In The Name of Religion

The following is my column published in the October 4, 2007 edition of the Falls Church News-Press:


By Nicholas F. Benton

Admittedly, mortality is scary. Life as we like to experience it seems closed in by everything it isn’t and sometimes that’s felt more acutely than others. Accidents, disasters, illness, aging, dying, death, the haunting mystery of not-life, is there any wonder why people tend to look beyond the day-to-day to seek some enduring, transcendent meaning and comfort? Indeed, religion grows out of the gritty reality of the limitations on life. Some among us, no doubt, are more attuned than others to sense elements of this universe that most of us are wont but to experience through the narrow filters of our given five senses.

With the benefit of limited powers of communication, human beings on this planet have attempted to both divine and convey meaningful insights and perceptions on these matters. Given the species’ early organization into tribal units or packs, one form of making coherent sense out of it all has naturally tended to become hegemonic for one group, and another for another and so on. Hence, the crazy-quilt we find of world religions.

It is in the nature of things that human beings are vulnerable under these conditions on at least two counts. First, they can tend to fall sway to those who claim control of a given religious system, being exploited in a myriad of ways. Second, the claims of one religion, and those under its influence, can be pitched against those of another to advance the self-interests of one group over another. Scholars and pundits have argued endlessly throughout history about the relative objective merits of one religion over another, often based on how they’ve been used in these ways.

The invention of the printing press, of moveable type, began a profound and irreversible change in the way human beings interact, because the condition for direct access to knowledge and ideas were created. It took a mere 300 years, more or less, for this to unfold and translate into the formation and organization of what we know as modern secular society, with the United States as the most astounding case. With this development, a state, or a tribe, no longer defines itself according to the particularities of its religion, but in accordance with principles that respect the inherent capacity and right of every individual human being to ascertain knowledge and form ideas for him or herself.

While this has seemed a painfully slow and uneven process when measured in terms of individual lifetimes, in the bigger picture of the universe’s and planet’s timeline it is unfolding in a veritable twinkling of the eye. Now comes the Internet, and its global reach. With a click of a mouse, boundless knowledge is accessible to every creature not only in the more advanced civil societies of our day, but in every crevice of our orb.

With knowledge, ideas and the benefits of an equal justice-based civil society for all its participants, religion will not disappear from the species, for the reasons of the boundaries on how each of us experience life in the very personal ways we do. But it will tend to be more inclusive and respectful of the prior evolution of its many forms, and in greater coherence with discoveries of the actual processes that make the universe tick.

Now, when some seek to abort this, to rip certain religions away from this process and to insist they remain fixed in their older forms, we see not the continued enhancement the human condition as the motive, but the assertion of the age-old ways in which religion was used to exploit human vulnerability and send special interests to war.

Fist-pounding, so-called fundamentalism and insistence on the special divine nature of ancient texts or traditions involves, behind its demagoguery, little more than manipulation and coercion. Under this sway, some people, seeking religion’s comforts, are convinced to willfully close off their minds’ access to knowledge, ideas and the benefits of civil society in favor of the fantastic claims and demands of moral bullies.

But it is the task of civil society in light of this to cause such tendencies, and the dangers they bring, to wither away by intensifying the universally-positive benefits of knowledge, new ideas and solutions to many grievances of the human condition through production, nutrition, medical cures and an enhanced distribution of abundance.

Humanity cannot sit on its hands and allow retrogressive forces to rally vulnerable minions to do the bidding of the petty self-interests of a few in the name of religion. It must aggressively challenge them by articulating a better way, not in contrast to the spirit of religion and the answers it seeks, but by better combining the benefits of its progress with those strivings for a better appreciation of ultimate things

The following is my column published in the Oct. 11, 2007 edition of the Falls Church News-Press:


The founding of the United States and ratification of its Constitution were critical turning points in the history of humankind’s development on the planet. It moved the species beyond government by arbitrary authority, secured through religious superstition and coercion, to one grounded in secular virtue, reason, compassion and justice.

It is a sad and categorically false absurdity for modern day fundamentalists to claim that the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” and, therefore, Christian cultural icons and their interpretations of Biblical law should have precedence over more universal norms. Their bigoted drumbeat will surely get louder as the December holidays approach.

But a small, and wildly underappreciated book published a year ago, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, by Brooke Allen, has helped set the record straight. It got a lukewarm reception in a review by George Will in the October 22, 2006 New York Times Book Review section.

Allen quotes extensively from original documents by essential founding fathers such as Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine and others. The evidence is overwhelming. These were children of the Enlightenment, proclaiming the benefits of science and reason, and opponents of superstition and the sway of coercive, anti-rational religions. In fact, they recognized their pitched battle against such religious influences was very consciously central to their struggle to found the great American nation.

In the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797 it was written, “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” This treaty was ratified by a unanimous vote of the U.S. Senate, only the third such unanimous vote out of a total of 339 recorded votes up to that time. Could it get much clearer than that?

