Religion From A Historical Perspective


When one looks at religion in a history text, it becomes
clear that the effects of religion are twofold: for
maintaining a certain moral standard and to answer
questions about unknown factors of life and death. In order
to establish whether or not religion is a "good" or a "bad"
institution, in a modern society of empirical knowledge
that is often at odds with traditional religious beliefs,
is to weigh the evidence. We must look at the beneficial,
as well as the detrimental aspects, weigh them with respect
to each other, and come up with an acceptable conclusion.
Religion, in modern societies, is still able to function in
several ways that are beneficial. One of the better
arguments deals with the fact that religion establishes a
sense of morality, which often dictates social order.
Religion sets the basis on which all actions can be judged.
Supporters of this position assert that if one human were
to kill another, without religion to establish the fact
that this is a wrong thing to do, it would not be
considered wrong. Without religion to establish morality,
we would be no different than any other animal on Earth. It
is what separates us and makes us different.
The effect that can be seen from this is clearly
beneficial. Morality serves as a benefit not to one, or
only a small group of people, but it serves a great
beneficial purpose to all people. The standards for
morality that are established by religion are often
emulated by jurisprudence, which is the basis for
establishing laws. What is unique about this is that some
feel that, religion aside, modern systems of
government-enforced justice can supplant the necessity of
religion. Many feel that jurisprudence can adequately
replace the need for religion and set the standards of
morality without the extra baggage often associated with
religion. In many countries this has worked, although to
different extents.
Another beneficial aspect of religion is that it gives hope
by giving a meaning and a purpose for existence. We are
given the hope of a future life that is almost always
better than our own. The only thing we need do is to follow
the standards of morality set by religion. If we follow the
rules, we get the reward. It gives purpose to existence in
that it shows us a goal, and a means of achieving it.
Without this incentive, humankind would not have any
purpose for existence. This is probably the most convincing
argument for the beneficial aspects of religion.
If one is to judge whether or not religion is a "good" or a
"bad" thing from a historical perspective, it is first
necessary to establish what exactly constitutes good and
bad. For this purpose let us use Christian definitions of
good and bad. Most people know the ten commandments, which
are rules that establish what one should, and should not
do. Adultery, stealing, lying, and killing other people is
bad. Treating your enemy better than he treats you is good.
Loving your enemy is good. Philanthropy is good. Giving is
good. These are what Christianity tells us is good and bad.
These are the guidelines set for all Christians to live by.
Another thing one must consider, when trying to understand
if religion is beneficial or detrimental from a historical
perspective, is whether or not modern society is better due
to scientific discoveries. This is important because as
scientific knowledge increases, it is rapidly becoming
incongruent with the traditional religious views of
Christianity. Evolution is one of the best examples of
this. Should a modern society believe in evolution as fact,
or should it believe in the story of Adam and Eve form the
Bible? Would society be better believing one over the
other? These are the questions which must be presented in
order to decide whether or not religion from a historical
perspective is beneficial or detrimental.
Christianity tells us that killing, for any reason, is
morally wrong. Despite this fact, however, many cultures
and people around the world will attest to the fact that
religious wars are the worst kind because they never end.
Yet if one looks at the Crusades that occurred between the
11th and 14th centuries, Christians felt justified in
killing in the name of religion as they were trying to
defend their homeland from falling to the Muslims. Yet
doesn't the Bible tell us to love our enemies just as much
as our friends? And doesn't it tell us that it is wrong to
kill even our enemies?
