Will Religion be the Death of Us?
By David Brown, 2004
Is there any way to confront and deal effectively with religious extremism and assure a positive future for humanity?
This past summer, at the August 2004 World Future Society Conference, I convened a panel on the topic, “Will Religion Be the Death of Us?” I chose this deliberately provocative title because religion, so often seen as a way to salvation in the future, is also frequently used to justify or inspire acts that threaten the future. Quite literally, religion is used as a motivation to kill. This has been true throughout history, but seems, for obvious reasons, to be of special concern in this early 21st Century.
One futurist I know has argued that the only way to a safe future is to give up religion. Yet, given history, this seems unrealistic. Is there any way to confront and deal effectively with religious extremism and assure a positive future for humanity? That is the question I put to two distinguished panelists. They were Rev. Clark Lobenstine, Executive Director Organization: InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, DC and Rev. David Brown, Presbyterian Minister in Tacoma, Washington, and also Staff to the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy. They were both terrific, and the audience was very appreciative.
Here we are able to share the extensive and insightful remarks of Rev. Brown. In addition to all of his other projects, Dave is a Futurist.com writer and you can link to other articles by Dave from the right hand column.
WILL RELIGION BE THE DEATH OF US?
World Future Society, August 1, 2004
Rev. Dave Brown
Once a month I lead a Blues Vespers service at the Tacoma congregation where I serve as a part-time pastor. Blues Vespers is basically a blues concert during which I offer a brief reflection or ‘riff’ on a theme. Two weeks ago I tried this theme, Will Religion be the Death of us? on the crowd of over 250 people. The people who attend vespers are a curious mix of church folks and non-church folks. When I finished my reflection they gave me an unexpected round of applause. I would like to think the applause was a response to my wit and style in making the presentation. Yet I believe it was because of the topic. It reflected the concern felt in a very diverse audience about the role religion is playing in our world today. It is the same concern that has been present with Glen and me in our many conversations over the past fifteen years. It is the concern that generated this workshop: Will religion be the death of us?
I often begin Blues Vespers with a poem. Two weeks ago I began with this somewhat irreverent poem by Philip Appleman:
O Karma, Dharma, pudding and pie,
gimme a break before I die:
grant me wisdom, will, & wit,
purity, probity, pluck and grit.
Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind,
gimme great abs & a steel-trap mind,
and forgive, Ye Gods, some humble advice—-
these little blessings would suffice
to beget an earthly paradise:
make the bad people good —
and the good people nice;
and before our world goes over the brink,
teach the believers how to think.
Will religion be the death of us? If the believers don’t begin to think it may be.
Often when discussing this topic the phrase ‘Religious Extremism’ is used. Indeed, it was used in the description of this workshop. The assumption is that ‘Religious Extremism’ threatens the future and is a cause for concern. This is an assumption with which I am not totally comfortable. During the time of the civil rights movements there were those who called the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King a religious extremist: someone who took his faith to the limit and used his faith to create change. Where would we be without him? It is possible to look at Sr. Teresa of Calcutta’s ministry with the untouchables as an ‘extreme’ expression of Christian faith. Yet her brand of religious extremism modeled compassion and caring in a world starved for compassion and care.
Some would have called Martin Luther’s nailing of 95 theses on the door of the cathedral at Wittenberg and act of religious extremism. Yet it was the catalyst for a reform movement within Christian tradition that moved considerable power out of the hands of Bishops into the hands of the laity and local clergy.
I have used examples from my own tradition. I am certain Muslim, Hindu and Jewish colleagues have their own positive examples of religious extremism that contribute not to the death of the future but the expansion of the common good. Countless Muslim, Christian and Jewish women and men allow their religious faith to shape their lives in a way that leads to outrageously extreme acts of service, love and compassion that benefit the human community. In the course of this conversation I do not want to lose the positive and dramatic ways strong religious conviction can shape individual and community life for the good.
Religious Extremism and Fundamentalism
There is a different form of religious extremism that is the catalyst for this conversation. Extreme religious views and actions shaped in large part by fundamentalism. This type of extremism may be growing and may indeed threaten the future of the world, as we know it. Speaking at an event sponsored by Sojourners in this city last May, Bill Moyers reflected on his growing file on the topic of holy wars. He said ” the red thread of religiously spilled blood runs directly from east of Eden to Belfast, Bosnia, Beirut and Baghdad. At times the litany is horrendous.â€ We all know the headlines: Hindus and Muslims On Brink of War in Kashmir; Serbian Christians stand trial for atrocities against Bosnian Muslims; Murder trial begins for Fundamentalist Christian Minister in Abortion Doctor Case.1
Why fundamentalism: Maintaining a Worldview
Religious extremism fueled by fundamentalism is a growing reality in America and the world. It is a growing reality but it is not a new reality. Fundamentalism in religion has emerged through out history. One of the catalysts for the growth of fundamentalist movements in religion is social change. When a segment of a religious tradition feels attacked and threatened by emerging trends in society one reaction to change is to retreat into an ideological fortress from which launches attack squads designed to fight evil and protect the truth of ones convictions at all cost. Some suggest that the attacks on modernity by fundamentalist religion are fueled by a desire for wealth, land and power. I believe it is shaped by something far more basic: the threat modernity poses to a world view that provides a personal and corporate identity, a world view without which individuals and communities lose meaning and identity.
