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Barbara Walker: Does religion make people kind, generous?

Barbara Walker

By Barbara G. Walker

This is an excerpt from her book Belief and Unbelief.

The world has millions of kindly, generous, loving people who attribute their own good qualities to an abiding belief in a religion — usually one that features an equally kind and loving god. The world also has millions of kindly, generous, loving people who reject religion because they find a god either insufficiently loving or insufficiently credible. Each side may be more or less tolerant of the other, believers perhaps less so because many fear the wrath of their purportedly loving god if they should seem too soft-hearted toward his alleged enemies.

Sometimes God seems not quite as forgiving as advertised.

Believers often assume that theirs is the majority opinion, but rarely know or care about theological particulars. They don’t examine their own beliefs, but follow their sect’s rituals largely out of habit and social considerations, attending the same services as their friends and/or family, not because they have chosen them from the vast smorgasbord of available sects in any conscious or deliberate way, but just because it is their only experience.

The impression that people have to be religious in order to be good is earnestly promulgated by religious organizations, which have a vested interest in denying all evidence to the contrary. Fundamentalists like to define atheists as evil, or at least misguided. “I’ll pray for you” says the condescending believer to the nonbeliever, thus asserting his own opinion that God will listen to him and do as he directs. It’s the ultimate ego trip for its practitioner.

But is it really true that religion makes people more kindly, generous or loving? History tends to disprove this. The worst wars, the most vicious inquisitions, the cruelest pogroms and persecutions were both fomented and supported by religion. Soldiers and cru

saders have always been taught that the enemy consists of people who lack the true faith, and so deserve to be massacred. The biblical God who supposedly said “Thou shalt not kill” ordered hundreds of genocidal slaughters and summary executions (including the blood sacrifice of his allegedly beloved son). No war has ever been perpetrated without the full support of religious authorities. Chaplains are made handy to the battlefield, to assure soldiers that God says it’s OK to kill as many of the enemy as possible. Hitler was a Catholic, who assured his troops that God was on their side: “Gott mit uns.”

Religion a potent force

As a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane, there is no more potent force than religion. Men have been committing heinous acts in the name of God ever since they created a God for themselves. It seems that the earlier, goddess-oriented, nature-centered religions were far less cruel. Many of the Native American tribes had such a culture. In California, the Spanish Inquisition remained active up to the late 1800s, torturing and killing natives for crimes against the true faith, such as not believing in it.

From the slaughters recorded in the bible, early Christians’ butchery of European pagans, and later European Christians’ genocide of New World natives, to the 20th-century holocaust in Nazi Germany, religion has been a major rationale for every kind of inhumanity. It has been the cause of preposterous witch hunts and heretic-burnings — over 9 million tortured and slain by the Catholic Inquisition alone — and the monstrous two-millennium abuse of women on the specious ground of a mythic original sin committed by Eve.

Since St. Augustine announced collective woman’s responsibility for the presence of sin and death in the world, rabid sexism has been a major pillar of patriarchal religious tradition. Clement of Alexandria said every woman should be ashamed of being female. The Gospel of Thomas said in so many words that women are not worthy of life. St. Thomas Aquinas said every woman is defective from birth, and lower than a slave, only meant by God to be “in subjection” to her husband. St. Odo of Cluny said a woman is “a sack of dung.” A 19th-century Anglican churchman wrote that a woman is “intrinsically inferior in excellence, imbecile by sex and nature, weak in body, inconstant in mind, and imperfect and infirm in character.”

In the 1890s, the president of a leading theological seminary noted that the bible commands “the subjection of women forever.” Orestes Brownson said a woman must be under male control, otherwise she is “out of her element and a social anomaly, sometimes a hideous monster, which men seldom are, excepting through a woman’s influence.” The holy father John Scotus Erigena wrote that when the heavens finally open in glory, women will be eliminated, because God embodied the sinless part of humanity in men and the sinful part in women. According to the official handbook of the Inquisition, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer for Witches), “all wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman.” Even the modern Catholic Encyclopedia asserts that the female sex is inferior to the male sex in both body and soul.