Another rule that Christianity teaches is that greed is
bad. Jesus showed us that it is better to give to the needy
thereby making yourself poor, than to keep material
possessions to yourself. If this is indeed true, then why
are churches built in such grandeur? In the Roman Catholic
Church, indulgences were sold in order to forgive the sins
of mankind while being on Earth. They were only valid while
the sinner was on Earth, therefore he was still accountable
for his sins after death. The sale of indulgences, which
provided a major source of income for the Roman Catholic
Church, was subject to much abuse by the clergy throughout
Europe. Martin Luther addressed this issue in his 95
theses. It is argued that the sale of indulgences made the
church into a profitable business, rather than a holy
Jesus taught that one should give as much of one's material
wealth as possible to the needy, or those who have less
material wealth. If this is true, then why was the Catholic
Church one of the wealthiest institutions in Europe for
centuries? Under Clovis, the first king of the Franks and a
ruler in the Merovingian Dynasty, the Catholic Church
gained much wealth. Wealth at this time, as in later times,
was dictated by land holdings. The Roman Catholic Church
gained most of the land due to the fact that Clovis
converted to Christianity after he married his wife, who
happened to be a Christian. From this point on the Catholic
Church had vast amounts of power in Europe, enough in fact
to cause many kings to worry. 

This also brings up another detrimental aspect of the Roman
Catholic Church. It felt itself to be the rightful governor
of the people, rather than allowing independent governments
and monarchs to rule. Church and state were not separated
completely, and in fact, the Church had the upper hand in
this setting for many centuries.
Another position that may need attention is the way in
which Christianity has a tendency to impose itself upon
other religions because of the belief that it is, better
than any other religions. The clergy asserts that all other
religions, especially primitive ones, consist of misguided
sinners who should be converted to Christianity. This was
one of the main reasons of Columbus's voyages to the New
World. The reasons he used to convince King Ferdinand II
and Queen Isabella of Spain were to acquire the many riches
that he would surely find, which in itself amounts to
greed, and to convert any natives to Christianity. The
slogan that was used was "For Spain and theGlory of God!"
What one can see however, is that Columbus went on several
voyages to the New World, as it became to be called, yet no
missionaries or church establishment was made in the New
World for more than a decade after its discovery. The main
interest at first was to acquire as much gold as possible.
Another questionable act of Christianity is the way in
which the people of the New World were forced to convert to
Christianity. European culture, as well as European
religions, have almost completely erased the existence of
the religions and cultures of the New World. One good
example of this is the way in which the Native American
Indians have all but completely lost their traditional
culture because of the onslaught of European culture. This
is the same for religion as well. The Europeans, feeling
that their religion was certainly superior to the primitive
religions of Native American Indians, recklessly imposed
their religion upon these people without any thought or
remorse for the inevitable consequences.
Another aspect of Christianity that could be considered bad
from a historical perspective can be seen in the slowness
in which Christianity has adapted to modern society. The
traditional beliefs of Christianity, the Roman Catholic
Church in particular, have been almost impossible to alter,
despite the fact that there would be more of a long-term
benefit to the Church. One of the major problems plaguing
almost every modern society is the problem of
overpopulation. There is a simple way in which this problem
can be controlled using proper contraceptive methods, yet
the Roman Catholic Church refuses to accept contraception
as an acceptable alternative. AIDS and other sexually
transmitted diseases are also in need of attention. Many
methods of contraception help prevent the spread of these
deadly diseases, yet they are still not endorsed.
The lack of acceptance of scientific knowledge also plagues
Christianity. One good historical example of this can be
seen in the heliocentric theory developed by Nicholas
Copernicus and later endorsed by Galileo. This theory went
directly against the dogmatically accepted notion, which
was supported by the Catholic Church, that the Earth was
the center of the universe. The Church went so far as to
personally order Galileo not to defend or teach the
heliocentric theory. This is definitely not the correct
approach the Church should take, although it is clear why
they would take such an action. If any doctrines were to be
proven wrong, then the legitimacy of the doctrines of the
Church could be in jeopardy. In June 1633 Galileo was to be
imprisoned for life due to suspicion of heresy. All of his
works were deemed illegal and all printers were ordered to
cease printing any of his works. This is one of the best
examples of suppression of empirical scientific evidence by
the Church which, at the time, had the power to do so. 

