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Religious Tolerance logo

An essay donated by Susan Humphreys

Who & what is killing religion?
Is it outside forces, or an inside job?

Part 1

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Religious conservatives might say it is the scientists, historians and intellectuals that have killed (or are killing) religion. I think that religion has sown the seeds of its own demise by creating in man that which it originally set out to do away with.

What is "that which it originally set out to do away with"? I think the key to answering this question is to understand the first purpose of religion. One purpose is helping the individual connect with God or the sacred. That is an individual purpose. Here I am addressing the communal, social purpose.

In the beginning, man set out to explain the unexplainable, make sense of the unsensible, (storms and earthquakes, why good things and bad things happen), to provide man with an understanding of his place and purpose in the world and what he needed to do to survive. Peter L. Berger offers a good explanation in his book "The Sacred Canopy, Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion." 1 On page 19 he writes:

"A meaningful order, or nomos, is imposed upon the discrete experiences and meanings of individuals."

This is the first purpose of religion, to bring order/law/custom (nomos) out of chaos. In earlier essays, I Identified four purposes, the first three fit under this canopy of nomos. I defined them as explaining how the world works, providing rules to govern behavior and providing a community for people to belong to.

Genesis explains how the world began and confirms mans place in it. Religion sowed the seeds of its own demise when the religious explanation of the world (nomos) no longer agreed with the reality of the world and religious conservatives were unable or refused to make changes, to adapt to man’s new knowledge and understanding. In a sense the conservative theologians are right. The scientist and historian did help bring about the demise of religion but only because conservative religious leaders refused to adapt to the new information and reality that the scientist and historian uncovered.

Explaining the origins of the universe and humanity is only one task for the nomos. A second task is to define, establish, maintain and justify the social order. On page 59 Berger says:

"Put simply, theodicies provide the poor with a meaning for their poverty, but may also provide the rich with a meaning for their wealth. In both cases, the result is one of world-maintenance and, very concretely, of the maintenance of the particular institutional order."

A Theodicy is a vindication/explanation of divine justice in allowing evil or injustice. It answers the question "How can God permit…? "The Shack" 2 by Wm. Paul Young is a recent and popular book that tries to answer the question. A Theodicy also defines, establishes, maintains and justifies the social order. The social order isn’t always beneficial to the people, it is all too often designed to benefit the few, the select. In some cases, it is downright evil in nature and outcome.

Conservative religious opinions on homosexuality do this. So do opinions about what is probably the main religious conflict at the present time: marriage equality. They define what is socially acceptable and what isn’t for the group and they select the passages in the Bible that support their position, while ignoring passages that tell them their position is wrong. They REALLY get upset when science and the moral position (nomus) of others tells them they are wrong. Read the argument from Dr. Phil on this web site to see how it works.

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A religion’s nomus also defines the role of men and women, of priests and Popes, provides rules for correct behavior in all areas of life and rules for punishing wrong doers (read Leviticus). Religions sow the seeds of their own demise when their "nomos" is at odds with a changing and progressing world.

Religions frequently take advantage of mans fears and weaknesses. Salvation doctrines have been devised to keep men in line by taking advantage of their fear of death. But which doctrine do you follow: salvation by faith alone, by good works alone, by a combination of faith and good works? All of these options can be found in the Bible. Religions sow the seeds of their demise when their own scriptures contradict each other creating more confusion/chaos and more problems than they solve. You can find many contradictions within the Bible itself, read Genesis 1 and 2, both can’t be true, or you can google "Bible errors" or "inerrancy" or read essays on this web site..

Religious leaders have used fear to demonize the other (those that don’t believe what we believe): they are a threat to the morals of society, they want to kill our God. Each tries to prove the TRUTH and superiority of his/her nomos/doctrine while disproving and denouncing the others in an attempt to establish their power and supremacy. The problem with using fear as a tool to control man is that it often backfires. It emasculates humans keeping them weak, powerless, subservient and unable to help themselves when the demands of the real world call for action. Fear also sets denominations, preachers and religions against each other resulting in the unholy holy wars which we now find ourselves in the midst of at home and abroad. Religions sow the seeds of their own demise when they sow fear.