Marriage to a woman was not recommended by early Christian fathers. St. Ambrose called marriage a crime against God. Tatian called marriage “a polluted and foul way of life.” According to Origen, matrimony is impure and unholy; and according to St. Jerome, the purpose of every godly man should be “to cut down with the ax of Virginity the wood of Marriage.” Tertullian called marriage a moral crime, “more dreadful than any punishment or any death.” St. Bernard opined that it is easier to bring the dead back to life than for a man to live with a woman without endangering his own soul. For the first half of the Christian era, marriage was a civil ceremony only, having nothing to do with religion. It was not until the Council of Trent in 1538 that a Christian ceremony was considered essential to a valid marriage. The church had discovered an additional source of income.

Marriage finally became acceptable to the churches when laws were established that could make it a means of depriving women of incomes and property, and making wives the equivalent of slaves. Some of the Eastern churches made it a wedding custom for a bride to kneel and place her bridegroom’s foot on her head, and accept a stroke from a fancy ceremonial whip.

Wife-beating was so routine in Christian countries that the Alsatian decorative symbol for “marriage” was a toy man beating a toy wife. Martin Luther thought himself a very lenient husband because he didn’t beat his wife with a stick, but only punched her in the head to prevent her from “getting saucy.” In Victorian times, Blackstone’s legal “rule of thumb” decreed that a man could beat his wife with a stick as long as it was no thicker than his thumb, apparently since beatings with thicker clubs had been shown to result in broken bones that tended to interfere with wives’ getting their work done. Only in the last century did most Christian countries finally get around to declaring wife-beating a crime, though it is still acceptable under Islam.

Obedience of women

A slave may be defined as a person who is forced to work, but receives no payment other than food, shelter and clothing; who is expected to be obedient, and may be beaten or otherwise abused at the discretion of the master; who is legally immobilized and considered to be property. Under patriarchal religion, this definition applied equally to a wife. In addition, female slaves were freely used as sexual objects by their masters and forced to bear the master’s offspring. This equally applies to wives under a religious system that denies them access to birth control or abortion.

Religion not only taught men that they may enslave women with God’s blessing; it also taught believers that they are God’s chosen ones, greatly superior to those of other colors or other beliefs; therefore the latter may be slaughtered or enslaved, with God’s blessing. The Old Testament God condoned slavery, and Jesus said it is permissible to whip your slaves “with many stripes” (Luke 12:17).

According to the Baptist Faith and Message, Article 18, of the Southern Baptist Convention, “A wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” One minister explained to a sociologist: “Wife beating is on the rise because men are no longer leaders in their homes. I tell women they must go back home and be more submissive.” One battered woman was told by her pastor: “No matter what he is doing to you, he is still your spiritual head. . . Remember, no matter what, you owe it to him and to God to live in submission to your husband. You’ll never be happy until you submit to him.” According to polls, worldwide, the murder of such “happy” women by husbands or ex-husbands is the leading cause of death for those between the ages of 14 and 44.

The duality implicit in heaven-and-hell belief leads to an elitism that assures the believer of his own superiority and the general unworthiness of The Other.

Religion greatly enhances the “we/they” syndrome. “We” are destined for eternal bliss, while “they” merit eternal agony — which has been exhaustively described, although the bliss remains undefined.

There may be vague references to the joy of spending all eternity singing the praises of an incredibly vain and praise-hungry God. But after an hour or two of that, might not one become bored and wish to move on to some other entertainment? What if there is no other entertainment?

The idea put forth by several ancient pagan societies, that paradise involves an eternal orgasm, was soon shot down by sex-phobic patriarchies, even though some traces still exist in the Muslim concept of the post-mortem houris for heroes (only male ones, of course. Muslim women are not rewarded with post-mortem lovers). Usually, patriarchal religions have seriously distrusted sensual pleasures because of their association with femaleness. Western attitudes toward sexuality have suffered many poisonous suppressions and misinterpretations as a result.

More war than peace

Over the centuries, religion seems to have generated more hatred than love, and more war than peace.

We might wonder, then, are people good because of religion, or in spite of it? Is it religiously generated fear that keeps most people from harming others, or is it simply a natural respect for one’s fellow beings, such as demonstrated all the time by animals? Do people really need the paranoia generated by horrendous descriptions of the tortures awaiting them in hell, in order to treat their fellow human beings decently? Or might these dreadful if imaginary fears tend to make people behave more cruelly toward others?

Indeed, Christianity’s idea of hell seems to have inspired a truly horrifying degree of sadism in its adherents, as shown by the fiendish tortures routinely used by the Inquisition and other Christian authorities. Even revered Church Fathers showed a certain repellent lip-licking anticipation when they envisioned the agonies of hell. Tertullian wrote, “How I shall laugh and be glad and exult when I see these wise philosophers, who teach that the gods are indifferent and men soulless, roasting and browning before their own disciples in hell.”

