God's Grandchildren

How Religions Fail and Why

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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God's Family Tree

There's a saying that God has innumerable children, but no grandchildren. The idea is that a proper relationship with God - and note that I'm not describing any particular religion here - requires personal conversion and commitment, not merely being born into a religious setting. Personal belief in a creed may make you a child of God, but merely being born into a cultural belief system won't.

That idea that merely being born into a religious setting confers some special status with God is clearly described in John 8:37-41:

[Jesus said] "I know you are Abraham's descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father's presence, and you do what you have heard from your father." "Abraham is our father," they [the Pharisees] answered. "If you were Abraham's children," said Jesus, "then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does." "We are not illegitimate children," they protested. "The only Father we have is God himself."

Let's assume a religion takes root someplace, either as a brand new creed or one imported from someplace else. It satisfies deeply felt spiritual needs, and soon almost everyone converts to it. Let's assume further that all these conversions are well informed and totally sincere. Once that religion enters its second generation, it presents that new generation with a problem: how should they respond to a religion already professed by everyone around them, a religion that holds beliefs they may not agree with and imposes obligations they may not accept, or may even resent?

Only the first four responses can be characterized as honest in any degree at all. Even in those cases, we have to wonder whether the individual takes those actions as a result of sober analysis, or because the belief system is congenial (or inimical) to what the individual is already predisposed to believe. In other words, is the individual actually creating God in his or her own image?

Marketplace Religion: Making God in Our Image

In an open society with full freedom of belief, people are largely free to select whichever creed they find most satisfying. Since people are complex and reality is chock full of tensions that are hard to resolve, it's inevitable that people who approach religion with the utmost rationality may still end up all over the religious map, depending on what issues they perceive as most pressing. To a great extent, this kind of diversity is essential to a healthy and well-balanced society. People who stress the need for individual responsibility and strict morality on the one hand, and people who stress the need for compassion and social responsibility on the other, keep each other in balance and provide reality checks on each others' views. If there are many valid and beneficial forms of art or music that appeal to different people, it's just as reasonable to suppose there are many valid and beneficial forms of religious experience as well, and the society and the religion are healthier for that diversity.

But it's also inevitable that a lot of people will gravitate toward religions precisely because those religions agree with what they already want to believe. Narrow minded and judgmental people tend to gravitate toward narrow minded and judgmental religions. Emotional people tend to gravitate toward emotional religions. White suburbanites have a distinctly upper middle class God, very different from the Black Baptist God.

The Spiral Into Magic

A lot of the variations on later-generation religion above can be summarized as magic; the idea that God or the universe can be manipulated or placated by superficial and intrinsically worthless actions. We can summarize the difference between religion and magic like this:

As Alan Cromer noted in Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature Of Science (1993):

From the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, we know that human beings have a fundamentally egocentric conception of the world. Growing up in modern society means learning to accept the existence of an external world separate from oneself. It is hard. Most of humankind, for most of its history, never learned to distinguish the internal world of thoughts and feelings with the external world of objects and events. ... Cutting this connection, which is necessary before science can develop, goes against the grain of human nature.

Babies start out with a fundamentally magic view of the world: they cry, things happen. So it's intuitively obvious that the universe should respond to our wishes. Some people absolutely never outgrow resentment of the fact that the universe doesn't always follow through, and a lot end up in prison or dead as a result. Others learn that there are limits but always cling to the hope that some gimmick will get around them. A commitment to an objectively real universe independent of our own desires takes real discipline and conscious decision. So people who don't make such a commitment are all but certain to transform their religion into magic.

When Culture Subverts Religion

When a religion poses a serious challenge to a deeply entrenched cultural practice, the culture inexorably reshapes the religion to accommodate the culture.

The problem with the Middle East today is not Islam. The Koran has passages that urge forgiveness and mercy just as forcefully as the Bible. It also has passages that justify vengeance and cruelty as much as the Old Testament. There is a vigorous debate in some circles over whether Islam is really a "religion of peace." Islam can be a religion of peace, but it arose in a region whose cultures are not cultures of peace. Islam took root in societies driven by a manic obsession with personal status, hypersensitivity to personal and group insults, inability to accept defeat, and paranoia - often bordering on clinical - regarding male sexual potency and female sexual infidelity. And despite its virtues, Islam failed to transform those societies. Instead, the surrounding cultures co-opted and contaminated Islam, selectively emphasized the doctrines that reinforced their cultural prejudices while neutering those that posed any radical challenge to the values of the society, and finally transformed Islam over large parts of its realm into a vehicle for justifying petty revenge and sexual paranoia.

