“Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them”. (François-Marie Arouet) Voltaire
Voltaire was probably an atheist but he would have never had admitted it during his lifetime (atheism was illegal in the 18th century France). He was, however, highly critical of religious intolerance. Although he didn’t explicitly equate superstition with religion, he certainly felt that certain religious beliefs could spawn superstitions. In particular, he was highly dismissive of the reverence of relics and the powers attributed to them in the history of Christianity. To this very day people still take pilgrimages to sites that contain the bones of this or that saint, or the cloth of one of Christ’s disciples as another example. Many people came to believe these relics had the ability to cure them of some illness or purify their soul. These superstitions are contrary to any teachings in the Christian bible.
The perversion of the teachings of the New Testament, the example of sacredness of relics being just one, is one of the most disturbing aspects in the history of Christianity. There are countless examples of contrary beliefs and hypocrisy, including horrific actions done in the name of Jesus, by so-called adherents of the religion. I am aghast at some of the past events and movements that occurred in the Christian church. Two examples stand out. First, starting in the 11th century there were a series of crusades to the Holy Land. For over four decades’ thousands of people died in the quest to rid Jerusalem of its Muslim occupiers. The teachings of Christ never placed any importance on a physical location yet these so-called believers felt compelled to “free” Jerusalem. The kingdom Christ spoke of was spiritual – it was a place within you.
Second, the Spanish Inquisition, following the Crusades, was also responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people. The use of torture was not uncommon and, in collusion with secular kings of the period (1478-1834), heretics and non-believers, mainly Jews and Muslims, were expelled from Portugal and Spain. This goal to rid the land of enemies of the Church grew to include the infamous witch hunts which extended to the rest of Europe. It is estimated that as many as one hundred thousand women were tried by the Inquisition, and other authorities, with many burned at the stake. Any slight deviation from the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church was not tolerated.
These two examples of Christianity straying from its fundamental beliefs are startling in their veracity and disregard for life. When you read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), which I consider the core of Jesus’s message, you end up amazed at the misinterpretations of his words and the atrocities committed in his name! As Voltaire also said, “Of all the religions Christianity is without doubt the one which should inspire tolerance the most, although up to now the Christians have been the most intolerant men”. He argued vehemently against the fanaticism of believers… those who interpret and pervert the original teachings in ways that suit their purposes… arriving at what I call superstitious beliefs.
One would expect that the 21st century would see a lot more tolerance and compassion after the lessons of history are digested and absorbed. Not so. In concert with other religions in the world, the rise of fanaticism and superstition (false beliefs) has continued to rear its ugly head. Fueled also by ethnic divisions, there are currently religious wars in many regions of the world. Sometimes it is one religion against the other… other times it is different factions within one religion battling it out among each other. All in the name of their one true God and their interpretation of his will. Is it really possible that this is still happening in an age of enlightenment, the Information Age?
The United States “Religious Right” is an interesting phenomenon that shines a bright light on the absolute perversion of Christian teaching. These people have largely high-jacked the Republican Party and want the U.S. to be a religious nation ruled by so-called values they claim as “Christian”. And have they put an interesting spin on Jesus’ teachings. Wow! The majority are homophobic and racist… there’s no tolerance…no “live and let live” in their tribe. Many of their values are antithetical to many Christian ideals (which they claim are based upon “literal” reading of the bible). Here are some of the most egregious examples of the Religious Right’s fundamental policies that fly in the face of Christian values: these people denounce government welfare; they’re against immigration; they’re tough on crime, unforgiving and embrace punishment, not rehabilitation, of criminals; and, of course, they support the death penalty; they’re pro-military; and, most are avid capitalists who feel their wealth is a reward for good clean Christian living. “Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth”, Jesus taught. “You cannot serve God and money”. These same people love saluting the flag, a graven image of sorts, and singing “God Bless America” at the exclusion of all other people on earth. They believe that they are superior.
Why is it that humans have a predilection to bend religious values to fit their goals? It is most probably simply a natural tendency, a selfish instinct, to make your life appear exemplary. The Religious Right have miraculously created a God who believes “might is right” and condones self-centered greed for the chosen few. “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” Jesus pronounced to the consternation of rich Republicans!
