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Does religion make people better or worse

Tuesday, Sep 5, 2006

I have devoted much of my life to arguing that religion is the finest vehicle for individuals and societies to become decent, good, moral (you choose the term you prefer). For example, in 2005, I devoted 24 columns to making the case for Judeo-Christian values as the finest system of values ever devised.

However, this advocacy of religion comes with two caveats.

First, the claimed superiority of Judeo-Christian values in no way means that all believing Jews and Christians are good people, let alone better than all other people. There have always been and there are today morally superior individuals in every religion. And there are morally superior individuals among atheists and people of no organized religion.

Second, there is no religion that has not made, or at least enabled, some of its adherents to be morally worse than they would have been had they not adopted that religion.

So our question is not whether there are good or bad people in every religion. The question is whether any given religion is likely to make one who believes in it a better or worse person than he would have been had he not believed in that religion.

Let’s begin with my religion, Judaism. I recall a young man who attended a Jewish institute I used to direct. When he first arrived at the institute, he was a particularly kind and nonjudgmental individual — and completely secular. After his month-long immersion in studying and living Judaism, he decided to become a fully practicing Jew. When I met him a year later he was actually less kind and was aggressively judgmental of the religiosity of fellow Jews, including me and others who had brought him to Judaism. In one year he had become in his eyes holier than the teachers who brought him to religion in the first place.

Now, of course, there are teachings in Judaism that, if honored (such as the Prophet Micah’s admonition to “walk humbly with your God”), would have prevented him from becoming sanctimonious. But the religion’s emphasis on legal observance enabled him to count the number of laws fellow Jews did not observe and judge them accordingly.

One major benefit of Judaism’s being law-based is that it can provide an individual with a way to regularly ascertain right from wrong, to provide ethical rules on a daily basis. It can move him to visit the sick when he would rather be at home watching television, to resist gossiping, to give more charity than he otherwise would, to show honor to parents who may not deserve it, and so much more. But it can also lead him to judge fellow Jews by their level of ritual observance, to substitute law worship for God worship, and can lead a Jew to retreat from almost any social interaction with the non-Jewish world.

Within Christianity, faith in Jesus Christ can lead one to live a life of extraordinary loving kindness and self-sacrifice in order to emulate Jesus, whom the Christian regards as his Lord and Savior. It can also, and has, led Christians to place so much emphasis on proper faith as to neglect equal emphasis on proper behavior, to hunt down heretics, to judge other people by their faith rather than by their decency (as in Europe’s wars and killing over theology). It can lead to an almost unique support for the Jewish people — as among American evangelical and other conservative Christians — and it has also led to the most prolonged hatred of the Jews for spurning and killing Christ among Christians in Europe.

Nearly 2,000 years of Christian domination of Europe did not prevent most Europeans from doing nothing to protest, let alone rescue Jews from, the Nazi genocide. On the other hand, the relative handful of European Jews who were saved were rescued disproportionately by religious Christians. I once asked California State University Professor Samuel Oliner — an authority on altruism and on rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, and himself a Jew who was rescued by non-Jews — knowing all he does now, on whose door would he knock if he wanted to be saved from the Nazis during the Holocaust — a doctor, a professor, a lawyer or a priest. He answered that there was no question that it would have been the priest.

The third monotheistic faith is Islam. There are many millions of decent and kind Muslims in the world. But there are also at least a hundred million Muslims (i.e., 10 percent) who support killing innocents in the name of Allah and Islam. And there are more than that who believe in the ideal of using force to spread Islam throughout the world.

So the question is this: How many kind and decent Muslims are kind and decent because of Islam, and how many evil Muslims are evil because of Islam?

I do not claim to have an answer. I only claim that the question is a legitimate one that all the decent Muslims need to answer. The evil ones repeatedly tell us how Islam is the source of their support for murder and torture. We need to know from the good ones how Islam has made them good.

So far we have only heard from one side.

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