Editor's note: This is the first installment of The Daily Pilot's new "On Faith" column, which will appear frequently on the Sunday Forum page. The column, written by a rotating panel of local religious and spiritual leaders or commentators, supplements the In Theory column published on Saturdays.
A Dear Abby column asked: "What do you think is society's greatest problem?"
A respondent identified "organized religion," saying, "Although most religions espouse kindness, generosity and good works, religion is used more often to divide 'them' from 'us,' and to give people yet another way to discriminate against one another. It isn't limited to wars between different religions, as sects within religions murder and terrorize one another. If people were more concerned with doing the right things in this world, rather than being preoccupied with what is going to happen in the next one, our world would be a better place."
That "organized religion" bears responsibility for the world's ills is hardly a novel suggestion. Many argue that while religion may not be the root of all evil, it is a serious contender. They condemn not just belief in God, but respect for belief in God. Religion is identified with conflict and confusion, branded as hostile to reason, indicted as the cause of war and humanity's divisions.
Richard Dawkins writes: "Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers,' no honor killings. Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no beheadings of blasphemers, no floggings of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it."
For Dawkins, religion makes one violent. It creates insiders and outsiders, pure and impure, worthy and unworthy. Hence, the high body count in a world of too many believers.
Critics are correct in their indictment of faith as often cruel, intolerant, and fanatical. Those who do not kneel to God are driven to their knees by believers. Many have just enough religion to hate, but not sufficient religion to love. Nothing has proved harder than seeing God or good or dignity in those unlike ourselves. Truly, religions so often spill blood while preaching peace.
I concede that religion has legitimized an appalling amount of violence and repression, much of it directed against my people. Who but God could count the crimes committed in God's name?
No, religion does assure ethical behavior. But only God can be the ultimate guarantor of man's infinite value as a sacred being. With God, "love your neighbor" is a commandment to be obeyed; without God, "love your neighbor" is an option to be exercised.
Dr. Karen Effrem, writes: "Children require consistent modeling of an unshifting, absolute value system. They must see that the difference between right and wrong is not relative, that life is sacred, and that sacrifice is necessary. For thousands of years in civilized societies, that has meant following the value system based on religion."
Neither man nor society can offer that consistent and absolute value system of right and wrong, good and evil that is the prerogative of God. Trusting man to decide the parameters of morality is as fruitless as it is foolish. For what is considered right in one society may be condemned in another, and what is deemed wrong today may soon be valued as a good.
If man does not bear the divine image, what is the warrant for treating human life any differently than animal life?
As William Murray said, "Atheism is a wonderful philosophy of life as long as you are big, strong, and between the ages of 18 and 35. But watch out if you are in a lifeboat and there are others who are younger, bigger, or smarter."
Only if man is a unique creation of God is there a real basis for valuing human life and affirming "human rights." For to honor God is to honor His image, humankind. After all, there would be no atheists if there were no God.
In pre-Nazi Germany, a chemical definition of man was promoted in biology textbooks: "The human body contains a sufficient amount of fat to make seven cakes of soap, enough iron to make a medium-sized nail, enough phosphorus to equip two-thousand match-heads, enough sulphur to rid oneself of fleas." Degrading man spiritually led to destroying man physically.
A powerful question was scrawled on a concentration camp wall: "Where is God?" But beneath, in a different hand, was written a better question: "Where is man?" Yes, where is man? When he is found denying God's existence, he threatens to lose his own.
What is the danger of banishing God? We are then left with faith in the most unreliable of all creatures: human beings! Has man earned our confidence?
MARK S. MILLER is the senior rabbi at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach.