Response to those who say, "Religion is responsible."

Is an accelerant
A propellant
A stimulant

It runs
The engine
Of the soul --
But it does not sit
At the wheel.

Gasoline powers cars--
It also burns
And devours
Do we blame
The gasoline?

A soul must know its course
And keep to it
With a mighty
Sense of purpose.

If that purpose is
The salvation of all beings
Then every act
And every thought
Pulsate outward
Bathing all
Deeds and Doers
In right intention.

If that purpose is
These waves, too,
Fan outward--

But soon enough,
They bounce
Off the walls
Of malformed intention
And return to drown
Doer and deed both.

Is nourishment
Which we sometimes garnish
With poison

Is fuel
Which we too often ignite

Is choreography
For the confined spirit

Spirit is that within us
Which yearns to do great good things.

Dance with this spirit
Pray and work for all that lives
If this helps no one
Other than you
It will still
Have salved,
If not saved,
A soul.

--Mr. Gobley


Rob said...

I don't know, Mr Gobley, this is a tough one. Possibly the toughest of all. I've been a confirmed atheist for ten or fifteen years. I've never attempted, however, to talk others into giving up their faith or belittled anyone's religion.

This isn't because I don't know my own mind and hold my own opinions honestly, but it's because I've seen religion really work in some people's lives. There isn't the slightest doubt in my mind that religion is a great help to many people.

That said, however, it's also clear that religion itself can also be a destructive force. I'm not blaming the gasoline for burning here either. I know a woman, for example, who was molested by her father when she was young. Since then, the father has "washed away his sins" by becoming baptised into a Christian Church. He may or may not be a better person now, but the real problem is that he truly believes that his sins have been washed away and that his old life is irrelevant now. He believes this because he hears it in church twice a week. The woman is tortured by the fact that he goes along happy and smug and she is left with the pain and shame. I'd like to murder her father, but I'm too Christian to consider myself judge, jury and executioner.

Religion isn't the only area where we can give up our individual responsibilities and relax in the bosom of a group, but it's one of the most commonplace.

Another problem with religion in general is its divisiveness. Each religion has to consider itself true. If each is true, it means that most or all of the rest have to be false. This makes all of the people following the other religions officially somewhere between misguided and enemies of the faith.

This leads directly to the last big problem: the afterlife. All religions that believe in an afterlife can give their followers dangerous notions. A good example is from the Albigensian Crusade, authorized by Pope Innocent III. The crusade's "spiritual adviser", Arnaud-Armaury, was asked whom to kill in the town of Beziers - a town known to contain a couple of hundred heretics among 20,000 or so Catholics. His famous reply is the perfect example of this problem:

"Kill them all. God will know his own."

Chalk up 20,000 more lives in the "I was religious and all it got me was this lousy death" category.

So which is it balm or curse? I just don't know. I wish I did. Maybe someday I'll get to the bottom of it. I'll tell you this, however: the more history I study, the closer to "curse" I get.

Mr. Gobley said...

My dear Rob:

As you yourself have shown through your excellent and carful comment, tolerance is the key. As a "confirmed atheist," you convey the kind of respect and openness that must be at the core of any search for meaning, indeed of the life of any human being committed to positive change.

Alas, as you have noted, religion often creates a kind of toxic bloom in the hearts of those it could have redeemed. i believe this is because organized religion frequently draws to itself those whose thirst for control of their environment, and all who inhabit it. After all, what better way to control people than to promise salvation, threaten death and damnation?

In the case of the woman you mention, the father may indeed be hiding behind a cloak of supposed forgiveness. In fact, if he has not begged his daughter for forgiveness, regularly, he has missed a key element in the process of redemption, and from what you say, he seems untroubled by it.

Small a step as it may be, however, such dangerously addictive personalities are sometimes drawn away from repeating their sins when they embrace religion. Sometimes, all religion can accomplish with such a person is to get them to stop doing what they used to do. This is a minor step, but imagine what it could accomplish, in time, with many many others.