Whenever I'm disposed to think unkindly about Islam, I remember two Muslims in particular. One, a Kuwaiti, narrowly avoided death at the hands of the Iraqis during the occupation of Kuwait. When he was threatened with execution, he asked for five minutes to pray first. The other, the imam of Kladanj in Bosnia, was a gentle, scholarly man who was delighted to show us his mosque and share memories of his pilgrimage to Mecca with a couple of respectful non-Muslims. If either of these people were Christians, they'd be held up as shining examples of what Christianity can do. Islam can produce people of peace.

Christianity can be a religion of peace, too, but in the Jim Crow South it was perverted into a vehicle for expressing resentment over defeat and exacting petty vengeance on blacks. "We took on an opponent three times our size, to protect something that didn't deserve to be protected, and we lost, so we'll take it out on Blacks." In fact, the Christianity of the Ku Klux Klan (and extremists like Westboro Baptist Church) is a near perfect analogy for the radical Islam of jihadists.

The 2007 film September Dawn, about the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre of a wagon train in Utah has invited comparison with jihadists. The extent to which Mormons and Indians were involved in the massacre remains hotly debated. However, there's no doubt that the massacre happened because of tensions between Mormons and non-Mormons, fanned by rumors that some members of the wagon train had been involved in or at least approved of previous persecution of the Mormons. If any element in the society of the time compares directly with present day jihadists, it was the persecutors of the Mormons, not the Mormons themselves.

Subversion From Within

Clay Shirky's essay A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy was published July 1, 2003 on the "Networks, Economics, and Culture" mailing list. It was originally given at a technology conference in Santa Clara, California on April 24, 2003. His conclusions, in turn, draw extensively from a book by W.R. Bion called "Experiences in Groups," based on papers written as far back as 1943.

Bion discovered that patients in group therapy were working to defeat therapy. They did this by substituting various group activities that diverted the group’s actions away from discussing the issues they should have discussed in therapy. Sharkey applied Bion’s ideas to the way social software, such as the Internet, work groups, or Wikipedia, quickly bog down and get co-opted. Initially the group projects start out relatively focused and uncorrupted, but as more people join, with agendas not always in line with the group’s founders, the group’s activities are increasingly sidetracked. Since religions are large group activities, perhaps some of the same findings apply to religions.

Bion found that subversion of group aims took three dominant forms:

Superficially, it looks as if only the last item has potential applicability to the co-optation and subversion of religion. But let’s look deeper.

Sex talk

There are people who use religion as a cover for seduction or sexual abuse, but those are a relatively small portion of religious believers. When uncovered exposed - forget it, there’s no word that won’t generate snickers - they experience the disapproval of their own group. So surely sex talk can’t be a major way of sidetracking a religion. Then there are those who use religion as a way of maintaining male sexual dominance (the Taliban, or some ultra-conservative Christian sects, or religion generally in extremely male-dominated cultures).

On the other hand, look at how much energy many religions put into discussing sex. Although there are a lot of Biblical condemnations of sexual sin, some simple word counts will show that there are at least as many condemnations of economic injustice. A search of the New International Version found 79 occurrences of “adultery” and its variants. “Prostitute” and its variants occurs 74 times, but the majority of those verses refer not to sexual sin but to religious apostasy. On the other hand we find 126 occurrences of “oppress.” “Steal” and its variants occur 50 times and “rob” 28 times. “Poor” occurs 178 times. So why don’t we hear a lot more sermons about, oh, cheating on taxes and expense accounts than cheating on spouses? Or more sermons about the evils of poverty than pornography? Why does homosexuality, mentioned directly only a couple of times in the Bible, merit so much more attention than cheating the poor, which is mentioned dozens of times?

Sexual taboos can be a highly effective way of identifying and vilifying external enemies, but obsession with sexual taboos can also be a way of obsessing about sex without admitting it to oneself or others.

Religious Veneration

Religious veneration is the most paradoxical item on the list. After all, religions are all about religious veneration, so it looks like this tendency may act to keep religions focused on their mission.

