My friend had joined me in the adjunct professor’s office when I finished my class, and because the day’s lesson had been on anthropology and religions, we were discussing religion. My friend is an atheist, so the discussion not only required a lot of honesty and thought from both of us, but it also became deeply rooted in my thoughts as a result. It was no surprise that when pain awakened me during the night, as it has so often done, that my friend’s final question not only returned to mind, but was interwoven with my ongoing concerns about the disruptive and heartbreaking laws and actions that have so negatively affected physicians and their patients.
It was a long night. The pain was intense and unforgiving. I thought that there is no more “alone” a person can be than when being alone and in pain. Especially if nothing can be done to alleviate the pain. In my case, it is because my body will not tolerate many medications, including pain medications. But for so many others it is because an unthinking and unfeeling state and/or federal body of lawmakers has taken their medication from them. Some lawmakers have gone so far as to falsely claim that chronic pain patients are the reason that addictions and illegal drug-induced deaths occur*. The majority of these lawmakers claim to have made their decisions in the name of Christianity, and/or morality. Thinking about all this, I again considered the final question my friend put to me:
CAN RELIGION BE EVIL?
It is a legitimate question. Jesus was put to death, in the name of religion. The decision was made by a government official under intense pressure from religious leadership – the separation of church and state is not always clean or clear! Again, the apartheid laws of South Africa were based on religious beliefs and carried out by members of the most conservative and pious of denominations, while being upheld by churches throughout the country. Islamic followers have also left bloodshed in their wake since the Prophet died, and ISIS makes religious claims for their terrorism. And I haven’t even scratched the surface of the harm done to humanity in the name of religion. On the other hand, Christians, Muslims, and members of other faiths have spoken and fought against these evils, and lived lives that more fully represented the tenets of their faiths.
There is also the emotional and psychological harm done in the name of religion. On the first Mother’s Day after my infant son died, which happened to be the first anniversary of his birth and death, my own father announced from his pulpit that God had taken my son because I had married a divorced man. I left the church—and the Church–that day, 52 years ago, swearing never to give my heart and work to another church. It was not God I was mad at, it was the Church. I had been both beneficiary and victim of its teachings my entire life, but uneducated as I was at the time, I still was able to see organized religion as a human construction, using the power of the name of the Creator to manipulate and control entire populations to submit to the will of its’ very human membership. It took 51 years to the very day for me to finally give up that resolve, when I was confirmed into a church that not only accepted me as I was, but has a membership that loves and cares for each other and our community, living as best it can the highest commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, ….and love your neighbor as yourself.”
So today I can say from the knowledge and experience of an entire, long life lived observing, loving and hating religion–while remembering the reason for the religion–gave me, among other really great truths, this understanding shared with my friend: Can religion be evil? No, my friend, nor can it by itself be good. Just as its human members have the ability to choose whether they will do good or evil, so do we choose whether to use our religion and our beliefs for good or for evil. I suppose the litmus test would then be the two commandments quoted above.
Which brings me back to my lonely and painful vigil of the night. Actually, I realized I was not alone. My thoughts—my very soul—amplified my own pain alongside the hundreds and thousands of pain patients sharing my misery, who might have been sleeping relatively comfortably had they been allowed their medications. It would do me no good to go to the streets for illegal medications, but my heart broke for those who that very moment were deciding to do so–the very law intended to end illegal drug use actually making criminals out of law-abiding citizens. I also hurt for those physicians who, at that same dark hour, might be considering suicide because of a life ruined by the harassment of a law enforcement chain of events that considers them “guilty until proven innocent.”
So, in the dark with my physical and emotional pain and in the awareness of a company of fellow sufferers, I prayed for us all. And especially for those who take it upon themselves to decide to use religion and their “moral” values to make everyone live by their very low standards, no matter who it kills.
“Low standards?” you say? Yes. Low standards. Slash and burn is the low road. Restore and rebuild in the name of the Creator is a much higher road.
*I can say that this is a false claim because drugs and alcohol have been used by almost every culture as far back in history as we can document. Drugs had both religious and recreational purposes., and still do in many cultures. Up until recent history, most people did not live long enough to acquire the long-term chronic pain suffered by the majority of such patients today. Today’s chronic pain patients are not the cause of the problem.