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Why many people hold their religious beliefs with intense tenacity:

Considering that there are:

bulletMany quite different religions in the world, and that
bulletEach religion teaches beliefs that conflict those of other faiths, then

one would expect that people would only hold their religious beliefs tentatively. After all, if different major world religions teach that there is no God, or one God, or two Gods, or three Gods in one, or many Gods, the chances are slim that one's own faith group has it right. But, in spite of the uncertainty, people tend to support their personal religious tradition as being absolutely true. And, many do it with fierce determination.

There are countless reasons for this. Some are:

bulletReligious beliefs are an major, integral component of how people view themselves. Often, one's faith is tied to one's nationality, culture, race, even sexual orientation.
bulletPeople believe that their religion links them directly to God and/or other deities. Conservative Christians often speak of having a personal relationship with Jesus and of having a daily walk with God.
bulletReligion permeates all aspects of one's life:
bulletIt provides rituals for life's major transitions, like birth, coming of age, marriage, death, etc. Some religions like Neopaganism also provide rituals for puberty, pregnancy, menopause, etc.
bulletIt may teache:
bulletRewards beyond ones ability to imagine which are associated with salvation,
bulletHorrendous eternal punishments for the unsaved, without any possibility of mercy, and
bulletthe mechanism(s) by which people can become saved.
bulletIt is often the source of one's moral code.
bulletIt delineates God's expectations for the behavior of each believer.
bulletIt provides an understanding of the workings of the universe:
bulletIt teaches what believers can expect after death.
bulletIt explains the origin of the world's life forms, the earth itself, and the rest of the universe.
bulletMany people are not familiar with other traditions or denominations within their religion, let alone the beliefs of other religions. So, they give unquestioning belief to their own faith group's teachings.

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Why religion is a main cause of so much murder and oppression:

One of the most serious human failings is a rigid belief in the two option theory - i.e. that there are often two and only two possible alternatives:

bulletA belief is either true or false;
bulletAn act is either good or evil;
bulletA person is composed of body and soul;
bulletEveryone goes either to Heaven or Hell after death;
bulletThere are two supernatural beings: God and Satan; etc.

Often, we do not allow for a third or fourth possibility. Many people do not realize that what one group may consider to be a heroic act, others consider it to be a despicable, cowardly act. This leads many people to a sequence of beliefs that can descend into genocide. They believe that:

  1. Their own faith tradition is all good.
  2. All other religious traditions are evil.
  3. Their own deity or deities are the only good supernatural force in the universe.
  4. The God(s) and Goddess(es) of other religions are really Satan or demonic spirits.
  5. Believers of other religions are evil.
    bulletThis can lead to the belief that they are sub-human.
    bulletThis may lead to the belief that they have no right to exist.
  6. It is acceptable to advocate the mass murder of followers of other religions.
  7. By exterminating believers of other religions, one is doing God's will.

Josh McDowell seems to have covered steps 1 to 5 in the above sequence when he is reported as saying at a Youth for Christ rally in 1994: "Tolerance is the worst roar of all, including tolerance for homosexuals, feminists, and religions that don't follow Christ." One example of a person who went all the way to the sixth step occurred during the year 2000, when a Baptist pastor in Texas allegedly recommended that the U.S. army round up and napalm all Wiccans.

Some individuals can be motivated by their devout faith to cheerfully exterminate people of a different faith. One recent example was the " 'ethnic cleansing' of the Muslims in Bosnia. [Some Serbian Orthodox believers]... quoted the book of Joshua to justify slaughter. They saw it as 'gods will' to slay the infidels." 1 Another occurred in Vietnam when some American soldiers also "quoted from Joshua to condone the My Lai massacre. They claimed that butchering babies would purge Vietnam of the 'commie stain,' and that they were on Gods side." 1

As Blaise Pascal wrote: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

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The special problem of Hell:

Followers of almost all religions believe that some form of life after death exists.

bulletMost Eastern religions teach that, after death, a person's soul returns to Earth in another body -- human or animal. This generally continues for many lifetimes.
bulletSome religions are rather vague about the afterlife. Judaism is one. The Bah''s also view life after death in rather vague terms -- as nearness to or remoteness from God. Religious liberals of all faiths often hold no specific beliefs about the afterlife.
bulletMany faiths teach that certain individuals will spend eternity being tortured in Hell. The criteria for being saved, attaining Heaven and avoiding Hell varies from religion to religion and denomination to denominations:
bulletSome, like Islam and Zoroastrianism, teach that the balance between the good and bad deeds that one has done wile on earth will determine one's eventual destination after death. This seems to be the majority belief among Christians in North America as well.
bulletConservative Christians tend to view Hell as a real place. A few generations ago, most literally interpreted the horrors of Hell as described in the Bible. Many Fundamentalist Christians still do. More recently, some conservative Christians have modified their view of Hell; it has become a place of isolation from God rather than an endless torture chamber.

A potential problem arises within most Conservative Christian groups. They teach that Hell is a place of extreme punishment where all non-believers will spend eternity. A person avoids Hell by being "saved" -- by believing as they do that Jesus is Lord and Savior. This teaching was expressed in very clear terms during a radio program "Life on the Edge," in which the hostess Susie Shellenberg explained to teenagers that: "If you are a [born-again] Christian, you will go to heaven; If you're following another religion, then by default you will go to Hell." 2

The concept of Hell can motivate believers to exhibit extreme hatred towards non-believers. It can happen like this:

A believer might:

bulletBelieve that many different religions teach the existence of diverse Gods and Goddesses; every religion's concept of deity is different.
bulletBelieve that only their religion teaches the truth; only their God and/or Goddess exists.
bulletBelieve that all of the other religions' deities are false and non-existent. They are the artificial creations of humans.
bulletIn some cases, believe that the gods of other religions are actually demons or Satan himself.
bulletBelieve that their deity sentences non-believers to be tortured in Hell for all eternity because the latter have committed a thought crime -- i.e. they have trusted and have believed in the wrong God or in no God for salvation.
bulletBelieve that since their deity inflicts such horrendous torment on non-believers in the afterlife, then it is acceptable for true believers to oppress, discriminate against, or even kill non-believers in this life. The believer might think that they are simply carrying out the will of their deity.
bulletFeel that it is their duty to oppress non-believers. Otherwise, the latter will spread their errors through proselytizing, and cause more people to be tortured in Hell.

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References used:

  1. "Christ Yes! Christendom No," at: http://home.primus.com.au/

  2. "Life on the Edge," a teen radio program sponsored by Focus on the Family, for 2001-MAY-5.

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Copyright 2002 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-MAR-23
Latest update: 2006-AUG-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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