And the blessed Saint Thomas Aquinas promised similar pleasures to all faithful Christians: “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful and that they may give to God more copious thanks for it, they are permitted perfectly to behold the sufferings of the damned.” As Joseph McCabe remarked, “Any body of men who believe in hell will persecute whenever they have the power.”

Religion seems infinitely accommodating, in that its interpretations take the shape of whatever personality types are adopting it. Kindly people, raised by affectionate parents and taught altruistic values, embrace a religion of goodwill and view love as a primary virtue. Those who are harshly treated in childhood tend to become more rigid, righteous, and prone to worship a god who hates and punishes. Religious scriptures, notoriously self-contradictory, have plenty of sanctions for either point of view. In condemning the cruelty of medieval and Renaissance Christianity we might do well to remember that “spare the rod and spoil the child” was the watchword of most families. And not only women, but also children were routinely beaten for the slightest offenses.

Culture shapes religion

So, it may appear that culture shapes religion, rather than the other way around. Through the centuries up to modern times, the bible has been extensively revised and reinterpreted to sweeten its nastier passages and give its God a better profile. The barbaric central idea of the bloodthirsty Father demanding the sacrifice of the blameless Son is still intrinsic to Christianity, but, in time, even that may be found unacceptable and “reinterpreted” into an altogether different scenario.

Religious people often protest that it is wrong to attack religion, because religion alone can make people virtuous. History shows that this is hardly the case. Every improvement in criminal law and every progress in social humaneness has been opposed by organized religion, just as much as our progress in scientific understanding of our world has been so opposed.

It would seem that religion does not initiate moral virtue in the community, but rather grudgingly reflects it, once the community has sufficiently overcome religious objections to its progress and become somewhat more enlightened. We should remember that in our country, churches endorsed slavery, public lynching, wife-beating, whipping of schoolchildren, and many other abuses. To this day, the faith called Islam, which translates “submission” — of women in particular — still allows “honor killing” of women who are deemed insufficiently submissive.

Religion may pretend to be all things to all people, but it might be beneficial to consider its costs. Huge amounts of time, and attention, and tax-free money are spent on religious trappings that might be better spent on improvement of living conditions for more people, or on genuine education rather than on mythical shadowlands.

It is surely unfortunate that the religious imagination can so easily justify war, hatred and cruelty. H.L. Mencken once remarked: “The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.” As Stephen Weinberg said: “With or without religion you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

20th century evil

What was arguably the greatest evil of the 20th century was helped along by the Catholic Church, which “signed a concordat with Adolf Hitler as soon as the chancellor took office in 1933. The Catholic Church provided the Nazis with genealogical records, supported, defended, and aided the pro-Nazi Ustashe regime in Croatia. The Catholic Church, although fully aware of the policy of extermination set in motion in 1942, did not condemn it in private or in public, and never ordered any priest or bishop to condemn the criminal regime in the hearing of his flock. The Catholic Church, in the person of Cardinal Bertram, ordered a requiem mass in memory of Adolf Hitler. Even better, the Catholic Church did for the Nazis what it had never done for a single Jew — it set up a network designed to smuggle war criminals out of Europe. The Catholic Church promoted into its hierarchy people who had performed important tasks for the Hitler regime. And the Catholic Church will never apologize for any of these things.

The greatest 20th century war crime of the United States was solemnly blessed by Father George Zabelka as he called down God’s benefice on the crew of the Enola Gay, as they were taking off to drop their atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

As children naturally outgrow Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the ogre under the bed, so humanity in general may need to outgrow its gods and devils.

Our collective imagination could be much better employed in finding ways to understand our world more clearly, to help rather than harm, and to halt the runaway overpopulation and pollution that threaten our planet’s food and water sources. Nature’s retribution is much more certain than God’s, and it requires us to think rather than imagine.

FFRF Life Member Barbara G. Walker is a researcher, lecturer and author of 24 books on comparative religion, history, mythology, symbolism, mineral lore, knitwear design, the tarot, the I Ching, a collection of original Feminist Fairy Tales, an autobiography, a novel, and two essay collections: Man Made God and Belief and Unbelief.  Her Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets has been in print since 1983 and was named Book of the Year by the London Times.