Imposing 21st century standards on social evolution from thousands of years ago, many secularist atheists and agnostics tend to regard religion with contempt, seeing it as a major source of divisiveness, superstition, and violence. But just as one would adjust for inflation when comparing the cost of certain commodities over a period of time, one ought to adjust for what is often called the Shifting Moral Zeitgeist when assessing the effects of various ideological developments throughout history. When doing so, I think there is no escaping the conclusion that religious figures like Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were in fact liberal progressives, courageously fighting against major societal injustices that were largely driven by religious fanaticism.
If one could reduce the story of Moses to its core, it would be that he overcame substantial pressures and confronted the supreme authority of his time (Pharaoh) as a false god, and fought for his people's freedom from slavery. Jesus, too, challenged the religious authorities of his time, insisted on deemphasizing dogmatic practices and redirecting faith towards a moral core of compassion, love, and forgiveness ("Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"), and universalized that message so it is no longer tribal, earning even the respect of hardline atheists like Richard Dawkins. Muhammad arrived at a place and time where widespread superstition had people worshiping idols, and engaging in all sorts of cruel and outrageous rituals. He, too, disregarded social pressures and insisted on ridiculing the worship of idols, arguing that god is this driving force behind the universe which is beyond our imagination, and fighting for social justice (against slavery, for women's rights, etc.).
None of this is to argue that there aren't disturbing passages in religious scriptures, or that what these impressive human beings conceived of as a just social order wouldn't fall drastically short of what we in the contemporary era would think of as that. Rather, this is to argue that these figures were the leading progressive revolutionaries of their times. Analogously, the founding fathers of the United States were admirable figures, but only insofar as one assessed them in their time. Were they alive today with their views (& actions) on slavery and women's rights intact, they would be rightly scorned as some of the worst people around. But had such exceptional thinkers been educated in modern times, they would be the first to condemn their earlier attitudes.
Setting aside the arbitrariness of concepts like geographic or demographic pride, we can easily understand by looking around that someone can be really proud to be an American without having to agree 100 percent with everything the founding fathers thought or did so long ago. However, religious commitment can be less flexible than nationalist commitment, because when the divine is invoked and the stakes are as high as eternal bliss or eternal damnation, orthodox and outdated interpretations calcify. This calcification is by no means absolute: when listening to remarkable thinkers like Catholic priest George Coyne or Muslim scholar Muhammad Shahrur, one can clearly see how an evolved interpretation and conceptualization of religion is perfectly compatible with our contemporary era. But this doesn't change that, by and large, the spirit of faith has been abandoned and religion has been reduced to dogmatic sets of beliefs and rituals that are bound to become outdated every time the moral, social, and intellectual zeitgeist evolves.
One of the tragic outcomes of the calcification of religion is that it has taken it out of the hands of peace and justice advocates on the left into the grip of dogmatic and divisive leaders on the right. It is raving lunatics like Pat Robertson and John Hagee, with their superstitious nonsense and hateful apocalyptic worldviews, and their counterparts in other religions, who have the loudest megaphones and biggest cult followings. But if Jesus were to come back today, would he side with them in favor of war, bigotry, cutting social services for the poor, and so on? Or would he fight for peace and justice and in defense of the poor and ostracized as he did 2000 years ago?
John Stuart Mill once correctly said: "The principle itself of dogmatic religion, dogmatic morality, dogmatic philosophy, is what requires to be rooted out; not any particular manifestation of that principle." True, but that principle is most difficult to root out in religion, given the stakes I mentioned. There needs to be a revolution in the way people understand faith. There needs to be a loosening of strict literal commitment to ancient metaphors and outdated practices, and a reemphasis on the spirit of faith as a means for connecting with the oneness of our universe and behaving decently towards our fellow human beings. Fanaticism within the world's most prominent religions has to be fought with the same courage and vigor that the founders of these very religions fought against the superstitious madness of their time. If Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad were to return today, there is not a doubt that they would be the first to lead that effort.
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