First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Is Organized Religion the Enemy?
For about a year, people have been telling me that the Next Big Thing after Harry Potter was Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials," a young-adult fantasy trilogy consisting of "The Golden Compass," "The Subtle Knife," and "The Amber Spyglass."
Now, this is definitely not a book review column, but I must say right up front that everything everyone says in praise of these books is true. Well, almost everything -- it's not perfect, and not as good as the Harry Potter stories, in part because neither the trilogy nor any individual volume ever achieves a sense of wholeness, and the characters are not deep or even, ultimately, very interesting.
Still, it's a rip-roaring adventure and it's well told and I wish I could recommend it to you.
You remember how all those wacko fundamentalists went ape over Harry Potter "promoting witchcraft"? Such a joke -- the only believers in evil witchcraft I've ever known are these superstitious people.
But this trilogy really is openly hateful toward a fictional "organized religion" that is only thinly disguised Christianity. And it openly reaches the conclusion that the greatest evil in the world is organized religion, and the best outcome of the story would be to destroy and abolish it.
Now, this is the obvious, outward program of the trilogy, and as is often the case, when you get down inside the book to things the author unconsciously did, you'll find that even as he deplores organized religion, Pullman reinvents it.
He can't tell his story without finding a bunch of people who share a set of beliefs and urgent purposes, and are willing to fight and kill and die to eliminate people with competing ideas.
In other words, even as he attacks religion for all the evil that it causes, he can't get through his own story without having his heroes duplicate all the evils he deplores -- right down to sacrificing an innocent, unwilling child's life to open a door into another world, an act committed by a character who ends up being the leader of the anti-religious religion.
Enough of literary criticism. I began this column with these books because Pullman has clearly bought into the currently popular slander that most or all of the worst things that happened in history were done in the name of organized religion.
The corollary to this is that if we could just do away with organized religion, all those awful things would stop happening.
This is constantly said in the context of American politics and the current war against terrorism.
After all, don't these terrorists commit their murders (and suicides) in the name of their God, and in support of their holy book?
Hasn't the bloodshed in Ireland been between Catholics and Protestants? In Bosnia and again in Kosovo, wasn't it all about Christians versus Muslims?
Isn't the endless hot-and-cold war between Pakistan and India about Hindus vs. Muslims? Isn't the war in Israel between Muslims and Jews?
Just stop believing in your silly religions, people, and we'd finally have peace ... right?
It certainly seems that way -- if you know absolutely nothing about history and don't bother to apply two minutes of rational analysis to the idea.
Jane Goodall was horrified when she realized that chimpanzees, like humans, wage war.
The tribe she was studying divided. A few individuals went off and formed their own tribe.
Within a few years, the "orthodox" group had hunted down and murdered all the individuals who had "apostatized." This is what primates do.
The Hutus slaughtered the Tutsis. The "Christian" Serbs rounded up the Muslim Bosnians and murdered thousands of fighting-age men. Palestinian "martyrs" murder babies and other innocents, because they know there can be no real innocents among the tribe they hate.
Humans go to war, following precisely the pattern of the chimps, and all these evil wars are about tribal differences. They are never caused by religion per se. That is, the doctrine of the religion almost never makes war a necessary rite (the Aztecs being a notable exception).
But when one tribe goes to war against another -- especially when it is an evil, unjust, unprovoked war that has nothing to do with survival and everything to do with unreasoning hatred -- they invariably invoke their religious beliefs to justify their behavior.
Nor is it only war that brings out this aspect of human beings. When one tribe is ascendant, it almost invariably begins to oppress those who refuse to bow to their authority.
So in America today, when somebody dares to speak in a politically-incorrect way or defy the "doctrines" of political correctness, he can lose his job, become the subject of boycotts, suffer endless public slander.
One has only to think of what has happened to Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, Mel Gibson, or Laura Schlessinger, where the established church went after these nonconformists until they either beat them into the ground, ridiculed them into public irrelevancy, or got them to bow the knee and confess to the True Faith.
In each case, the nonconformist was misquoted, deliberately misinterpreted, or flat-out lied about -- but that was all right, because their attackers were "defending the truth" and "standing up for virtue."
In other words, whether it's atrocities in war or oppression during peace, human beings are tempted to resort to evil, and when they succumb, they justify their despicable, cruel, or dishonest acts by saying that they're doing it for "God" -- or whatever deity their sect worships.
The history of atheistic religions in our time is far bloodier than the record of atrocities committed in the name of any god. Hitler's atheistic National Socialism, Lenin's and Stalin's and Pol Pot's bloody-handed Communism -- shall we get a body count and compare it to the number of deliberate murders committed in the name of Christianity or Islam, during any similar time period?
In short, the charges made against "organized religion" are misapplied. Human beings who love to oppress or destroy others have chosen evil -- but they will always pretend that what they do is virtuous.
And when they start justifying what they have done, listen closely, because their justification reveals their religion -- even when they pretend not to have one.
Eliminate "organized religion" and human beings will simply invent another way to do the same thing.
In fact, those of us who've actually studied history recognize something that the people who decry "organized religion" always seem to conveniently forget.
Religions seem to do a pretty decent job of keeping those evil impulses of human beings under control.
For instance, the main reason there are still millions of Indians living in countries conquered by Spain, and far, far fewer living in countries conquered by, say, England, is because those Catholic priests fought a constant and partially successful campaign to keep the bloody-handed conquistadores from killing all the natives.
Maybe we ought to start giving Christianity some credit for the fact that Christians, even at their most bloodthirsty, have rarely committed atrocities or oppressions at the same no-holds-barred level of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Genghis Khan.
They couldn't get away from that "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemy" stuff, not completely.
Yeah, organized religion is awful. Till you see what human beings become without it.
Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.
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