When Religion Turns Toxic

(By Dr Joyce Jonas) Every so often we are confronted by media reports of some horror or other which has been perpetrated in the name of “religion”. A little child has been left to die because the religion of the parents forbids a life-saving blood transfusion; residents in a country village batter a mentally ill woman to death because someone carelessly suggested that she was demon possessed; corpses are found in the back yard of some self-styled pastor whose methods include flogging the devils out—even if “deliverance” ends in death.

Two young women—both in the same religious sect—are banned by the sect’s leaders from having anything to do with each other because one is deemed to be a sinner. They live in the same house, but may not travel in the same vehicle, eat at the same table, engage together in conversation.

In another scenario, a “brother” explains that he was divinely led to divorce the mother of his children and denies any obligation to provide for either her or them. He has “seen the light”; he has a “higher vision” – light and vision that have led him to the arms of a wealthy woman and a church with a great deal to say about Prosperity.

Foreign televangelists are skilled at urging their congregations to “sow your seed” so that they would “reap abundantly”, and our local preachers have been good students of their methods. Around us we may see religious con artists getting rich at the expense of their flock. My quarrel is not with the principle that “as you sow, so shall you reap”; the problem arises when these goodly preachers make it clear that my money has to be sown directly into their pockets! And then there are those who promise you physical healing if you send in your offering of so many thousands of dollars.

One wonders how many godly, yet gullible, folk in our society are daily being robbed by these charlatans.

All these disturbing examples of religion gone toxic are taken from the local scene, and the reader could doubtless add many more. But the horrors we are witnessing globally are still more troubling. A few weeks ago the media reported from China the beating to death of a customer in McDonald’s who refused to give her telephone number to a religious zealot who demanded it. The attacker, proud of his action rather than repentant, belongs to a group who are convinced that “The End” is coming and that they must hasten it by killing anyone who refuses to join them.

From China we hop over to Iraq where a militant group of religious extremists are targeting anyone of a different persuasion. Their message? Convert or be killed! Of those who did not manage to escape over the mountains, the men were killed and the women and children kidnapped—awaiting heaven knows what fate. In Northern Nigeria those 200 kidnapped schoolgirls are still missing. Even as I begin work on this article, news comes of the beheading by Isis forces in Syria of James Foley, an American journalist.

And then there’s Gaza. Though not the sole cause of the conflict, religion figures prominently in the seemingly unresolvable tension between Israelis and Palestinians. Both groups lay claim to the land they now reluctantly share, both asserting that God gave the land to their patriarch Abraham “and to his seed forever”—though each side also goes to great lengths to disprove the claims of the other. Even the most unbiased observers hold out little hope for a peaceful resolution of the problem.

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Of course, religious conflict and persecution are not new to the 21st century. Jews long endured persecution in Europe—a persecution that culminated in the genocide conducted by Hitler. In mediaeval Europe, “heretics” were routinely burnt at the stake, and even up to the 18th century, Europe and America saw witch hunts where folk were accused of being in league with the devil, and were consequently rounded up and burnt alive. Relationships between Protestants and Catholics have a long, sad history and within Islam, peaceful co-existence between Shi-ite and Sunni seems unachievable.

Religious intolerance is a major factor in almost all of the world’s current trouble spots, accounting for a refugee problem of a magnitude that boggles the mind and is proving a serious challenge for aid agencies.

All-out atheists would have us believe that all religion is toxic. Period. Many others believe that religion is a devious means of social control—of keeping the masses in check by, quite literally, putting the fear of God in them. But is that a fair judgment? Many of the world’s finest cultural achievements—in music, art, architecture—were inspired by religion. Humanitarian projects—hospitals, schools, orphanages, homes for the elderly – have long been the province of religious groups. Here in Guyana, many of our elderly citizens depend on feeding programmes run by charitable groups, as do many of our school-children. During the 2005 flood, religious groups of various persuasions were prominent in bringing relief to those worst affected.

Many, too, would argue that religion provides a moral structure giving support to family and community life, that it offers solace and peace to us in times of trouble, and that it gives us hope as we deal with bereavement.

But even while we concede that religion has benefited humanity in important ways, we also have to confess that religion gone toxic can be very dangerous indeed.

We are accustomed to keeping an eye open for signs and symptoms of serious illness in our bodies, so perhaps it would be useful similarly for us to consider the characteristic signs and symptoms of toxicity in religion. But what are those signs and symptoms?

Religion has gone toxic when people are not permitted to think for themselves, when they are ridiculed, ostracised or harmed for holding their own opinions and following their own conscience. Religion has gone toxic when its leaders arrogate to themselves the right to judge and condemn. Religion has gone toxic when it encourages men to put their women-folk in a subordinate position, denying them the right to share leadership in the important decision-making of life.

Religion has gone toxic when it preys on the simple-minded to extort money from them. Religion has gone toxic when it uses coercion to extend its influence. Religion has gone toxic when the pulpit becomes a place where the other is demonised. Religion has gone toxic when its leaders are obeyed without question either because they are idolised or because they are feared.

Religion has gone toxic when it perverts sexuality, using sex to reward or punish or using religious authority to take sexual advantage of the weak. Religion has gone toxic when fear is the dominant motivation. Religion has gone toxic when it strips people of dignity, rendering them powerless. Religion has gone toxic when its outward legalistic expressions are evidently more important than an inward spirit of mercy, forgiveness, compassion and respect for others. Indeed, where these last are missing, all the virtue and goodness have gone, and only toxicity remains.

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Concurrent with (and perhaps in reaction against) the disturbing rise in fundamentalist movements that embrace violence as their modus operandi, we are witnessing a world-wide swing away from traditional religion and a quest for a new kind of spirituality. The new gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra, Gary Zukav and Iyanla Vanzant, Thich Nhat Hanh, Elie Wiesel and Maya Angelou are widely read, and have also found a platform on Oprah Winfrey’s immensely popular Super Soul Sunday.

At first blush this looks like a new and inviting pathway, but sceptics would point to the astonishing incomes made by these gurus from TV shows and sales of “spiritual” books. They wonder aloud if what we are seeing is an updated, revised scam – religion being re-packaged and marketed at an even higher price! On-line religion! Is there no end to the skill of these money-changers in the Temple?

Nevertheless, from the wide interest in such “spiritual” books, it is clear that thousands of earnest seekers around the world are now rejecting the aridity and hypocrisy they claim to see in traditional religions, and groping for a new spirituality. They seek (as humankind has always sought) meaning for their lives, a sense of purpose. They long for a profound connectedness to Spirit, free from legalism, rigid dogma and required rituals. Most of all, they (we?) long to see an end to the conflict that seems to spring from toxic religious fervour—whether it be in the home, in the local congregation or between nations.

All of the religions preach peace and love and reverence for life. But do we practise what we preach?

This article was first published in Insight Volume 2, Edition 4 (2014)

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