Should Religion Come With a Health Warning?

by Anthony Egan SJ

Crusades, jihads, inquisitions, forced conversions, mass executions, destruction of religious sites, and hate speech in the media. Surely even the most devout must wonder at times whether religion is a threat to the survival of life on this planet.

Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens argue that not only is religion false, but that it’s hopelessly intolerant and frequently violent. Like many theologians of various faiths, I have challenged both aspects of the argument. One the one hand, their arguments against God’s existence are too simplistic. Conversely the religiously-motivated violence, rooted in fundamentalist distortions of faiths themselves, is a dangerous aberration of faith. The latter is often an expression of other motivations couched in religious language: economic and social marginalisation, nationalism or identity politics.

Yet, despite all efforts by religious leaders and scholars to counter dogmatic distortions and promote tolerance, sections of the religious community carry on in their own bloodthirsty way.

What needs to be done to remove the toxicity in the body of religion?

It might be worth looking at religion less from the perspective of dogmas, than from geography and history. All great religions emerge from specific places in certain times under specific historical circumstances. I confine myself to the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) that are all rooted in the Middle East.

Judaism was a turn from polytheism (many local gods) to monotheism (one god, named YHWH). Linked closely to the emergence of a single state from a league of local tribes and refugees from Egypt, the religion created both a nation and a cultural identity. Christianity emerges as a sect of Judaism that believed Jesus was the Messiah promised in Hebrew Scriptures and – after losing the support of the vast majority of Jews – became the dominant religion of Europe, subsequently spreading during the age of colonisation.

And Islam, emerging in nearby Arabia centuries later, can be seen as a monotheistic Jewish-Christian synthesis and adaptation. It also had a nation-building project in Arabia and spread through colonisation westwards and eastwards.

At a doctrinal level the Abrahamic faiths share similarities (monotheism, though differently interpreted; similar ethics) and differences. Each has internal dogmatic disagreements and struggle between literalist and symbolic interpretations of doctrine. Fundamentally, though, each holds itself to be the one true faith – a guaranteed path to conflict within and between religions which feed into broader political and social conflicts.

One way out of this mess is greater religious pluralism. Theologian Raimundo Panikkar (of Hindu and Catholic ancestry) once categorised the world’s great faiths as great rivers merging into the Ocean (the divine Mystery). Although unpopular with many Christians for allegedly ‘relativising’ the truths of Christianity, this approach can at least be seen as a way of reducing conflict.

Whatever its merits, it is essential is that religious leaders and theologians develop ways of promoting peace between religions. Indeed, we need to see in pluralism an opportunity to embrace our difference as we journey into deeper knowledge of the Mystery at the heart of all life.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ
B.A. (Hons), M.A. (UCT), B.A. (Hons) (London), M.Div., S.T.L. (Weston), Ph.D. (Wits)

Fr Anthony Egan SJ has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand, where he currently teaches at the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for Spotlight. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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