Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, January 20, 2014

On religion

Martin Luther King Jr. was of course a Baptist preacher and a doctor of divinity. The organization he chaired, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was an association of preachers.

But is he remembered as a religious leader? Definitely not. He would use biblical quotations and references in his speeches, but only as a source of rhetoric, not to make any theological claims. The movements he led were secular. Their goals were cultural and political, their membership had no regard for religious affiliation, and they had no particular religious content. That the civil rights movement was based in the black churches of the south was a function of social reality: the churches were the principle organizational infrastructure that existed in the southern black community. They were the place to find leaders, buildings and affiliation.

I say movements, plural, because of the effort to scrub King's legacy clean of elements that make the powerful uncomfortable. He moved on from the civil rights movement to what he called the poor people's movement -- a broad demand for social justice without regard for race -- and of course the anti-war movement which went beyond opposition to the war in Vietnam to a fundamental criticism of U.S. imperialism.

The latter two movements have, so far, utterly failed. If anything we have regressed.

That said, as a youth I admired King and all he stood for, and I still do. His example made me think of religion largely in benign terms, though I abandoned it myself as soon as I was old enough to think independently. But I no longer see religion as a potential force for good. Any worthy cause is better off without it. Yes, some people are inspired by it but it's just as easy and as likely that they'll be inspired on behalf of evil ends as good ones. Religion is irrational and arbitrary. If you're going to advocate for any worthy end, the only honorable and constructive way to go about it is to make arguments based in reality.

King's causes are a prime example, of course. Christianity was the common source of moral justification for slavery, just as today politically active Christianity in the United States is a champion of plutocracy and militarism. Some Christians feel otherwise but there's no sense arguing about what Jesus really wanted because nobody really knows and the entire exercise consists of just making up whatever you want to believe.

I don't understand why religion persists. It belongs to the childhood of our species. It's long past time to abandon it.


robin andrea said...

Amen, brother.

mojrim said...

I think you have it backwards, sadly. Men determine their ends and then seek justifications, not the other way around, and religion is just as useful for this as the secular "isms" of the 19th and 20th centuries. Recall that the movements to abolish both slavery and the death penalty began in religion.

Cervantes said...

Ah, but that's my point. Religion was originally the justification for the death penalty (the Catholic church tortured unnumbered thousands of people to death) and slavery (which is totally in the Bible). If you believe one thing because of religion, you can believe anything. It's totally arbitrary.