There are several other instances where the Church has
refused to accept scientific evidence that goes against
it's traditional doctrines. One example is the fact that
the Church, going on evidence in the Bible, asserts that
the Earth is not more than a few thousand years old, when
it has become blatantly obvious that, from extensive
scientific evidence, the Earth and the rest of the universe
is much older.
The best example of the power of the Church being used the
wrong way would have to be the Inquisitions. Many see the
Inquisition as an example of the barbarism of the Middle
Ages, yet it is more than that. It is the best example of
the power of the Church being used in a way that is
injurious to both the reputation of the Church, and the
beliefs of the people. It is a prime example of the
susceptibility of the Church to religious fanaticism. The
way in which the trials that were conducted by the
religious officials were obviously undertaken in a way that
would make a conviction of almost anyone possible. Due to
this fact, Church and several monarchies used the
Inquisition as a means of eliminating dangerous opposition.
Often physical torture was used to force confessions. This
was supported during the Middle Ages because Saint
Augustine, the father of many of the Church's doctrines,
had interpreted Luke 14:23 as permitting the use of force
against heretics.
There are several other instances of religious fanaticism,
one of the most famous in the United States being the Salem
Witch Trials. It started when two sisters who lived in
Salem, Massachusetts began to behave in an odd manner. It
was discovered that they had been participating in rituals
in which the future was foretold and incantations had been
recited. The two sisters were examined by doctors and
ministers, and were pronounced as being bewitched. A panic
rapidly swept the town in which several hundred people were
accused of being bewitched. The Church was closely involved
in the trials and consulted the judges that personal
"visions" that witnesses and suspects had had were
admissible in the court cases. Scores were eventually
killed either by hanging or by other methods. Clearly this
is another case in which religious fanaticism had been
detrimental to not only the community at large, but to the
members of the church as well.
The theory of evolution has also shown many inadequacies in
the church. Charles Darwin is granted with the discovery of
evolution, although it was suggested much earlier, but
probably not researched thoroughly due to preexisting
religious beliefs. Darwin's theory of evolution held that
all organisms on Earth evolve, that is they change through
minor mutations, to better suit their environment. This
increases the chances of survival and reproduction.
Whichever species had the right traits to survive a change
in the environment would prosper over it's predecessors
without these beneficial characteristics. The position of
the church states that all humans were descendants of Adam
and Eve and that evolution was not an acceptable theory. In
fact, in Tennessee in 1925 there was an extremely
controversial court case in which it was argued whether or
not evolution should be taught in Tennessee schools.
Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting
evolution, the church chooses not to accept it. This is
understandable because the credibility and legitimacy of
the church is involved.
Although Christianity has shown itself in several instances
to be beneficial to people, by giving hope and direction,
and establishing a standard or morality in a society, as
society becomes more and more modern, it is becoming clear
that religion is not changing to conform to the new
knowledge now obtained by humankind. In this respect,
Christianity is a hindrance to progress. There are also
some ironies in the way that the Church itself has gone
directly against it's own doctrines, such as in the
Crusades and the Inquisition. It is clear that several
hundred years ago, when the Church was in a position of
power and could control monarchies as well as people
themselves, religion was a bad thing. It fended off any
type of knowledge that may be detrimental to the church in
a selfish mode of self preservation.
Today the role of the church is becoming more and more
ambiguous. People want to believe, to have the hope and
standards of morality that the church provides, yet they
are at odds believing in an institution that defends
doctrine is not compatible with true knowledge. Everything
we have today that was not present in the Dark Ages or in
the Middle Ages is directly attributable to modern gains in
scientific knowledge. Had the church not been as powerful
and overbearing as it had been in the past, modern
knowledge would have progressed at a much faster pace.
Evolution could have become a scientific fact, as it is
now, by the period Charles Darwin was born. It is setbacks
in acquisition of knowledge that has shown Christianity to
be most detrimental to society. 


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