How Aspects of “moderate” religion morph into dangerous politics

    By Yakaru | 11 August 2015
    Spirituality Is No Excuse

    (Photo: Charles O'Rear / Corbis)
    (Photo: Charles O’Rear / Corbis)

    Religious leaders are routinely invited to participate in the running of the state, and to enter public discourse on matters about which they haven’t a clue. Their ideas are often totally absurd and transparently self-interested, yet it is widely considered impolite to remark on the worthlessness of their contributions.

    Curiously, it is not just religious types who enforce this blanket of politeness. It is often non-believers (especially those inhabiting the “liberal left”) who are quick to tell critics of religion to shut up. “Religion”, they feel, must not be treated as a single category. We must distinguish, they say, between religious “moderates” (who can be indulged as harmless or as potential allies), and extremists (about whom it is frequently asserted are not even religious at all).

    Society gains little or nothing from this meek politeness. But worse, extremists – whether “truly religious” or not – use this welcoming and non-judgmental climate, as a context for gaining access to the hearts and minds of the young.

    Below, I outline numerous elements of “moderate” religion that are routinely indulged by democratic societies. These elements themselves may be more or less harmless, but refusing to contest their obvious (if at times trivial) flaws, we are effectively abandoning our first line of defense against extremists.

    Problematic Aspects of “Moderate” Religion

    Divisiveness

    While religion does build communities, it also inevitably creates outsiders and heretics. Due to the arbitrary nature of religious beliefs and practices, there is no way to engage rationally with others about doctrinal matters. Agreeing to disagree is the only peaceful option. But there can be no resolution. The differences will remain, ticking away like a time bomb for generations. They can at any time be invoked as a means to divide people for political ends. (Mussolini cited the monophysite heresy of the Abyssinians, dating back to the 5th Century, as a justification for his invasion of Ethiopia in 1936!)

    Ownership and Personal Identity

    Religious people identify deeply with their religion or sect. This is no doubt partly a consequence of human nature, but it also involves a calculated strategy on the part of religions to effectively own people. A child is declared to “belong” to some strain of belief, before they can even speak or run away.

    To illustrate the extent of this “moderate” presumptuousness, allow me to share that the Church Tax Office in Germany (where I live) is currently checking the records of the Catholic Church in Australia (where I was born) to see if I was baptized. Were they to find my name I would be legally forced to pay an 8% tax on my income for the last 15 years.

    Despite having failed to realize that Nazism is unethical, the Church in Germany is still taken seriously enough to be granted legal access to people’s earnings – on the grounds that they know the mind of God and represent His financial interests.

    St Bernhard still gives the Nazi salute from a 1936 church tower in Berlin (author photo).
    St Bernhard still gives the Nazi salute from a 1936 church tower in Berlin (author photo).

    Special Status for the Priesthood

    In a healthy society, any special status a person might be granted is attached to the special role that person plays, not to the person themselves. A police officer is only allowed to boss people around under strictly defined circumstances when on duty. Otherwise they have no special rights. Priests, however, claim that they are themselves special – that they belong to an elite class with divinely ordained privileges.

    Obviously, when religious fanatics start recruiting, or when crooks have seized government, this special status immediately gives them swift access to people’s private lives and instinctive submissive impulses. The hierarchical nature of this power structure conditions people, whether they are religious or not, to accept political and religious overlords as a fact of life. (Christopher Hitchens makes this point cogently in the latter chapters of God is Not Great.)

    Reward and Punishment

    Closely related to this is the fact that priests promise their subjects that god will reward temporal obedience with eternal life in paradise. Priestly authority is built squarely on this foundation – and they don’t have to lift a finger to reward anyone.

    They also invented hell of course, (the most repellent and immoral idea ever formulated). But while they entrust God with rewarding people, they have always happily accepted the burden of punishing sinners themselves. For some reason they don’t want to leave sinners in peace and trust God to deal with them later.

    False Ideals and Denial of Human Nature

    By creating impossible ideals, religions set people up for guilt, failure, and fear of punishment. It is also psychologically unhealthy to believe that some people (saints, prophets and priests) are holy and have no shadow.

    This pernicious nonsense is damaging even at its most moderate, yet it is routinely tolerated. In the hands of religious fanatics with power, it becomes perhaps the most invidious tool of oppression and misery. With barely a stricture needing to be altered, it can form an ostensibly credible basis for arbitrary persecution.

    The Surrender of Reason

    To steal a few lines from Christopher Hitchens, religion – moderate or extreme – involves deciding that the deepest questions about the nature of reality and of our personal existence are to be decided without recourse to rational inquiry. There is of course a long religious tradition debating the role of reason in relation to revelation, but reason has always come out second best.

    How can the young be expected to see through the ravings of a religious extremist, when they have never seriously encountered the idea that God does not exist in the first place? As Al Razi pointed out in the Tenth Century, the revelations of the prophets are contradictory, irrational and divisive; but reason is equally accessible to all. (Had he said that today in Iran, he would certainly be persecuted. In the West he would no doubt be called intolerant by the left, or an Islamophobe!)

    Closing Thoughts

    Religious freedom is a civil and human right. In a secular society people must be free to practice their religion and identify themselves as a member of any peaceful religious group without fear of persecution or discrimination. Strangely, (or maybe not so strangely) many religious people don’t like this idea at all. Ensuring the religious freedom of others necessarily involves curtailing one’s own proselytizing ambitions. This potential loss of power is, no doubt, what religious leaders find so threatening. Public criticism of religion doesn’t “upset the moderates” as much as liberals claim, as open debate should hold no danger for sincere and sensible believers. It does however, undermine the status and influence of a privileged and useless elite.

    Let us stop meekly and politely pretending that the elements listed above are useful or necessary for a productive or creative life. They are the accumulated mistakes of history, kept alive for oppressive and parasitic purposes. We need to see them for what they are, and to allow the young access to an antidote for their poisons.

    Reprinted with permission from the author.

    Yakaru is an Australian living in Germany. He has studied many spiritual traditions, several quite deeply, and has been interested in meditation for a couple of decades. His “spiritual search”, backed up his reading of science, has led him to a thorough going atheism.

    Sam Harris – Morality and the Christian God

    Christopher Hitchens – Hitler, Fascism and the Catholic Church

    Stephen Fry on God

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