Monday, September 29, 2008

Toxic Religion

In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking 2006), Daniel Dennett writes of how it is essential for society to carefully examine its religion and reform and change it as necessary so that we do not "pass on a legacy of ever more toxic forms of religion to our descendent's." It is an intriguing thought. Can something as good as religion be "toxic?"

The dictionary on my little MacBook that I am using to type this article defines the word "toxic" as "poisonous." Religion as a form of poison? Yes, I think all would agree, at least to a point, that it is true. When we encounter reports in the media of polygamous sects that "marry" fourteen and fifteen year old girls to old men in what really amounts to sex-slavery, we find ourselves appalled at such a repugnant notion. When we discover the motive behind all of this is religion, we are forced to say that, at least in this case, religion has become toxic.

There are other examples. We can think of the Branch Davidians and their "sinful messiah," bearing the sins of his community by making claim to his follower's wives. Or, maybe we might consider the Aryan Nations or other white supremacist "churches" which build a religion based on hate.

Well said, you agree, these forms of religion are nothing if not toxic. Indeed they are. However, the seeds of toxic religion plant themselves in much deeper soil, and are far more deceptive. I propose that the seeds of toxicity that produced such acts as 9/11 appear in many religious movements in America. This is not to say that common American religious movements would ever condone an act such as 9/11. Yet, we do see and hear of sentiments akin to such hate not so different on our television screens regularly.

One case that comes to mind is that of a popular television evangelist suggesting that AIDS is a punishment of a vindictive (he would no doubt say loving) God for homosexuality in America. If so, how do you account for the thousands infected that never had any contact with homosexuality or drug use? Should they suffer? Should innocent children? A religion with a vindictive God at its heart is a toxic religion.

Another prominent evangelist, who once publicly endorsed the Republican presidential candidate, has similarly pinned the fate of New Orleans on the wickedness of the city. Does God really do things like that?

Other prominent evangelical leaders have pooh-poohed global warming and done what they could to keep the faithful from supporting efforts to recue the planet. One writer of a popular fiction series concerning the return of Christ sees the whole world ending with all Jews being killed or becoming Christians. Although this writer may give lip service to a pro-Israel stance, is this not really the height of anti-Semitism? In the end, all Jews are gone.

There are Muslim haters and proclaimers of a future Christian/Muslim war-as if the crusades (also sparked by religious fervor) were not enough. Toxic religion seems to be everywhere. Moreover, we find it in most of the world's great faiths. There is Christian toxicity, Muslim toxicity, Jewish toxicity, and so on it goes. This begs a question: What is the common denominator?

In a word, xenophobia, a fear of the different and the new. Because of religion's tendency to xenophobia, it is often toxic. It is not just toxic in Baghdad or Jerusalem, or in New York, it is toxic here, right in our neighborhood, right in our own hearts and minds.

Healthy religion should serve to enlighten and make one more tolerant. However, often narrow-mindedness and a super literalism concerning the traditions and scriptures from the world's religions make religion quite toxic. Commonsense calls for a different approach. If something is not working anymore (if it ever did), it is madness to keep hanging onto it.

What we need to do is to take another look at our religions and ask if they really support a narrow-minded, "my way or no way" approach to life. Isn't there something universal in religion that preaches broadmindedness and love? Can we find that kernel of light in our religions? Can we fan that into a flame that burns so brightly that all toxicity burns away as so much dross? All religions I know of have some version of the Golden Rule in their traditions. Maybe that is the place to start. The world has about all the toxic religion it can endure. It is time for a revival. It is time for a reformation. It is time to put away toxic religion.

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