THE BLOG
12/07/2007 02:15 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Religion's Greatest Enemy?

Decades after Monty Python came to an end, John Cleese is dapper, intelligent, freethinking, and still funny. I heard him give an impromptu talk and came away with one of his best lines: "The biggest enemy of religion is spirituality." The talk was in California among people who immediately applauded. On a certain level it's only a quip, because spirituality, in its truest sense, has no enemies. The same can't be said of religion. Nobody needs reminding of that, yet last week two sorrowful examples were added to the list. In Sudan mobs marched in the street demanding death for a hapless British school teacher who had allowed her class of seven-year-olds to name a teddy bear Muhammad. That incident ended only through the intervention of two Muslim members of Parliament flying in from Britain to beg intercession from the president of Sudan.

The second, more tragic example came from Iraq. 60 Minutes reported on the few surviving Christians in Baghdad, pointing out that under the screen of civil war, there has been a vicious purge of almost 90% of the million Christians in that country. As churches were systematically destroyed, their parishioners were either killed or forced to flee into exile. One was reminded by both these stories that religion has never needed an enemy outside itself. Or perhaps it has never learned to live without one, which is saddest of all. It would be easy enough to put the entire blame on fanaticism and fundamentalism, yet the question remains: what next?

What would fill the vacuum left if Islam and Christianity both folded up their tents and decamped from all the violence, intolerance, prejudice, and misery that exists in the name of God? Not just atheists but many believers have implicitly chosen secular society as the only solution to religion's failure. If science isn't already our religion, should it be? Rationality seems like a clean alternative to age-old dogmas and creeds.

Personally, I see two great objections. The first has to do with spirituality. It may not be synonymous with religion, but the two aren't opposites, either. Countless seekers have made a beginning in church synagogue and mosque. The uneasy relationship between organized religion and someone's personal search for God is still alive. Second, and more important, I don't accept that the spiritual impulse is an irrational alternative to science. Science has no patent on reason, and in the age of atomic weapons, to praise reason alone is radically foolish. Sanctity of life is being trampled every day in Iraq through technologies of mechanized death invented by objective science. Spirituality stands for higher consciousness, and that includes the consciousness of reason, imagination, psychology, and religion. Understanding the nature of God, which was an objective set by Einstein, requires the use of as much intelligence as any of us can summon.

The subtle trap we have set for ourselves is to equate Islam with the troubles of the entire Mideast. That would be like blaming the Black Death on the Vatican. Just as Europe in the fourteenth century was totally permeated by Catholicism, leading everyone to look to God as both the cause and the solution to the bubonic plague, so today masses of Arabs have no other world view but Islam. An act as innocent as naming a teddy bear has theological import. People threatened by the Black Death thought that their every act also had theological import. We need to see that the Mideast is a place dominated by despots and royal families, where secular education has been suppressed and a freethinking middle class disallowed. In the name of a privileged few, millions of people have been forced to live in ignorance generation after generation. If they cling to an absolutist world view that contradicts reason, what alternative was ever given them?

Which is not to let Islam off the hook, only to say that what spirituality has to offer -- the expansion of consciousness beyond rigid beliefs of any kind -- is the ultimate solution. The Mideast needs a massive dose of consciousness, but in saying that, the same holds true at home.

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