Dr. David Wilbur: Power and Illusion: Religion and Human Need. Part 6
by Ervin Taylor
This is Part 6 of the summary of Dr. Wilbur’s book. It should be emphasized that all of the text in this series of blogs in bold font in the body of the text of the chapter summary has been kindly provided by Dr. Wilbur. If there are any of my own comments, they will follow in regular type.
Summary for Chapter 5: Religion’s Corruption and Abuse
Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.
In the eternal struggle of good and evil that occupies much of human energy religion always claims to be on the side of the good. All powerful human institutions are of course at risk of being diverted to serve private interests in conflict with their announced goals. In my judgment, a religion is being corrupted when it is used in ways that decrease the quality of human life. The commentator Charles Kimball has suggested that religions gone or going bad often share some common characteristics such as claims of absolute truth, special knowledge of supernatural timing, insistence on “blind obedience,” ends justify means and the necessity of Holy War.
Violence in the Traditions
The Bible and the Qur’an are replete with violence by God himself or at his command. God’s people are repeatedly admonished to destroy various groups of unbelievers. The Bhagavad Ghita also presents a violent deity and a justification of violence when it is one’s “duty.” These models are helpful to those who would mobilize religion to support violence—for some supposedly good cause. Christianity or at least some believers have used these ideas to justify things like the Inquisition and destruction of the native peoples of the Americas.
The Support of Hierarchy
With our earliest recorded history we find religion supporting the ruling class in Egypt, Mesopotamia and China. These claims have continued through the millennia and are still found in some places. Religion has usually sought approval of the civil authorities and vice versa. Thus oppression by the state may and has often been supported by an entrenched religion—for instance Mussolini and Hitler had religious support including that of the Catholic Church.
The Suppression of Inquiry and Reason
From Socrates to Galileo and beyond religious belief systems if they find themselves in disagreement with new information (mainly scientific) have a difficult time adjusting since they have claimed supernatural authority for their beliefs. The passage of time usually finds subsequent generations without all the emotional baggage of the past, able to making adjustments—and the church apologized for the Galileo episode.
Religion and Terrorism
The worst atrocities have their source in the zealous pursuit of a sublime ideal that is believed to be so majestic, so magnificent, and so grand, that it is worthy of every sacrifice, every hardship, and every abomination. (Shadia B. Drury in the preface to Terror and Civilization)
Religions that seek to define one right belief system, such as Christianity and Islam, find it hard to control belief. Terrorism against those who don’t share the “right belief” is one way of trying to control this. In the last 30 years there have been strands of terrorism justified by Christians, Jews, Islamists and Sikhs. Promises of personal immortality may also facilitate recruitment of terrorists.
The Exploitation of Believers for Private Gain
There are many religious organizations or ministries operating in North America and maybe elsewhere and providing a luxurious life style for their leaders justified by claims of divine blessings for the followers. Exposure of the arrogance and deceit of the leaders seems often to have little effect on their success. Religion’s usual support of hierarchy and demands for faith and belief along with rejection of skepticism poorly prepares people to evaluate scams, especially ones associated with clerical leadership.
Religions are powerful systems for manipulating the human world. They usually maintain the illusion that what they approve is approved by God and for our good. Led by corrupt or rigidly dogmatic leaders they may be used to make a hell on earth for those who disagree. Fundamentalist strands of religion seem most interested in power and one victim of fundamentalism (Salman Rushdie) says that fundamentalism isn’t about religion, it’s about power.
Comments (ET): It seems to me that the last suggestion of Dr. Wilbur quoting Salman Rushdie to the effect that fundamentalist religions are not about religion, they are about power is especially insightful. The truth of such a statement is evident in so many decisions of institutionalized religious bodies over many hundreds of years. Obviously, the only institutional religious entity for which I have direct knowledge is the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. However, one reads about such institutional behavior in many much larger and older religious traditions as well. The Adventist illustration of such behavior can be read over and over again in its history.
For example, the elimination of John Harvey Kellogg as a major player in institutional Adventism in the early part of the 20th century was essentially all about power and had little to nothing to do with theology, even if the “cover story” given out to the ordinary Adventist lay person was that it was about pantheism.
Historically, most “theological” debates are really about who shall control the official “party line” of a given religious body. In Adventism, one reads the views of the dominant political establishment in the pages of the Adventist Review. Typically, the politically dominant party of the church takes control of the principal propaganda vehicle and its version of “truth” is the one published. One has been able to see this clearly very recently in what is and is not being published in the Adventist Review as a consequence of the “election” of Ted Wilson as GC President. Within six months of his coming to power, the number of right-wing voices suddenly increased in its pages.
Perhaps the most famous example in recent memory goes back several decades. It involved the responses of a majority of Adventist scholars in their general agreement with many of the views advanced by Desmond Ford at the Glacier View Conference. However, what was reported as happening at that meeting in the pages of the Adventist Review had little in common with the actual contents of the discussions. What was published was what the hierarchy who controlled the political system of the church at that time wanted the average Adventist to know about what had happened. The opinions of the majority of scholars attending that meeting were largely ignored in the “official” reports.