What is Fundamentalism?
In her book The Battle for God Karen Armstrong documents the emergence of Fundamentalism in Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. She references Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby’s six-volume Fundamentalist Project and their description of the pattern shared by all Fundamentalists.
“They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalism does not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between good and evil. They fear annihilation and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices from the past. To avoid contamination they often withdraw from mainstream society to create a counter culture; yet fundamentalist are not impractical dreamers. They have absorbed the pragmatic rationalism of modernity, and, under the guidance of their charismatic leaders, they refine these ‘fundamentals’ so as to create an ideology that provides the faithful with a plan of action. Eventually they fight back and attempt to resacralize and increasingly skeptical world.â€ 2
It is easy to understand how Religious extremism fueled by this fundamentalism threatens our well being and the future of the planet. I commend Armstrong’s book to you. In her introduction to this book she reflects on the current situation and why it is so difficult to find common ground with those fundamentalists that share our religious tradition though not our world-view.
“Fundamentalist feel that they are battling against forces that threaten their most sacred values. During a war it is very difficult for combatants to appreciate one another’s position.â€ 3
When Religion Becomes Evil4
Charles Kimball, a professor at Wake Forest also explores these themes in his book, When Religion Becomes Evil. He identifies 5 traits that are warning signs that religion is becoming toxic and in the terms of this conversation threatens the future.
Those traits are:
- When a religious tradition makes inflexible unwavering absolute truth claims.
- When leaders demand blind obedience.
- Establishing the Ideal Time: Now is the appointed moment.
- When the end justifies any means.
- When a Holy War is declared.
One does not have to look far to see the traits of toxic religions suggested by Dr. Kimball.
Current Trends: Religious Diversity
Is religious extremism a threat to the future? Quite possibly.
There are numerous trends in our society that threaten the world-view and identity of religious fundamentalist in a variety of religious traditions. I named some of these in the article I wrote a while ago in Futurist.com. Issues like gay marriage, media, biotechnology, stem cell research, robotics and artificial intelligence all threaten the fundamental beliefs of some religious communities.
One response to these emerging trends is to embrace and examine them using the lenses of meaning given in one’s religious tradition. The other is to attack modernity.
I believe one of the most troubling trends to American fundamentalism is the growth of religious diversity in this nation. The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in the world. This is a new and growing reality. Although we never had a state religion it can be argued convincingly that up until the mid-1960’s Protestantism was the de-facto established church. Quickly that is changing. The United States will no longer have a majority religion.
Between 1993 and 2002 the share of Americans who said
- They were Protestant dropped from 63-52%
- They had no religion rose from 9-14%
- They belonged to other religions (Islam, Orthodox Christianity or Eastern faiths) increased from 3-7%
- They were Roman Catholic remained the same at about 25%
- They were Jewish remained at just under 2% 5
For the Christian fundamentalist who understands this nation as a Christian nation these are obviously troubling statistics and invite action to claim the nation for their cause. Might this threaten the future of the planet? Religious ideology that rewards unwavering faithfulness unto death, religiously fueled activism that promises after death rewards for martyrs can cause one to tremble as one imagines what might happen. The question is pointed: Were the religiously inspired attacks on the Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 and the World Trade Centers and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 rare expressions of religious/political extremism or were the beginning of increased violence with larger and more dangerous weapons?
(Note: Europe is also struggling with the role of religion and the ability of a people to live with and embrace religious diversity. Note the debate about including God in the EU constitution and the decision to limit religious garb in French schools. )
A Holy Crusade!
Can the future survive religion? The future may survive but the question remains about the quality of that future. Will we learn to live together in this religiously diverse nation or will dreams of the Christian City on the Hill fuel increased disregard of the first amendment protections so crucial in a religiously diverse nation like our nation. Recent religious rhetoric by government officials certainly makes this a possibility. When General William Boykin describes his rescue of men in Somalia as a battle between good and evil with the words, “I knew my God was bigger than hisâ€ we have to wonder about the future. Boykin has become a circuit rider for the religious right, active in a group called Faith Force Multiplier that summons warriors to a spiritual battle for the souls of this nation. Boykin declared “Satan wants to destroy us as a nation and he wants to destroy us as a Christian Army.â€ This is one example.
For some the future is already known
For many evangelical Christians the future is already established. It will come in the reign of Christ. A reign depicted in the best selling “Left Behindâ€ series. What is notable about this series and troubling is not just its theological/historical understanding that in the end Jesus will return and rule the world. Nicholas Kristof wrote about this best selling series in the New York Times 6. He described the violence graphically depicted as returned Jesus becomes a militant Messiah. The language used in these novels to describe the fate of non-believers is graphic and violent. Millions have read these books. They are in countless church libraries. Yes, they are only fiction. Yet they are rooted in the belief systems of many Christians. How do they shape the readers ability to live in a religiously diverse nation? Do they baptize or sanction religiously based violence?
