Apr 23

Part 8 of Religion – The Most Harmful Agency Agency on the Planet?

David Langness

David Langness

Outlawing Holy War

In this series of articles we’ve cited and studied the groundbreaking recent book When Religion Becomes Evil, by Dr. Charles Kimball, which lists five major causes of problematic religious conflict and violence: absolute truth claims; blind obedience; establishing the ideal time (or triumphalism); and “the end justifies any means”.  In this essay, we’ll consider what Kimball calls the worst religious evil of all – holy war:

…more wars have been waged, more people killed, and more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history… Declaring war “holy” is a sure sign of a corrupt religion.  In fact, at the center of authentic religion one always finds the promise of peace, both an inner peace for the adherent and a requirement to seek peaceful coexistence with the rest of creation. – p. 156.

Many westerners associate the idea of holy or religious war solely with Islam – but that is a serious historical mistake.  The Arabic word jihad, which many in the West believe means holy war, actually is literally translated as to strive or to struggle to do the right thing.  Islam certainly spread initially “by the sword,” as expansionist wars conquered territory and converted populations – but several other faiths did the same thing during that dark and contentious period in history. Unfortunately, in today’s usage by extremists, the word jihad has come to be known as denoting only an armed struggle against others of different faiths.

crusader knightThe historical record, however, shows that Christianity itself waged many if not most holy wars.  The church recognized warriors who fought in the name of God as the Milites Christi, the warriors (or knights) of Christ. Those “holy warriors” and their armies fought the Crusades, a 200-year-long series of pitched and bloody military battles against the Moslems.  Later the Church launched Crusades against other religious targets, including the Albigensian Crusade against the gnostic Cathars in Southern France, and the Northern Crusades to conquer and convert the Baltic countries.  To justify these violent excursions, in 1095 the Catholic Pope, Urban the Second, issued a papal decree that completely contravened the teachings of Christ and raised the level of “acceptable Christian” war from bellum justum (“just war”), to bellum sacrum (“holy war”).  

Kimball says that this long record of mutual hostility and violent savagery has corrupted the heart of Christianity and Islam:

Both Christians and Muslims claim that peace lies at the heart of their religions.  Both Christianity and Islam, however, have a long and checkered history in which their respective adherents fought for causes declared holy.  Many of those conflicts, moreover, involved fighting each other.  Not only are these the two largest and most geographically dispersed religious communities, they also head the list of those who have corrupted the heart of their religion by linking it confidently to war. – p. 157.

Much of the current corruption in religion, the Baha’i writings say, comes directly from its leaders, those who seek power and wield violence in complete contravention of their Faith’s original message of peace:

In these days truthfulness and sincerity are sorely afflicted in the clutches of falsehood, and justice is tormented by the scourge of injustice. The smoke of corruption hath enveloped the whole world in such wise that naught can be seen in any direction save regiments of soldiers and nothing is heard from any land but the clashing of swords. We beseech God, the True One, to strengthen the wielders of His power in that which will rehabilitate the world and bring tranquility to the nations. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 39.

westborobaptistchildAt the conclusion of his book, Dr. Kimball agrees:

Like those generations who have gone before us, we, too, must look deep into our traditions for the wisdom and resources that support peacemaking rather than war, reconciliation rather than retaliation.  But we must do this in a global context. – p. 189.

For Baha’is, global unity is the prerequisite for global peace and worldwide harmony between the great Faiths. Toward that end, the Baha’i Faith conclusively and definitively bans holy war:

Beware lest ye shed the blood of any one. Unsheathe the sword of your tongue from the scabbard of utterance, for therewith ye can conquer the citadels of men’s hearts. We have abolished the law to wage holy war against each other. God’s mercy hath, verily, encompassed all created things, if ye do but understand. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 24.

In the next and final installment in this series, we’ll look at the Baha’i teachings and how they explain, in a logical and understandable way, why religion becomes corrupt; why it inevitably declines; and why it must be renewed.


Next:  Why Religion Becomes Corrupt, and How to Fix It

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Apr 23

Part 2 of Poverty and Humanity: The Domino Effect

Previously on Grimm…

Okay, play on words time is over. Seriously, the plight of the poor in America is grim. The Great Recession we are still pulling out of cut a great many Americans off at the knees. Poverty flooded and seeped into sectors of our national community that it had not invaded before. And those who were living in poverty already—on Native Reservations, in rural areas in the midwest and deep South, in urban ghettos—found even the slender lifelines they had suddenly vanished.

