The French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 1600s, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
He was right then, and he is still right today.
The obvious example we have to illustrate the truth of his insight is Islamic extremism.
We need only remember the fervor of religious devotees who attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, or the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000, to know that Pascal was right about religious extremism.
Unfortunately, extremism is not limited to Islam, and the violence and destruction inflicted by religious fervor is not limited to overt acts of terror. Sometimes, the effect of unquestioned religious devotion takes its toll in other ways.
Just look at our own history. During the great debate that took place in this country over the issue of slavery, religious devotion played a decisive role.
There were devout souls who fought in defense of slavery, not because they had slaves, but because they were convinced the Bible mandated slavery as a God-given institution.
“Slaves be obedient to your masters,” Paul wrote. And for many, that was the word of God. The fight against abolition was a fight to save the Bible.
Religious extremism and narrow literalism take their toll in other ways. Women in our culture continue to be subjugated by an antiquated worldview, rooted in an ancient, patriarchal social structure.
If you doubt this, take note of whether your religious tradition allows women to be priests or pastors.
There is more than one way to terrorize a soul.
Jesus certainly understood this. He worked tirelessly to reform his own religious tradition that divided the world into clean and unclean.
He touched lepers and ate with tax collectors and even suggested that the unacceptable folk of his day would enter the kingdom ahead of the religiously established.
He also fought courageously to end the theologically driven notion that people are poor because they deserve to be poor.
It was commonly held that God made people poor because of their bad choices. That’s where the whole “Blessed are the poor” concept came from.
And, of course, there is the enormous problem of God-sanctioned violence. The harm that has been done by faiths of all fabrics is staggering.
Throughout the centuries, people of deep devotion have slaughtered their opposition in the name of their God.
Love your enemy, Jesus taught. What did he know?
These days religious certitude has been called into the service of partisan politics. The religiously devoted are always in search of the God-ordained candidate – if there could be such a thing.
Orthodoxy is no longer a word used just to define theological beliefs; it has also become a litmus test for the politically acceptable.
If a candidate is not on the right side of abortion and gay marriage and tax cuts for the wealthy, then they are probably not on God’s side.
People throughout history have never done so much wrong as they have done in the name of religious conviction. And that’s sad.
Within the teachings of Jesus is some of the most profound wisdom for the preservation and extension of humanity that we will find anywhere. He offers us a pathway to God and community that truly offers hope for all of us.
When he is invoked in the cause of narrow political partisanship, we crucify him afresh.
JamesL. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.