Religion’s Double Bind

All religions are caught in a bind. A bind none can escape and dooms them whichever option they chose. The bind is at the core of all practicing religions and cannot be ignored. The bind is over the unignorable question of what to do about non-believers. How should churches view those who do not agree with them? It is considered cruel to threaten them with Hell yet if they do not they are implying their rules do not matter. There is no third option that is both compassionate while maintaining the integrity of the church. Either way, religion loses.

Non-believers were traditionally persecuted and it was assumed they were all going to Hell. Apparently punishment in the next life was not enough, so people who did not match the ruler’s religion were persecuted and suppressed. Christians persecuted Muslims, Muslims persecuted Christians and everyone persecuted the Jews. The history of the Middle Ages until the Age of Enlightenment is essentially a history of religious wars. It is for this reason that most countries had only one religion. The Inquisition is the most famous example of the suppression of non-believers with public burnings, but there are countless others.

From the 19th century or so onwards, the persecution eased up and moved to less violent forms of repression. Laws were still based on the dominant religions teachings and minority religions often had fewer rights. To be a non-believer justified poor treatment, harassment and second class citizenship. Even into the middle of the 20th century, Catholics were still told that Protestants were going to Hell for not belonging to the “One True Church”. This is still believed by many fundamentalists of all religions and persecution is still rife in many parts of the world.

At this point many religious people may object, saying I am relying on the common Atheist tactic of focusing of the extremes. They argue that while the Church in the past could be brutal and repressive, the modern Church kind and tolerant, willing to embrace all walks of life. This modern religion claims love as its central doctrine. It holds little against Muslims or Jews anymore and instead embraces diversity. Many priests now say that God loves all people and even people from other religions can go to Heaven. Pope Francis even went as far as to say that Atheists can go to Heaven if they are good people.

However, this causes a serious problem for religion. You see the whole point of organised religion is that interprets holy books and provides rules for people that supposedly came from God. If being a member of that religion is not important, than you are implying that its rules are not important. If someone who isn’t Catholic can still go to Heaven and enjoy all the same benefits in the afterlife, then what is the point of the Catholic Church? Surely you can then disregard everything the priests say and ignore all the rules without being any worse off. If being a good person is the only requirement for entry to Heaven, then religion is obsolete.

Of course, a religious person would contest this and argue that it is necessary to obey at least some of the rules. They would believe their church plays some necessary role that requires some obedience. However, to do this we must then assume that non-Catholics (or whichever religion) cannot enter Heaven or at least not on equal terms. For organised religion to have any validity there must be some degree of exclusion.

Of course this is grossly unfair (as most religious people would agree). Religion is like nationality, it is almost never chosen but rather inherited from your parents and based on where you live. People are Catholic or Muslim or Hindu, not because they have examined all the religions of the world and found one that best suits their worldview, but because they were born in Colombia or Libya or India. Most people know next to nothing about other religions and thus it would be exceedingly cruel to punish them for something they never encountered. To say everyone who is not a member of your religion will go to Hell, is equivalent to condemning 85% of the world to eternal suffering just due to where they happened to be born.

So religion is stuck between a rock and a hard place. It would be horrendously cruel and intolerant to condemn all those of different religions to Hell due to the luck of birth, yet to fail to do so undermines the sacredness of their rules and teachings. Religion must be exclusive or meaningless. Either intolerant or irrelevant. Religious readers, take your pick.


Filed under Religion

18 responses to “Religion’s Double Bind

  1. Agreed! Well-written and true.

  2. You do raise a few good points but i have to disagree with you on your view of ‘inheritance’ of religion.
    Although it is true that we are all born into a religion, we are able, unlike our nationality, to change our religion. For the most part, individuals cruise through life with their ‘inherited’ religions because they are simply comfortable with what they have been surrounded by and have been taught, or simply, do not care because by no means do they live their day to day lives adhering to a religious testimony yet attend Church once a year as respect to their elders . I myself know 4 people who have questioned their religions and all 4 have converted. 2 were born Catholic and converted to Islam, 1 was born Muslim and converted to Christianity and 1 was born Orthadox and is now a strong headed atheist. Which again raises the question, are we ever happy with our inherited religion? There are flaws and contradictions in all religions, there are overlapping traits in all as well. It all comes down to the individual and how they themselves choose to live their lives. Some let religion dictate their every move and some use religion as an excuse to carry out certain behaviors whilst others blame religion for all that goes wrong in their lives. Despite history and the connotations of religious leaders and icons, I see religion as a pure excuse for debate. Each to their own.

