Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel once quipped, “God and Country are an unbeatable team – they break all record for oppression and bloodshed.” You might find this statement objectionable, or you might think there can be no better description for the relationship between religion and society. Whether you agree or disagree, the idea is worth considering in the light of our class discussion on Emerson and his view on religion.
We are all familiar with Emerson’s remark on the silent church. He states that “I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching” (p. 30). Considering Emerson’s skepticism about society and conventional morality, it is reasonable to assume that he views religious practice should be more of an individual endeavor rather than a social one.
Emerson’s concern stems from the fact that though religion typically involves the divine whose teachings are sacred and benevolent, it is humans who interpret the holy words and translate them into action. Therefore, Emerson does not question the credibility of religion itself. Instead, he questions the credibility of religion as social/cultural force.
Religion – especially monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity – invokes infallibility and loyalty and asks for full submission. The “absoluteness” of religion tends to influence the followers to become dogmatic and thus intolerant to opinions of others. Those who practice religion are more likely to not only rely excessively on stereotypes, but also submit to authority without much ambivalence. In fact, researchers have found that religious fundamentalism is highly correlated with authoritarian attitudes (Adorno et al., The Authoritarian Personality, 1950). Key characteristics of the authoritarian personality include conventionalism, aggression and submission to authority. Put together as a whole, this means that the authoritarians may actively seek out violators of conventional values and respond more eagerly to opportunities of hurting others, if that is what the authority they perceive as legitimate demands. Religion renders an individual susceptible to external influence as well as expression of aggression.
Powerholders of human society have always been aware of such effect religion has on people’s minds; and of course, they play it to their advantage. Knowing that the “believers” are an obedient bunch who would easily surrender to the will of authority, the powerful use religion as a means to effect their private, selfish ends that are often incompatible with the religious doctrines. Emerson states that we should be wary of asking for “some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue” (p. 33). He must have known the manipulative trick religion plays on human mind. After all, we know how destructive religion can be when it needs to be as such; human history is full of religious violence.
I want you to chew on some disturbing facts that will follow. Before you do that, I also want to make sure that the purpose of this post is not to undermine any particular religion – FYI, I’m a Christian myself. I simply want to provoke you to consider how religious culture can turn into abusive force. The following discussion is from one of the lectures in my Political Psychology class(PS 330) by Professor Winter.
A paradox: Strong support for Iraq war came from President Bush and the religious right who adhere to a religion founded on the teachings of a “Prince of Peace” (Winter, Ideology and Organization of Beliefs, 2011).
Well, so much for promoting PEACE and FREEDOM…
Is this mere hypocrisy?
Or “believing in belief” versus specific beliefs?: “The president doesn’t care what faith it is, as long as it’s faith.” – Andrew Card (former Bush White House Chief of Staff)
Or differentiation of beliefs?: “The Sermon on the Mount…didn’t have a realist, pragmatic understanding of what is possible.” – Michael Gerson (evangelical Christian and former Bush speechwriter)
I don’t have an answer to this problem. Frankly, I don’t think anyone does. I do know, however, that manifestation of religious culture is not always congruent with the original teachings of religion – be it Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. Therefore, we should be careful when society tries to take advantage of religious belief as a means to sway our minds against what is right.