Han_soloResult: The distribution of wealth in America is conspicuously lopsided.

A debate has arisen all over America online and off about who’s responsible for this situation, and for the amelioration of the increased poverty it has produced. Many people seem to opt for a response that I, as a writer of Star Wars novels, am all too familiar with: “Not My Fault!” They are not a member of the affected group, nor do they know anyone first hand who is, ergo, it is part of Douglas Adams’ SEP field (Somebody Else’s Problem). In rare cases, I have talked to individuals who said, “If I suffer setbacks and become poor or sick, I won’t accept help from anyone else. It’ll be my cross to bear.”

The ideas about who’s responsible to help the poor are many. I identified the five I meet the most often in the first post on this subject:

  1. Everyone has a support network. It’s up to the families and friends of the poor to bail them out.
  2. It’s up to charities to see to the poor. People need to contribute more as individuals.
  3. If someone is poor it’s their own fault. They should just stop being poor/lazy/undereducated.
  4. It’s everyone’s responsibility to pull themselves up by their boot straps, no matter how they came to be poor..
  5. It’s up to society as a whole to lift the poor out of poverty.

Point #1 is deserving of a game show buzzer raspberry. Everyone doesn’t have a personal support network. This is simply empirically, verifiably untrue. Those people I know who have such networks are using them. Thousands of college kids have moved back home. Extended families are living in the same house—including my own family.

homeless-feetThis begs the question: What do we do with those who literally have no friends or family in a position to help them? More to the point: what happens if we, as a society, simply decide NOT to help them? These are not rhetorical questions, boys and girls; really think this through. Is the status quo working?

I’m not going to dignify #3  by responding to it except to ask how someone making this argument would defend it. This is not a rhetorical question, either. No Devil’s Advocates, please. Only propose an answer if you really believe there is a way poor people can just stop being poor.

Position #4 is similar to #3, but the contention is that while people can’t just wiggle their noses or say “Expecto Patronum” and become unpoor, they can work their way out of poverty unaided. My observation of reality suggests that this impossible in any real world practical sense. None of us is in complete control of our environment, resources or opportunities—if we were, there would be no poverty for successive divine Revelators to generate verses of scripture about and nothing for me to blog about today.

That leaves us with points #2 and #5, which at least offer some sort of real-world foundation. There are charitable organizations set up to deal with the issues that go hand-in-hand with poverty—soup kitchens, free clinics, homeless shelters, etc. And we do have an actual society that we cohabit that makes it possible for us to refer to ourselves collectively as Americans and human beings. We have local, state and federal governmental organizations through which we can express our collective will.

First, #2: Can’t charities take care of the poor?

Perhaps there was a time when that might have been possible, if those charities might have worked together. But each set of charitable institutions (even within a single faith) has its own infrastructure, administration, and resources. This makes mounting such a cooperative response challenging at best, IF all of the parties would be willing to work together. Alas, there are extremists on both ends of the religious-secular spectrum that stolidly and dogmatically refuse to work with people who are not “them”. Moreover, if it was ever possible for religious and secular charities to care for all the poor in America, the Great Recession put paid to that idea.

How? Because everything in our society is connected to everything else. The employment numbers are connected to unemployment insurance, which is connected to food stamps and welfare, which is connected to the minimum wage which is connected to healthcare subsidies and Medicare/Medicaid eligibility. All of that is affected by the rise in poverty.

It creates a domino effect (or a cascade effect, if you prefer)Domino_Cascade .

“In the fall of 2011, with hunger rearing up across America, the large freezer bins at the Port Carbon Food Pantry (PCFP), in the small, gritty, Appalachian town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, were empty. The shelves next to the freezers were also largely barren. A few boxes of egg noodles provided about the only sign that this was a place in the business of giving out food to those who could no longer afford to buy it. An adjacent room was doing slightly better, displaying stacks of canned fruit, canned corn, beans, and bags of pasta. But, taken as a whole, these were slim pickings. Clients who walked or drove up the hill, the remnants of an unseasonably early snow storm still on the ground, from the center of town to the two-story building were eligible for six to ten days of food, but that food was all they’d be able to get from the pantry for the next two months. 

