A UN report on Religious Intolerance almost a decade ago noted a “significant rise in religious extremism and intolerance” around the globe, with religious minorities enduring the backlash of prejudice and stereotyping. The 23-page report pointed out that the trend cannot be examined without considering the political, social and economic conditions that nurture it, at the national and international levels.
Fundamentalist forms of religion of every stripe have common ideals. Individualism, the freedom of personal choice, or plurality of thought are seared by the fervour of their beliefs. They believe in propagating only their own ideas and do not encourage or entertain free debate, denying others freedom of expression, and are intolerant of an open society. Though the tenets of their faith may declare it a moral force, the language of the fundamentalist is hatred and violence. Thus salvation by the sword becomes their modus operandi. The annals of history are replete with accounts of the terror unleashed upon the unbeliever throughout the ages.
It is against this rising tide of intolerance that mounting unbelief appears to counterbalance the effects. But is it the very nature of “faith” that breeds intolerance? Is it possible for each faith to accept a plurality of truths? And is it fair to judge religion by the aberrations of a few of its practitioners?
Contrary to popular belief, religious extremism is not confined to the Middle East, the South Pacific or the heart of Asia, nor is it made manifest solely in obvious acts of terrorism. It is teeming with life in the West, and in the midst of our society.
Take Jamaica as a case in point. Quite separate from the homophobia that has no religious reference as its raison d’être, much of the language of hatred and vilification hurled at the transgressors is said to have had its genesis in a faith founded on peace and brotherly love. One eminent local church bishop declared that such malefactors should be taken to a public location where they should be soundly whipped. To date there has been no strident calls for him to retract that statement.
This form of extremism is even more dangerous, since it panders to the unbridled violence of the sentiments spouted by local dancehall artistes. Thus, where violent acts are committed against any individual suspected of belonging to this fringe group, there is often an unholy silence, where those who regard themselves as defenders of the nation’s morals become mute. “There is … a general tendency on the part of believers to condemn as blasphemous any rational approach to understanding how extremism and facile thinking befouls what may be a simple message of consideration for fellow human beings.”
Extremism provides a ready platform for the eschatological beliefs of the three main monotheistic faiths. The apocalyptic visions of a war of such magnitude as to “end all wars”, is common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And from all indications, there are elements within all three that are intent on hastening dies irae, the Armageddon and the day of judgement, if only to reap the promises of the thereafter.
In a Time/CNN poll conducted in 2004, more than one-third of Americans said that since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, they have been thinking more about how current events might be leading to the end of the world. And while only 36 per cent of all Americans profess belief in the inerrancy of the Bible as God’s word and that it should be taken literally, 59 per cent say they believe that events predicted in the book of Revelation will surely come to pass. Almost one in four Americans believe that 9/11 was predicted in the Bible, and nearly one in five believes that the world will cease to exist in his or her lifetime.
Of greater significance for this study, over one-third of those Americans who support Israel report that they do so because they believe the Bible teaching that the Jews must possess their own country in the Holy Land before Jesus can return.
Millions of Americans believe that the Bible predicts the future and that we are living in the last days of the planet’s existence. Their beliefs are rooted in dispensationalism, a specific manner of interpreting the Bible’s prophetic passages, particularly those in Daniel and Ezekiel in the old testament and the book of Revelation in the new testament. They comprise about one-third of America’s 40 or 50 million evangelical Christians who believe that the nation of Israel will play a pivotal role in the unfolding of end-times events. Towards the end of the 20th century, these dispensationalist evangelicals forged an alliance with Israel, one that has serious geopolitical implications.
And what of those who cynically manipulate religious faith for political gain? We stand witness to the shameless use of religious language by politicians to garner votes from the electorate or to promote specific legislation, playing and preying upon the fears of believers.
In addition to invoking the name of God to buttress their campaign promises or to lend credibility to their policies, scurrilous politicians employ ad-fear-tisements (the expression courtesy of Gavin De Becker) in their appeal to a gullible electorate, as in the case of promoting the “dire” pronouncements of Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, on the American people. It is almost laughable to see candidates in the current US presidential campaign – as in previous ones – tripping over each other in their public declarations of faith to enhance their eligibility to hold office.
But in a country steeped in the belief of a “manifest destiny”, religious language has always been invoked by those who would be leaders. In the same manner, Jamaican politics evolved from salvation under the Union Jack to the post-independence messianic expectations of “deliverance”, the “rod of correction” and the emergence of a biblical “Joshua” to eradicate injustice. and ‘set the captves free’. The most recent episode in the Jamaican landscape of religion used as just another persuasive point, assumed ridiculous proportions as prophetic utterances became intermingled with political affairs. In these cases, the religious becomes a significant target group before which politicians gracelessly hoist a carrot in the hopes of garnering additional votes and maintaining popularity.
Another staggering position held in the name of religion vis a vis the growing HIV AIDS epidemic, is a dogged refusal by one denomination to endorse the use of condoms among its adherents, resulting in major public health issues. How is this stance reconciled to the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”?
One good indicator of societal health is murder rates. People in a healthy society don’t kill each other. Without further ado, we need only look at societies with high church densities to determine the influence of religion -– or lack thereof.
The conflict between obscurantism and enlightenment, between rationality and faith is therefore inevitable. There remains a refusal to discuss the miscarriage of the basic tenets of religion to the point where belief is no longer benevolent. There is also a general tendency on the part of believers to condemn as blasphemous any rational approach to understanding how extremism and facile thinking befouls what may be a simple message of consideration for fellow human beings.
Regardless of the detractions, it is the general belief that religion, where there is no extremism, plays a significant role with regard to mental and physical health, strengthening the spirit of community through rituals and practices, and keeping hope alive – a hope in the hereafter, which may be instrumental in determining the individual’s propensities for good or evil, and charitable or destructive acts. Believers are said to be more generous to charity and to each other than those on the secular side of the fence. Religion has also given the world untold treasures in art, music and literature.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found cardiovascular disease significantly reduced by a lifetime of church attendance. Numerous other studies confirm that churchgoers live longer, with lower rates of cirrhosis, emphysema, and arteriosclerosis. Blood pressure is reduced an average of 5 mm of pressure by regular church attendance, 6 mm for people over 55.
“Given that reducing blood pressure by 2 to 4 mm also reduces the mortality rate by 10 to 20 percent for any given population, a reduction of 5 mm is a very significant public-health achievement,” says Patrick Fagan, author of the Heritage Foundation report.
Religious involvement has been found to greatly decrease drug use, delinquency, and premarital sex, and increases self-control for all age groups. In a 1985 study of girls aged 9 to 17, less than 10 per cent of those who attended religious services weekly reported drug or alcohol use, compared to 38 percent overall.
Even economics may be affected by religious practice. Of youth who grew up in poverty in the 1970s and ’80s, those who attended church weekly had significantly higher family incomes as adults – an average $12,600 higher than their non-churchgoing peers. The data based on the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, showed a positive impact from religion on children who grew up both in intact families and broken homes.
We need not look any further for all the forces that may obscure the simple message of faith in a supreme being. While the new atheists wish to replace faith with the wonders of science, and are busy condemning religion as a mere allayer of the homo sapien’s fear of the finality of death, they too are in danger of attaining the extremist’s heights of religious intolerance.
Whether or not life is a tale told by an idiot, the sound and fury of extremist beliefs can easily be identified as the real poison – and not religion in itself.