I was raised with religion. In that way, I share a common foundation with the majority of people on our planet. And yet, having seen the failure of religion to foster peace in our world—and understanding that religion has, instead, assumed the leadership-mantle of the hate and prejudice that divide mankind, I choose not to align myself with any faith. Such division was a fundamental of my own childhood home, wherein one parent used religion as the means for creating loyalties and condemning the other partner. Our family certainly didn't show religion at its best; that was a driving force for my own choice—to never allow a twisted form of religion to interfere with the humanity of my own life.
Undoubtedly, many argue how religion has protected them—how it saved them and their children from bad influences while growing up. And there's no question about it: Whether real or imagined, a euphoric sense of safety is religion's immediate and practical value.
Yet, it's also true that fear is involved, and many require an omnipotent and omniscient overseer to provide their individual consciences. Being frightened into following a religious doctrine doesn't establish a durable moral compass. In fact, it is the substitution of a pseudo-conscience—one that is external to the individual—that is largely responsible for the many atrocities committed out of so-called religious fervor.
It seems to be a defect in humanity; people want so desperately to fit in with a group that they will sell out their kindness, decency and empathy—traits that should be a part of every normal human being. Religion's role as a safe haven can become downright dangerous if believers forfeit their personal conscience to the will of such a group.
We saw that happen in Hitler's Third Reich, when a blind complacency allowed the murder of millions of Jews. It was blind group zeal that was responsible for the indiscriminate witch hunts of early Salem. The mass murder of innocent Arabs during the Crusades required the abdication of one's personal conscience, and it was very much a part of the despicable and horrific acts of the Spanish Inquisition. Closer to home, it was a religiously driven mob mentality that caused Mormon settlers to murder 140 men, women and children and plunder the belongings of the Baker-Fancher wagon train at Utah's Mountain Meadows.
The foregoing atrocities had one common thread: Whenever and wherever a group claims the status of a "chosen" people, terrible things happen. Unfortunately, the histories of the U.S.—and Utah—bear that out.
During a recent congressional debate over the Equality Act, Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) delivered some powerful words:
"You used God to segregate me in schools," Green reflected. "You used God to put me in the back of the bus. Have you no shame?" Then, in an apparent effort to exculpate God, he went on, "This is not about God; it's about men who choose to discriminate against other people because they have the power to do so."
While Green personalized his experience of racial injustices, leveling some of the blame against the world's religious communities, no one could argue with his words. Though faith can be a mechanism for developing and perfecting human conscience—bringing out the best in men—Green showed how religion can be used to justify society's embrace of prejudice.
The congressman's damning statement of how religion has played a part in disenfranchising minorities throughout history should have turned heads.
Sadly, much of the world's discrimination is rooted not only in age-old human frailties and misunderstanding, but in the holy scriptures of many faiths. Religion has been at the center of much—or most—of the world's inhumanities. Of course, any such accusations will be met by denial; clergy would never level blame on God, despite their perceptions of where their religions actually came from. Just like Green, they will proclaim that this is not a problem created by deity, but by the bastard thinking of religious adherents and leaders.
Children are not born with racial prejudice, but it doesn't take long for religious beliefs to overpower young minds. Whether parents and clergy intend it, by time a child is 4 or 5 years of age, he or she's already believes that not all human beings are created equal. Children learn to accept the premise that God doesn't like everyone. For some reason, unbeknownst to me, a significant part of religious education is not one of the brotherhood of mankind but of the Cain-and-Abel competitions that stand between us and a harmoniously functioning world.
Recently, religion has been playing its awful part in perpetuating misery and insecurity for anyone who doesn't wear the same badge. The Pope, evangelicals, radical imams, Latter-day brethren and even our ex-president have all participated in drawing the lines that make a mockery of the concept of a god. The Vatican has reinforced the doctrine that homosexuality is a grave sin while evangelicals have demonized pro-lifers and the LBGTQ community. Even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints resists those who color outside the lines of mainstream Mormonism, marginalizing a significant percentage of its membership. Meanwhile, Asian Americans and Muslims continue to be maligned and attacked; Blacks continue to suffer at the hands of whites.
If this past week of gun violence in our nation has taught us anything, it's that we need to embrace those who don't fit into a mold—our mold—and quit using God as an excuse. Right here, in Utah, is a good place to start.
The author is a retired businessman, novelist, columnist and former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and the beloved ashes of their mongrel dog.