The Dangers of Religion

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See the accompanying article: The Dangers of Irreligion 

In every human being there are two conflicting forces. We all have a deep, indelible knowledge of good and evil. On some level, each person wants to be honourable; we certainly want to be regarded as good by our neighbours. Competing with the ambition for honour and a good reputation is a hunger to have all our desires satiated, a wish for power and a tendency to destroy anything and anyone who would thwart our desires. Self-interest and conscience tend to reign in our more chaotic tendencies. Yet some religious leaders have found ways to reconcile all our conflicting desires; they have taught us to do terrible things in the pursuit of holiness. This is a danger of religion.

While the Crusaders were not quite the genocidal maniacs of popular imagination, they were often barbarous and always lethal. At the battle of Dorylaeum in 1097 the vanguard of a Crusader army was ambushed by ten thousand Turkish horsemen. Heavily outnumbered and completely outmanoeuvred, the indomitable Norman knight Bohemund rallied his troops with the first health and wealth sermon on public record:

“Stand fast all together, trusting in Christ and in the victory of the Holy Cross. Today, please God, you will all gain much booty.”

Christians in earlier and later centuries would find it blasphemous to think that Christ died so that Frankish knights could turn a healthy profit on a military campaign. Bohemund seems to have misunderstood Jesus’ call to “take up your Cross”.  Obviously, the Crusades establish that religious beliefs can be dangerous.

We need to be careful here. The mere fact of religious difference between Muslims and Christians was not sufficient to bring about armed conflict. The Crusaders sought to liberate and defend territory which had been conquered by Seljuk Turks; they were not on a quest to eliminate the religion of Islam. Indeed, they were quite willing to make political deals with Muslim rulers, including the Egyptian Fatimids. So what caused the Holy War?

Pope Urban II told the Christians of Western Europe that God would not only permit but spiritually reward anyone who fought to free the Holy land. For centuries, Christian theologians had reluctantly allowed that war was sometimes a necessary evil which might be permitted in defence of the weak and innocent. The Pope went much further; he argued that one form of bloodshed could be an absolute good. In effect, hating our enemies became virtuous; Christians could take up a cross to nail their enemies to it. Frankish nobles could sate their appetite for destruction, gain a clear conscience and earn a noble reputation in one fell swoop.

Historians dispute the number slain when the First Crusade finally entered Jerusalem; but it is clear that children and babies were torn from their mother’s arms and hacked to pieces. When they had finished the Crusaders turned to worship God in the “Holy City”; the clergy accompanying the Crusaders persuaded the merciless that they had inherited the Kingdom of God. After all, Crusading had been declared an ‘act of penance’ by the Pope himself. This brings us to the true, spiritual danger of religion. The true danger of religion is that it can become religiosity; and the danger of religiosity is that we forget we are fallen creatures, prone to whitewash even our darkest desires.

It is too easy to bury the lessons of the Christian gospel under creeds and rituals. The Crusaders believed that their beliefs and acts of devotion had atoned for all their sins; yet the apostle Paul explicitly states that such deeds can justify no-one. Paul and the prophets make it clear that God prefers mercy to sacrifice; Jesus made it clear that even the devout require forgiveness and that no-one can enter the Kingdom without being transformed by Him. Jesus and his apostles taught that the citizens of the Kingdom should be characterised by patience, mercy, forgiveness, gentleness, self-control, compassion and kindness.

To be sure, truth is vital to our well-being. All other things being equal, a Christian worldview should be a help to society, not a hindrance; Christian witness will heal, not harm. But, all too often, all other things are not equal. We want to justify ourselves in our own eyes, and religion can be a helpful means to that end. We forget that James reminded his readers that the devil’s theology is impeccably orthodox; we ignore Paul’s teaching that almsgiving and martyrdom are worthless if we don’t have love. We can behave religiously and confess the truth; but this means nothing is the truth has not broken our hearts. Jesus’ gospel is for religious paupers: those who realise that they are not holy as God is Holy; for those who acknowledge that they are completely dependent on God’s mercy

Liturgy and confessions are only worthwhile in the service of the gospel. Jesus and his apostles insisted that God’s favour cannot be earned and that religiosity cannot compensate for our selfishness. The New Testament demands total trust in, and a desperate dependence upon, the son of God that loved us, and died for us, and rose again to save us.

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