The worries with religion

It was Blaise Pascal, the French scientist and Christian philosopher who said, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

We don’t have to go back centuries to the Christian inquisition when the Church cheerfully burned “heretics” at the stake. (They even burned Saint Joan of Arc and later canonized her!)

In our own day, we see what religious beliefs caused at 9/11, and cause with the Sunnis and Shiites killing each other in Iraq, the Jews and Palestinians on the West Bank, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. I know there are tribal, political and economic issues in play in these situations, but it is institutional religion that is the umbrella covering it all. And it is institutional religion that leads to religious fanaticism.

Our founding fathers were very aware of the dangers of institutional religion, and Jefferson wanted a “wall of separation between church and state.” Centuries later, Sen. Sam Ervin wisely said, “Political freedom cannot exist in any land where religion controls the state, and religious freedom cannot exist in any land where the state controls religion.”

The American theologian, ethicist and professor Reinhold Niebuhr was right on when he taught,”The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan values and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism.” Our nation would do well to heed his warning.

What about those who claim to be pro-life, but then ironically kill abortion doctors and fire bomb clinics? Such fanaticism is often stoked by institutional religion – as is also the case with anti-gay violence.

No wonder the English novelist Daniel DeFoe could say, “And of all plagues with which mankind are cursed, ecclesiastic tyranny’s the worst.”

Mahatma Gandhi too was right when he said, “God has no religion.” Of course religion, even institutional religion, has its benefits. At its best, it calls us to prayer and meditation. I know we can pray alone, but it is like singing alone; we can do it, but it is easier and more meaningful when we sing with others. Religious worship, moreover, compels us to acknowledge the presence of the Holy, and provides a community to support us in the inevitable struggles and trials of life.

As Father Robert Barron, the Catholic evangelical preacher, theologian and founder of the ministry Word on Fire, tells us, “At its best, religion orients our lives to God and moves us away from the terrible preoccupation with our own egos. But at its worst, religion reinforces the ego and actually blocks our access to God. In his great polemic against the Pharisees (Matthew 3:7), Jesus warns us against this dysfunctional side of religious belief and practice.”

Dan Brown in “Angels and Demons” reminds us of religion’s origins and basic message. “Religion is like language or dress. We gravitate toward the practices with which we were raised.” (It’s in our spiritual DNA). “In the end, though, we are all proclaiming the same thing. That life has meaning. That we are grateful for the Power that created us.” Amen. Dan Brown, Amen.

We should participate in religion with open eyes and uncluttered souls, recognizing both religion’s positives and negatives.

I conclude with a quote from a Pope (Talk about a high authority of institutional religion!). When once asked why he convened the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII replied not with a sermon on the sinful secular world, but with perhaps the most Catholic words ever spoken by a Pope: “To make the human sojourn on earth less sad.”

That’s what religion should do. But institutional religions often do the opposite.

Retired from the administration at State University of New York at Fredonia, Daniel O’Rourke lives in Cassadaga, New York. His columns once appeared regularly in the OBSERVER. A grandfather, Dan is a married Catholic priest. His book, “The Living Spirit” is a collection of his previous columns. To read about that book or send comments on this column visit his website