook and Twitter actually meant what they said: How many typed that phrase, and then got onto their knees to converse with a deity whom they truly believed could hear and intercede?

So I appreciated this Facebook post’s honest refusal to parrot the social-media-approved response to the Paris attacks. Let’s not dilute the power of supernatural communication; if you’re not really praying, it’s perfectly acceptable to say that you’re “thinking of” or “mourning with” Paris.

But the post continued:

… I’m of the opinion (I won’t say “belief”) that religion itself is at BEST willfully naive. Until we as a species can move beyond the fairy tales of our infancy, and cease to yearn for the annihilation of the self, the spirit, and the rebellious spark that makes all lives unique and interesting, we’re going to have psychopathic idiots who think propagating violence in the name of some deity is a good idea. [I]t’s religion that so often creates this violence, we don’t need more of it (even of the “best” kind).

This opinion — that religion is naïve at best and dangerous at worst because much of the world’s violence stems from religious zealotry — is nothing new; it’s the same tune that John Lennon sang in his 1971 hit “Imagine,” in which he nixed religion from his vision of utopia.

Let’s set aside the fact that likening all religious faith to “the fairy tales of our infancy” is a stunningly arrogant statement, dismissing the beliefs of billions of people across space and time, including some of history’s brightest minds; perhaps the author of this post really does have an edge up on all of these silly believers.

Of course, an awful lot of beautiful music, art, writing, social justice, and science have been inspired by religious beliefs, but that’s not a strong argument in support of religion; plenty of innovations originate from secular sources, as well. It’s undeniable that numerous atrocities have been committed throughout history in the name of religion. So, is religion really the problem? And if so, is getting rid of religion really the solution?

If history revealed that all — or even most — large-scale acts of violence were caused by religious zealotry, this argument might hold. But countless lives have also been lost to terrorism, genocide, mass violence, and war caused by racial and ethnic differences, geopolitical disputes, and mental illness.

If we should dispense with religion because atrocities are sometimes carried out in its name, should we also get rid of racial or ethnic identity, all forms of government, and perhaps our very brains? Those things have led to atrocities, too. (While we’re at it, let’s wipe out dogs, because they sometimes contract rabies.)

I doubt that a world lacking any governance, racial diversity, or belief is what the Facebook post’s author had in mind; that sort of world would seem to promote, rather than solve, “the annihilation of the self, the spirit, and the rebellious spark that makes all lives unique and interesting,” for which she blames religion.

Religion, politics, and race aren’t the deepest root causes of terrorism; people are the root cause of terrorism. Take away any of these concepts, and we’ll just find something else to fight and kill over, in the same way that when I ban toy weapons, my children hit each other with sticks.

The real problem, it seems to me, is something called evil, which causes us to pervert good things into grounds for violence. If you kill people because they subscribe to different beliefs, have different genes, or disagree with your politics, then religion, race, and government are not at fault, evil is at fault; specifically, the form of evil known as intolerance. Intolerance convinces us that those who are different from us are less than – and that their very lives are disposable.

Intolerance is not a natural ingredient in religion, but it can be an additive.

Intolerance can also simmer beneath the surface of Facebook posts posing as enlightened calls for peace. If you sit in your comfortable Western seat and click out a social media opinion using words like “infancy” and “psychopathic idiots” to refer to people of faith, are you really much more tolerant than a religious terrorist? As my own religion says, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

Disclosure: I am a Christian. My husband and I belong to a church. We believe in God and Jesus and the Bible.

And the thought of a world without religion scares the stuffing out of me, because, personally, I can’t think of an answer to evil and intolerance except through religion. In fact, I don’t know how we can accurately define what’s evil without a measuring stick of faith.

My religion explains that people choose evil over closeness with God, and that in order to beat back the darkness and win us back, God sacrificed Himself for our wrongdoing. It assures me that, although evil sometimes seems to triumph, God is in charge of the universe and will undo every injustice; in the meantime we’re here to do His work.

My religion stands in direct opposition to “the annihilation of the self, the spirit, and the rebellious spark that makes all lives unique and interesting,” because it teaches that people are God’s image bearers, each created for a unique purpose, and so we should love and bless even those who hate us.

(On the other hand, if we’re all just random bunches of cells competing hungrily for survival, then why doesn’t mass violence make sense? Why is it evil? Why not kill off all those who threaten you?)

There are no quick and easy solutions to evil. The hate of intolerance can’t be intellectualized or legislated away. In my opinion, the only answer to terrorism is a painfully slow process of counterbalancing acts of hate with acts of love, truth, and justice. We should also ask hard questions about the life factors that attract people to believing that any god would want them to become agents of death.

What I saw displayed on my Facebook feed after Paris were two age-old reactions to tragedy: those who respond by turning to religion, and those who respond by turning on religion. Both are understandable responses, and worthy of our contemplation. I only ask that we attempt to be careful and honest, on social media and elsewhere:

Let’s not say we’re praying if we’re not. Let’s not shift focus from our own evil by placing the blame on religion. And please, let’s not wrap up our Western intellectual versions of religious intolerance in packages of liberal enlightened superiority and claim we’re tolerant.

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