Religion can be a dangerous thing. We have had more evidence of that in the last two weeks, right in our own backyard, in the very streets of Boston. Religion—confused, misused, abused—can be deadly, terrifying, toxic, not just to its particular adherents, but even to all society.
Religion can kill. When one thinks of all the countless men, women, children killed in the name of religion down through the centuries (and we haven’t seen much let up in our own century), then we can understand why so many people sometimes want nothing to do with religion—why they want it out of their lives—why they might stand in favor of the Surgeon General posting signs on every church, temple, and mosque in America that reads: “Warning: Religion may be hazardous to your health.”
When religion is not rooted in love (love of God; love of the earth; love of our fellow men and women) then it often turns dangerous. It becomes toxic. Not only does it cease to be a transforming and transcending force in the world—not only does it fail to serve people—it becomes a force of murder and mayhem and oppresses people instead.
I am a person who seeks to be religious. I try (often quite unsuccessfully, but I try) to live my life according to religious values and ideals. My faith is important to me (more important as I get older). But even more than that, I am someone who loves religion—not just my own, but everyone’s. I love learning about the history of different religions, delving into their beliefs and practices, visiting their holy sites. Nothing gives me more peace than being in an old church, the grander and more ornate the better. I was a callow and immature youth when I visited Turkey with a school group back in 1974. But I can still remember being in the great Blue Mosque in Istanbul and being moved by the sense of the transcendent and the eternal I felt there. No, I come to praise religion, not to bury it.
But I will admit that many of the things done in the name of religion make me sick. Physically ill. Emotionally distraught. Sad and depressed. And I can understand why so many people want nothing to do with it. Nothing to do with warped theologies which leave pressure cooker bombs on busy city streets. Nothing to do with moribund and ingrown institutions which turn a blind eye on the abuse of children. Nothing to do with self-righteous and hypocritical false prophets who judge and condemn and heap fire and brimstone on thoroughly decent men and women because of their sexual orientation or personal perspective or choice of lifestyle, while perhaps practicing the widest possible array of the seven deadly sins in their own lives.
I can understand, fully, why people say to such false prophets: “Be gone from my sight!” and why thinking, compassionate women and men often look upon religion as the spawning ground of hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness at best, and downright terror at its worst. Who needs it? Not this old and troubled world of ours, certainly.
There are extreme examples, of course. History is littered with names like Jim Jones and David Koresh, groups like Jonestown and the Branch Davidian. But extreme and sensational examples like these may be the exception and not the rule when it comes to religion’s destructive power. How many thousands of other lives that we’ve never heard of have been damaged by abusive religion? How many others have been poisoned by toxic religion—poisoning which only years and years of care and therapy and hard work will be able to undo? Not all negative religious experience is extreme or wounds a soul for life. But whenever religion harms rather than heals, it’s toxic, and potentially fatal to people’s spirits. Whenever religion seeks to control and judge and punish, it is starving the soul, rather than nourishing it.
If you starve the soul forever, it dies. “When half gods go, the gods arrive,” Emerson wrote. Not necessarily. Sometimes, just emptiness abides. Too often, when people turn their backs on abusive and belittling religion, they then refuse to choose anything else to take its place. They’ve had enough. They choose to live totally secular and earthly, materialistic lives, devoid of any contact whatsoever with those deeper things in which we live and move and have our being. The soul doesn’t get fed that way, either; so it continues to wither and starve.
So, then, if toxic religion can happen anywhere (and it can: it’s not just a “Muslim problem” or a “Catholic problem” or a “Fundamentalist Christian” problem), then what are the warning signs? Where are the clues? What are the chief characteristics of toxic and abusive religion?
One characteristic is hypocrisy. Toxic prophets preach suras of unity and gospels of peace, but they practice dividing up the human family and they further enmity and spite and the harsh judgment of those different than they are. They may have the words right, but their behavior puts them to the lie. Their behavior does not match their teaching. Usually, our eyes do not lie; if someone preaches love, but spews forth hate, or preaches care and concern for the poor, but surrounds himself with luxury and conspicuous wealth, then you don’t need a PhD in theology to see that there’s a glaring disconnect there.