Clearly, this is not enough, but it is far, far better than some things we have witnessed, in person, in the media, or in historical accounts, that have been done in religion's name.

Many religions -- including the ones i study -- consider themselves to have special missions but do not consider themselves to be the one true way to -- call it what you will -- salvation, enlightenment, nirvana, or inner peace. Nor do (or should) the adherents to these traditions consider themselves anything other than charged with the task of helping the world and all living things.

This mission is tirelessly **outer-directed**: that is to say, its highest expression is in how it serves others, whether those others follow the same spiritual path or not.

It's true that not all religions are like this. However, we must be careful to distinguish between the actor and the script. One actor may read into sacred texts a justification for heinous acts; another might find true salvation. A third might see absurd claims and creeds meant to exert mass mind-control. All of these are within reach of the troubled human soul, whether religious or not.

Your post is so thoughtful that it is on many levels perceptive and true, and it reveals what we all must struggle with: the thin and wavering line between the Divine and the demonic. Atheist or believer, agnostic or archbishop, we all are in danger of finding ourselves on the wrong side of this line if we are not careful.

i thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Charlie (Colorado) said...

I hestitate to jump in --- well, not really, but I'm at least aware of the arrogance --- but let me throw out one more thing: The Buddha's last words were* "Attend to your own salvation."

Your friend can't choose to make her father apologize, or ask her forgiveness. She can choose to forgive, not for his sake, but for her own.

* Actually, it's a little known fact that the Buddha's true last words were were "... and watch out for the moo shu pork; it'll kill ya."

The Nappyheaded Pensieve said...


Mark Congdon said...


Religion certainly can, and does, cause people to do terrible things.

I might add, though, that the lack of religion (if such a thing is even possible) leads people to do equally terrible things.

Belief that "God will know his own" can lead to senseless killings in a deranged mind. Belief that "We're all just elevated monkeys, and there's no God or meaning to life" can lead to the same behaviors.

Another problem with religion in general is its divisiveness. Each religion has to consider itself true.

Politics can be pretty divisive too... but we don't throw out politics. It's not possible to. Same with religion.

And, as we're seeing in America today, those who aim for a non-divisive attitude toward religion ("it's a useful tool for people that need it as a crutch"), end up actually being strongly divisive toward anyone who holds their beliefs too fervently. The belief that objective knowledge is not possible, and knowledge is only for practical (pragmatic) purposes... is itself an objective and exclusive belief system.

Just like we can't choose to be a-political, I don't think we can possibly be non-religious. Politics aims to answer the question, "How do we live in society"... and that question has to have some answer. Religion aims to answer the question, "What are we, and what is the meaning of life?" We must all have some answer to that question as well.

Rob said...


You said religion is supposed to answer big questions, like, "What are we, and what is the meaning of life?"

I feel a little cheated on that score. I spent the first half of my life in the Catholic church and I mostly left because they didn't even seem interested in those questions.

Take the first, "what are we?" The Bible, in one of the most mystifying of all verses (gen 1:26) says we are made in God's image. A little research into the subject (which I did many years ago, when I sat down to really try to get to the bottom of this stuff) shows that this doesn't appear to be a translation wierdness or allegory. It apparently says exactly what it means: Not in God's "wishes" or "ideals", God's actual appearance.

Pardon me, but that is crap. Here we are only 26 verses into the Bible, looking into the most important question of all and we get crap. There is some lovely poetry: "And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." But there's just not any useful facts.

Instead, supplying the meaning is left to us. To our faith. That sounds high-flying and poetic and lofty in every way, but for practical purposes it's not much help to me. The answer to "what are we?" has been left to science specifically because religion has reflected the question back to the asker. Ask the much less important question "what rules should govern our behavior?" and you get an ennumerated list. Ask "what are we?" and you get poetry and a directive to use your faith to find out within yourself.

As I've said before, I'm not an atheist so that I can denigrate the religion of others. I'm an atheist because I have no faith. In fact, I applaud your faith all the more because I have none. If there is a God and that God has a plan for me, then apparently built-in faith is not part of the plan (perhaps he needed bad examples to serve for others). Fine, I can live with that. But don't go telling me that religion is the answer to "what are we?". We may find out some day and if we do, I'll bet it isn't religion that informs us.

