Without question most religions function within a framework that is fundamentally good, with much of the focus of teachings boiling down to being good to your fellow man (or woman) and being a decent person. But one has to be either naïve or in deep denial to think that there isn't a dark side to religions. Indeed, those jets flying into the twin towers had a religious component, and the Olympic bombing in Atlanta had a religious component, as did the tragedy in Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing, scores of abortion clinic bombings and nearly all of the conflict in the Middle East. To be sure, I'm not blaming these actions exclusively on religion, because it's people that do these things, not the religion itself. That said, religion does play a role in these events and the problem occurs when people interpret religion in such a way that it denigrates a particular group of people or encourages violence.
I had a personal experience where I sent my children to a camp at a local church and asked the organizer before the camp if religion was going to be pushed heavily on the kids. They told me that it was just a fun camp with a small christian component, and very little religion. Sometime after the camp one of my kids told me that he was a bad person, a sinner in fact, because he had caused my wife to suffer when he was born, and that he caused the doctors to work hard and therefore him and his brother were sinners just for being born. I was shocked to hear this coming out of the mouth of a 6 year old, but when I asked him he told me he had been taught this doctrine, at length, at the very camp that had promised me they wouldn't be pushing religion. Now, the kids were at a church-sponsored camp and so I accept that there was a religious component, indeed I expected that, but I'm sorry folks, telling kids they are sinners for hurting their birth mothers isn't religion, that's child abuse. Telling a child that they are a sinner for being born because he hurt his mother is mental torture and those that engage in this behavior should be ashamed of themselves. In fact, if this behavior wasn't hiding behind the protective cover of religion it probably would be actionable by authorities.
So where does the dark side of religion come from? Where does it show up? In my opinion the dark side of religion rears its ugly head when extremes become the norm. Fundamentalist is a word that turns me off because it tends to mean extreme, fundamental, black and white thinking no matter which religion we're talking about. That kind of thinking can be dangerous and hurtful, which leads me to what prompted me to write this article in the first place. It was a piece I saw written by former President Jimmy Carter.
President Carter is a guy that I have a great deal of respect for because after his presidency he has worked tirelessly to make the world a better place and spends huge amounts of his time working with Habitat For Humanity, often working to build houses with his own hands. He founded the Carter Center which works around the world to help eradicate diseases like malaria, Guinea worm, and schistosomiasis (all nasty diseases). But he also worked hard to find peaceful solutions to major problems throughout the world, winning the NOBEL PEACE PRIZE in 2002.
President Carter is also a deeply religious man. In fact, he is a committed Baptist and was a prestigious member of the Southern Baptist Convention, an organization in existence since 1845 with a mandate to "...proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the entire world." In 2000, however, President Carter severed his tied with the SBC because of the convention's view toward women, specifically the view of the SBC that women are subservient to men. Indeed, on July 12 of this year Carter came out with a press release statement that read "The words of god do not justify cruelty to women." His statement is part of his work with a group called The Elders, which is a collection of respected luminaries from around the world who are working to make the world a better place. The Elders include folks like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Kofi Annan and are an impressive group of former leaders and intellectuals who have spent their lives attempting to make the world a better place.
Carter's words, in my opinion, are poignant even though they are cutting, and they should make us all sit up and take notice of inflexible beliefs that can hurt other humans. To quote President Carter directly, he said:
So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention's leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be "subservient" to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service. The male interpretations of religious texts and the way they interact with, and reinforce, traditional practices justify some of the most pervasive, persistent, flagrant and damaging examples of human rights abuses.
Wow, that's powerful stuff. And you know, it's in those extreme areas where I think religion falls off the rails of decency. Anytime that there is pious dishonesty (lying because you think it's better for god, such as those that were involved in the Dover Intelligent Design trial were accused of doing), violence in the name of a god or religion, or (as is most common) hatred and bigotry as the result of religion, I think that religion has gone too far. Women jailed for wearing pants, or beaten for sitting in the front seat of a taxi cab, or taking the blame for being raped; these are all common occurrences in our world. In the western world it often happens in different ways such as people being excluded or castigated based on their sexuality or a soldier's funeral being picketed by an extremist church because of the military's stance on homosexuality.
Anytime that someone else tells you how to think or treat someone else, it's worth giving it some real thought to see what the motivation is behind what's being said (and that includes what I'm saying here). Does religion keep women down? Absolutely it does, and you can sit back and think that it doesn't happen in Canada, but when you really look at some of the fundamentalist practitioners of all religions, it's clear that it happens everywhere whether it's a woman walking three steps behind her husband or a woman being denied the right to work, or a teenage girl having to marry a 55 year old man in a polygamous community.