We recognize this year the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Disputation on the Power of Indulgences. His efforts became the match that lit the fire of the reformation of the Christian Church. Today we see those who, like Luther, want to see reform in the way we practice faith; others are more hostile to faith in general. Some see any organized religion as a yoke of bondage and a myth that has outlived its time. As a person of deep faith, I have often been confronted by those who do not believe and treat my belief with skepticism and at times derision. Some have been very animated in their disdain of faith, others are dismissive of organized religion yet sympathetic to the idea of faith, some go so far as to broadly label religion as one of the greatest harms done to mankind.
Their argument goes like this: “Think of all the wars in the name of religion, all the despot leaders who claim their rise to power and tyranny as God’s will. Not to mention all the corruption, the abuse of power and the perversion of doctrine designed to justify their own malicious deeds.” They go on to point out examples of shameful hypocrisy, abuse and neglect, from the evils of the crusades and sexual abuse to children, all the way down to the prudish hypocrite they knew as a child–lumped together as one great oppressive mass bearing down on humanity. Faith and religion spirituality and transcendence are complicated to be sure. However, the broad accusation that faith and religion have had a net negative effect on humanity is intellectually lean and logically flawed.
First, let’s look at the argument that if those who profess to believe in God do harmful things than it’s the belief in God that motivates the harmful act. Mankind is flawed, greedy, petulant, base, and at times malevolent. God teaches us in all the major faith traditions to be kind, selfless, pleasant, forgiving and charitable. God is no more responsible when the ambitious and malicious use religion as a means to justify their own ends, than I am responsible when someone else steals my credit card for their own purchase. All that is done in God’s name is not done with God’s blessing. If we use science and technology to do harm to others, do we blame technology for the harm? If a despot is elected democratically, do we blame democracy, or the voters?
Second, no one has the right to solely quantify harm and benefit. To say that there has never been harm done in the name of God or religion is either dishonest or woefully ignorant, but so is pointing out the harm without acknowledging the benefit. For every drop of blood shed by the Crusades how many orphans were taken in? How many of the hungry were fed, the naked clothed? How many schools built? How many hospitals? How many were taught to read, taught to build, taught to love and show kindness? How many hearts softened to the plight of their fellowman? How many prayers offered in sleepless nights brought comfort to the weak and weary? How many wounds bound up? History does a better job of calling out the sinner than the humble saint. How could we ever hope to quantify all the good that has been done in the name of God or by those who are religious.
I am sympathetic to those who have been hurt by people of faith or find themselves disillusioned by different religious doctrines. I am grateful to live in a pluralistic society, one that allows for belief or no belief. For me faith and religion help answer the big questions. Or as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “What the secularists forgot is that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal. If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but on principle refuses to guide us as to how to choose.” (Saks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, June 2015).
Like Luther, I don’t have all the answers, but I’m grateful for the faith and belief that helps me answer some of life’s great questions.