The discussion of religion, Christianity, and bad religious people earlier got me thinking.
I know this one’s a hotbed, so I’ll try not to say anything too egregious. Or–well, no, I’ll wind up saying SOMETHING egregious, I’m me, after all, so I’ll start out by saying that if you’re a decent person, I don’t care what religion you are. Like many young disaffected liberals, I have a bit of an instinctive bias against Christianity–I’m not saying it’s right, but I’m admitting my bias right now so that we can get it out of the way–but nevertheless, I think there are some sterling Christian individuals out there who are a credit to the faith and do very good things, and I respect them for attempting to live up to the tenets of Christianity as best they can–the hard, love your neighbor tenets, at that. It’s not these people’s fault that a lot of hateful things get done in the name of Christianity, any more than it’s the fault of most Muslims that…well, fill in the blank, you know the drill.
Now, no matter how you feel about it, Christianity is the most successful religion, in terms of sheer numerical dominance, ever. Part of this, arguably, is that it was fortunate enough to be a dominant religion during humanity’s mass population explosion, and that whatever new religion had kicked up around the Mediterranean during the days of the Pax Romana, but after the pagan religions had passed their heyday, would have gone far. (Don’t get me wrong, paganism’s lovely, but in a lot of forms it’s a rural, nature-based sort of religion, and in the increasingly urban Roman world, it just wasn’t cosmopolitan enough to hold up.)
But there were a bunch of religions at the time that could’ve taken over. There was Mithraism and worship of the Magna Mater and Atys and a whole slew of mystery sects that were pretty nifty, all of which were just as popular as Christianity at the time, if not more so, and all of which have vanished except in the minds of college students trying to pick up an extra classics credit. So why did Christianity take off so hard? I don’t think it’s inherently bad by any stretch–I mean, you get bad people in any faith, certainly–hell, it seems like the only time you even hear about any religion is when they’ve killed somebody, and I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the various authors of the Bible are to judge people and be mean to them and beat them up or blow them up if they don’t agree. (Okay, maybe parts of the Old Testament.) But no matter what you think of it, it’s certainly been successful.
Christianity had a lot going for it, much of which it took from Zoroastrianism and Judaism, but that’s okay–one doesn’t copyright religion unless one’s a Scientologist. You get a pretty sensible moral code for the time, (unlike the generally somewhat amoral Greek gods) that doesn’t make you do anything really hard and weird, (unlike Mithaism, where it cost a lot of money and you had to bathe in bull blood now and again, or the Magna Mater, where at one point they liked you to castrate yourself to prove your sincerity) and you could join just by wanting to, (you didn’t have to be born Christian) and then you could go out and convert other people (unlike the mystery religions, which were–well–a mystery, and required pilgramages and so forth to join.) And you got forgiveness, too! Most religions attempted to keep out the riff-raff, whereas Christianity made a point that no matter how awful you’d been, if you felt bad about it and apologized to God, he’d be cool with it, provided you did the neccessary penances. Because God knew you personally, and if you apologized for everything, there would be a nifty paradise at the end of this mortal coil, unlike a whole BUNCH of other religions prior, who at their most sophisticated had reincarnation, and at worst you sat around in a dusty cave for all eternity. (Seriously, the Sumerians were not happy campers. Live, die, sit in the caves of dust. Woot.)
All these selling points of Christianity were a recipe for a highly successful religion in terms of spread. It’s no wonder it’s got the biggest hunk of the pie chart. Sure, parts of it haven’t aged gracefully–I don’t think even the most devout in this country go a proscribed distance from the village and dig a hole when they need to use the restroom–and of course Christianity is more open to abuse by bad people for purely statistical reasons–I mean, of course Bad Guy X is more likely to be Christian than he is, say, a member of the Blue moiety of the Tupirape tribal religion–it’s simple math. And like all religions, it’s open to abuse.
But is it more open to abuse than others?
Forgiveness is one that gets bandied about a lot…if one’s assured of infinite forgiveness, then plenty of people will probably take advantage. Yes, you’re supposed to feel real guilt and do penance and all, and try very hard not to sin, but I’m sure we all know human nature a little better than that. Hell, as a child, I planned specifically to lead a life doing whatever I want, then recant on my deathbed. (Subtlety was not my strong suit.) So yeah, in that instance, Christianity’s probably worse off than the more straightforward “You sinned, you’re bad, now my friend here with all the teeth eats your heat,” religions. But I can’t help but feel that’s actually not a terribly important point–I’m sure we’ll all agree that the worst damage doesn’t come from lapses into sin, but from people who honestly think they’re serving their religion, usually with pipe bombs and so forth. And how the heck does ANY religion prevent against THAT?
What can you set in stone, really? Thou shalt not steal? Starving family, etc. Thou shalt not commit adultery? Ya know, there’s usually so much crap going on when that sort of thing happens that I don’t think religion getting involved helps one bit. Honor your father and mother? Sure, if you can, but what if your parents are crazy, bad or abusive? Thou shalt not kill? Nah–even some Quakers went to war in World War II, because they thought it was more important to stop a psychotic madman than not to kill, and I happen to agree with them. Even though the German soldiers in the trenches may have been innocent themselves, they had to be killed to stop the guilty at the top. War sucks that way. Christianity really didn’t do badly, all things considered, even if in this day and age, a lot of us have gripes–and quite reasonable ones–with some of its tenets, and a lot of its followers. Two thousand years without much of an edit function will do that to you.
I suppose if I had a stone tablet and I had to chisel the tenets of a new religion onto it, about all I could think of to say would be “Think for yourself. Treat others like you’d wish to be treated if you were them, but don’t be afraid to defend yourself and others. Be kind to everything, but don’t be a doormat, either. Try not to harm other people if there’s any way to avoid it. Religion does not make a bad thing okay. Do your best.” Then I’d think about it for awhile, and finally try to wedge “Don’t be afraid to make changes. I’m dead, and I don’t know what your life is like, so edit these to suit the times if you have to. It’s okay.” in tiny, run off the edges print down at the bottom.
Then I’d obsess for the rest of my life that I hadn’t found a pithy way to sum up a sensible environmental ethic for a stone tablet. Guess Ursulaism won’t be coming to a hilltop near you any time soon.
And that’s how I spent the time waiting for my laundry to dry. Some rat bastard (religion unknown) rifled my laundry–while it was wet, no less–scattering it across the laundromat, and I felt obliged to sit with it while it dried, leaving me no outlet but philosophy. About an hour after that, ironically, the place caught fire. I have no idea if the incidents are related, but I already told the owner about my experience, so I suppose we’ll find out eventually.