I believe - and science is starting to prove - that religion (ie, a sense of the mystical and higher) is hard-wired into our brains. It made sense for survival, just as a fear of falling did.

Rational humans, however, can overcome their fear of falling when it suits them to do so. It may be that we have to overcome our built-in mysticism if we're going to make progress on the Big Questions (or even successfully live in huge, powerful, technological nations). Christianity has made no progress that I can detect on the Big Questions in 2,000 years. For me, that's long enough, time to move on.

I might think differently if I had some of this "faith" stuff, but I just wasn't present when it was being handed out.

Mr. Gobley said...


i could not have hoped to provoke such thoughtful comment, and have little to add.

But here it is, and forgive my repetitiveness, for i may have said it before: perhaps religion is science for poets. Perhaps science is religion for skeptics.

Put another way, the most advanced mathematical and scientific concepts are beginning to sound more like certain mystical texts than like scientific theorem or thought.

Whether or not they are different facets of the same gem, i still posit that, until the absence or presence of the Divine is conclusively demonstrated -- a highly unlikely eventuality -- atheists and theists are **absolutely essential,** not only to the well-being and balance of the world in general, but more particularly to each other.

So keep up the good work, and stay open.

karen said...

Good morning, mr. gobley!!
I had posted a comment earlier, but it doesn't show. Maybe I said something offensive? I trust your judgement, for offensive isn't my intention.

Do as many people fall away from other religions as they do the Catholic faith? So many fallen away Catholics.

Rob, could it be possible that, since each of us is unique and made differently, that the meaning of life can have as many answers as there are descendents of Abraham?

I believe we are created in the image of God. God is all things to all people. And, we are not all that we seem. Our physical appearences are no greater identification than our true being inside... does science have a name for who we are, truely? I know that the Eucarist is defined as: body, blood, soul and divinity... maybe we are called to be like God as He lives in us in the Eucarist?

I really liked how you said you were more Christian than murder, in your first post. I wondered how an atheist could be such, then figured you meant the person, not Christ as God. I like your fairness and how you really want to know these answers. I must be brain-washed a bit because I really don't need any other answer than that given or any other imagined and asked. I live my life daily, pray I can walk in the footsteps of the Lord, and pray I set a decent example for my kids to see the Way.

Sins are forgiven, if asked. They are also repeated, repeatedly... unfortunately. We may be created in the image of God, but damn this free will!!

mr. gobley says it best; as always.

In regards to your friend that was abused? Forgiveness for her father's actions will help heal the pain, and maybe therapy. It helps. It's easier to stay in the pain we know as opposed to move into the unknown, but if she can try... the sun is shining beyond forgiveness.

karen said...

It's a sad day when a Catholic can't spell *Eucharist*. That would be me :)

Mark Congdon said...


Thanks for your response. I think you misread me a bit, but your tangent was interesting in its own right.

To clarify... you wrote:

You said religion is supposed to answer big questions, like, "What are we, and what is the meaning of life?"

Actually, I meant to say that religion, by definition, is our answer to those questions. That's my point. The atheist (or even agnostic) answer to those questions is just as much "religion" as a God-centered spiritual answer to those questions.

You defined religion as "a sense of the mystical and higher". If you limit your definition to this, then I agree that religion does not necessarily answer the Big Questions any more than atheism does. But, in that case, I also posit that atheism has just as bad a track record as "religion" in motivating abominable behavior.

You closed your original post with this statement about religion:

So which is it balm or curse? I just don't know. I wish I did. Maybe someday I'll get to the bottom of it. I'll tell you this, however: the more history I study, the closer to "curse" I get.

I believe that the same criticism would apply to atheism and other "non-religions" that aim to answer the same Big Questions.

As for your statements about the Bible, and about religion's answer to the Big Questions, and faith, and religion as a mental crutch... I think I'll leave those alone for the time being. Maybe another time. :)