Part of the common "wisdom" these days seems to be that religion and religious feeling are a bad thing. Don't believe me? When was the last time you heard someone say "I'm not religious about it"? I'll wager that not much time has passed since you last heard a statement to that effect. The speaker intends to say that he is not irrationally attached to the idea, equating, implicitly, irrationality and negativity with religious sentiment.
I trust I need not rehash the bad rap that religion, particularly "organized religion," gets these days. You can see it all over the media, in film, magazines, television, etc. If an established religion is involved, particularly a Christian one such as Catholicism, the "organized" aspect of it is villified. Religion is a byword in our society today. Any attempt at its intrusion in public life is met with suspicion (at best) and often outright hostility.
And who are these who demonize religion? Certainly there are the active atheists, but more often than not, it is your neighbor, or maybe even you. After all, everybody knows that if you get "religious" about something, it is not going to end well, right? I mean, everybody knows that lots of people have been killed and tortured for religious reasons, no? Religion is a disease of the brain that prevents humans from thinking rationally, or so seems to be the presupposition these days.
So how about we just take a few seconds to think about history and religion? Hmm.. we have the Crusades, the Inquisition, the 30-Years War (and other bloodiness surrounding the Reformation), and.. and.. hmmm.. Dang, I've flat run out of stock examples of how religion is so terrible. Sure, there are the odd one-offs here and there you hear about, but this is pretty much the stuff of it that so permeates our consciousness today. Strangely (or not so strangely), these are the same stock arguments that have been bandied about since the so-called Enlightenment. Let's take a closer look.
The Crusades. What can we say about them? A lot, actually. A lot more than the squishy tale of romance and vacuous "spiritual" comraderie displayed in the "Kingdom of Heaven." In fact, I recommend a good and, more importantly, short book on them by the accomplished historian Thomas Madden. In fact, you can read a short summary article treating the same topic here. Read it, you might be surprised.
The Inquisition. The mere word strikes disgust and fear into your heart, right? Well, before you go swallowing mythology hook, line, and sinker, you should check out this article by Thomas Madden and, if you have more time, maybe take a gander at this book, Characters of the Inquisition, by William Thomas Walsh. Brief summary: The Inquisition was a good thing for its time. You don't even have to be Catholic to think so, if you'll just look into the facts and how it was a civilizing and taming influence in otherwise extremely brutal times.
The Reformation and ensuing atrocities such as the 30-Years War. Now for these, I'd actually grant that there's a lot of bad stuff being perpetrated in the name of religion. But the key phrase is "in the name of religion." I won't argue against a lot of really, really bad things being done in the name of religion, but, uh, that don't make religion bad, it makes it abused. I'd actually argue that the reason religion has gotten such a bad rap in all that is a direct result of the destabilizing and modernizing effect that the so-called Reformation had on Western society. I'd further suggest that the only reason such atrocities have taken place in the name of religion in the four to five hundred years leading up to the 20th century is precisely because Western man was unlearning religion, particularly Catholic, Christian religion.
The Reformation gave a carte blanche to European powers and principalities to do whatever they darn well pleased, without having to worry about the checks and balance of religious corrective exercised through the Catholic Church (as in, e.g., the Inquisition, interdicts, excommunications, etc.). The more freed from any answer to a "higher power" that the rulers became, the more brutal and bloody things became. This is not to say that bad things were not done by Catholic rulers as well during (and before) this time, but, like the Crusades, these were first and foremost defensive postures, reacting (and overreacting) to the new threat that Protestantized monarchs posed. And of course, Catholics were fighting amongst themselves long before this for reasons having nothing to do with religion (they shared the same one, after all); this isn't to claim that churching culture makes men perfect but rather that unchurching culture makes them far worse or at least far more susceptible to being bad.
But if you think all the mess of the Reformation is bad, consider the absolute bloodiness of the French Revolution. Under the guise of folks like Robespierre (whom I had the "opportunity" to do a paper on in school), these "supremely rational" people unleashed an unholy terror on their own countrymen, bathing the country in blood in the name of reason. Yes, that's right; the French Reformation was all about "enlightenment" and "reason." And lets not stop there. Who was the French emperor of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that stomped all over the European continent? Was it a religious fanatic that spilled the blood of countless thousands in the name of Enlightenment goals like public education? No, it was a self-appointed dictator of the Enlightened world, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Did it stop there? No, as world leaders became more and more distant and divorced from Christian rule, things progressively got worse. Witness the many continuing continental wars of the 19th century with nothing more than national and empirical ambition as its goal. Witness the explosion of the British Empire that ruthlessly subjugated more peoples across the world than history had yet seen for nothing more than financial gain.
Oh and now we move on to the worst record in human history in terms of how humans have treated other humans. The 20th century saw more bloodshed than all previous centuries combined, or so I've heard. Was it in the name of religion? No, rather, it was in the name of secular, materialistic philosophies such as facism and communism. We see the blatant attempt at exterminating an entire race of people, along with anyone else not meeting an atheistic conception of the perfect man as well as those who would stand up for the targets of extermination (namely, members of organized Christian religions). Let's also not forget the bequeathment of that philosophy that so many rational, liberal, academic people coddled--communism. Far more have been killed in the name of that philosophy than Hitler ever dreamed of (well, maybe he did dream of it). Both of these philosophies are completely divorced of Christian religious power.
Now, who is it that is seen as probably the most influential person in bringing communism to an end? Many say it was John Paul the Great. In many documentaries and commentaries following his death, none especially Catholic in name or nature, I heard of his unwavering resistence to communism and the dramatic role he played in its fall.
And so we see the true nature of religion: arguably the most organized religion in world history has consistently tried to act as a check to the powers of this world, reminding them of their duties to mankind and trying to enforce those duties when it could. The worst periods of violence in human history were made possible by the utter elimination of this religious power, the only power that strives to act in the name of something higher than itself, the only power that truly believes (and has a basis for believing) that we, as humans, have distinct and undeniable dignity and rights that flow from an Absolute Source.
So the next time you're tempted to diss religion, think on these things. The next time you are tempted to laugh or cheer when somebody takes a pot shot at organized religion, think again. Religion, if one approaches history with an open mind, has a track record of an undeniably positive effect on human nature, both on the individual and in public life. The facts are there folks if you're willing to see them. As Jesus said, "he who has ears to hear, let him hear."