Sep 13 2007

The problem with religion-3: All prayer, all the time

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the comment that triggered this series of posts, the rise of liberation theology in South America was used to argue as a case where religion played a positive role. But let us see the liberation theology movement in its full context.

For the better part of the twentieth century, many of the countries of Central and South America were run by murderous despots, while Catholicism was the dominant religion in those countries. Around 1960, ‘liberation theology’ came into being, led by some intellectuals and clergy, arguing for a radical interpretation of the Gospels, focusing on those elements of the Bible that seemed to call for an end to oppression. But while there was this grass root effort to change the relationship of religion to state power, what was the church doing in those days, apart from a few brave priests and nuns? How many Catholic eminences took stands similar to even the limited calls for justice that Archbishop Romero took, or even came out in support of him while he was alive? Why did the Vatican and the Catholic Church not call for massive protests and agitation to overthrow the government of El Salvador when Romero was gunned down, in his own cathedral no less, by government death squads? If liberation theology was considered a good Christian thing, why was it not officially adopted by the Vatican?

In fact, those religious people who fought for the oppressed have usually had to fight not only against the governments of their time but also against their own established religious institutions. We have to remember that the priests advocating liberation theology were very much a minority and going against the grain of the official church and their activities were at best tolerated by the Church as long as they did not make too much waves. They were by no means favored by the Vatican, as can be seen by the fact that liberation theology was never adopted as part of the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. In fact, Pope John Paul II harshly criticized it, and sought to redefine liberation as meaning mainly “liberation from sin and the evil one”, thus conveniently shifting attention away from people’s material needs and back to praying for their souls. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the current Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in 1984: “An analysis of the phenomenon of liberation theology reveals that it constitutes a fundamental threat to the faith of the Church.”

Now, much later, those same priests and the movement they tried to create and which was suppressed by the Church are invoked by religious apologists in defense of religious virtue, to try and distance Christianity from the oppression that took place in South America with the collusion, or at least the tacit acceptance, of the church, to try and say “See, Christians were on the right side!”

There have always been courageous religious mavericks but the reason they are admired is precisely because they were mavericks, fighting against the stream. Religious institutions have cynically used them as a cover, to hide their basic alliance with power. How could it possibly be that the Church can be considered on the side of the poor when one sees the magnificent palaces and cathedrals and churches built by them in Europe, and the luxurious lifestyles lived by the bishops and other hierarchy, at the very time of rampant poverty, hunger, disease, exploitation, child labor and slavery? It was not the church that led the fight against feudalism and peasant servitude. They were the beneficiaries of that system and, as the so-called First Estate in France, were politically very influential and part of the ruling class. As historian Peter McPhee writes in The French Revolution 1789-1799 (Oxford University Press 2002, p. 13): “It was the rural population above all which underwrote the costs of the three pillars of authority and privilege in eighteenth century France: the Church, nobility, and monarchy. Together, the two privileged orders and the monarchy exacted on average one-quarter to one-third of peasant produce, through taxes, seigneurial dues, and the tithe.” The Church joined up with the nobility and monarchy to live well at the expense of the poor.

One has only to read any history of France prior to the revolution of 1789 to see how religion was used to keep the poor in their place of servitude. The cry of “liberte, egalite, fraternite” did not originate in, or ring out from, pulpits and cathedrals. Again, religious apologists might try to salvage some redemption from the fact that some poor rural clergy did support peasant rights and sided with them in the meeting of the Estates-General convened in the spring of 1789, but the religious institutions as a whole were not on the side of justice for the poor.

The usual response of religious apologists to this critique is to argue that these kinds of oppressions were done by people who were not “really” Christians, but those who paid only lip-service to Christianity, that real Christians would be on the side of the oppressed. But where is the evidence in support of this argument? How do we judge who are the “true” Christians and what is “true” Christianity? If the official policies of religious institutions when they are in positions of power and influence do not represent the “true” religion, then what does?

Perhaps we can turn to the sources of religious beliefs, the religious texts themselves. Can we use them to discern “true” religion? But they are filled with things that can be used to support the most appalling things like slavery, rape, murder, and child abuse. It is incredibly easy to use the Bible to portray the Jewish-Christian god as a cruel, vindictive, genocidal, egotistical, jealous, tyrannical despot. No one who wants to defend religion as a source for good should invoke religious texts.

So where does the idea come from that religion has not been a primarily negative force in history? What is usually done is a post facto cherry-picking of people and events, labeling those actions that are good as representing “true” religion and those that are not good as “false” religion.

