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Religion on Trial

Court gavelOne of the valid charges that atheists level against those who believe in God is that belief in a god has historically produced conflict, a great deal of war, oppression, and abuse in the human population. This is not a question of a supreme being allowing these things to exist, but rather the charge that religion has frequently been the cause of these terrible things. There is no question that the Crusades, the Branch Dividians, the Jim Jones Guyana massacre, or the September 11 tragedy were rooted in religious beliefs. Is all of this a valid reason to eliminate religion from the planet? Many vocal atheists are saying that it is. Listen to some of the most prolific atheist writers of our day:

Stephen Weinburg — “The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief.”
Sam Harris — “Unless belief in God is eradicated, civilization is likely to end up in a murderous sea of religious warfare. At some point, there's going to be enough pressure that it is going to be too embarrassing to believe in God.”
Gary Wolf (Wired magazine) — “Religion is not only wrong, it is evil.”
William Provine — “No gods worth having exist, no life after death exists, no ultimate foundation for ethics exists, no ultimate meaning in life exists.”
Richard Dawkins (describing God) — “… arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

These are serious charges and claims. To the general public they may be convincing, and they certainly give reason for all of us to look at what they are saying and what they are based upon. It also may be that adherents of some religious beliefs will need to reexamine what their faith teaches, or discipline those who are using their religion as a club to do terrible things to others. Here are some points to consider no matter what your personal beliefs are.

THE DEFINITION OF “RELIGION” HAS TO BE UNDERSTOOD CLEARLY. Webster defines religion as, “Any specific system of belief, worship, conduct, etc., often involving a code of ethics and a philosophy. Any system of beliefs, practices, ethical values, etc., resembling, suggestive of, or likened to such a system.” If we accept that definition, then atheism has to be included in what is meant by “religion.” The usual response to this point is that what is meant is “organized religion” not just a system of belief. The problem for atheists in this definition issue is that in the twenty-first century atheism is becoming more and more organized. The list of organized atheism and skeptical groups is huge including the American Humanist Association, The Skeptic Society, The Freedom from Religion Foundation, the American Atheists, etc., etc.

First responders after the World Trade Towers collapseWE MUST SEPARATE WHAT INDIVIDUALS DO FROM WHAT THE RELIGION THEY CLAIM TO FOLLOW ACTUALLY TEACHES. There have been people who have done terrible things in the name of Jesus Christ. I have Muslim friends who tell me that jihad is not what Muslims believe to be true. Some atheists have been guilty of murder and genocide and war. If we are fair and honest, we have to understand that there are evil and violent people in every human institution that exists, and ascribing their irrational acts to the belief system of a religion is unfair and irresponsible.

What is possible to minimize the blaming a religious system for the act of an individual? The answer is to look at what the documented beliefs of that system are. In the cases of the major religions on earth this is fairly simple on a general level. The Bible clearly states the teachings of Jesus Christ. Matthew chapters 5 – 7 leave no doubt about what Jesus taught as to how people should live, and the entire New Testament deals specifically with nearly every issue of human experience. In a similar way, the Koran spells out what the followers of Mohammed should do and how they should treat those around them who were not Muslims. Similar writings exist for Hinduism, Buddhism, the Urantia, Judaism, Taoism, Mormonism, and Jainism.

Within these major systems is a wide variety of sects or denominations. In Islam we have the Shiites, Sunnis, Sufis, and some smaller groups. In Christianity you have many denominations which rely on the statements of either the Pope or the Bishops of Eastern Orthodox Church. You also have many denominations which have added their own creed or belief system which may or may not agree or compare favorably with the Bible. Each must be considered independently. Sometimes there is no specific writing that each person can read and follow, but the foundation for belief systems is still given and can be easily followed. Atheists have several documents like this, that are subscribed to and followed by a majority of more visible and well-known atheists. “The Humanist Declaration” is one of these, written by a consortium of prominent atheists and promoted by the American Humanist Association. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Atheists have also published belief statements that can be read and considered.