“Three years earlier, explained PCFP’s coordinator, Ginny Wallace, the rooms were filled to bursting with food. Then the economy tanked; demand for the free food soared; and at the same time, locals’ ability to donate to the pantry crumbled.” (Sasha Abramsky. “The American Way of Poverty”, p. 36)

Did you catch that last sentence? The shelves of this charity were empty because the Recession affected, not just the already poor, or those who’d been hovering just above the poverty line, or even those who were middle class and suddenly had no income. It affected those who still had jobs and healthcare and a roof over their heads, but who found their resources suddenly uncertain and strained. The people who regularly gave to charities—who put food on those shelves—cut back their contributions of food and money, or stopped giving altogether, because that money was no longer discretionary.

But it wasn’t just the charities and the poor they serve that this cascade overwhelmed. Families like ours also cut back on spending, thereby withholding money from the businesses that were used to receiving it, and generally denying the economic substructure of our local, state and national economies the revenues they needed to progress and grow. My editing and ghostwriting clients all felt the crunch, which meant that I felt it and my family felt it, and the businesses we purchased from felt it.

But there’s a recovery going on, yes? So, the poor will recover right along with everyone else, right? Yes, there is a recovery, but counter-intuitive as it may seem, the recovery has, in some ways, made the situation worse for some of the poor.

How so?

imagesThink of it in terms of fluid dynamics. Have you ever sat at the end of a long line of cars at an intersection waiting for the light to turn green? Have you noticed how, once you’ve seen the light turn green with your own eyes, it takes many long, agonizing seconds before the forward surge reaches your car? Fluid dynamics also applies, at least metaphorically, to our economy or any other large, complex system with moving parts.

When it comes to the economy, it’s worse. Consider the housing market—it’s making a comeback. That means housing costs are going up. Rents are rising, food prices are rising, clothing prices are rising, gas prices are rising. Even those who make too little to pay income taxes have to pay sales taxes, and sales taxes are not progressive. That is, they are the same whether you are very poor or very rich.

What’s not rising is the amount people earn. This is why there’s a push to raise the minimum wage, which is one of the ways in which we, as a society, could help the working poor if we were of a mind to do so. But that’s a different slice of the pie.

The bottom line on #2 is that no, charities can’t take care of all the poor. If they could have, they would have. They’re trying—often cooperatively—to stem the tide of poverty. But you can’t get food from empty shelves. In order for those charities to give, individuals have to give, and you can’t force people to give to charity, you can only encourage them to do it.

So, what’s the solution? Is this something only the Andrew Carnegies and Warren Buffetts of the world can or should work out? Is it the sole province of religious organizations (which, according to surveys are dwindling as more and more people become unaffiliated with such institutions)?

After all, Bahá’u’lláh makes a point of saying to the wealthy among us:

O YE RICH ONES ON EARTH! The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease. (Hidden Words, Vs 54)

Or is the answer Point 5: that it’s our obligation as a society of human beings to care for the poor in our midst?

Next time: A look at interdependence.

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Apr 18

Part 1 of Poverty and Humanity: Open Your Hands

torah.jpgAnd you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:10)

If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. (Leviticus 25:35)

…you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. (Deuteronomy 15:7,8)

For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, Now I will arise,” says the Lord; “I will set him in the safety for which he yearns.” (Psalm 12:5)

Above are four scriptural references out of many that deal prescriptively with poverty. Note that they are all from the Torah—the Old Testament—and speak of a foundational element of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith: the caring for the poor in society. If I expanded my selections to the Evangel and the Qur’an, the whole blog post would be nothing but quotes.

How important is this social principle of aiding the poor? The sheer number of repetitions of the basic idea of caring for the poor should hint at its importance, but if that’s not enough, the Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, says in clear language, that the failure to elevate the poor was the sin that brought low Sodom and Gomorrah.

