[Note: Billy, (formerly Billy (A Liberal Disabled Vet (sometimes Billy OH))), has been invited to submit occasional posts as a guest on this blog. This is his first occasion. I hope there will be more. SI]
This last week I had an interesting conversation with one of my coworkers. He was talking about his church and its importance in his life. I demurred, preferring not to get into a long theological conversation at work. He would not let it rest. After about five minutes of conversation, he let one drop which I could not let pass – “Religion has never done anyone any harm.” I actually laughed in his face.
Allow me to offer up two personal experiences which show the damage which religion can do:
When I was in middle school (which is Western Marylandese for Junior High School) I was a bit of an outcast. I moved into the area in the beginning of my sixth grade year so I brought no friends from elementary school. Also, I had no relations in the district (this was one of those farming areas where everyone was related to everyone (I made the mistake of getting into an argument with one kid and soon discovered almost the whole school was mad at me)). One positive out of this isolation was it gave me a chance to watch people.
There was one girl who I knew who was not really a friend, but she was friendly. She always gave short answers and never, ever volunteered information about herself. She went to a conservative evangelical fundamentalist church (the pastor dropped out of the Southern Baptist Coalition because they were too liberal). She also came to school with facial and arm bruises and, when we dressed for gym, we could see bruises on her legs.
Now, keep in mind, back in the late 1970s, teachers were not required to report suspected child abuse. A couple of the younger teachers did report the bruises. We heard nothing more about it. She did, however, continue to come to school with bruises.
Years later (by this time I was in my second sophomore year and she was a junior) she dropped out of school to get married. She was sixteen (barely) and he was in his early 30s. This became the talk of the school for a week or two, and I learned that the county had investigated the child abuse years before. The father (and the pastor) had patiently explained to the social workers that the family was strictly adhering to the teachings of the bible and, since the Constitution separates church and state, it was none of their business (this is second and third hand, so I can’t be sure of it, but it fits with everything else).
I hope that she had a wonderful life with a loving husband. I doubt it, but I can hope, right?
The second is just as disturbing.
By the time I hit high school, I had a few friends. We were into Dungeons & Dragons, the Cthulhu and Tolkien books, and computers. I planned to be a computer science major and thus took every math course the school offered, including differential calculus. Because so few students took the course, it was offered at 8:00 am, an hour before school started. The kids in my area who were taking the course put together a car pool (there were six of us (which made me the usual designated driver since I had a VW microbus (with a peace sign on the front))).
One Monday morning I stopped to pick up one of the men in the group. He didn’t come out, so I went in. What I saw shocked me.
In the kitchen were about a dozen adults, and his little sister, age 13. She was sitting in a chair wearing a t-shirt and underwear. Next to her was a pile of books, magazines, records, cassette tapes and clothing. One man stood in front of her, holding in his hand a pair of her panties. He was yelling as I came in, but stopped instantly.
He asked who I was. I said I’m Billy and I’m here to pick up K—— for calculus. K came through into the kitchen, grabbed me, said come on, lets go, and we left.
“What the F— was that all about?” He explained it to me. Her mother had found a Michael Jackson cassette (Thriller) in her room and had called the pastor. After church on Sunday, the pastor and a bunch more men came over to ‘save’ his sister. They had ransacked her room and brought everything to the kitchen. They had gone through every single book, approving of about one in ten. Ditto her music collection. She had been forced to model her clothing. If they disapproved of it, they took a photo of her in it, and then added it to the evil pile. This included her bras and underwear (I have no idea (and nor did K—–) where she was as she changed in and out of all of her clothing). They took turns and, by 7:00 am Monday had been tag-teaming her for about 18 hours.
When I asked K——- how he could stand by for this (he was not in the room, but had been able to hear it all night), he looked at me like I was stupid. “Are you nuts? They might start looking at me. Can you imagine their reaction to Cthulhu, D&D, Playboy, Devo and Pink Floyd?”
His sister was withdrawn and uncommunicative for the rest of the year. I have no idea what happened to her (or K—– for that matter).
What I have illustrated here are two perfect examples of religion hurting people. Not some mythical generalized ‘people’, but two young ladies whose lives were adversely affected by organized religion.
I am an historian. The important question for any study of history (and by extension sociology) is “why?” Why does religion (and in these specific cases, Christianity) not only tolerate but, in some cases, promote such abuses?
Christianity is a religion of control, specifically thought control. Christianity (in its more conservative forms) is based on the idea of orthodoxy – right belief. You must believe exactly the right thing in order to be saved for eternity. Any heterodoxy (multiple belief) or heresy (wrong belief) risks ones eternal soul. Any sign of free thought (listening to different music, reading different books, wearing different clothing) is not a sign of normal growing up and independence, it is, to the conservative christian groups, a rebellion against god which must be quashed quickly and, if necessary, violently. In neither of these two cases would the authority figures have accepted the definition of abuse as a description of the events. The girl in middle school was only being corrected in a biblically acceptable manner. K—-‘s sister was in danger of losing her immortal soul to the devil through the evils of music, books and clothing which did not agree with the pastor’s idea of orthodoxy.
So, does this mean that all religion is bad in all cases for all people? No. Some find solace in a feeling of being a part of bigger things. Some find refuge from their fear of death. Some find that having someone tell them to be moral is easier than doing it on your own. Most of these come under the heading of a mildly-narcotic-feeling-good-ness. Does this, however, outweigh the bad which has been done, is being done, and will be done in the name of religion?