Questioning faith: Is religion bad for the world?

The context of each story varies widely, but the theme is the same: a person’s contact with the religious has disillusioned them from religion altogether. The story of Elen Ghulam is illustrative. While in the Holy Land, she hears a “bearded man from Hamas” say that the death of an Israeli mother of a newborn baby killed by a terrorist bomb was “necessary,” and he urged to “rip any sympathy for this woman or her baby out of your heart.” On another day, she visits the Holocaust Museum (Yad Vashem) in Jerusalem. She left feeling “crushed,” and an ultra-orthodox Jewish man sees her pain and consoles her by telling her that atrocities like the Holocaust are difficult for us human beings to comprehend, but that we must not lose faith in God.

He then continued his counsel by saying to her that even though he loves his wife very much, he enjoys having extra marital affairs. He asked her if she would be interested in having one with him. “We can meet once a week at your place while your husband is at work,” he tells her. These experiences cause her to conclude that, “I am not Muslim, not Christian, not Jewish… I believe that all religions should come with an expiration date. Valid for consumption until. Beyond this date this religion will turn into poison if consumed. Since everybody is creating God in his own image anyway, I think that from now on I will create something that I like.” When asked by her friends why she no longer prays or fasts, she replies that “living in the Holy Land has cured me of religion.”

While many will likely dismiss this experience as one person’s skewed understanding of religion, there appears to be scientific evidence that religion is bad for the world. In a recent study published in the Journal of Religion and Society, data from the last 10 years indicate that the United States, the most religious nation in the developed world, has some of the highest rates of murder, infant mortality, teen gonorrhea, and teen abortion. Religiosity was measured by church attendance, prayer, and belief in a Creator-God. Gregory S. Paul, the study’s author, said: “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies.”

What’s even more interesting, the global trends are mirrored within the United States. According to Paul, the more religious South and Midwest have “markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the Northeast, where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms.” How could this be possible? I thought religion was good for people. I thought God sent down religion to make people better. Should I rethink my infatuation with religion?

I do not think so. The problem is not with religion. It is with the “religious.” The human being – in his or her very nature – has a roughness that needs to be polished. It is akin to a piece of metal before being polished and shined: full of rough edges and a dull glimmer. Yet, shine and polish that metal, and it sparkles and glows. After religion shines and polishes the human heart, the light of God can shine through and illuminate everything and everyone around it. The problem is, in these days and times, many of the “religious” have failed to properly use religion in the manner in which God intended. They behave in a barbaric manner and claim this behavior in the name of religion. Nay, they have worsened the roughness of their hearts by their use of religion.

Hence, you have the Muslim suicide bomber, killing innocent people at will in the name of God, or the Lord’s Resistance Army wreaking havoc in the heart of Africa, or a Jewish extremist gunning down Muslims praying in Hebron. It is the sad reality of our time, a time long divorced from the Original Evangelists, the Prophets of God. With the passage of time, the purity of the Divine Message sent with these Evangelists is further and further corrupted. With each generation that takes the Torch of the Faith from their predecessors, there is more of a chance that the original message becomes increasingly contaminated with the impurities of backward cultural practice, political expediency, or simple ignorance and human weakness. It is an inevitable consequence of the human condition, and because of that fact, the Precious Lord sent a succession of Prophets to humanity to purify their contamination of the Original Message. In fact, I believe we have been so corrupted that we are due for another Prophet of God to guide us back to the Straight Path. Yet, we live in the aftermath of the death of the Last Prophet. Except for Jesus Christ – who shall return to us before the End – there will be no more Prophets sent to the world.

Yet, why is that people always point to the negative things done in the name of religion? “Well,” people will probably tell me, “the things that have been done in the name of religion have been particularly horrific, barbaric, and terrifying.” That is true, unfortunately. Yet, just as some of the most horrific crimes in human history have been committed in the name of God, some of the most beneficent and selfless acts of human kindness have also been committed in the name of God. A shining example of recent history and memory is that of Mother Theresa. So much good has she done over the years, and it was all because of her religious faith. Each and every day, countless people – lacking the fame and notoriety of a person like Mother Theresa – do enormous acts of kindness out of religious devotion. From the hospital chaplain who stays late to console a grieving family, to the doctor who volunteers his time to care for the needy, to the baker who feeds the hungry who congregate outside his store, to the faithful who run a soup kitchen out of their church on Thanksgiving, religious faith has done an enormous amount of good to an enormous amount of people in our world today.

Yet, more than just motivating acts of selfless kindness, religion has the power to comfort and console, to alleviate the anxiety which stems from wondering about the purpose of one’s life. So many people, in the depths of the darkness of human tragedy, reach for their faith to find strength and comfort. We saw this first hand in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, and we saw this more recently in the wake of the December 2004 Tsunami, and hurricanes and earthquake of 2005. Almost three years ago, my eldest daughter was diagnosed with a crippling and ultimately fatal genetic disease, and rather than my medical knowledge or ability to talk to the experts in the field, I turned to my Creator for strength and support. I rely upon my experiences visiting His Holy House in 2003 to comfort me whenever the pain of watching my daughter’s suffering becomes overwhelming.

Yes, religion produced the attack on Jerusalem in 1099, where the blood of Muslims and Jews was knee-high to the horses. Yet, religion also produced the conquest of Mecca in 630, where hardly a drop of blood was shed. Yes, religion produced the Inquisition and Torquemada, yet religion also produced Abbasid Baghdad and Timbuktu. Where one can point to a pedophile priest, one can also point to Mother Theresa. Where one can point to Osama bin Laden, one can also point to Yusuf Islam. Where one can point to the war in Bosnia, one can also point to the interfaith prayers for peace at Assisi. Where one can point to the suicide bomber, one can also point to the human shield. Yes, religion has been the source of terror and torture, but it has also been the source of life and liberty. If I can cogently make the case against religion, I can just as easily make the case for religion.

Still, the truth remains: many of the evils of our time have been committed by the “religious” in the name of religion. We need to stand up to these evildoers – whatever faith they may profess – and stop their evil acts. We must isolate them and expose them for the impostors that they are. As the Qur’an says, “truth stands out clearly from error” (2:256). We know when evil is being cloaked in the garbs of religion, and it is high time we rip off those garbs and exile these mutants from among us once and for all. It is the least we can do for the sake of those noble Original Evangelists, for they sacrificed life, liberty, and limb to bring that religion in the first place. Let us not make their selfless sacrifice be in vain.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.


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