Sometimes I get a little depressed at the anti-religious comments I hear from friends, acquaintances, even relatives. You know: “religion has been responsible for most of the evils of the world, and everything would be fine if religion disappeared.” (Apparently forgetting, among others, the essentially-secular nature of the Holocaust; the actively anti-religious nature of Stalin’s Great Purge, killing a million and a half people.)
And then, of course, there are times when I’m tempted to join their camp. Some years ago, an Idaho congressman, speaking out of his religious convictions, declared that the Founding Fathers did not intend Muslim or Hindu American citizens to serve in Congress. His narrow religious beliefs apparently caused him to forget our Constitution’s “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
There is a chilling TV documentary series “God’s Warriors,” which explores the actions of fundamentalist Christians, Muslims and Jews. All fundamentalists believe theirs is the only truth — for all people — and are often willing to create human misery in the name of their version of Truth.
There is lots of fodder for the anti-religionists.
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But I continue to disagree vigorously with them, in spite of some history, current events and dogma-blinded congressmen. Religion, the individual spiritual quest gathered into an institution, is like everything people create: it can be wonderful and it can be terrible. It can rise to great heights and sink to the demonic.
The spiritual, religious impulse is deeply embedded in the human spirit. Religion has always arisen from the human need to find glimpses into mystery, to join with others in spiritual search. All people feel reverence in the face of birth and death. We feel awe at beauty, at human courage, at nature’s power. Art and poetry often bring us to that almost-weeping, wordless sense of all that is greater than we are.
And, since we are animals that gather together, we create communities we call churches, synagogues, mosques, temples. Of course, some of these institutions gain power and misuse it. (Hunger for power: Now there’s a human tendency that has been responsible for many evils of the world.)
But so many faith traditions add to the sum of love and justice in the world.
In the religious institutions that sometimes come in for so much criticism, we love our children and bring them up to act out of compassion and respect and humility. We study sacred poetry, prose, music, dance, and art, hoping to learn to live soulful, harmonious lives. We gather with other religious bodies, joining our strength to help the poor, the dispossessed, the victims of power misused.
In the best of religious institutions, we preach and practice acceptance of others. We understand that we are far too small a part of the cosmos to presume that our beliefs equal truth. We pray in many ways, knowing that what each of us knows of God is a piece of the truth.
As religious people, of course we make mistakes. Yes, we know that religions in power can do great harm. However, it is the dark side of human nature, not faith, which is responsible for evil in the world. The religious Spanish Inquisition and the secular Stalinist purges both rose from the muck of human evil, and it is naïve to blame either religion or secularism.
We who choose the sometimes-difficult path of spiritual practice in community can be the best antidote imaginable for the demonic. Embracing our humanity in all its fullness — bumping up against each others’ strengths and weaknesses — we have the best chance of helping the divine light shine through. We whose faith honors that of God in every person may tip the balance toward the good, large and small.
Rev. Elizabeth Greene is minister emerita of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.