    • Yes it is possible people change their religion. but is extremely rare. 99% of people will never even consider doing so. So it is easy to just round off and say that religion is inherited rather than chosen. Likewise it is possible for people to change their nationality though it is also extremely rare. My Mum is Irish and became an American citizen, while Dad is American and became an Irish citizen.

  3. Religion is blind and unwavering. I’m going to copy and paste a comment from a wordpresser on my post “More People Believe Obama is Muslin Than Believe in Evolution”

    June 15, 2013 at 7:10 am (Edit)
    0 0 Rate This
    Because Obama’s faith, or lack thereof, interferes with our lives. Initially he claimed to be Christian then he went to visit some foreign country and bowed deeply to the Prince who was Muslim. They hugged. If Obama was a ‘Christian’, he would not have bowed. His deep bow indicated submission and respect to that leader. In essence dragging out country with him. Muslims do not hug anyone but other Muslims.
    Then Obama claims that he is Muslim. His accent is quite good when using their words, so it’s not something foreign to him. Yet this past Easter, while addressing his audience he says…”as we Christians”, including himself. Either the man can’t make up his mind what religion he is, or he thinks we are too stupid to know you cannot be both a Christian and a Muslim.
    He has put Muslims in numerous aspects of the government, military and businesses. That way, when Obama is out of office, there will be other Muslims to take over.
    Now, tell me. How do you not consider this a problem? They do not believe in our way of life. They do not respect our laws, nor do they feel they need to obey our laws. They believe the only good Christian is a dead one. By the way, that includes anyone not of the Muslim faith which means agnostics, scientists, and Jehovah’s Witness, etc.
    Another thought to keep in mind, it’s 144,000, not 170,000; and they actually have passed that number. The only problem with that religion is they are a bit ahead of schedule. The Rapture has to take place first then God calls 144,000 of those that are left on earth to be witnesses for Christ. It’s all explained in the Book of Revelation.
    I haven’t quite figured out how to take you, if you’re serious or not about Obama. You might just be trying to annoy people and find out who you can rile the most. I know it’s in God’s hands, and He is still in control. Why I’m taking the bait at 3 AM is anybody’s guess. Good night.


    • sinead the apoplectic

      Obama is muslin?
      I long suspected that his fiber was floppy. Now I know why.


    • Edan

      GW Bush not only bows to the Saudi King, very lowly, but also kisses the Saudi Prince on the MOUTH, while HUGGING him. Youtube it, if you don’t believe me. Was GW a Muslim? I think he IS. Obama has not placed any Muslims in high positions. Not even one Muslim is in his Cabinet. His closest advisers. He speaks the Muslim lingo because he spent 4 years in Indonesia growing up. He never adopted Islam as his religion, but was taught about it while going to the CATHOLIC School where he lived.

      • I know that, you know that, any sane reasonable person knows that – I responded to the person who made these comments with the youtube clip you mentioned. Surprise, surprise – I got no response. This same person wants to invite me to the rapture, but only if I change my opinion of Obama. Holy crap!🙂

  4. With tongue in cheek, I remind readers – this was a comment on my post, in the name of all that is holy don’t misunderstand, and think these are my thoughts. Holy crap!

  5. Great post though the Vatican said later on we can’t go to heaven if we know of the catholic faith and don’t join it in contradiction to what the pope had said earlier

  6. A bind indeed. Unmovable objectivism ruins all religions.

  7. Pingback: 7: On the importance of honesty in religious discussions: | Adventures with Religion

  8. Not all religions teach that there is an eternal hell.
    Hindus and Buddhists believe that you just have to go on living life after life until you learn how to do it right, like the Bill Murray character in the movie Groundhog Day.
    Confucianism and Taoism AFAIK do not have any teaching about the afterlife.
    Within Christianity, there have been universalists who believe that all human beings will ultimately be save.

    I do agree with your main point, which is that belief in an eternal hell is inconsistent with belief in a loving God.

