For every person who believes religion is a force for good, there must be as many again who can cite instances where bad things have been done in the name of religion. Certainly, the history of religion is not a pretty one. From the blood spilled during the period of the Crusades, to the corruption of the early popes, to the struggle of the martyrs, to the civil wars fought between Protestants and Catholics, to the Irish problem which has lasted many centuries and still persists today, to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and even to abusive priests and the terror tactics of today´s Islamic fundamentalists, the story of modern organized religion has been one of terror, hostility and inhumanity, the very opposite of its original aims.
Religious behavior within civilizations
For as long as we have records, there are accounts of religious behavior within civilizations. Outside the Abrahamic tradition of a single omnipotent God, religions have tended to center around nature-based cults and polytheistic worship. From the Hanan Pacha of the Incas, to the Egyptians and their sun god, Re, to the complex hierarchy of the Greek gods, mankind has always found that having a source of worship, an idol to look up to, has contributed to its understanding of life. Religion from the point of view of the masses has been a tool for coping in troubled times and for explaining mysteries which are beyond the realms of popular science. For ordinary people, it presents opportunities for sharing, forgiving and for celebration, for coming together. Festival days and prayers are the perfect antidotes to hard work, poverty, and suffering.
The darker side of organized religion
The darker side of organized religion is that it has too often been used as a tool for government and for manipulation, often a source of power in itself. Human sacrifice, enforced martyrdom, the persecution of innocents, simony, the spread of indulgences, terrorist activity and even land grabs, are all examples of methods of persecution that have been common in history as a means of control and forcing obedience to central rule. The course of history would have been entirely different were it not for the splits in Christian doctrine, the conflicts between Christians and Islam and the endless persecution of the Jewish race.
The colonial expansionism of the 18th and 19th centuries was sometimes carried out under the banner of missionary work. America was invaded by Europeans and the native population converted to Christianity. The same fate followed African and Australian populations often with dire consequences of enslavement and exploitation. There was no attempt at cultural assimilation or tolerance of local traditions. This bred a kind of double standard, enduring for centuries, where religious men would practice virtue in their own homes, but be less than virtuous in their attitude to others with contrary beliefs.
Organized Religion Changed Forever
Organized religion changed forever with the arrival of Jesus, but still today his followers struggle to understand him. The timing of his arrival and his presence as an influential figure in the middle of the Roman Empire polarized opinions about him, about God, and about government. The Judaic faith had always been an opt-in or opt-out type of religion, where adherents could choose whether to believe in one God or not.
The Judaic God insisted on absolute loyalty and obedience, but only if it was given voluntarily. Jesus extended this optional code but raised the stakes. By calling himself (and being called by others) King and Son of God, he threatened both the established religion of the Israelites and the power of Rome. Till Jesus, the Emperor was the closest thing to divinity on earth, and the Sanhedrin of the Israelites were the authority on scriptural matters. Jesus challenged both. He sought disciples who were prepared to challenge their Jewish roots and risk their lives to spread the Word about the New Jerusalem, a perfect city built not of stone, but in men´s hearts.
Religion can be seen as a force for good when it is pared back to its essential doctrines.
True faith does not need temples or statues but is based on the communion of men and women in their homes expressing loyalty to simple values. Jesus denied the power of money and warned about the power of sin. He emphasized the need for helping one another but also of obedience to the state. His words did not just found a new religion but a social manifesto. Perhaps without this revolution, none of the social advances in improved living conditions and social emancipation now taken for granted would have come about. Like other religions before, it was hijacked by men in power.
When Jesus made Peter the bedrock of the new church he was talking about a church not made of bricks but established in the heart. Yet centuries of strife and conflict followed with communities ripped apart because of disagreements over doctrine, denomination, and religious dogma. Today there are thousands of different denominations of Christians, just as there are many types of followers of Islam. Diversity is at the same time healthy and dangerous; healthy because it encourages lively debate about the mysteries of faith, but dangerous because it can give rise to hostilities. How many conflicts throughout history might have been avoided if it were not for religion?
Religion for most people is about faith and values, tolerance and forgiveness. Organized religion, through spiritual centers of worship, can at its best harness the positive energy that comes from that and be a force for good, or, in the wrong hands can be provocative and violently seditious.