“Do you think religion inherently good?” This was a rhetorical question posed to the class when I was a student at Queen’s University in 1986. The class was in a course in the history of Christianity. The question was posed by Professor William P. Zion who was on the faculty of the department of religious studies and the Queen’s Theological College.
He was also a Russian Orthodox Priest, Father Basil. We were young students who never stopped to think about this. Professor Zion answered the question for us, telling us, “no, religion is not inherently good.”
He cited the fact that historically Christians gathered to watch people burned at the stake as a witness to their faith. Professor Zion had a bit of fun with the class in posing this question, but what made me recall this memory is the fact that the majority of humanity practices some kind of religion.
I appreciate and understand the appeal of religion for people. I was a pious Roman Catholic myself for several years. Interestingly, it was Father Basil who supported and encouraged me to accept my gayness and continue practicing my faith. I concur with Professor Zion in that I do not think religion is inherently good. This puts me in a bind at times as I interact with people of various faiths, who view their faith as inherently good, right and desirable, both personally and informally in my daily life.
I am gay, masculine and have what is called a “straight appearance.” In effect this makes me an invisible minority. Until 2012, I kept the truth about myself and my relationship with Mika from most of my friends and acquaintances and wider society.
One of the reasons I did so is the general antipathy found among religions, particularly the Abrahamic faiths, toward male homosexuality. In general, the teachings in Judaism, Christianity and Islam hold that male homosexuality is both sinful and unnatural. In brief, Jewish Scripture and Tradition maintains:
“[A man] shall not lie with another man as [he would] with a woman, it is a to’eva” (Leviticus 18:22). The term to’eva is usually translated as “abomination”. However, because the word is used twice in regards to homosexuality, its second use has been understood by the Talmud to be a contraction of the words to’eh hu va, meaning “He is deviating from what is natural.” (literally “He is wandering with it [from the natural way of the world]” since the Hebrew word to’e means “He is wandering”, va “with it”) (Religion facts)
Similarly, in Christian Scripture we find the following proposition:
They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. (Romans 1:25-27)
This is reinforced in Catholic teaching with this assertion published in the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the pastoral care of homosexual persons in October, 1986. While the tone of the document is not overly hostile, it maintains “although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”
Finally, Islamic Scripture stresses:
“If any of your women are guilty of lewdness, Take the evidence of four (Reliable) witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they testify, confine them to houses until death do claim them, or Allah ordain for them some (other) way. If two men among you are guilty of lewdness, punish them both. If they repent and amend, Leave them alone; for Allah is Oft-returning, Most Merciful.” (Qur’an 4:15-16) (Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation of the Qur’an as cited in Religion Facts)
I realize there is widespread disagreement among the faithful concerning these passages from the respective Scriptures and teachings. Among my friends and hunting buddies are men and women who are observant Christians and Muslims. They know I am gay and married to Mika and accept me.
Moreover, I was accepted in the Roman Catholic community as a gay man (I was out to my closest friends and confessor) I remember Father Bill, our Parish Priest in St. Thomas More Parish in Kingston, Ontario, fondly. He presided at my Confirmation (with a dispensation from the Archbishop) at the Easter Vigil in 1986. I raised the point that I am gay just prior to the Vigil, asking if it was right for me to proceed. He replied “Geoff, we don’t expect you to be a saint when we confirm you.”
As a non-religious individual, I do my best to tolerate other people’s beliefs. For all the religious folk who practice their faith peacefully and refrain from judging others who do not practice their faith or impose the dictates of their faith on others I do my best to live and let live. That said, however, I do not refrain from criticism of religion, even at the risk of offending friends who see this as an affront to their faith.
This is the bind in which I find myself. There are religious teachings and behaviour of some religious, such as the teachings on male homosexuality noted above, that demonstrate that religion is not inherently good. That many people use religion to justify prejudice and persecution, not just against gay people, is a sad fact of life.
No, religion is not inherently good. That said, however, my experience both as a practicing Roman Catholic and friendship with people who practice various faiths informs me that whether religion is a force for good or evil depends entirely on the character of the individual believer.
In this regard, I am blessed to have among my friends devout Christians and Muslims who practice their faith in a way that makes it a force for good in a world where all too often religion brings out the worst in people.