A while ago I came across an animated video regarding a person’s views on how destructive and nasty faith and religion are.  He blamed oppression, war, inhumanity, and ignorance on the bondage of religion to which we willingly submit ourselves.  Faith forces people into ignorance so they never question the commands of the leaders, atrocities are committed because everything is justified when God is involved, war is fought to prove one faith or God is stronger than all others and heathens/infidels/unbelievers must be forced to recant their blasphemy, and all oppression is justified when the eternal fate of human souls is threatened.  The whole exercise and argument, I thought, appeared to be well-reasoned and articulate, but there were a couple fallacies and missing pieces.

Faith and religion are not tools of oppression and inhumanity.  The horrible reality is that evil people have used these as tools to control and manipulate, but things like screwdrivers and hammers can be used to both build shelter and hurt people.  Faith is a hope for things not necessarily evidenced in the easy-to-perceive world, things which are not present but will be.    Religion is a system of covenants for a person to systematically improve him- or her-self and ideally build a happier world than what is currently experienced.  As Mustafa Akyol pointed out in his book Islam Without Extremes:  A Muslim Case for Liberty, the wonderful promise of religion can become consumed by those who use it as a vehicle for political power and oppression – but the religion itself is not the evil, evil leaders twist it and reflect their evil in it (and this is a pattern repeated all too often).  Returning to source documents, prayerful reading of scriptures belonging to the faith in question, and discovering the historical context surrounding the initial revelations gives a deeper, richer picture than later political occlusions show.

Religion often is used as the justification for horrible wars, and God is blamed as the one who “wills” the awful violence.  Professor David Ford of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme points out that the wars and violence ensue when people turn away from the tenets of their faith, not when they follow it.  Christians are taught to love their neighbors as themselves, Jews are taught that welcoming the stranger is a sign of charity, and Muslims are taught that when another person is treated with love all the world benefits – but those were definitely not the scriptures quoted during the Crusades.

When religion is blamed for ignorance and intellectual impotence, I find myself rebelling.  Our understanding of astronomy and our physical place in the universe has historically been propelled by religious observation – from the Babylonians and Egyptians (and many, many others) who mapped the skies as priestly observance, ancient temple builders around the globe who discovered math and architectural principles to build astonishing structures celebrating their relationship to God, to the astounding scientific advances by religious people who sought truth of all kinds as a mode of worship and to celebrate their Creator – the conclusion from history is that ignorance comes from political manipulation, not the drives of belief.  St. Augustine taught that our being formed in the image of God meant we were blessed with brains, and his voice joined the chorus of countless others in preaching that the learning, using, and spreading of knowledge is a sacrament celebrating the power of the Divine.  Historically, Islam – a religion – has been the most literate of any world movement.

There is a story which relates the odd experience of a shaman seeing the ships of Columbus’ expedition for the first time.  The ships were utterly beyond the experience of the American natives, and their brains were physically incapable of seeing the approaching vessels.  One shaman stood at the shore and knowing something was there, forced himself to see – and after a time the three ships came into focus.  Faith is not blind – faith demands we open our eyes now, with hope and in gratitude, to see things beyond our mundane experience.  Our brains our wired to understand using only the limited tools and vocabulary of our personal experience; faith gives us opportunity to expand these tools – by pushing beyond our experience, by stepping forward in hope, we open ourselves to perceive something beyond what we understand.  We accept something we have no words to describe, and something magical happens.  Our vocabulary expands.

Jonathan Rosen, author of The Life of the Skies:  Birding at the End of Nature, talks about the relationship between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, co-developers of what we now know as the theory of evolution.  Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, and Wallace wrote The Malay Archipelago.  While Darwin found himself enveloped in materialism, Wallace discovered that his exploration of evolution constantly lead him to explore what he described as the Greater Mystery, and his faith expanded.

Faith is a transforming vehicle of growth, and its politicization is bondage.  Faith and reason can support each other, and do not have to be mutually exclusive.  Although Darwin and Wallace took different roads after their early collaboration, they remained friends.  These two inclinations of the human mind can certainly do the same.

Advertisements