TO BE VALID, RELIGIOUS SYSTEMS MUST BE PERSONAL AND VOLUNTARY AND THE RELIGION MUST NOT RADIATE IRRATIONALITY.Comet Hale-Bopp In 1997 Marshall Applewhite convinced a group of followers that if they killed themselves they could catch a ride on the Hale-Bopp comet going by and experience spiritual paradise. Jim Jones convinced 909 followers that if they drank a solution of cyanide they could go to heaven as a group and be in an eternal existence with him in heaven. The Reverend Sun Myung Moon presented a religion in which he claimed to be God, and took on himself the role of determining who should marry whom and how they should live. In all of these cases the individual’s freedom to choose was restricted or inhibited in some way. In atheist states those who attempted to practice any kind of religion other than atheism were severely punished by imprisonment and having their possessions taken away.

When considering religion it is vital that each individual have the freedom to investigate and choose what he will do with no coercion, threats, force, or financial consideration involved.

THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE IS ESSENTIAL TO AVOID ABUSE AND WAR. Nearly every country in the world has had a time when there was a state religion. This may have been declared by the state leadership, or it may have simply been the fact of the situation. The most fundamental problem of mixing church and state is that the methodology of these two institutions is, or should be, radically different. The state is to maintain law and order, to defend against outside aggression, and to provide infrastructure so that business and transportation can be carried on by the citizens. The role of the church is to provide moral structure for people to live by, and a belief system for people to be able to interact with one another and live productively, even when personal strife and failure are experienced by individuals.

The boundaries between church and state do get blurred. The state may need to go to war to avoid destruction by aggressors, but the morality of war and how you decide whether to engage in war or not is a religious issue. The church may teach about sexual conduct, but sometimes the state must make a law to control abusive sexual practices. It should be obvious that the religious convictions of state leaders as individuals, which come from their religious perspective, must be how these things are done, not by the church telling the state what to do.

There is no doubt that this picture is oversimplified and idealized. The cultural beliefs of a population radically influence both the perception of the church and of the state. Recognizing the roles of the church and the state and working at keeping a separation between them is vital for stability in today’s world.

A PERSONAL TESTIMONY. This discussion has actually been a description of a process that I went through personally. As an atheist, I had come to see that there was a mountain of support for belief in a God who was outside of space/time and created the cosmos and man for a purpose. What I saw in the atheist organization I was an active part of was that the group failed most of the criteria I have tried to describe. At our meetings we had people talking about turning the United States into an atheist country and freeing it from Christian control. Most of our time and money was spent trying to remove what we called “Christian Privileges” sponsored by the government. At that time blue laws existed that made it illegal to do certain things on Sunday no matter what your religious beliefs might be. We fought to remove church-owned properties from tax-exempt status. Our involvement in government was heavy and expanding. All of this and the failure to deal with evidence moved me away from atheism.

My father had joined himself to a Unitarian church and that looked attractive, so I started with their belief system. I then attended every denomination that I could find, which in southern Indiana was a lot of churches. I also studied with a leader of Islam, a Buddhist teacher, an upper-caste Hindu priest, a rabbi, and a student of Urantia. What I found was that all of the religions I considered failed what I have described in this essay. The only system that did not fail was what Jesus Christ taught.

Jesus made it clear that it was up to each individual to decide what he would believe and do. In one incident, the teachings of Jesus were rejected by virtually everyone who was listening to him. He then turned to his disciples and said, “Will you also leave?” (John 6:66 – 67). It was up to each person to decide how he would react to Jesus' teachings. Jesus made it clear to “Render therefore unto Caesar the things A young woman reading from the Bible.which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's” (Matthew 22:21). In Romans 13 the separate role of church and state are clearly described. The scientific accuracy of the biblical statements that were presented as facts (not presented as miracles) was meaningful to me as a person trained in science.

Perhaps the most significant thing about the biblical message was the practical value of what Jesus taught. Matthew chapters 5 – 7 contain a practical summary of how humans should live. The practical value of how to solve conflict, how to deal with family issues, and how to approach the tragedies and problems of life made sense to me. As I have lived some seventy-plus years dealing with major losses and problems in life, I have seen how well the system works. Jesus' statement, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16) has been bourne out again and again.

Young people meeting for a studyI also found that there are people out there who have seen the value of Christianity. They have bonded with others of like faith, and have made Christianity a way of life that brings newness of life, and practical support for the challenges of life. “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).

I recommend the teachings of Jesus Christ. In your community there are people who are following that faith. Find them and serve the Lord with them. Put religion on trial in a fair and open-minded way, and then act on the verdict that you come to. It will be the most important decision you will make, now and in eternity.

— John N. Clayton

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