  9. Pingback: You want heaven? practice this! | Corporate Skirts

  10. Karl Smitisburgh

    Totally agree

  11. I’m going to bring up a few things which came to mind while reading this: Since very few things are true and very many things are false, Truth itself is naturally exclusive (it is one thing, not many things) and not all “truths” are equal (subjective truth vs absolute truth), so if any religion has any basis in truth, perhaps there are far more false religions than true ones? An analogous example would be something like… say a crime occurs and there is only one witness, but it becomes a media frenzy so many people come forward and they all claim to be witnesses. If there was very little evidence outside of witness testimony, does that mean that there is no truth, or that everybody’s version of the truth is right? No, because there’s still only one witness, only one version of how the crime actually occurred.

    To say that all religions are equally flawed is to say that there is some method by which we measure the flaws in a religious doctrine… yet we’re basing this on what? We’re trying to measure absolute truth by subjective reasoning, and to do so would be to enter yet another double bind:

    Because even life without religion is a double bind. For example, we live daily as though we’re unaware that most of the stuff we work for in life is bullshit, yet if we were to admit that all of our effort was in vain because one day we’ll just die along with everyone we love and it won’t matter anyway, we would probably end up starving on the street. Another example is money: we need it to survive, but we all know it’s just worthless paper. The only thing which makes it valuable is that we need it, so we pretend that it’s valuable because if we don’t, we starve and die. Politics? Wars? How many other things? Maybe it’s not the nature of religion or Truth that’s the actual double bind. Maybe it’s the human psyche itself. Maybe it’s the nature of existence as we know it, and the human psyche, upon realizing the double bind inherent in all of reality surrounding himself, has only three options: go insane, adhere to a convenient lie, or find religion.

    Now I’ll admit, finding religion could also be considered a convenient lie… but regular everyday slogans like “Be positive.” or “Live in the now.” or “Life is good.” could be considered way more convenient lies (tiny little mini-religions). Most, if not all, people who condemn religions as ignorant or exclusivist tend to commit an even more ignorant blunder when they browbeat people around them (often to the point of exclusion) for not being positive or goal-oriented enough… but in order to do those very convenient things, one must necessarily adopt a stance of active cognitive dissonance, or else one would be destroyed by the magnitude of just how much the world actually sucks. Why do you think we lock mentally ill people away? Or why we distance ourselves from disfigured, sick, or poor people? Everybody does it. Why do we do it? If we’re so keen on truth, why can we not seem to deal with the most superficial of problems?

    I would even go so far as to say that religious people come closer to the truth than those who are non-religious. The whole reason one would seriously adopt a religion in the first place is because one realizes that there’s something irreconcilably wrong with the world. Exclusivity most likely arises from the falling away from society that inevitably occurs as a result of such a troubling discovery.

    What is interesting is that everybody likes to mock Christianity, but from an unbiased point of view…neither for religion nor against it… Christianity is the most consistent, perhaps even remarkably so. Why would I say this? Because of one thing all other religions lack: a method of reconciliation which bypasses human effort altogether…considering that human effort is always the problem when dealing with matters of philosophy, religion, and everything else. Instead, all flaws have been laid upon God who became flesh, and his sacrifice is deemed as sufficient where all human deeds failed.

    Why, then, would Christianity be so exclusivist if God’s sacrifice was for the whole world? From what I gather, it has more to do with those who accept what God has done, versus those who believe they must do something or else God won’t do anything.

    So how do we know that God really did anything, or that God really exists, or that the world really is in such an irreconcilable state?

    Well that’s quite a loaded question…. so I’ll leave that for another time. However, the original post was about the double-bind nature of religion. My point was that the human condition is itself a double bind. So, first, one must realize their own double bind before judging the double bind nature of something so fundamentally truth-claiming as religion. One must judge whether or not their ability to perceive so-called double binds in certain situations or ideologies has been affected by their own inherent irreconcilable state.

    I’ve known people who have grown up for decades in the church, knew the Bible better than anybody else, and after confidently renouncing their religion, I’m able to find a flaw in their reasoning for doing so nearly immediately, not being a Bible expert at all, but simply from being a student of human nature and existence in general. Why do they run from the religion of God immediately to another religion, that of science? Are they finding any more concrete truths, or is science just more immediately reassuring because of our modern-day techno-wombs?

    I’m not sure that religion is the problem, ladies and gentlemen. Religion doesn’t kill people, after all. People kill people.

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