How can we move forward? Perhaps the answer is to do away with religion?
Is the answer, to paraphrase well-known futurist Joseph Coates, to give up “the superstition of religionâ€ if humanity is going to survive. It is easy to see why this is a compelling argument. Even if one agrees with Coates (and I don’t) that religion is dangerous superstition, religion will always be with us. At the beginning of the last century Nietzsche wrote about the death of God. He also wrote that the majority of people, the herd, lacked the courage to live in a godless universe. He is right. I believe most people will need religion and god to give meaning, identity and purpose in the future 7. I clearly believe Religion may take new forms but the human being as a meaning seeking creature will remain religious and the religious forms that emerge in the future will clash with each other then as they do now.
How then do we move forward?
I have painted an extreme picture. Religion is a very powerful force that will always be with us. It is a dangerous force yet it can be a creative, positive force. I agree with Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels, “Religious language can be unifying. It can also be enormously divisive and dangerous.â€ I also agree with Karen Armstrong that we cannot be religious in the same way as human beings were religious in the pre-modern world.
In his book, When Religion Becomes Evil 8, Kimball suggests the need for an emergence of communities that are Inclusive yet rooted in tradition. He suggests ” people of faith offer the best hope for correcting the corruptions leading to violence and for leading the way into a more promising future.â€ 9 He calls for a new paradigm of religious life that is firmly rooted in the particularity of each religious tradition while being committed, inclusive and open to the power and truth of other religious traditions.
Jim Wallis also makes the counter-intuitive suggestion that the answer to the threat of religion is not less religion but “better religionâ€. He continues, “The traditions we are looking at are religions of the book (Judaism, Islam and Christianity), and the key question is, how we interpret the book?â€ “Better interpretation of the book, in my view, is a better response to fundamentalism than throwing the book away.â€ 10
Wallis, and Kimball join scholars like Marcus Borg from Oregon State University in suggesting a new religious paradigm that is deeply rooted in particular traditions while stressing understanding, respect and tolerance. This type of religious movement is the preferred future a future where the prayer in my opening poem will be answered because “believers thinkâ€. Without compelling, non-exclusive alternatives it is clear to me that people seeking religious meaning in the future will be ever more vulnerable to the forces that provide easy answers, authority, identity and a purpose. Forces that threaten the future.
Part of the way to the future is doing religion better as Jim Wallis suggests. Another essential component needed for religion to be a positive and not deadly force in the future is the role of the government. The United States is the most complex and religiously diverse nation on the planet. In light of this maintaining the separation of church and state is crucial. It is also crucial that if elected officials insist on using religious language or imagery in public or official functions they recognize their moral responsibility to use this language with an awareness of that diversity and the growing number of Americans who choose not to be religious. Careless use of religious language further divides the country and fuels the fire of fundamentalist religious extremism. To quote Elaine Pagels once again, “Religious language can be unifying. It can also be enormously divisive and dangerous.â€
The topic for this afternoon is immense and far-reaching. These thoughts are intended to provide some insight and stimulate discussion. Let me close with these words from Harvey Cox’s book Many Mansions:
“This, the question of self-annihilation requires us to put all our questions not in the form, What will happen? But rather in the form, What must we do? As time bound creatures, we must work with the stubborn stuff of past and present. Among the givens are our existing religious traditions, which, far from dying out, appear to be leaping into a period of resurgence. But neither can we wait for kismet to deliver us into a new era in which we no longer project our inner most terrors onto the heavens or onto other peoples and nations. We must now take the initiative, not just to predict the future-including the future of religion-but to shape it.â€ 11
1 Richard Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil, Harper, 2002.
2 Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, ” Conclusion: An interim report on a Hypothetical Family,â€ Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago and London, 1991), 812-42.
3 Karen Armstrong, “The Battle For Godâ€, Harper, 2000, introduction xvi.
4 Richard Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil, Harper, 2002.
5 A Study by the University of Chicago based National Opinion Research Center released in August 2004.
6 “Intolerance not acceptable just because it’s rooted in religionâ€ by Nicholas D. Kristof © 2004 New York Times News Service appeared in Seattle Post-Intelligencer July 20, 2004.
7 Regarding my comment that Religion is more than mere superstition. Personally I believe that there is indeed a larger reality that stands behind our longing for God. This larger reality or God is mystery, reality, force, and love.
8 Richard Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil, Harper, 2002
9 Richard Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil, Harper, 2002, page 186.
10 Fundamentalism and the Modern World, Sojourners Magazine, March-April 2002.
11 Harvey Cox, “Many Mansions: A Christians encounter with other faithsâ€ Beacon Press, 1988; pg. 212.