Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Does religious fanaticism make us dangerous?

Are people who hold absolutist religious views dangerous?

The label 'religious fundamentalist' seems to assume that you are going to be a danger to society.  Many try to  lump all religious fanatics together.  So what matters is not the content of what you believe but the manner with which you hold your opinions.  Influenced by post-modern thought, people blame the world's troubles on those who hold to absolutist beliefs.  But this is far too simplistic.  After all no one lies in bed fearing that the Amish are about to launch an attack of Washington, and the Quakers of the nineteenth-century had an unrivalled reputation for impartiality and compassion during the Irish famine.

The reality is that different religions affect the world in different ways.  Although I am not in agreement with the teaching of Bahai, I don't think that its growth in Ireland will lead to violent revolution.  Nor do I expect the Hare Krishna to storm government buildings any time soon.  So how does absolutist Christianity stand up?

Contrary to the opinion of many, I don't think that the Bible is a diverse book that allows us to simply pick and choose from it at will.  I acknowledge that there are portions of Scripture that are less clear than others, and that people have reached diverse opinions on some of its teaching.  But a great deal of Scripture is absolutely clear, including the fact that Christians are to be peace-loving people who are a blessing to whatever society they live in.

I am well aware that there is a great deal of violence in the Bible.  I also realise that some of the violence in the Old Testament is commanded by God, in judgement upon the wickedness of certain Canaanite cultures.  Assumptions about the nature and existence of God will determine whether you believe that God has the right to impose such a penalty upon his creatures.

However, we need to keep in mind that these Old Testament texts were a part of a unique narrative.  In the Old Testament God was relating to his people as a nation.  God's people no longer constitute a nation, but are spread out as exiles among the nations (1 Peter 1:1).  As exiles among the nations we are to be obedient citizens (Romans 13:1-5), and desire to bless the land where we live.  Christians are to be a people who love their enemies (Matthew 5:43), live at peace with all people (Romans 12:18), and let God take care of vengeance (Romans 12:19).  Jesus forbids the use of force in defence of his cause (Mathew 26: 47-56, Luke 9:53-55, Luke 22:49-51).  John Lennox points out, 'to take the sword, gun, or bomb in Christ's name is to repudiate both Christ and his message.'

The fact that various people have tried to hijack Biblical texts, rip them out of context, and use them to justify their own corrupted ends does not mean that they have acted as genuine representatives of Biblical truth.  The fact that church history is dominated with a corrupted institution that perpetrated many evil deeds does not mean that they faithfully represent the teachings of scripture.  It simply proves the existence of wickedness in the core of humanity.  An atheist friend on Facebook admitted that he is 'a flawed human being like everyone else on the planet.'  I agree.  We are all flawed human beings.  It is this flaw in our human nature, rather than the teaching of Scripture, that explains the evil perpetrated in the name of Christianity.

Finally, isn't interesting that when a group like Westboro Baptist church (an embarrassment to those of us who use the label Baptist) propagate hate they are said to be acting in an 'unchristian' manner?  Why do people use the term 'unchristian' to define bigotry and spite?  Because the term 'Christian' has long been synonymous with love and justice.  Content matters.  Not all religions affect society in equal ways.  In an article in The Times, Richard Dawkins admitted, 'I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers.'  If there were to be Christian suicide bombers it would not be because they took an absolutist view of the text.

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