Over the past few days, I had two common interactions. On their own, they might make some sort of twisted sense. It was only sheer luck that these conversations happened so close together, pointing out the obvious fallacy in both.
The first was a discussion I had with my father. This is always a dangerous event as my father and I have a history of poor communication when it comes to controversial issues. We were discussing the fear of men which, unfortunately, devolved into a conversation about men as animals and women who should know better. He then said something I had heard many times before.
That’s why we have religion. The only thing that holds people back is the thought of eternal punishment in the fires of Hell.
Is this the truth of humanity? We would all be murderers, rapists and thieves if not for the potential for eternal damnation? He can think that all he wants, because I have never seen that stop a Christian from being cruel or an atheist from being compassionate.
This conversation was on my mind yesterday, as a friend told me about someone she was once close to in grade school. This acquaintance came from a strictly Catholic, conservative family. Recently, my friend discovered her old acquaintance had given birth out-of-wedlock twice. While this is nothing to be ashamed of, her family certainly thought differently. The idea that their daughter was having sex and got pregnant out-of-wedlock was likely scandalous.
That girl’s story is something I saw many times in my small town. I’m sure it’s common among Catholic families everywhere. People tend to pick and choose the religious rules we follow. This girl ignored the rule about premarital sex, but probably upheld the rule on ‘abortogenics’ like birth control and condoms. A handful of infants were born this way in my high school.
There are plenty of other examples. Leviticus bans plenty of activities we do today, such as planting more than one kind of seed in a field, cutting hair on the sides of your head and eating pork. These are somehow rules worth ignoring except for that one that is probably about homosexuality.
Wars are easily supported, but God forbid you miss a Sunday church service. Priests and ministers call their congregation to help the poor and too often they leave the lesson in the sanctuary, treating the less fortunate like they are below them (See Sundays Are the Worst for more examples than you can handle).
This isn’t to say that there aren’t good religious people or that religion is a pointless belief. I simply mean to show that religion fails at the control many attribute to the institution. More often than not, people pick and choose what religious rules they will follow and which they won’t. In this way, religion has no control at all.
I don’t intend this article to be a giant slap in the face to religion. Instead, I mean to ask one question: Why? Why does religion lack the control it is supposed to have? Why are their good atheists and bad Christians/Jews/Muslims/Fill-in-the-Blank?
The answer has two parts, the first of which I feel should be obvious. Religion is not God. Religious rules, doctrine and dogma are not God. Love is God and God is Love. That’s the heart of the spiritual relationship people strive for with Divinity. The second part of the answer is that the purpose of religion is not to control the masses (although it has certainly been used that way many times). All religion is meant to worship Divinity. It is a human created institution established to help humanity grow in their relationship with the mystery of Divinity. After all, I can only assume we were not given free will only to be controlled.
We are not meant to be controlled. Instead, we are called to bring joy, peace, comfort and love to this world. I choose to believe that humanity is inherently good. We don’t need religion to teach us compassion, love and empathy. These are aspects of a good person, not a good religious morality.
Think about the Catholic idea of the ‘Indulgence,’ a practice of paying the church cash for sins you plan to commit later. Those who did so were following the religious moral code of the time, but were they good people? The answer to that question lies not in the religion they followed, but in their personal moral.
I still hold on to the belief that religion has the potential to do a lot of good in our world. This good is not gained through the control of humanity or blind belief in dogma. The fires of Hell stop no evil person, religious or otherwise, from acting on their own moral code. Instead, religion can and should act as a safe haven, caring for the sick, poor and imprisoned. It can and should enhance the good in humanity – the compassion, empathy and love – and spread it to all in need of a comforting hand in our world. These good acts are the purpose of religion, not control.