Another characteristic is oppression. Toxic prophets seem to have an inordinate need for power over others (especially those who belong to their group) and control of them. Their approach to religion is all about rules and regulations. “Do this. Don’t do that.” – or (even more frighteningly) “God says, ‘Do this!” God says, ‘Don’t do that.” Their holy scriptures are always seen chiefly as rule books, with all the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed. Rule books interpreted and translated in one narrow and particular way, of course, and always by the leader himself (and it is, as far as I have seen, almost always a man).
Wouldn’t it be great if we all saw our own holy scriptures as guidebooks, rather than rule books—as travel guides for this journey through life, and not as regulatory statutes to which all must adhere at their own peril?
Toxic religion is also pretentious. It’s intended for public consumption. Its leaders “love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,” as Jesus said in the Gospel. They want to be seen, to be noticed, to get their names in papers. Religion, to them, is all about “show biz” and all the world’s their stage. They are all about public consumption and image—“branding” we’d say today-- rather than private piety and fostering relationship with the Divine. Or, in the rather stark and direct language Jesus uses in the gospel of Matthew, they “are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth” and decay. You can’t get much more toxic than that!
In a word, toxic religion is arrogant, and its underlying sin is blasphemy—that is, in the very name of God, in the name of the sacred, it abuses the sacred and holds God in contempt. They profane God by creating a God as hateful and vindictive and narrow as they are.
Anytime we say that God is as small and petty as any of us can be at our worst, that’s blasphemy.
Anytime someone says that God listens to the prayers of only this or that particular religious group—
Or anytime someone says that God favors only this or that particular race or nation or ethnicity—or favors one group more than others—
Or anytime we say that God wills disease on a particular group of people because of whom they love, or whom they want to spend their lives with—or whenever we say that God sends disease and sickness and personal affliction in order to punish people for poor or ill-thought choices they might have made earlier in their lives—
Anytime we ascribe to the Holy One one of our stupidly human concepts of prejudice, intolerance, narrowness, and rigidity—then that’s blasphemy.
It’s blasphemy because it slaps God in the face (if God had a face) to make God as small and mean-spirited as human beings can be when we forget the wonder of our birth, and in whose image we were created.
It is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which, Jesus says earlier in Matthew, is the only sin which cannot be forgiven, because it seeks to usurp God’s transforming truth and life-giving love, and replace them with human-made idols of power and control and even terror.
As I’ve already said, the question of toxicity in religion isn’t a Muslim thing or a Christian thing or a Catholic thing or an Evangelical thing. Toxicity isn’t about theology. It’s the attitude that a believer takes toward his or her faith that differentiates whether it’s going to be nourishing and sustaining or poisonous and deadly.
First of all, healthy religion is an extension of who we are. It isn’t something we borrow second hand from a guru or imam or pastor. It doesn’t emerge all at once, overnight. It is something we’ve worked on for a good chunk of our lives. It is something which grows gradually within us, until that which we believe becomes that who we really are—until, in effect, we become our faith. This isn’t just a matter of subscribing to a particular interpretation of this or that holy book; or going to Mass and taking communion as a sort of inoculation against the Devil; or coming to church to visit with friends and listen to a sermon and sing a few hymns. Truly healthy religion has to be a lifelong, every day of the week process.
Second, healthy religion can’t be a matter of doctrines or ideas alone. A faith that relies on ideology alone can too readily be used to de-humanize and marginalize others, especially those who do not believe or belong. Healthy religion exists in the real world, and not just in our heads. It exists in the real world with real live, conflicted, imperfect men and women like us—whom we cherish all the more because of the imperfect humanity we share.
Third, healthy religion might honor the past, but it doesn’t cling to the past. It doesn’t constantly hearken back to some lost kingdom or golden age. Healthy religion does not allow previous generations to do all of our religious footwork for us. It seeks to nourish us today, to speak to us today, in language of our own times, through revelation that speaks to us now, through our own stories and experiences, through our own culture, in our own world.
Finally, healthy religion allows us—encourages us—forces us, even—to think for ourselves and act for ourselves. It forces us to question, to seek, to doubt, to wrestle with our own angels and demons. One Buddhist school teaches, “If you meet the Buddha along the way, kill him.” If any minister or imam or priest or rabbi or minister starts tells you how to think—insists on his interpretation as the only one acceptable to God—then that’s a sure sign it’s time to dust off your sandals and continue down your religious road.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: "When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. Where evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of justice."
May this be our watchword in this time that has been given us, as we seek to build those places where people’s souls may be seen and made safe, as together we seek to keep alight the precious flame of faith, hope, and love.