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Stabroek News

Is religion safe?
published: Sunday | April 29, 2007

Ian Boyne, Contributor

The Virginia Tech massacre is merely the latest and most deadly of such gruesome school killings in the United States, the most religious of the advanced industrial democracies. Why do those heinous tragedies not take place in post-Christian and largely godless Europe?

Even before this latest tragedy on American campus, Gregory Paul in a scorching essay in the Journal of Religion and Society (Vol.7, 2005) pointed out that that the U.S. had experienced more mass student murders than all the secular democracies combined. In the article titled 'Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Social Health With Popular Religiosity in Prosperous Democracies', Paul says, "In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early mortality, STD-infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies."

Is religion really safe? Not from the research work of Gary Jensen from Vanderbilt University. In his essay in the same journal, 'Religious Cosmologies and Homicide Rates Among Nations', Jensen says "Recent research on homicide among cities in the United States report findings quite compatible" with the view that religious passion is linked to high homicide rates. The mass murderer does not have to be a religious person but merely one influenced by a dysfunctional society.

The disturbing fact for religious adherents is that the least religious society in the world happens to be one of the most orderly and harmonious in the world - Japan. The societies which have the more overt religious influence - such as Islamic societies - display the highest levels of intolerance, bigotry, hate and dysfunction. And in the advanced democracies, America, the most religious, fares the worst. America, it turns out, is way behind its European counterparts in terms of societal health.

Says Gregory Paul in his scholarly essay: "The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the democracies, sometimes spectacularly so and almost always scores poorly. The view that the United States is a 'shining city on a hill' to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health ... No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health ... The U.S. is the least efficient Western nation in terms of converting wealth into cultural and physical health."

Plausible view

Gregory Paul is obviously delighted by the empirical data which makes plausible his view that "The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely-held view that a godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted."

Benjamin Franklin said that "Religion will be a powerful regulator of our actions, give us peace and tranquility within our minds and render us benevolent, useful and beneficial to others."

But militant atheist intellectuals like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins will dispute that. In the last few months, Time magazine has featured debates between Christians and atheists. Most recently, Sam Harris was paired off unfairly with the Christian intellectual lightweight but best-selling author of the Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren. Harris has written two damning books, The End of Faith and Letter To a Christian Nation. Richard Dawkins has written the God Delusion. He was matched with renowned scientist Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project fame.

Harris and Dawkins feel religion is an unsafe relic from our primitive past, and Daniel Dennett, more irenic, has used science to show that religious phenomenon is easily explained by evolutionary theory.

Unknown to the average Jamaican Christian, safe in his cocoon of religious belief and piety, is the whole world of scholarship which is seriously undercutting religious faith - or seeming to do so. Aside from the philosophical and scientific arguments which are adduced to prove the points of the atheists is the experience with religious people and the anecdotal evidence of how religious people are too often close-minded, prejudiced, ill-informed, anti-intellectual and primeval.

Some of the worst prejudices and atrocities in the world have been perpetrated by religious people. It's not just the Muslim extremists and fanatics who exhibit hate and bitter resentments. Christianity has produced more than its fair share of tyrants, despots and monsters. In the United States many of the gruesome crimes and sexual offences are committed by religious people, including pastors and priests.

Many people campaigning for human rights and civil liberties have been opposed by religious people (though liberal religionists also have an impressive history of support for these causes). But for every William Wilberforce, there are countless Christian bigots. Former dropout from the convent and well-known intellectual, Karen Armstrong, author of numerous books, including A History of God and The Battle for God, says in her latest book, The Great Transformation: the Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, that the religions are redeemable if we know how to purge their texts of the gross which has accumulated.

Armstrong sees the essence of religion as compassion, as the Dalai Lama constantly emphasises. She sees compassion as trumping dogma and correct belief. It's about love, not doctrine, Armstrong says. If we could recover that primary belief of the Axial Age, then we could make religion safe, not the danger that it now poses to the world; at least in its fundamentalist variety.

Axial sages

Says Armstrong in her magisterial nearly 500-page work. "The Axial sages put the abandonment of selfishness and the spirituality of compassion at the top of their agenda. For them religion was the Golden Rule." Armstrong goes on: "The test is simple if people's beliefs - secular or religious - make them belligerent, intolerant and unkind about other people's faith; they are not 'skilful'. If, however, their convictions impel them to act compassionately and to honour the stranger, they are good, helpful and sound. This is the true test of religiosity in every single one of the major traditions."

But Armstrong sees a lot of corruption in religion.

"Fundamentalist religion has absorbed the violence of our time and developed a polarised vision so that ... fundamentalists sometimes divide humanity into two hostile camps, with the embattled faithful engaged in a deadly war against evildoers. As we have seen to our cost, the attitude can easily segue into atrocity."

The people wanting to kill homosexuals, adulterers, abortionists, religious dissidents and "infidels" are passionately religious. It is only secular governments which save us from the barbarity of theocratic rule. And if you follow some religious people in Jamaica and elsewhere, they would institute a fundamentalist state which would dictate morality.

The softer values of religion are not emphasised. Do you normally find your Christian friends compassionate, broad-minded, open-minded, self-critical, welcoming to those who disagree with them and tolerant? Is that usually characteristic of the religious people you know?

Says Armstrong in her Great Transformation: "Centuries of institutional, political and intellectual development have tended to obscure the importance of compassion in religion. All too often the religion that dominates the public discourse seems to express an institutional egotism: My faith is better than yours."

Though I must say that exclusivism does not necessarily lead to bigotry and intolerance, I might well believe than my faith is better than yours without hating you and wanting to see harm done to you.

Just as the scientists and sophisticated secular philosophers most assuredly believe that their faith is better than that of the Christians and Muslims - and they don't have to hate or want to persecute (though some do!) - so religious sectarians don't have to be intolerant and prejudiced. We must restore compassion to religion and build an ethos of compassion in the society. Not only would people be more peaceful but we would produce fewer of the conditions which would make the Chos of this world proud.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at

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