Wednesday, November 18, 2009

When religion becomes evil

I have been taking a course this semester at SUNY Brockport on the Sociology of Religion. It is a fascinating course and the instructor is excellent. I am 63 almost 64 years old and it is hoot for grandpa to be in class with students who are 19, 20, 21.

Tonight the Prof. lectured on Charles Kimball's book, When Religion Becomes Evil. Kimball says that the 5 warning signs of corruption in religion are:

1. Absolute truth claims
2. Blind obedience
3. Establishing the "ideal" time
4. The end justifies the means
5. Declaring Holy War.

I don't think that Unitarian Universalism is in any danger of becoming evil. In the opposite most of UUs principles are the antidotes to Kimball's identified religious toxins.

Religion has become corrupted in all faith traditions in just about every culture in almost every age. The key that all corruption has in common is the tendency of religions and their adherents to project their own limitations and inner turmoil outward.

If any of us sit in silence for just 10 minutes and watch our thoughts and feelings we will encounter greed, hate, envy, lust, jealousy, arrogance, selfishness etc. We each come with our inner demons and failings. Evil is not "out there" and it first and foremost inside ourselves. It is personal transformation which must be first and foremost if we are to change the world.

It is not clear to me what religious practices, if any, Unitarian Universalism, prescribes for the transformation of the self and one's relationships with the world. Practices are drawn freely from other traditions which is fine.

This month, November, in Rochester, several of the churches are working on Compassion. What have we been taught about compassion in our families growing up and how do we practice it in relation to ourselves, to our family, to our community, to others different from us.

One corruption of religion is the dualism which redemptive and transformative groups preach in which they describe themselves as the persecuted minority who is on a messianic mission to convert or eradicate the nonbeliever. The very existence of the nonbeliever is a threat to the plausibility structure upon which my believe and sense of secure in being right rests.

When religion defines the world as "us vs them" compassion has been overlooked and a toxic element has been introduced in human relations as well as in the spirituality of the person who subscribes to such a world view.

Unitarian Univeralists believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and in justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. These values are much easier said than done. It is easy to preach and much more difficult to practice.

I welcome your thoughts on how we as Unitarian Universalists can be more compassionate and thus deepen our own spirituality as well as transform our relationships here on earth.


  1. While we may not declare holy war, UU's turn a blind eye to it and let it happen. Eighty percent of the American public supported President Bush's War in Iraq - arguably such a war. Some of those people were / are UU's. Further - our collective failure to embrace a peace statement that renounces war because some of us believe that war is sometimes justified is what makes it possible for the 'holy warriors' in our country to go to war with so little opposition.

    Inaction has been the cause of much evil in the world. At least the 'holy warriors' act from conviction. What do we, as UU's, act from? What do we, as UU's, act from.

  2. Dear Tom:

    Thanks for your comment.

    I think the inaction of UUs is based on fear. We are afraid of going against the grain, of upsetting the apple cart, of disturbing the status quo. Unitarian Universalists are "nice" people and eschew situations in which they attract disapproval. Silence, simply, is safe. It is usually gutless and self serving.

    This is, of course, not always the case. There are brave and courageous souls among us and for them I am very grateful.

    Peace is not the opposite of war. It often takes a great deal of spiritual courage to stand up for what is right and restrain our impluse for vengeance and violence especially when we are treated unfairly or in humiliating ways. The deep desire for self preservation leads us to lash back and out.

    The attack on Iraq was not for oil, not for justice, not for freedom, not for some altruistic impulse to bring democracy to the Middle East, but rather vengeance and retribution we, as Americans, felt for the humiliation of the attack of our Pentagon and the Twin Towers the hearts of our financial and military systems. We could not humble ourselves to understand the motivations of others to get our attention to change our policies.

    The tragedy of the Iraq war above all else is, as Americans, our inability to examine our own national conscience, admit our wrongs, and taking responsibility for the injustices we have perpetrated for decades against others take steps to acknowledge the harm we have done out of our greed, arrogance, and lust for power.

    When is that last time you have heard an American President or leader say "We're sorry"?

    It is the intransicence in our collective ego to be "right" that has contributed to our poor relationships around the world and ultimately to war.

    Hang in there on your work for peace especially in our denomination. You have an extremely important voice which needs to be listend to.

    All the best,

    David Markham

  3. I have long railed against what I call the Doctrine of Salvation--the idea that some are saved and some doomed, mainly through belief. Jews originally saw their G-d as one of many and all who lived life by the Noach laws (similar to the as the last seven of the Ten Commandments) would by loved by the Jewish G-d and gain entry to the afterlife, if such existed.

    I am pleased that Christianity has become more tolerant and many no longer believe the infidel or unbelievers are doomed to hell. At the same time it remains a doctrine and that is troublesome. It is particularly troublesome if you examine how the same doctrine is denied by "moderate Muslims" but is clearly operating in today's global disputes.

    I would like to see all moderate Christians and Muslims begin a campaign to erradicate such beliefs from their doctrine. This would, of course, demand a re-issuing of the Koran and the Bible, particularly the New Testament. Something that is unlikely to happen.

    That leaves us with the question when and how to stand against the fanatics who teach death to the infidel? Peace at any price might mean peace by conversion, forced or otherwise.

    I attended a lecture recently by Itamar Marcus, founder of the Palestinian Media Watch. Itamar the brother of a former and current colleague of mine, Libby Reichman. Both immigrated to Israel some thirty years or more years ago. Both have raised their children there. Libby founded and is the director of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Israel. They are rightious caring people. Itamar founded the Media Watch to see what Palestinians and other Middle East groups say among themselves. His presentation was chilling. I suggest you visit their web page www. The presentation is posted there.

    We are in a religious war or if you prefer a war using religion for other purposes. Either way, it is a war and that fact needs to be faced up and railed against by religious and secular moderates.

    My thoughts for today. Thank you for this opportunity to comment.

  4. Katherine:

    Thank you for your comment and your very important thoughts.

    I agree with your thoughts and Kimball would them under the heading of "absolute truth claims". Absolute truth claims is the position that we are true believers and right because our sacred texts tell us so and anyone who doesn't agree with us must be converted or eradicated. In a pluralistic postmodern world this creates big problems for multitudes but we seem to be willing to tolerate the intolerant. Therein perhaps is the paradox perhaps.

    I pray and hope for a new day when we can live together in respect and peace accepting each others faith without having to kill those who don't agree.

    Thanks so much for your post.