Some kinds of religion do harm; some kill many people. They are dangerous. In this issue, called Dangerous Religion, Dominic Kirkham writes about Christian and Islamic fundamentalism. Michael Northcott, Professor of Ethics at Edinburgh University and an Episcopalian priest, writes about the religion of America and Jennifer Jeynes, the Ethical Society librarian at Conway Hall, focuses mainly on religion in education in Britain.
Kirkham points out the similarities between fundamentalist Christianity and Islam that make them feel they ‘have much to agree with about their common enemy: the West’ and its secular values. He shows that ‘this is not simply a conflict of the West versus Islam but something more complex.’ What we have is ‘a rather confused “quadrille” of uncertain “partners” – motivated by differing mentalities. There are those in both the West and East united in looking backward, but to differing pasts. Then there are those looking forward, but to something different from the present.’
Northcott suggests that the public religion of the United States is America itself and its totem the American flag. He argues that this religion is fed on the human sacrifice not only of enemies but also (and crucially) of America’s own young people in wars. As he says, his thesis is controversial (see Jason C. Bivins’ review of Northcott’s book on page 22). Nevertheless, Bush does believe that God told him to invade Iraq and that America has a sacred mission to ‘rid the world of evil’ in a holy War against Terror, for which there is no end in sight. Many US Christian fundamentalists share this vision of America as God’s chosen instrument. For ‘the sacred vision of America as standing in some crucial and exceptional sense at the end of history, as the first and last truly Biblical nation, has played a key role in the history of America.’
How, Northcott asks, has American Christianity ceded the public sphere to this murderous civil religion of America? He argues that ‘a core part of the answer lies in the church-state relationship carved out by the Founding Fathers which left the churches in charge of the faith and religious experiences of Americans, and the State in charge of their bodies.’ The public cult of America grew out of Protestant Christianity and its privatisation of religion.
Rejecting religious persecution and the tyranny of a theocratic state, religious liberty in America was based on the idea that religion is a private matter between an individual and his or her god. But the price of that precious, hard-won freedom of conscience was a withdrawal from the public sphere, leaving a vacuum into which ‘the civil religion of America’ could rush. Indeed, there is a pact between the two, as churches of many denominations fly the American flag. This reminded me of the story of the ‘seven worse devils’ rushing into the house that had been left ‘empty and swept’ (Mt 12:43; Lk11:24).
The liberation theologian Jon Sobrino defines an idol as ‘a false god that demands and feeds on death’; his criterion for discerning these idols of death is a humanist one. In Northcott’s analysis the cult of America with its totem flag is a form of idolatry because this ‘America’ demands and feeds on death. And by that definition, the god of the suicide bomber is also an idol. So what god is not an idol? In the ‘apophatic’ tradition of ‘negative theology’ God is not that, not that, not that, John of the Cross’s nada. In the Christian story of incarnation God ‘empties himself’ into humanity. Of course in orthodox theology he does not thereby cease to be God, but perhaps that is an impossibility. Isn’t creating supernatural beings to legitimise your values just a way of giving them clout? If religions are human creations, clergy will have no divine moral authority to put ‘windows into men’s souls’ or women’s wombs. Finally, the only appropriate place for humans to look for values is among, between human beings, one of whom was Jesus.
When we ‘come down to the place just right’, the human creation of a religion that is not dangerous must reject idols that demand and feed on death for the pursuit of a humanity that is wise and kind. In a human trinity recalling/reclaiming the traditional divine trinity, it will try to pour its energy into wisdom and kindness, which will be regarded as inseparable. To avoid the ‘seven worse devils’, the pursuit must be both personal for each individual, and social for humanity as a whole species on Earth. Neither do wisdom and kindness come cheap. For example, Archbishop Romero’s plea from his pulpit to ‘Stop the killing!’ was wise and kind, and it cost him his life.
There is the question of how we define ‘religion’. The Ethical Society at Conway Hall had a long debate about changing one of its stated objects from ‘cultivation of a rational religious sentiment’ to ‘the cultivation of a rational and humane way of life’ precisely because the word religion was seen by some as too tainted with supernaturalism. In the end they did change their mission statement. On the other hand, if we start by taking it for granted that all religions are human creations, whether their objects of worship, their gods or idols, are regarded as supernatural or not, then perhaps religion – of one sort or another – will prove to be inevitable.
It becomes a matter of discernment. Sometimes some members of SoF speak as if getting rid of the supernatural and seeing religion as a human creation is an end in itself and solves the problem. Clearly this is not the case. In the last issue of Sofia Tim Jackson wrote about consumerism as a religion or ‘theodicy’, as he called it. There are all sorts of non-supernatural religions or those in which the ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ are inextricably tangled; some of them, at least, are harmful or foster illusions. Any religion that demands and feeds on death is idolatrous. The human pursuit of wisdom and kindness against the idols of death is of its nature a constant struggle, a constant conversation (a social activity) requiring humility, as in the great kenosis hymn Christ ‘being found in human form, humbled himself’ (Php 2:8.) And in that struggle, that conversation, the idea of religion as a ‘smorgasbord’ of privatised ‘spiritualities’ is woefully inadequate.