“As I live,” says the Lord God, “neither your sister Sodom nor her daughters have done as you and your daughters have done. Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16: 48-50)

Andrew-CarnegieOn this subject, Bahá’u’lláh and Abdu’l-Bahá also wrote copiously:

“Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer of the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge.” (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings CXXX)

“…you must assist the poor as much as possible, even by sacrifice of yourself. No deed of man is greater before God than helping the poor.” (Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 36)

“Man reacheth perfection through good deeds, voluntarily performed, not through good deeds the doing of which was forced upon him. And sharing is a personally chosen righteous act: that is, the rich should extend assistance to the poor, they should expend their substance for the poor, but of their own free will, and not because the poor have gained this end by force. For the harvest of force is turmoil and the ruin of the social order. On the other hand voluntary sharing, the freely-chosen expending of one’s substance, leadeth to society’s comfort and peace. It lighteth up the world; it bestoweth honour upon humankind.” (Abdu’l-Bahá, from a letter to Andrew Carnegie)

We have a tremendous problem with poverty in this country. The wealth gap, which seemed to abating in the 1970s, has widened in successive decades and inflated dramatically during the recent recession. It pushed middle class families into poverty and crushed the working poor. Millions lost jobs at every income level and, so far during the recovery, most of the returning jobs have been in the lower-paying sectors of the economy. Healthcare in some of our rural areas looks just like it does in so-called “Third World” countries.

This has spurred a huge debate over who is responsible (if indeed anyone is) for helping the American poor recover alongside the corporations and businesses big and small, some of which have posted record profits in the last year or two.

chp_homeless_1296676324Opinions vary widely. Here are some of the more common ones I’ve seen and heard.

  1. Everyone has a support network—family and friends. It’s up to the families and friends of the poor to bail them out.
  2. It’s up to charities to see to the poor—isn’t that what they’re for? People just need to contribute more as individuals.
  3. If someone is poor it’s their own fault. They should just stop being poor (Yes, a media network commentator did actually say that.); i.e., they should stop being lazy, they should get better-paying jobs, they go back to school to get useful skills, etc.
  4. It’s everyone’s responsibility to pull themselves up by their boot straps, no matter how they came to be poor. We all need to take responsibility for our own lives.
  5. It’s up to society as a whole to lift the poor out of poverty. We’re interdependent members of one nation (and one species), and if we behave like that we can solve this problem together.

Next time, I’d like to take a look at some of these arguments in light of scriptural teachings about the pernicious problem of poverty.

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Apr 16

Part 7 of Religion – The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

David Langness

David Langness

Bad Religion: When The End Justifies Any Means


For most of us, authentic religion focuses on the transcendent.  True religion links loving, kind and compassionate relationships with others on this plane of existence to the growth of the soul and an eternal life in the next.

But some people — especially those who focus fanatically on a single component of their belief system – discard loving, kind and compassionate relationships in favor of an expectation; some hoped-for “sacred” outcome or end that justifies any means for its accomplishment.

This basic human moral question, explored in detail by Immanuel Kant and just about every philosopher since, asks “Can the ends ever justify the means?”  In other words, “Does it matter how I get what I want, as long as I get it?”  Or “Is it OK to do something wrong or immoral to achieve a positive end?”

Authentic religion always answers that question with an emphatic “No.” Read the rest of this entry »


Apr 02

Part 6 of Religion – The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

David Langness

David Langness

The Ideal Time for Religious Triumph

The idea of triumphalism – that any particular religion will one day prevail, dispatch the “heretics” and conquer the world – has plagued humanity for centuries.  In his book When Religion Becomes Evil, Dr. Charles Kimball explores the concept of triumphalism, in which some faith groups see the ideal time for their certain triumph as inevitable and desirable:

Some religious communities place a great deal of emphasis on a this-worldly hope…. When the hoped-for ideal is tied to a particular religious worldview and those who wish to implement their vision become convinced that they know what God wants for them and everyone else, you have a prescription for disaster. — p. 105.

Wikipedia defines it this way:  Triumphalism is the attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, religion, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over all others.

This concept of inherent superiority has several negative consequences, especially when religious belief becomes triumphalist.  It creates an in-group and an out-group, often judging those in the out-group as “evil”.  It makes it very difficult for people who belong to the in-group to objectively view the overall morality or value of the group’s actions.  It stifles innovation and change within the in-group.  It produces a sense of isolation and distance from others.  And it generates a will to conquer and dominate others by imposing the in-group’s ideology and belief systems on them.

Triumphalism, then, is nothing more than a severe prejudice — the mistaken notion that my belief is somehow more substantial, correct and Godly than your belief. Read the rest of this entry »


Mar 26

Part 5 of Religion – The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

When Religion Requires Blind Obedience

David Langness

David Langness

Authentic religion engages the intellect as people wrestle with the mystery of existence and the challenges of living in an imperfect world.  Conversely, blind obedience is a sure sign of a corrupt religion.  Beware of any religious movement that seeks to limit the intellectual freedom and individual integrity of its adherents.  When individual believers abdicate personal responsibility and yield to the authority of a charismatic leader or become enslaved to particular ideas or teachings, religion can easily become the framework for violence and destruction. – Dr. Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil, p. 72.

