Christians, as do other religionists, naturally do things that are motivated, justified (or excused) by their religion. Frequently, they do so explicitly in the name of their religion. Many of those things, such as hospitals and relief efforts, are humane, gentle, and ethical even in the opinion of persons of other religions or of none. Acting in the name of religion has produced much that is good and much that is bad.
But this post is about the disparaging use of the term “only in the name of religion.” The term indicates that some unseemly religious action doesn’t represent real religion, but a misguided or perverted version of religion. Used this way, the term demands that we not impugn religion just because an extremist claims religious reasons for bad actions. I’ll step back a bit to explain why my secular point of view finds this “only in the name of religion” dismissal to be unconvincing.
Religion’s distortion of reality, rewriting of history, unethical treatment of the faithful as well as of dissenters and bullying control of civil authority can be demonstrated so easily that religious people themselves can cite examples. Their recognition of these unsavory features of religion, however, seems to be much easier when the unsettling features are linked to others’ religions or even their own religion far enough in the past. Modern Catholics, for example, are as horrified by the Inquisition as are non-Catholics.
But as to the current time, one’s own religion is not only innocent of such insalubrious acts, but claims a measure of immunity from being criticized. No matter how completely off-the-wall a religion’s tenets, overt criticism is by social consent reserved only for religions distant in geography, time, or dogma. With the shortcomings of religion being so obvious, one way to avoid denigration striking too close to home is to claim that whacky or belligerent religions are not real religions at all! (A good Protestant friend of mine is sure that Catholics are not Christians. She is exceptional, however; such opinions among Protestants are usually reserved for Mormons and Scientologists.)
So it is that embarrassing behavior of those in a despised religion can be dismissed as being “only in the name of religion.” That way the sacred banner of true religion is saved from stain by association. Moslem mistreatment of women, for example, can be said to be not due to real religion but in the name of religion. Similarly, persons in an otherwise acceptable religion who go off the rails enough to defy being swept under the rug, are said to be acting “only in the name of religion” but not due to real religion. After all, religion (well, real religion) must be honored as a force for good in the world. Heinous and psychotic beliefs and acts may be linked to false religion, but assuredly not to ours, hence use of the distancing term.
This “in the name of” business can be unfathomable to unbelievers. Wild stories with no evidence (raised from the dead, really?), ridiculous worship rituals (transubstantiation, really?), anti-science defensiveness (six thousand year old earth, really?), and such are the stuff of all religions, so it is hard for us to pick one as, so to speak, God’s Truth, and all the others as instances of fake, “only in the name of” material.
Just about the only way to avoid the conclusion that all religions are nuts is for a person to be born into one, in which case all religions except one are nuts. Being born into a creed seems to be a dubious way to discover truth, but it has worked for most people through history. Just try to find Christians brought up as Muslims, Hindus brought up as Christians, and all the other permutations including their reverses; don’t omit abandoned religions of the past and those yet to be devised. (Remember that Mormonism didn’t pop up until relatively recently, so there’s no reason to think we’ve seen them all and, incidentally, no reason to think the one true religion has yet been found.). At a more detailed level, consider how many Lutherans become Catholic, how many Eastern Orthodox become Christian Scientists, and so on ad infinitum. Be sure to include the numerous varieties of Christianity that existed before Rome declared orthodoxy centuries after the reputed Jesus. Even if, against these uncountable religious options, “no one comes to the Father but through [Jesus],” even that definitive pathway is, to say the least, rather poorly lit.
Someone like me is not armed with the superhuman knowledge of absolute truth that believers claim to possess. So being able to tell the difference between real religion and false religion is impossible, especially since false religion so frequently means simply “not my religion.” Real religion and the religous cover of a deceptive religion look exactly the same. Besides, if persons say they are acting on the basis of their religion, who am I (who is anyone) to say they are not simply because their religion isn’t acepted as real? It is real religion, not some fake version of it, no matter how batty an observer thinks it is. Besides, there is no stupid, crazy, or hurtful individual or group behavior that a “mainline” religionist would like to dismiss as “only in the name of religion” that is more stupid, crazy, or hurtful than the behavior over time of one or more of what are largely perceived as real religions.
When religionists admit as “evidence” ghost stories, talking serpents, 72 virgins, ancient compromised texts as God’s Word, alchemy communions, people crawling out of graves, and prayer-driven divine intervention into physics—it is hard to distinguish one form of nuttiness from another. Once you give such credence to religious thinking, you can never be sure where the zigzag use of pseudo-reasoning will come out–sometimes in a humane place, sometimes not. But there’s scant chance we’re due for reforming religious thought anytime soon. So in the spirit of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” I am disposed to define religion as a human activity that is “only in the name of logical thinking.”