Political Religion, Not Religion Itself, is the Problem

As a Secular Humanist and a Jew, I have much to fear from religious fundamentalists in this country, especially as their political power is advanced by their current influence on all three branches of the Federal government.

As I have said in my previous column on these pages, the assault on legal abortion goes well beyond the matter of the woman’s right to choose (a right in which I firmly believe). It goes to the criminalization of certain beliefs/values of both religious and non-religious persons who do not happen to accept the fundamentalist religious position (and for them it is clearly a religious matter, based either in a particular Biblical interpretation or a papal doctrine) on when life begins.

As a humanist, an atheist, for my whole life, I am used to be looked down upon (or worse) by theists. Imagine my surprise, then, when I read of what the then new Pope, Francis, had to say about atheists in a lengthy response to a journalist’s questions:

“You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying — and this is the fundamental thing — that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience. Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience [emphasis added].”

I have to say “Wow, that is quite a statement,” especially coming from a Pope. (Indeed, Francis is a very special Pope.) It did make me return to consider a line of reasoning about religious persons, as contrasted with organized religion, that I have held for quite some time.

The Pope made it clear that he does not have a problem with atheists, per se. And so, I would like to make it clear that I do not have a problem with theists, per se. Yes, I do understand and agree with all of the arguments against the existence of an unknown, unknowable and unprovable “God” (or “Gods,” think Hinduism, of which there are about 1 billion adherents). But I do think that it is a waste of time to argue against the concept, and worse to make fun of it, since the majority of the world’s population, who are theists of one sort or another, hold to it.

The problem, for atheists/humanists and, at many times in history theists of one sort confronting theists of another sort as well, is Political Religion, like the Catholic Church has promulgated since the time of St. Augustine, if not before, like the Republican/Religious Right (political by definition), like political Islam, like indeed political Orthodox Judaism in modern Israel. Our argument is not, or should not be, with belief and the believers. The struggle of humanists and believers alike who are devoted to the fundamental interests of humanity must be focused not on each other but on our common enemy: those who use religion to advance their own political and economic interests to arrogate to themselves and their patrons’ resources and the product of economic activity that neither benefit humanity as a whole nor have anything to do with religion. Those resources, as mentioned, are otherwise known variously as “corporatism,” the “global economy [privately held],” and unregulated capitalism.

Furthermore, humanists and tolerant believers alike must struggle against those believers who would criminalize the thoughts and actions of both religious and non-believers alike over such matters as: when life begins; to whom the civil institution of marriage is to be made available; and which segments of the population may be discriminated against in the public square, by those “religious” who take offense at the others’ beliefs and practices. It must be understood by all that over the centuries of human civilization, more of our brethren have been killed in religious wars, or wars waged for “religious” reasons, or in wars in which organized religions have been an ally of one or more of the warring states, or non-military mass murders on religious ground, like the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestants by Catholics in France, in August 1572, than for all of the other causes put together.

In the Second World War, hardly a religious war in the sense that the Crusades or the Catholic/Protestant wars of 16th and 17th century Europe were, nevertheless on the belt buckle of every German Wehrmacht soldier was the slogan (originated by the Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the 1880s) “Gott mit Uns” (God [is] with Us). The traditional Japanese religion of ancestor worship, Shinto, was mobilized by the Japanese fascist leadership to help them mobilize the whole population behind the war effort.

The Catholic Church was closely allied with both Benito Mussolini’s (Italian) and Francisco Franco’s (Spanish) fascist states. Further the Catholic Church in Rome made a pact with the German Nazi government that in return for “leaving the German Catholics alone,” the Pope would leave what the Hitlerites were doing, first to the “non-Aryan” German people, and then to certain populations in Europe as a whole, alone. In the United States, although one of the most prominent pre-war anti-Semites was a Catholic cleric, Father Charles Coughlin, for the most part it was not like what happened in Europe, especially with the role of the Catholic Church there. But there were the frequent imprecations to God for support in battle in World War II and even a popular song that I remember well from my youth during that conflict: “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”

Presently, in the US, many politicians align on the issues that are central to Fundamentalist Christians and Jews: homophobia, religious determinism in policy governing the outcome of pregnancy, the introduction of organized religious activity into the public schools, the possible re-establishment in Federal government policy of solely binary sex-identity assignment, and in general the steady erosion of the Constitutional boundaries separating church and state (for certain churches).  In political Islam, “Islamism” is very clear that its goal is to take full political power so that it may rule under the provisions of “Sharia Law.” (Funnily enough, many of the provisions of Sharia Law, against which the Islamophobes of the Christian Fundamentalists warn, are strikingly similar to the religion-based law that the latter would like to impose across the United States.)

The central feature of both is that “religious law” (as they interpret it of course) should stand above any civil constitution.

And so, what was my renewal the Jewish New Year in 2013, and once again for this year of 2018? To rededicate myself to that struggle, and to, from time-to-time, feature the line of reasoning that I have outlined above. Our struggle is not with religion, per se, nor with its adherents, as individuals. Our struggle is most correctly with Political Religion when it is used to further the interests of Reaction by every government around the world that does use it in that way. That is our challenge, and for the preservation of our species and indeed many others, that is the challenge we have to meet.


Note: This column is largely drawn from my column “A Secular Humanist Jew’s Thoughts on Yom Kippur: On Atheism and Theism, and on Religion and Political Religion” that was published on “OpEdNews” on October 3, 2018 (, which itself was based in part on a column that I  published five years previously.

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