As the pandemic spreads around the globe, we see indications that people are turning to religion for help and guidance. And though there is reason to believe that religion can help some people through difficult times, we should not forget the harm that morally bankrupt religious leaders can do.
In the US, we see televangelist Kenneth Copeland take a temporary break from his fearmongering and constant calls for donations to purse his lying lips and blow away the coronavirus in the name of God. We see GOP leaders praise the demonstrators who are defying science and common sense to “liberate” states by saying they are doing the Lord’s work in fighting for protection of the Second Amendment. And we see evangelical Christians pledge their undying support to a pussy-grabbing, money-grubbing, Muslim-hating, family-breaking, child-caging, refugee-deporting, race-baiting, narcissistic sociopath. In fact, they not only support him. They believe him to be sent from God!
All of this has led me to examine religion as never before.
Historians tell us that many of today’s great religions – Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam – were created to encourage good behavior as humanity evolved from nomadic tribes into settlements. As various clans and tribes began living together, there was a need for new rules. What better way to guarantee that someone would behave appropriately than to put the fear of God into them? Unfortunately, rules based on divine retribution do not encourage compassion and morality. They result in actions born out of mere self-interest – the idea that you will be rewarded for good actions and punished for bad actions. That is not morality. Morality comes from performing good deeds without regard to personal benefit merely because they are the right, just, compassionate, and moral thing to do.
I believe it is precisely because of the concept of divine retribution that religions are so easily perverted and abused. The concept allows for pastors, priests, parishioners, and autocrats to make judgments. It permits them to decide what their God would want. It is this concept that has transformed so many religions into cults focused on evangelism, profiteering, repression, and persecution…all in the name of God.
The notion that only my fellow believers know the will of God permits the sanctimonious to turn their collective backs on those most in need: The poor, the homeless, the downtrodden and the endangered. How else do you explain Christians rationalizing the deportation of refugees to almost certain abuse or death while celebrating the supposed prosperity gospel? How else do you explain Christians justifying discrimination of minorities? How else do you explain Israel’s Zionist apartheid toward Palestinians? How else do you explain Wahhabi extremists justifying the murder of non-believers? How else do you explain the genocide of Muslims by Buddhists in Myanmar? How else do you explain religious wars?
Throughout the world, we see churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples ignore the suffering of others in defiance of their own teachings. We see them use religion as a weapon in their pursuit of a homogenous society in which everyone shares the same skin color, the same sexual preferences and the same beliefs. We see predators use the trappings of faith to abuse children. We see televangelists use their platform to purchase mansions and private jets. We see religious majorities discriminate against people of other faiths. We see them commit murder in the name of God.
Studies have shown that atheists are no less moral than those who claim to be religious. If atheists are not bound by the concept of divine retribution, why are they just as likely to do good as their religious brethren? I submit that it’s out of an internal compass…an innate sense of right and wrong, of caring for others.
For me, that raises several questions: Is organized religion any longer necessary? If it doesn’t engender good behavior, what good is it? If it is used to discriminate and divide, would we not be better off without it? Moreover, why do we afford religions special treatment? Why has it become impossible for an atheist or a deist to be elected to office? Why do we exempt churches from taxes? Though churches provide a sense of belonging and the comfort of communal support, so, too, do many other clubs and organizations.
If we are ever to achieve peace, I believe we must all embrace the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson as expressed in his writing, “…it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg… Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.”
Jefferson believed that religion was a private matter solely between himself and his creator. We would all do well to follow his lead.