I recently traveled to Cuba and read some books about the history of their revolution. Their leader, Fidel Castro, once said that socialist and communist ideologies coincide far more regularly with Christianity than with capitalism. Of course, he was right. On paper socialism, in particular, has many more similarities to the teachings of Jesus. They are both grounded in a philosophy that promotes the common good while also expressing a sincere concern for the weak and the poor. Capitalism, with its primacy of an indifferent “market”, concerns itself mainly with the individual. It’s “me think” versus “group or we think”. The market pervades every corner of society and ends in creating a frenzy of consumption. More is better. Quality suffers as consumption, a kind of gluttony, rules supreme. It is the consumer, especially rich a one, who rules. The rich get richer, the poor are left further and further behind.
Sounds terrible? Convinced capitalism is an evil incarnation? Don’t fret, most political philosophies, such as communism, socialism (Marxism), democracies (of the capitalist or socialist variety), dictatorships, monarchies (of the benevolent or malevolent type) are all better in theory. The same is true of every major religion! Even if we are talking about the ancient wise texts of Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity or Islam, they are all better on paper. Maybe it’s best that they are left on paper. The many adherents of all political and religious systems have modified or twisted the original throughout the ages, and in the service of their beliefs. In moments of despair, I think it would make sense to ban these new interpretations. Or, at least, mock them as I’ve done with the Religious Right in the U.S.
The word “philosophy” comes from two Greek words: “philo” meaning love; and, “Sophos” meaning wisdom. For the ancient Greeks philosophy was even more than a love of knowledge, it was also a quest for a way of life. Of course, this is also the goal and a value of a good religion. The difference between philosophy and various religions is that the first appeals to reason while the other appeals to a higher authority – various gods that somehow pass on their truths to human-beings – gods that cannot speak and are impossible to see. Adherents to various religions develop a series of beliefs based on these mysterious transmissions from god(s) to man. In the Cambridge dictionary “superstition” is defined as “belief that is not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, but is connected with old ideas of magic, etc.” So while philosophy is based on logic and empirical investigations, religious “knowledge” is based upon a magical access to a god(s) that no one can prove even exists! That is superstition. And, no wonder there are so many interpretations and people who claim to have special inspiration and insight into the “truth”. The result is hoards of fanatics and factions within, and between, various religions. A world that is on fire with religious conviction, in its myriad forms, is the current result.
The best advice for all the preaching clerics and leaders comes from Socrates, “True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us”. I’m convinced that this sort of humility is the best tonic for religious dogma. Let the world embrace a live and let live attitude with a strong measure of the Golden Rule added to the mix – “So whatever you wish that others do to you, do also to them” said Jesus in the culmination of all his teachings. Note that this same teaching is found in every major religion! Therefore, this principle is already a common ground for all humanity. Goodness shouldn’t belong to any faith… it belongs to them all. As for God, he would be of no earthly good*. If we all embraced a humble, tolerant attitude and tried treating people as we’d like them to treat us…well, wouldn’t God be redundant?
I’ll leave it to the great writer, and conflicted Catholic, Graham Green to bring to a close this essay with his profound words. In his novel, “A Burnt-Out Case”, he writes about a man in search of meaning: “You can’t steal all the virtues. Gentleness isn’t Christian, self-sacrifice isn’t Christian, charity isn’t, remorse isn’t. I expect the cameraman wept to see another’s tears. Haven’t you seen a dog weep? In the last cooling of the world, when the emptiness of your belief is finally exposed, there will always be some bemused fool who’ll cover another’s body with his own to give it warmth for an hour more of life.”
*Some argue that it is the very belief in God that is required for salvation. This seems odd…why wouldn’t an all-loving super-being reward non-believers who are truly good, and welcome them to heaven? Surely he is not a vain god?! Yet in Exodus it is written “I am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods”. This is a strange proclamation for two reasons. First it suggests he is, in fact, vain. And second, it implies there are other gods…a problem for monotheistic religions in general.