Of course, the U.S. Constitution states clearly in Article VI, Section 3 that no “religious test” shall ever be required as a qualification for holding any office or public trust in the U.S.

Thomas Paine, a co-collaborator of the more famous founders, whose pamphlets, Common Sense, The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, were incredibly popular in the Colonies leading up to and after the American Revolution, railed against the Bible. “The obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind, and for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel,” he wrote.

James Madison wrote, “What influence have ecclesiastical establishments had on civil society? They have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of civil authority, in many instances to uphold the thrones of political tyranny, in no instance have been the guardians of liberty. What have been their fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
Franklin proclaimed himself a Deist in his autobiography, rejecting religious “revelation” in favor of science and reason. He wrote, “I never doubted the existence of the deity, and that he made the world and governed it by his providence and that the most acceptable service to God was the doing good to man, that our souls are immortal, and that all crime will be punished and virtue rewarded. These I esteemed the essentials of every religion.” Not Christianity, but every religion.

Washington proclaimed that in the new nation, “the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition.”
Adams, hailing the 18th century progress of “arts and sciences useful to men,” when faced with a rise of fundamentalism in the so-called Second Awakening, noted, “Instead of the most enlightened people, I fear we Americans shall soon have the character of the silliest people under heaven.”

Jefferson wrote that Jesus’ moral system “was the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man,” but that it was hijacked by a “band of dupes and imposters” beginning with the Apostle Paul and the biographers of the four gospels. “Christianity neither is, nor ever was, part of the common law” that was the basis for the U.S. Constitution, he stated.

The following is my column published in the October 4, 2007 edition of the Falls Church News-Press:


I was raised with no connection, as a child, to organized religion, and came to a faith perspective as an adult, leading to four years of a post-graduate education at a West Coast Protestant seminary majoring in New Testament theology. Yet my informed and oft-expressed antipathy for religious fundamentalism remains mild compared to how some of America’s leading Founding Fathers felt.

I have been friends over the years with many folk far more religiously conservative than I, from a range of traditions. But I found that virtually all of them were able to accommodate the benefits of modern science and the exercise of reason, justice and fair play into their thinking, even when they seemed at odds with formal tenants of their faith.

An exception was my grandfather’s family on my mother’s side. They were French-born Christian Scientists, and as true believers they rigorously practiced what they felt was the power of their faith for healing to the point of eschewing the medical profession, entirely.

A dear aunt traveled with her sisters and their families around Europe one summer with horribly swollen legs, but stubbornly refused any medical attention. No one else in my family bought into their beliefs, but I remember how my near-deaf grandfather read religiously from Mary Baker Eddy’s books every night.

To their credit, they never tried to impose their views on me or others in our family. My grandfather was one of the most important people in my life at one stage, and I have only the fondest memories of how he was sensitive and attentive to my situation.

Maybe something of his religion rubbed off in a form of stubborn self-determination and an unwillingness to slavishly accept authority without a good reason. The appeal of some other, otherwise-seemingly irrational faiths may also have roots in such unspoken sentiments as the right to be different and to eschew other, perhaps more dominant religious traditions.

The danger, as always, lies in the ways that malicious and exploitive forces can insinuate themselves into non-rational religious forms to carry out sinister, ulterior motives.

One of the more blatant examples of how religion was used to achieve a political end came during the height of the McCarthy Era of domestic political persecution in the early 1950s. In an alleged attempt to smoke out “Godless communists,” Congress was brow-beaten into adding the words, “under God,” to the Pledge of Allegiance, even though it was a clear breach of the Constitutionally-guaranteed separation of church and state. It took until earlier this decade for a federal district court to finally rule the inclusion of those words unconstitutional, but nobody has been willing to back that up for, still to this day, solely political reasons.

In the post-McCarthy era, the rise of the “vast right wing conspiracy” in America has seen the use of exorbitant funds deployed by fabulously wealthy enemies of the concept of the inalienable rights of every human embedded in the Constitution. These include those who’ve propped up the mean-spirited ideologies of so-called “Christian reconstuctionists” like R. J. Rushdoony. Rushdoony propounded the notion that U.S. Constitutional law should be replaced by Biblical law, including such as the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament.

Southern California real estate mogul Howard Ahmanson, Jr. became a convert to Rushdoony’s views and the created the Fieldstead Institute, which worked with groups like the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, the International Federation of Evangelical Mission Theologians and the Ethics and Public Policy Institute to funnel huge sums into the Network for Anglican Mission and Evangelism and the Institute for Religion and Democracy, groups supporting the secession of American Episcopal congregations from the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., because of its ordination of a gay bishop, among other things. 

As Washington, D.C. author James Naughton reported in a series of articles about “following the money,” Internal Revenue Service and other documents show that other well-known ultra-wealthy right-wing moguls, like the Mellon, Scaife, Bradley and Coors families, pitched into these same efforts.