If, that is, the thing venerated is the thing the religion was founded to venerate, and not something substituted because it was more palatable. This infinite God is a bit scary. If he knows what we need already, why pray to him? And he’s worse than Santa Claus – he knows whether we’ve been bad or good in excruciating detail. And if he says no, then what? Talk about the buck stops here. No, what we need is something a bit closer to us, a bit more limited in powers, a bit less in a position to point fingers. Something that leaves open the possibility of a bargain, or an end run around the rules. Like a saint; someone who made the grade but is still human. And if one doesn’t perform, we can try others; we never have to face the fact that something might be off-limits.

Or maybe it’s a relic, a place, a holy object or a ritual. In theory, the purpose of the relic, holy place, object or ritual is to focus attention on God, and give the religion tangibility. In practice, it very often happens that the tangible expression itself becomes the object of veneration.

The holy book of the religion can become the object of worship, so that radical Islamists can become rabid over insults to the Koran, yet simultaneously ignore its teachings (Sura 17.104 says "And We said to the Israelites after him: Dwell in the land ....," a verse blithely ignored by the anti-Israel crowd), or radical Christians can display the same fury over any questioning of the authority of the Bible, yet display the grossest ignorance of what the Bible actually says. (As 6/6/06 approached, many pregnant women asked to have their deliveries induced to avoid giving birth on that date, blissfully ignoring the fact that the Book of Revelation speaks specifically about the number 666, not three sixes, and that the number is the number of a man, not a calendar date).

Finally, the religion itself can become the object of worship. People can become far more attached to the idea of belonging to some particular religion than anything the religion itself actually says or commands. People show more devotion to their identities as Catholics, Baptists, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and so on than to the actual content of their religion.

Identification and Vilification of External Enemies

This form of group subversion accounts for most of the things opponents of religion criticize: Inquisitions, Crusades, jihads, intolerance, and so on. Even innocuous groups may need to defend themselves from people who see them as enemies, but defense can all too easily become an obsession, and people can begin to see watching for enemies as the principal mission of their religion. And of course, people who enjoy conflict can get their fill of it, and justification, simultaneously.

When the Cure is its Own Disease

Note that the subversion is a group endeavor. It's not sufficient for members merely to go their own way, but they feel a need to attract collaborators. In fact, the interplay of personal and group goals was a principal focus of Bion's writings.

Shirky’s prescription for the subversion of group agendas is simple: there has to be a moderator, someone or some agency to keep the group on track. In the case of Bion’s group therapy, the therapist has to battle the tendency to sidetrack the group (and thereby incur the enmity of the group, if he's not careful). In other groups, there may be some sort of hierarchy to maintain focus. Wikipedia, for example, started out based on an innocent assumption that entries would be written and corrected by qualified writers for the common benefit of all but soon discovered a need to impose structure and restrict editing access.

The existence of a moderator creates a built-in mechanism for identification and vilification of external enemies. For those who support the efforts of the moderator, the external enemies are the deviants trying to hijack the group. For those opposed to the moderator, the enemies are the orthodox, who are generally viewed as having taken over the original intent of the group and subverted it. If the group fissions, there will now be two moderators and two or more potential groups of heretics disagreeing with the central authorities.

Does Religion Corrupt People, or Do People Corrupt Religion?

Given the endless ways religions can be subverted and co-opted, the wonder is less that religions commit evils than that they do any good at all. And given the way Marxism was transformed into an unchallengeable dogma in the 20th century, the simple-minded prescription of John Lennon's Imagine:

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too

doesn't seem to offer much prospect of a solution. After all, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, Stalinist Russia and Enver Hoxha's officially atheistic Albania didn't exactly shine as beacons in the darkness. One could readily see, in a world where Lennon's ideals somehow gained supremacy, that a few generations later people who atavistically clung to national identities or religious beliefs would be ostracized and persecuted. Solely because of the threat they posed to peace, harmony, and all-round good vibes, mind you.

In fact, blaming religion for the ills of the world is a wonderful way to avoid taking a hard look at human nature. It's a variation on the "noble savage" myth and suffers from the inevitable failure of believers in the myth to ask how innately benign people could ever be attracted to repression in the first place, and how we can guarantee that eliminating all forms of repression in the present will prevent its returning in the future.

"Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way" indeed, and "few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:14). As psychologist Bion discovered half a century ago, even when someone knows the path, people avidly seek opportunities to wander away and take the group with them. And even when the path is brightly lit and well marked, people move the path markers, shoot out the lights, put up alternate path markers, and denounce the original markers as illegitimate.


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Created 27 February, 2006;  Last Update 02 June, 2010

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