Everyone has heard of religious groups that require blind obedience, shut off the intellectual freedom of their adherents or imperil their individual integrity.  All we have to do is read the headlines:

Aum Shinrikyo Cult Releases Nerve Gas in Tokyo Subway (March 20, 1995)

Burmese Buddhist Monks Goad Mobs to Kill Muslims (July 14, 2013)

Fanatical Christian Assassinates Planned Parenthood Physician in Church (May 31, 2009)

Thousands of Innocent Muslims Killed by Hindu Fanatics in Gujarat (November 2, 2002)

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin Assassinated by Fanatical Zionist (November 4. 1995)

World Trade Center Suicide Missions Kill Thousands (September 11, 2001) Read the rest of this entry »


Mar 21

Food for Thought

The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.” (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, CXXII)

Bosch Baha'i School on Science and Religion Apr 9, 2011

Bosch Baha’i School on Science and Religion Apr 9, 2011

A number of key Bahá’í principles relate to education. Bahá’u’lláh made the independent investigation of reality and truth a primary article of His faith. He further says the acquisition of knowledge “is incumbent upon all”. This, obviously, requires a person to have the skills to acquire knowledge through independent investigation. Hence, universal education is a foundational principle of the Bahá’í Faith. Bahá’u’lláh instructs the community-level administrative bodies of His Faith (Local Spiritual Assemblies) to provide for the education of children if parents are unable to do so.

Besides being the force that can bring the gems of human virtue to the surface, education is the key to success in almost any endeavor, which is why so many Bahá’í social and economic development projects begin with education and literacy.

Bahá’ís share this regard for the importance of education with the founding fathers of the American republic. John Adams wrote, for example, that

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.” (John Adams to John Jebb, 10 Sep. 1785)

Read the rest of this entry »


Mar 19

Part 4 of Religion – the Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

No Faith is Final — Religious Claims to Absolute Truth

David Langness

David Langness

When a religion claims to have access to the absolute truth, religious scholar and writer Dr. Charles Kimball explains, those rigid truth claims can form the basis for demonizing and dehumanizing those who differ:

A human view of truth, one that is dynamic and relational, enables religious people to embrace and affirm foundational truths without necessarily solidifying the words into static, absolute, propositional statements.  Conversely, religious convictions that become locked into absolute truths can easily lead people to see themselves as God’s agents.  People so emboldened are capable of violent and destructive behavior in the name of religion. — When Religion Becomes Evil, p. 70.

We’ve all seen this concept play out gruesomely in the modern world, as fundamentalist and overzealous “believers” wage war on each other, become terrorists who randomly kill innocent people and insist, through violence, intimidation and “holy war” that they are right and everyone else is wrong.  This kind of divergence from the originally peaceful and loving teachings of faith can happen to any religion, and fundamentalist sects of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all fallen prey to such religious violence and terror. Read the rest of this entry »


Mar 12

Part 3 of Religion – The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

When Religion Itself Becomes Evil

David Langness

David Langness

The well-known religious scholar and chair of the department of religion at Wake Forest University, Charles Kimball, published a landmark book a few years ago, called When Religion Becomes Evil.  Dr. Kimball doesn’t dislike faith, and he is no atheist – in fact, he’s an ordained Baptist minister – but the book describes what he sees, after a lifetime of research, as the five warning signs of corruption in religion:

  1. Claims to absolute truth
  2. Requirements for blind obedience
  3. Establishing the “ideal” time
  4. The end justifies any means
  5. Declaring holy war

In the following five articles in this series on the harm that religion can cause, we’ll explore those warning signs and investigate what the new Baha’i teachings say about each one. Read the rest of this entry »


Mar 05

Part 2 of Religion – The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

David Langness

David Langness

Atheists Say Religion Causes Ignorance and Hatred

A whole host of atheist philosophers, thinkers and commentators have written influential books and essays during the past few decades, each one saying that religion has become a force for hatred, violence and evil in the world.

Writers like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have all published popular atheist manifestoes.  Most of their books, as in this quote from Harris’ The End of Faith, contain some variation on the idea of religion as “merely an accident of history,” where “it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your prayers, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.” Read the rest of this entry »


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