The reality is that it is the basic philosophy and modes of practice of religion that supports the exploitation of people by discounting the value of this life (the only life that we are sure we have) and shifting their focus from justice in the here and now to dubious rewards after they die. It also encourages feelings of helplessness by asking people to put “one’s faith in god”. This is exactly what Martin Luther King pointed out. Religion tells people to “wait”, that praying and worshipping and “having faith” will result in their problems somehow being solved magically by some sort of deus ex machina and, even if it does not happen while they are still alive in this world, they will receive justice and rewards in the next, a kind of consolation prize for being such good sports and not complaining about their suffering.

This philosophy is extraordinarily useful as a tool for keeping people oppressed, and governments have long recognized and exploited this. If I were a despotic and exploitative ruler, I would assuredly encourage and support religious groups that urged their people to pray for thing. Because then people, rather than taking charge of the their own lives and organizing to better their lot, are putting their hopes in a “higher power”, waiting for god will intervene and change the hearts of the rulers and make them better. Nothing would suit a cynical ruler better than to have his subjects use their energies praying for change and believing that god will reward them for their faith and patience.

But it does not benefit only the rulers. It should be obvious that such a doctrine is also convenient to those who already have a good life now and live comfortable lives at the expense of the poor. Religion has been a wonderful ally to those seeking to maintain the status quo.

It is not an accident that religious missionaries were among the first groups of people to follow colonial conquerors and received the full patronage and protection of the colonial rulers. The famous African quote “When the missionaries came to our country they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘let us pray’ and we closed our eyes to pray. At the end of the prayer, they had the land and we had the Bible” captures accurately how religion serves the interests of power.

Next: How religion corrupts the minds of children

POST SCRIPT: Will the US bomb Iran?

This is the question that has caused considerable consternation worldwide. Alexander Cockburn lays out the best analysis that I have seen for and against the likelihood of Bush taking such a step.


  1. 1

    Hi, Mano — Martin Luther King criticized people — religious people who at least ostensibly supported civil rights — who advocated waiting. He refutes many of their reasons: the administration should be given more time to act, negotiation is better than sit-ins, breaking laws offends people’s sensibilities, etc. He refutes these strategic arguments with moral arguments.
    He’s criticizing the stodginess of the institution and the refusal of its members to understand and carry out the challenging teachings of Jesus. At the same time, he also says he loves the church, calls Jesus “an extremist for love, truth, and goodness” and hopes the letter finds its recipients “strong in the faith.”
    MLK certainly prayed and advocated prayer as a necessary foundation (for him, as a profoundly religious person) for action.

  2. 2

    I think I figured out the communication gap. Your rhetorical question “If liberation theology was considered a good Christian thing, why was it not officially adopted by the Vatican?”, and thinking about what you meant in equating “white” with “mainstream” in summarizing King’s letter, got me onto what seems to be the right page.

    My “counter”-argument was that religions usually behave similarly to other discursive/ideological systems by serving the interests of the powerful as social controls to preserve the status quo and existing power/dominance hierarchies, and of the weak as languages of resistance or support and as loci of organization. But I think I assumed your argument was that religions are actively worse than other instititions because their dominant belief systems/ideologies/theologies in societies are often socially regressive or unjust. Since you didn’t talk about how other institutions supported the same regressive/unjust practices, this comparative statement didn’t follow.

    Looking back (after reading that question), I figured that since it didn’t make sense, you probably were arguing something else. So now I read your posts as arguing that despite many religions’ claims to be morally sounder than other ideologies, the dominant religious discourses in a society consistently (almost uniformly, even) fail to meet that standard at any given historical moment. If that’s what you meant, I would concur.

    But it just seems unremarkable: we as atheists view religion as a purely human activity, so is this surprising? Given how closely religious practice, identity and ideology are intertwined with the rest of people’s cultures and social life, it seems like a safe expectation that dominant religious views and practices (like other cultural elements) would tend to reflect the interests of dominant social groups. If this reading is closer to your intended one, what further conclusions do you think we should draw?

  3. 3


    I think you have captured my meaning quite correctly. I agree that religious institutions like other human creations fall prey to the interests of dominant social groups. But unlike most other groups which serve some useful function that has to be also taken into account when weighing their value, there is no social function for organized religion that cannot be done by another group. The only reason for its continuance is that not like other groups, that it serves a higher power and is somehow nobler. Take that away and what is left?

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