Kathy LaPan, writing on this web site, states that Christianity is the Only True Religion, implying that all others are based on lies. She claims that to tolerate other religions would be to admit that her religion is wrong. Another woman wrote a Letter to the Editor of my hometown paper where she said that she had heard that we should tolerate other religions but she doesn’t think that is right. I have met the woman and she looks like the grandmother in a Norman Rockwell painting. Looks can be deceiving. Religions sow the seeds of their own demise with these teachings. If you aren’t willing to show respect or tolerance towards others why should they show respect or tolerance towards you? That is the basic premise behind the Golden Rule a concept that was first developed by those early Pagan Greeks and has been expressed in some form or another by many of the world’s religions as well as secular philosophies.

Religion can change and adapt as man’s knowledge about the world changes. Alternately, humans can do away with religion. Both have been tried. Unlike some Atheists I accept that religion can be a positive influence not just a negative influence on people. Some people benefit from the order and companionship that membership in a church provides.

There is also the problem that by doing away with religion altogether they often throw out everything, the good and the bad, the concepts of ethics and morality, as well as the outdated cosmic order. Man once again finds himself adrift, in a state of chaos with nothing but his own wits and ingenuity to guide him. The strong find their way and thrive (perhaps with the help of books, a good education, teacher/mentor or shear will power), but the weak struggle and in some situations give up and give in to their baser instincts.

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If religion refuses to or can’t adapt, the man that clings to the old ways finds himself at odds with the rest of society that has moved on/advanced/progressed. The religion that once brought people consolation and comfort now brings discomfort and unease, a new state of chaos. The Christian fundamentalist that insists on a literal interpretation of the Bible and denies any errors or contradictions in its pages find him/her self in this position. It is no wonder they go to such lengths to deny scientific and historical discoveries that are at odds with their nomus/world view -- and why they create Creation museums.

Religion has another option, it can try to make man adapt, conform, or accept its world view. It has done this in many ways. Originally it denied most people access to an education and to the sacred texts. That didn’t work (and won’t work) for long. People have inquiring minds and some have a great deal of ingenuity and determination when it comes to surmounting obstacles put in their way.

In some places and times past, religion aligned itself with the political authority to become the state religion. There are many Christians in the US who would like to see this happen here. Yet they are horrified at the thought of some other religion becoming the state religion. It’s okay for them to force their religion/beliefs on others but not for others to force their religion/belief on them? You can force people to obey laws but you can’t force people to believe any more than you can force people to not believe.

Another way that religion has worked to make man adapt, conform to the party line, is to alienate man from his self. This can be seen in a quote from Berger’s book: p. 56:

"I am nothing -- He is everything -- and therein lies my ultimate bliss."

In p. 74, he writes:

"the masochistic solution par excellence to the problem of theodicy -- submission to the totally other, who can be neither questioned nor challenged, and who, by his very nature, is sovereignly above any human ethical and generally nomic standards."

The problem being that it is the Priest and Minister you are submitting to, the self-proclaimed representative of God on earth, the only one capable (sanctified) of interpreting Gods word for the ignorant masses.

Daniel Pals in his book, "Introducing Religion, Readings from the Classic Theorists," 3 quotes a passage from E. Evans-Pritchard:

"E Durkheim ….had an insight into a psychological fundamental of religion: the elimination of the self, the denial of individuality, its having no meaning, or even existence, save as part of something greater, and other, than the self." p. 333.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. book cover image Peter L. Berger, "The Sacred Canopy, Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion," Anchor, (1990). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

  2. book cover image William Paul Young, "The Shack," Windblown Media, (2011). Read reviews or order this book

  3. book cover image Daniel L. Pals, "Introducing Religion, Readings from the Classic Theorists, (2008). Read reviews or order this book

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Originally posted: 2013-APR-05
Latest update: 2015-FEB-18
Author: Susan Humphreys

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